‘Africa’s Great Civilizations’: Henry Louis Gates on Why Understanding Africa’s History Is More Vital Than Ever

Premiering tonight on PBS, the six-hour miniseries spans 200,000 years of African history to challenge the myths about the continent

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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For someone who is one of the world’s foremost scholars on African peoples, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is very easy to talk to. The “Finding Your Roots” host is one of America’s foremost public intellectuals, through his television programming, copious writing, and professorship at Harvard University — he’s comfortable both at the White House and in front of a classroom. Now Gates is bringing a six-part documentary series, “Africa’s Great Civilizations,” to PBS starting Monday. As writer and executive producer of the miniseries, his mission is to redefine Africa in our public consciousness so that audiences come to recognize the unique and profound accomplishments of the civilizations and kingdoms on the African continent, going all the way back to 200,000 years ago and ending in 1896.

Gates is almost impossibly full of information about the topic, and his enthusiasm for history makes him an ever-watchable host. Variety spoke to the distinguished professor in January about what he’s trying to accomplish with his series. Because the inauguration was around the corner, we also discussed Gates’ view on Donald Trump’s presidency, his appeal to the working-class white voters that Gates grew up with in West Virginia, and why better understanding of Africa’s history is more vital than ever for an American audience.

Tell me a little about this project, and the people working with you.

We’re doing 200,000 years of African history. We start with the Mitochondrial Eve, from whom we all descend. We all have mitochondrial DNA. We had a long line of daughters. Then we go to the out of Africa migration, 80 to 50 thousand years ago. That’s a lot of human history to cover for one person — we have 15 professors, 15 scholarly advisors. No one person is an expert on all of African history. We stop on March 1, 1896, which is when the Ethiopians defeat the invading Italians in the Battle of Adwa. Guess what? The emperor’s name is Menelik II. He’s carrying with him a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. In Ethiopian, in Amharic, it’s called the Tabot. Every church in Ethiopia has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. You know why?

The story goes, Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian. She had an affair with Solomon. She came back and she had a baby. When the boy was a teenager, he said, “I want to meet my father.” So he goes to Jerusalem and he meets Solomon. Solomon was very proud. Solomon sends sons from the noble families in Jerusalem back to the kingdom to help his son rule. And one of them leaves an imitation of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem and take the real one back. Isn’t that great? All I know is there’s one monk who guards what they believe to be the Ark of the Covenant, and Menelik II took it into battle and defeated the superior invading Italians in 1896, and that’s when we end. I wanted to end on a high note because after that it goes downhill.

1884 is the Congress of Berlin, the Conference of Berlin and Europeans: Britain, Portugal, France, King Leopold representing himself,. They sit there and there’s a big, empty map of Africa — except for Liberia, which is a republic, and Ethiopia. And they carve it up and give it away. That’s 1884, 1885. I wanted to end with showing African resistance and on this high note.

African nations would then become independent after 1956. In ’56, Sudan becomes independent. Then ’57, Ghana becomes independent. In 1960, 17 African nations become independent. So paradoxically, despite the antiquity of the cultures in the history of the continent, these nations are very, very young. Maybe we’ll do a sequel.

Why did this seem something that was important to do now? Why did you want to do a history of Africa, given that the African-American experience in America has been the center of your focus for quite some time?

I did a series, a six-hour series, on Africa in 1998. It’s historical, but the conceit, it’s a travel narrative. So I wanted to go back and do it in a much more sophisticated way as a historical drama — a historical saga unfolding from the beginning of the birth of the human community down to the end of the 19th century. Fortunately I got a chance to do it again.

We were all raised with these terrible negative stereotypes of Africa, and, in part, they were all invented to justify the slave trade. Do you know when … I think it was Lorenzo, one of the Medicis, becomes Pope Leo X. He’s being tutored, and he had to memorize the names of the world’s great leaders. There are only a few. One of them was King of “Kongo.” This is 1600. He has to know that Alvaro II is the king of Kongo. Whoa!

