Author/Documentarian Dr. Tukufu Zuberi

The scholar, writer, and documentarian talks about his film and new companion book, African Independence.

Dr. Tukufu Zuberi has committed his professional life to offering fresh perspective on culture and society to the public through various media platforms. Known to PBS audiences as a host on the hit series History Detectives, Dr. Zuberi created TZ Production Company to develop new-media projects that focus on themes of Africa, the African diaspora and diversity. In 2013, he released his feature-length documentary African Independence, which covered the epic story of the most important events to happen on the African continent since enslavement and colonization by Europeans. Recently, he published a companion book, titled African Independence: How Africa Shapes the World.


Tavis: Dr. Tukufu Zuberi is a professor of sociology and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania and is familiar, of course–look at that face. You recognize that face here on PBS. The audience knows him as the host of “History Detectives”.

Dr. Zuberi wrote, directed and produced the award-winning documentary, “African Independence” and recently published the film’s companion text titled “African Independence: How Africa Shapes the World”. The companion pieces are the result of extensive research and a number of interviews with people ranging from refugees to heads of state.

Before we start our conversation tonight with Dr. Zuberi, first a look at a clip from the film, “African Independence”, in which Dr. Zuberi interviews former member of the Ghanaian parliament, Samia Nkrumah, the daughter of Ghana’s first Prime Minister and President, Dr. Kwama Nkrumah.


Tavis: Good to have you on the program, man.

Dr. Tukufu Zuberi: Thank you.

Tavis: And congrats on the works.

Zuberi: Thank you very much.

Tavis: No, no. I want to start, I think, at the best place to start, which is to frame what you hope to accomplish with this work. As I understand it, as I see it, as I read it, it’s really about helping us to–how might I put this–to reframe or redefine what it means to be human in the world.

Zuberi: Exactly.

Tavis: If I’m right about that, tell me I’m right [laugh].

Zuberi: You are absolutely correct, Tavis.

Tavis: I wanted to hear that. I just wanted to hear that I was right today [laugh]. I’ve been wrong all day, but now I’m right. Why am I right about that, though?

Zuberi: Well, I think that–let me just start with the kind of basic statement. If you do not understand Africa, you cannot understand the world. And if you want to understand Africa, you have to put it in a context of the world. The reason for this is that, you know, some of it goes back to the days of enslavement, but some of it comes up to the current period of time where people look at Africa and all they see is disease.

All they see is war. All they see is poverty. All they hear about is people taking this stuff out of the ground and bringing it somewhere else, but they see a lot of poverty amongst the Africans. And we need to counter that view of Africa not only because it’s wrong, but because it does damage to our perspective of what it means to be an African and what it means to be a descendant from Africa.

And Africans have been involved in a process of transforming how people see them. First act, African independence, overthrowing Colonialism, juxtaposed the lie of African inferiority. Hence, the lie of Black inferiority.

Tavis: That’s the first act.

Zuberi: That’s the first thing.

Tavis: Okay.

Zuberi: So by doing that, we transformed then the possibilities of what people can do. If you’re not just somebody from a Dark Continent that never did anything and is only being acted on by the world, then you begin to ask the question, well, what is Africa doing in the world? What is Africa doing to the world?

What does that do for us because Africa is doing that for the world and to the world and with the world? So we need to change the conversation, and by changing the conversation, we will enhance what we can learn from the passive Africa and what kind of relationships we can have with Africa.

Tavis: Who are those persons, then, who don’t want to change that conversation, and what is to be gained in 2015 and beyond by not allowing that conversation to be as enriched as it ought be with projects like this?

Zuberi: So those people are the people living in the past. They’re living in the past in a mindset in which you block African access because you need African labor. You need materials from Africa. You need people at one point from Africa, but you do not, in a sense, see Africa as being vital for the future of the world.

So the reason that we continue to have these very negative, very distorted, views of Africa is because people have something which I like to think that some of, and that’s ignorance. And I don’t really have a problem with ignorance. I don’t even have a problem with ignorant people. What I have a problem with is those ignorant people who are arrogant about their ignorance and therefore do not want to know more.

