Henry Louis Gates

Culture Moves: Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. Explores Africa’s Civilization

In a new six-hour series, the revered historian is tracing his African roots while also sharing with the world the many contributions from The Motherland.

by LaToya Cross, February 27, 2017

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Henry Louis Gates

Henry Louis Gates

Stephanie Berger

The ambition to reach truth about where we come from and then shed that light upon the world is what keeps revered historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on a mission to uncover the roots of not only his African ancestry but that of African and Black culture as a whole.

“I’m trying to tell the story of our people in a factual way,” Dr. Gates says in an interview with EBONY. “There are a lot of people, in frustration, who would just make things up about Africa in the way that White racists made things up about us, but sometimes Black nationalists made up fantasies of Africa and I can’t just repeat those fantasies.”’

We’ve seen Dr. Gates trace his familial roots and that of many others. But it is with his latest documentary series that takes an even more personal tone.

On his kitchen wall hangs a framed image of his oldest ancestor, Jane Gates. Affectionately referred to as Jane Gates, the African, by his family. Her mother was one of the last Africans brought to this country before the slave-trade ended in 1808. Gates knows nothing about her African roots nor the culture that produced her.

“It’s a little photograph that’s been passed down in my family since, about a 150 years. I’ve had it for 30 years. It’s about four inches long and about two inches wide,” Gates describes.”She has a long nose, high cheek bones and really curly hair. She was a midwife and is in her midwifery outfit.”

It’s this photo that served as the sentimental inspiration behind Dr. Gates’ latest documentary series, Africa’s Greatest Civilizations, premiering on PBS, February 27 with additional run dates on March 1 and 3rd.

“She’s the closest thing to Africa that I have,” Dr. Gates expresses with a smile in his voice.

In addition to the six-hour series being a gateway for Gates to trace his African ancestry, it also, dives into the history of the continent from the birth of humankind on through the 20th century. Within each episode, viewers are invited to learn the depth of Africa’s contributions to mainstream society as it relates to art, literature and civilization, as a whole.

“[Europeans, slavery and colonialism], were involved in exploiting the natural wealth of Africa and in order to justify that, they said our recent African ancestors – as opposed to the ones 50,000 years ago that we all share – were ugly, dumb, primitive, savage, had no history, no self-reflection or consciousness, could not create art, [and] literature. It was a scandal – kind of an erasure of our metaphysical complexity. What I’ve been able to do on this series is draw on the work of the best scholars who have done revolutionary work in the history of Africa and put into a film.”

Below, EBONY goes in-depth with Dr. Gates about the cradle of humanity, and the most difficult information he’s come across throughout his journey of uncovering Africa’s truths and contributions.

EBONY:Something that is often overlooked is that Africa is the origin of culture and cradle of humanity. Throughout Africa’s Greatest Civilization, how is this shown in series?

HLG: Human beings evolved first on the African continent. That’s the most important statement that anybody could make about any aspect of the human experience or the role of Africa in the human experience. Africa is the mothership of the human community and that bothers some people. But it doesn’t bother me and we should all be proud of it and we should all think of Africa as our home. What I’ve been able to do on this series is to draw on the work of the best scholars over the last 20 or 30 years, who have done revolutionary work in the history of Africa and put it in a film. I had 15 scholars on my advisory board. Every word in my script has been argued over and vetted by a panel of scholars, some of whom don’t even agree with each other. I have all kinds of scholars – Africans, Europeans, Americans, Black, White – every kind of color on camera and I wanted to tell the truth about the African continent.

EBONY: What are some of the top cultural traits and traditions that have carried over to the Americas that often go without a salute to the continent?

HLG: If we look in more recent times, when I was growing up, one of the ways that they stereotyped Africa was to say that Africa hadn’t contributed anything to the invention of scientific technology, but the first iron technology – and we’re the first series to even say this – the first iron technology in the world, as early as 1800 BC, was in Africa, earlier than in India and the Middle East. The second earliest invention of ceramic technology, 12-thousand years ago was in Africa. So when kids go to school and learn about this technology, they never learn about Africa’s role. Then we have [the] earliest forms of writing. We show [that] it came from Africa – symbolic, visual representation – 88-thousand years ago in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. This is all stuff Black people did and that history has been robbed from us for two reasons. Two words: Slavery and Colonialism. The Europeans, who engaged in enslaving our ancestors, had to invent a “Africa” or “negro”.

EBONY: With all of the fascinating facts and discoveries that you come across in your travels, in reverse of that, as a historian with a central focus on the societal and cultural contributions of Black people, what has been the most difficult information to deal with in your constant research as it relates to our history?

HLG: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. Nobody has ever asked me that question. You know what? The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with is the role of African elites in the slave trade. When I was growing up we were taught that our ancestors in the south were picnicking and some White men jumped out of the bushes and threw a net over them. That’s not how it was. Over 91 percent of the slaves – a historian’s estimate – were bought by European merchants from African merchants who willingly sold other Africans to the Europeans in the slave trade. This is a fact. It’s a messy fact.Twenty years ago it was quite controversial but now no-one who’s serious even questions it. That’s a hard thing to take and of course we have to remember that it wasn’t like “African” was selling another “African,” it was a Yoruba person selling an Igbo person or a Fulani selling a Wolof person but greed and avarice are colorblind and the slave trade made a lot of African merchants rich and that’s the saddest aspect of African history, for me.

EBONY: Wow. That’s tough. How do you see the series adding to the creative and innovative progress of Black culture?
HLG: We’re in Black History Month – at the tail-end of it and as much as I love Black history month, I want every day to be Black History Month and the only way [that can happen] is that we have teaching tools, textbooks and film and online databases. No-one has ever told two hundred thousand years of African history and this is about the fourth major series over the last forty years, done on African history and it is the most ambitious because we do North Africa, South Africa, East Africa and West Africa and no-one’s done that before. People act like Egypt’s not part of Africa, that they just kind of dropped in there by mistake. But the contribution I want this to make to our people and to African and African/American culture is provide a shared basis that students can watch and teachers can use to teach and this is important in Africa. Even in Africa, if you’re Nigerian, you never studied Ghanaian history or the history of the Kingdom of Kush or South African history. African history taught there is very Nationalistic. We just did a panel on Wednesday night at the council on foreign relations in New York and there were four Africans on the panel and they all said they didn’t know anything about the information they were seeing in my series and they were astonished. Now, anybody can study the history of African civilization using this series.

Learn more about the series, here and be sure to tune-in to PBS, Feb. 27, 9-11 p.m. EST.

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