But we have no concept of that. African kingdoms were sending diplomats to the Vatican, to Portugal, etc. in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. We have no concept of that. And trading, across the desert. Most of Europe’s gold, between 1000 and 1500, came from west Africa, three mines in west Africa. Who knew that? The richest man in the world, if you google it, was Mansa Musa, emperor of Mali. Nobody knows for real, but I like the fact that it’s there. People just didn’t know that. There was a book published in 50 A.D. in Greek, 50, called the “Periplus of the Erythraean Sea” and it’s like a Trip Advisor guide down the Red Sea to Adulis, which is the port on now Eritrea. It describes the king, what you could trade for, and what you should trade to this kingdom — the great Aksum Kingdom, which was thought to be one of the three great kingdoms of the world at that time, with Persia and China.

I’m throwing down. I’m saying Africa was just as great as any civilization, in China, in India. You know any friends named Candice? Their name comes from a Meroenic word for queen, which is “kandake.” A queen in Meroe — which is Nubia, now Sudan — Amanirenas. She beat the Romans in 25 B.C. in Egypt, because Egypt was Roman by that time. She defeated them and took back the statue of Augustus Caesar to her kingdom of Meroe. Buried it so that everyone that came to see her had to walk on his head. That’s what I’m talking about!

There’s a portrait that hangs in my kitchen, it’s a photograph. It’s of the oldest Gates. Her name was Jane Gates, she was born in 1818. The slave trade to the states stops in 1808, so she wasn’t born in Africa but maybe her mother was, or maybe her grandmother. What stories would she tell? I want to tell those stories.

I’m also a debunker. I got into a lot of trouble when I did that series in 1998, because I talked honestly about the African role in the slave trade. The reason that we have Africans in the New World is because African elite captured and sold Africans to Europeans. People went crazy. They go, “you told the secret.” It’s a fact. I’m a scholar, not a cheerleader. I want the true complexity. That makes Africans more interesting. They’re humans like everybody else. This romantic idea that our ancestors were basically out for a picnic one Sunday, and some white man jumped out of the bushes and we ended up on a different continent, in Mississippi. You know what that does? That’s dehumanizing to Africans, because it takes away agency. It makes our ancestors objects without subjects. Our ancestors were just as conniving and avaricious and flawed as everybody else.

Given the political climate in America, history feels a little more diminished than usual. It feels like “Africa’s Great Civilizations” is trying to counter this.

I lecture public schools around the country. My friends do [work] in African and African America studies, I think it’s very, very important. I love to see black history calendars, etc., etc., etc. But that is not the way to integrate the school curriculum. The school curriculum in America, and just about everywhere else, is where you learn how to be a citizen. When I started school, 1956? My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. George Washington never told a lie, chopped down a cherry tree. America the beautiful. The teacher didn’t say, “Today is citizenship day.” They just taught you how to be an American. I want the story of Amanirenas to be part of the history curriculum. I want the fact that the gold of Europe was mined south of, around, Timbuktu.

We’re all Africans. We’re all descended from Africans, literally. I want that history, all the details of that. What people in previous generations did is take Egypt, which is infinitely fascinating, paint it white, and take it out. Egypt was an African country. Most of those people weren’t black, but they were black in Nubia, which was just down the river … or just up the river. You know what I mean. In Egypt, down was up and up is down.

[In “Africa’s Great Civilizations,”] we situate Egypt where is belongs, firmly, in Africa, and discuss its relationship. We can cut from 50,000 B.C., from the out migration, and then we go to 3000 B.C. and then there’s Nubia. And then we trace the historical unfolding of the rest of the major kingdoms. Part of our limitation was because of … I’m trying to find a euphemistic way to say this — a jihadist local policy, we couldn’t film everywhere. I couldn’t go back to Timbuktu because radical Islamists control it.

This series is talking about Africa, the whole continent. That’s a punchline in American politics, that it’s all one country.

Or one language, speak African to me. I went to Tanzania to live. I took a gap year in 70-71 and I lived, for a time working in Anglican mission hospital in Tanzania. When I came back, people would say, “say something in African!”

