Why we’re overdue to know the brilliance of Africa’s civilizations

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a preview of a new PBS documentary series, "Africa's Great Civilizations."

Audie Cornish of NPR's "All Things Considered" has our look.

AUDIE CORNISH: The history of the African continent, home to the 15 percent of the world's population, remains a mystery for many.

Historian and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. admits, in his youth, it was a place he rarely considered. Now he has a new PBS documentary series that reveals great moments in the continent's pre-colonial history.

It's called "Africa's Great Civilizations." He joins me now to discuss that work.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., welcome to the program.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., Harvard University: Thanks. Thanks for having me on.

AUDIE CORNISH: So, you have tackled all kinds of African-American history, but this goes all the way back, way back to cave paintings.

So, what was the genesis of this idea?

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: I wanted to do a comprehensive history of Africa, and this is it.

I have been thinking about it five years. Took us a year to shoot. We went to 12 African countries. And it's exhilarating, six-hour series on 200,000 years of African history.

When I was growing up, Africa was a place to be avoided, even for black people. Our images of Africa came from Tarzan and Ramar and Sheena of the jungle. And we were embarrassed about Africa.

AUDIE CORNISH: As you talked about the effort to kind of distance, right? It was used as an insult within the community.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: You black African, oh, my God, that was like the N-word.

But all that changed for me. It began to change in 1960, when I was 10 years old, and 17 African nations became independent. And I had a very smart geography teacher, Mr. McHenry, our only male teacher. And he was very much into current events.

And I was very much into being a good student. And a lot of the current events featured these emerging, new African countries. And so I mesmerized romantic sounding, rhythmic names like Masha Chubay and Patrice Lumumba and Mogadishu, words like that.

And I became fascinated with Africa, slowly, but surely making my way to Africa when I was 19 years old.

AUDIE CORNISH: I think we can hear that in your introduction. I want to play a clip of that.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: OK.

Africa is the home of the world's most ancient civilizations. Far to too often, Africa has been thought of isolated and static, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The roots of every family tree trace here to Africa, and so does the history of civilization. In this series, we will be going on a journey through 200,000 years of history.

We will explore great cities built along Africa's extensive trade networks, discover art of unparalleled beauty, technical brilliance, and marvel at thousands of years of breathtaking architecture.

AUDIE CORNISH: What struck me watching this is that you use words like merchants and trade and engineering.

It seemed like you were really trying to stress the achievements here.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Mm-hmm.

AUDIE CORNISH: Why do you think those achievements have been obscured?

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: I think the achievements have been obscured, first of all, because of slavery — 12.5 million Africans were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between the 16th century and the 19th century, 12.5 million Africans shipped to enslavement in the new world.

And then after 1884 was the conference in Berlin, when European powers sat down, looked at an empty map of Africa, and basically carved it up like you carve up a pizza pie. And they go, you're Spain. What do you want? You're Italy. What do you want? You're England. What do you want?

You're King Leopold. He personally got the Congo.

So, they had to create a fiction of Africa as an empty place or a static place full of primitive people who were stuck in time. And those were ostensibly our ancestors.

But the pre-colonial world knew all about Africa. There wasn't a moment really since the ancient Egyptians when Northern Africa, the Mediterranean world and the larger world wasn't in touch with African civilizations, with some part of Africa.

The Red Sea was a highway. The Nile was a highway. The Sahara was a highway, particularly after the domestication of camels, and the Indian Ocean, highways.

The emperor of great Zimbabwe ate off porcelain plates that came from China. That's the 13th century. It's incredible. Most of Europe's gold between 1000 A.D. and 1500 A.D. came from West Africa. All our history was stolen from us.

We were robbed of a history because Europeans wanted to justify an economic order which depended upon our ancestors' exploitation.

AUDIE CORNISH: It's almost as though you are taking these stories out of the footnotes of history and elevating them.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: That's an excellent metaphor.

We need for the facts of Africa and African-American history to be a normal, naturalized part of the curriculum, to be moved from the footnotes up into the text.

Black History Month is great, but we need every day to be Black History Month. And what does that mean? When you take a course in the history of civilization, Africa should be there as well.

And I'm not talking about mythic claims that won't stand scholarly scrutiny. I mean facts about the history of the world which every educated person should know about.

Knowing your history is empowering. And Africa stands poised on the birth of resurgence, a new renaissance. As you said, 15 percent of the world's population lives on the great African continent. And knowing about this rich and splendid history will be crucial to the individual self-esteem of every African and to the collective, as it were, sense of itself of the African people.

AUDIE CORNISH: Henry Louis Gates Jr., thank you so much for speaking with us about this project.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Thank you for having me on the program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The series runs tonight, tomorrow, and Wednesday at 9:00 p.m./8:00 Central on most PBS stations.

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