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Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interviews


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Is there a link between Africans and African Americans?

You see there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ethnic groups that represent where our people came from. Our people who were dragged out of Africa as slaves. And in the New World, imagine, it is like a gumbo. That's a, that's a wonderful metaphor for it.

We were all put in one big pot and we all inter-married. So there are no things, let me start that again. So we were all put in one pot and we all inter-married. So an Ibo identity, a Yoruba identity, a Fulani identity, a Swahili identity, they all disappeared.

They became a new Black identity, a Pan-African identity. We are the only true Pan-African people in the whole world, the African-American people. And by African-American I mean Black people anywhere in the New World, whether it's Latin America, the Caribbean, or in North America.

And that's quite exciting. So that we are of them, from them, but not exactly like them anymore. You see traces, but we are our own people.

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What was your most important discovery while working on this project?

Well the most important thing I discovered was a cache of books, 50,000 books written by Black people in Arabic between the 14th century and the 16th century which have been uncatalogued. They're in private hands, they're owned by 12 families in Timbuktu.

And so when I came by, I was so excited, I mean it brought tears to my eyes. You see European philosophers said that Africans had no indigenous writing systems. We had no writing, we had no memory. If you have no memory you have no history, if you have no history, you're not a human being.

So that Hegel and Kant and Hume all used this to say that the Africans were fit to be slaves. And it turns out we have a great tradition of writing and at various parts of the continent, but at Timbuktu we even had a great university.

And here is the evidence. It's not that people didn't know about this library. There is a great library there called the Omna Babba (ph.) Library, where 10,000 or so volumes have been catalogued. But here's another 50,000 volumes. So I got a grant from the Mellon Foundation when I got back and we're cataloguing those volumes even as we speak, and that was quite exciting.

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What was it about Ghana's 'Door of No Return' that made you emotional?

I first saw the Door of No Return in a previous trip. I think it's very hard to react honestly, emotionally in a whole group of people. But I saw it all by myself and it's the only time, I mean I have been to war memorials, I've been to Gettysburg a zillion times and the Vietnam Wall I find very moving but...

I've been to many, many war memorials and very few have moved me. The Vietnam Wall moved me but I cried in the slave castle when I was alone. I mean I just cried. One I cried for my ancestor who obviously made it. Two I cried for the pain and anxiety of being wrenched away from your family and all that was familiar.

I imagine if someone just broke the door down to this room and just took me away and shipped me to Angola or to the Congo and I would never see my family again, ever. It would be like dropping, like a hole opening up in this floor and dropping out.

And then the brutality in the middle passage, on the plantations in the New World. Would I have made it? I don't know if I could have made it. I mean I look at that, at those conditions on those slave ships and in those slave castles and think how in the world could I, spoiled academic, you know how could I have made it?

But somebody in my family made it. So I must have the genetic material to survive, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation.

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How did you feel about filming the series?

Doing the series was the fantasy of my life. The last day of filming I cried cause I was sad. After all I'd been a movie star for a year. I mean I felt like da da da, I was the man. And it was great, I had all these people running around and saying okay, no makeup, but you know I what I mean.

Yeah I missed it. I loved it, I hated being away from my family, but it was such an adventure. I mean I would jump on a plane and 8 hours later I was in a completely different world and in a different century, different millennium. And I was bringing that into the lives of millions and millions of people potentially.

That was exciting to me. I felt like I was doing something good, something meaningful and getting the fulfillment of wish I've had for 25 years.

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Why did you film the series?

From the time I was a little kid I had a fantasy of doing a TV series call the Wonders of the African World that would be equivalent of the 7 wonders of the world. I don't think that people know very much at all about Africa.

If they think about Africa quite frankly what comes to mind? Poverty and flies, famine, war, disease and maybe some big game. How many people know anything at all about the truly great ancient civilizations of Africa, which in their day were just as glorious and just as splendid as any on the face of the earth.

So I wanted to do a series that would take me from Zanzibar to Timbuktu, from the Nile River valley to Great Zimbabwe, from the Slave Coast of Ghana to the medieval monasteries of Ethiopia. In search of what I think of as the lost wonders of the African world.

And then to bring that into American homes and English homes and into the classroom so the people can begin to understand that we were culture barriers too, that our people were conveyers and creators of great civilizations and not the stereotypical images of savages running around with grass skirts on or no clothes at all, with no culture and no writing systems and no books and no knowledge and no learning.

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About Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Biography
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Bibliography
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Interviews



EPISODE OVERVIEWS


Black Kingdoms of the Nile
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The Swahili Coast
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Slave Kingdoms
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The Holy Land
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Road to Timbuktu
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Lost Cities of the South



RETELLING AUTHOR BIOS


Zayde Antrim
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K. Anthony Appiah
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Roderick Grierson
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Martin Hall
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Timothy Kendall
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Kevin C. MacDonald
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John Middleton