Africa is the most genetically diverse place on earth and it’s, I believe, after China, the second-most linguistically. We know human beings originate there because all of our genetic groups trace back to there. Writing was invented in Africa. Painting, the first painting. We talk about this — the Blombos Cave, 80,000 years ago, in South Africa. Also, the first ceramic technology — 11,500 years ago in Africa. The only place older was in China. Cotton textile weaving? 5,000 years ago, in the Sudan. The only place older was India. Iron technology older than any place in the world, 1800 B.C. That’s amazing.

What is the importance of bringing Africa out of this heart of darkness narrative right now?

The reason is because the stereotypes that are visited upon African-Americans were born on the African continent — or in the European imagination about the African continent. It’s part of erasing racism. You can’t just defeat anti-black racism by focusing on what’s happening in the United States, because everybody knows that black people came from Africa, and the stereotypes about Africa are of a continuum with the stereotypes about African-Americans. Plus, Africa is just beginning all over again to develop. There’s so much poverty in Africa, disease in Africa, graft, corruption — but also potential, nobility, tradition.

I was kindly invited by [President Barack Obama] to the Africa Leaders Summit two summers ago, in August. Fifty African presidents, never before at the White House. It occurred to me … I was being posed for a picture by the Nigerian president, and it occurred to me that if Obama had stood up there and said for $1 million, to all these presidents, to name three kings or queens from any civilization other than in their own national borders, you would have taken that million dollars — because they don’t even teach African history in Africa. I mean, there are exceptions, but, in general, you would think that all African children everywhere would know about Amanirenas or Alvaro II. No. You learn Nigerian history or Ghanian history, but you don’t learn the history of the continent. This is really for everybody — and my day job, remember, is that I’m a professor. I wanted to create a product that could be used, a tool that could be used to teach. We’ll do a book that will come out next year with me and a couple of the advisers so that wherever you are, you could learn about these societies and civilizations. That’s what my goal is.

Certainly since Obama’s election, the idea of identity politics has become really important in liberal politics. But there has also been a real backlash to it.

Dead white male, my ass! [Laughs.]

You look at Donald Trump’s cabinet, it’s a lot of white men.

Except for my classmate Ben Carson!

As pedagogue, as you say, how do you teach people who may not care or trust a complicated, multiracial history?

I grew up in Piedmont, W.Va. — an Irish-Italian paper mill town where my ancestors have lived for 250 years, a quarter of a millennium. It’s halfway between Pittsburgh and Washington. All those stereotypes of white working class people are people that I know. Schools integrated in my county in ’55, and I started school in ’56. I fell in love with those kids, I fought with them, I was rivals with them to be number one in the class. When we have the premiere of this film at the national African American Museum, there will eight seats reserved in the front row, and they’re eight girls I went to school with, that I met in first grade. Seven of the eight are white.

I never talk about trailer trash. To me, that’s the equivalent of the n-word. I never use that phrase, and I never mock those people. Many of my friends in the North mock them. These people are just scared. Have you ever been scared? Does it help if someone mocks you? No. What we had to do … the Democrats did not develop a message that spoke to them in the way that Donald Trump did. Now, I don’t like Donald Trump’s message. I did not vote for Donald Trump. I thought that the way that he manipulated xenophobia was disgusting. But I don’t think that we could demonize the poor white people who were manipulated.

I think that what we have to figure out is … the people in my town, they went to work every day at the paper mill. Then their kids go to junior college, five miles away, and then they go to West Virginia University. Then they get a white-collar job, maybe at the mill. Then get a mortgage, two TVs — eventually one would be color — get a couple cars, and then grandchildren, maybe. They would stay in that valley. That world’s over. And people were terrified by that and completely dislocated. I think there’s a crisis of religious faith, and I think that we have to craft a message and an economy that speaks to their needs, something that’s realistic. Donald Trump invented the narrative that prevailed. Let’s see if he’s successful.

“Africa’s Great Civilizations” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check local listings.