A Subversive African History

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews Wonders of the African World, a PBS documentary airing Oct. 25 to 27.
In the barbershops of his West Virginia boyhood, young Skip Gates heard stories of black Pharaohs, black saints, black Amazons, a Queen of Sheba and the bygone glory of Timbuktu.

This Skip grew up to be Henry Louis Gates, professor at Harvard, writer of books, public intellectual and whirling dervish.

By night train, ferry and dhowcolor>

It is typical that in the same week, he should publish a backbreaking encyclopedia of African and African-American cultures and also show up Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights with six hours of public television where we follow him by night train to Abu Simmel, by ferry to Zanzibar, by dhow on the green Limpopo, in sneakered feet to slave ports and sand dunes.

Not the least of the Wonders of the African World is Gates himself, going home to the continent from which his great-grandfather had been stolen to be sold.

Did you know, for instance, that besides Egypt there was another civilization on the Nile - Nubians who stuck around for 5,000 years?

John Leonard
See Gates, with his bad hip in his Harvard T-shirt, strike out across the Sudanese Sahara to discover some neglected pyramids; and climb the sacred Jebel Barkal Mountain; and find, past the ancient kingdom of Kush, the 4,000-year-old capital of Kerma, whose megaliths went up centuries before Stonehenge was even a gleam in the Druidic eye.

Of spices and slave tradingcolor>

From which he proceeds to the Swahili coast of East Africa, where the Bantu-speaking locals prefer to think of themselves as Arab instead of African; to Shanga and the ruins of Gede; all the way to Zanzibar, where they traded in spices and slaves, and locals called themselves Persians.

West then to the slave kingdoms of Asante, now called Ghana, and Dahomey, now called Benin, where black kings sold prisoners of war and jailbirds to Arabs and Europeans, and to infamous Ouidah, from which millions of Africans were shipped across the Atlantic to the sugar cane and cotton plantations.

Timbuktu's untranslated scholarshipcolor>

Ethiopia, where he happens on both Louis Farrakhan and the archbishop of Canterbury, is another story - never colonized, Christian since the sixth century, and maybe, past the Debra Damo monastery, up into ancient Axum with its stunning monoliths, the location of the Ark of the Covenant. Indiana Skip!

Timbuktu, whn at last he gets there from the Great Mud Mosque of Mali, is at first a disappointment till he finds an Islamic university dating from the 16th century and a private library of 50,000 books.

And finally south, to Soweto, Johannesburg, a preposterous theme park, and the bare, ruined choirs of great Zimbabwe.

Reviews by CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard
Wonders of the African World is splendid television and subversive history. It's amazing really, how often European archeologists decided that this or that African ruin had to have been Roman or Arab or even alien.

But Gates himself is the revelation, climbing up a rope to a crypt of mummies, sitting in on a spirit-cult exorcism, frightening Afrikaners in a karaoke bar by singing a John Denver song.

When the scholar in him is blown away by discovering in Timbuktu so many unknown and untranslated books, written by Africans in Arabic between the 14th and 17th centuries, he calls them "the mind of the black world."

But of course, Gates brought this rich mind with him, all the way from West Virginia.

Written by John Leonard