So you’ve heard it. People say, “I don’t know nothin’ about Africa and I don’t want to know nothin’ about Africa.” That’s an arrogant ignorance which leads to a distortion in peoples’ view because not only are they ignorant about it, they think it’s not important based on their ignorance. So to change that, we have to provide education. We have to provide information.

So this film attempts to change the conversation about Africa to saying Africa’s not a poor continent. Africa is a rich continent. The people are poor because of the relationships that Africa has with the world. And the poverty that the people are gripped in is because many large corporations, many nations in Europe and the United States benefit from that poverty in Africa.

If you started paying people in Africa a living wage, that would increase the costs of objects we buy here. The cost of your cell phone would go up if we paid people in Africa what they need to get for what they’re bringing out of the ground and how valuable it is to the modern economy.

Tavis: It’s not just in Europe, as you well know, or in the United States. Increasingly, China is the country that is investing–if I could be generous about this, be charitable–investing the foremost resources on the continent of Africa. Does that concern you at all? Is Africa being recolonized?

Zuberi: Is African being recolonized? See, the whole question is really was the economy of Africa ever decolonized?

Tavis: Fair enough, fair enough.

Zuberi: Politically, Africa was decolonized. Many flags are flying at the U.N., all over the world. Africans are independent from the political colonization of the classical European kind of colonization. Now the question, I think, is that if Africans are independent from that, what is it that’s holding Africa back?

And what is holding Africa back is a big problem. Part of that is not allowing Africa to be a partner on the world stage when Africa makes such a big contribution to the world economy. You take African resources out, the economies of the world would fall.

You can’t find some of the things you find in Africa in the quantities anywhere else in the world. So Africa is vital to the world economy. Africa is vital to the U.S. economy. Africa is vital to the future of the U.S. economy. Once we recognize that, our own humanity should say we must respect the strategic interest of people in Africa.

Often people look at Africa and they say, “Why are we involved in that?”, which is the wrong question because that’s a question where they say, “What is our strategic interest there?”, and it’s not that. What we need to be asking, especially if we’re going to be in the only super power on planet earth, we need to be asking, “What is in the strategic interest of the world?”

It’s not only the question of the environment being to the strategic interest of the world, but also the mineral resources in Africa, the people in Africa, the sense of historical justice, given that Africans built capitalism. If you didn’t have us doing what we did for capitalism, you wouldn’t have it. I understand the role of the engines of capitalism, but we were there. We were the coal of capitalism.

Tavis: But to what extent is Africa no longer doing itself harm, doing itself damage? I speak now of Mobutu Sese Seko, of Charles Taylor. I could do a long list. To what extent is Africa no longer harming itself?

Zuberi: So Africa is not blameless in the problems that exist in Africa. The wars around ethnic conflict, the wars around religious conflict, the wars around just the distribution of resources that are happening on the continent today, it is not that you do not have Africans who are to blame for some of that.

But also, the world is complicit in that process. It is this kind of legacy of ethnic conflict didn’t just pop up right now. The legacy of religious conflict didn’t pop up right now. The flames of religious and ethnic conflict really started, they were ignited, by classical European Colonialism.

When Africans got independence, every African nation that got independence, they got it in a context which relied on those old forms of identity. So Africans are the blame in part, but Africans are also the solution.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Zuberi: So everywhere, you see solutions coming up. One of the stars and the symbol of a solution is in Nelson Mandela and what he did and how he has inspired a movement around the continent to increase democracy.

Tavis: I got 30 seconds to go. Mandela is one example. He’s a great example. He’s a grand example. He is the ultimate example, but he’s only one example. When you do a project like this, what’s your takeaway from it that makes you hopeful that we can in fact do what we set out to do here, which is to change the conversation about the continent?

Zuberi: Tavis, I met with many African leaders. I met with many African freedom fighters. Their energy alone inspires us. Samia Nkrumah is only one example of the young leadership, the up and coming leadership, on the African Continent with clear vision and promise, and the people who know how to navigate the African landscape to avoid the pitfalls of Colonialism and the past, and they inspire us.

Tavis: The project is called “African Independence”. It’s a documentary and a companion text brought to us, thankfully, by Tukufu Zuberi. Tukufu, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your work, man. It’s a blessing.

Zuberi: It’s my pleasure.

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Last modified: October 9, 2015 at 1:46 pm