Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is on a hero quest. He doesn't have Nazis chasing him like Indiana Jones, but he is looking to find the lost Ark of the Covenant and recover an even bigger boon, a true sense of Africa's glories past and present.
"Wonders of the African World, with Henry Louis Gates Jr." -- a six-hour, three-night odyssey beginning tonight on public television -- starts out looking like an engaging travelogue featuring an informed and friendly host. But within the first 15 minutes, as Gates boards the night train from Cairo to Nubia in search of the legendary black pharaohs, you start to feel that you might be on a far more important journey with great truths waiting to be discovered just around the next bend.
Your feeling is right again and again and again as Gates covers the continent the next three nights in search of the proud African past too often left out of historical narratives written by colonialists and taught for too many generations in American schools.
Gates, chairman of the acclaimed Afro-American studies department at Harvard University, makes no secret that he has an agenda for the series: He wants to rewrite those European narratives.
"Why did I do this? Let's face it. When you think of Africa, what comes to mind for most Americans? Poverty and flies, famine, war and disease. How many of us 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?" Gates said in an interview.
"I was motivated to do this because intellectual racism will be the last vestige of anti-black racism. Most people think that in Africa, our ancestors and our African cousins had no great traditions, and it's not only a popular idea of the day. It was an idea at the height of the Enlightenment that was embraced by [philosophers David] Hume and [Immanuel] Kant and by Thomas Jefferson. And they all said that there was no civilization in Africa. Hume even said that there was no writing in Africa.
"And so one of the high points for me was going to Timbuktu and discovering 50,000 books written by black men in the Arabic language, written by the 14th century and the 16th century. And they had never been filmed before. Most scholars had never even seen them," he added.
Gates' first major discovery tonight is a series of fabulous pyramids in the middle of the Sudanese desert at Meroe. Included in the ruins of a community as old as that of ancient Greece are the pillars and foundation stones of what looks to be a 2,000-year-old university.
"If that's what it is, it ought to be one of the great monuments of the world," Gates says in the film. "Instead, the whole of Meroe feels like some strange mirage."
That's because, unlike the pyramids in Egypt, almost no one visits these. And the reason almost no one visits: Almost no one in the Western world seems to know about them. In answer to questions from Gates about why there are so few visitors, archaeologist after archaeologist gives the same answer: racism. The stories of the pyramids and temples that house the hieroglyphics of the black pharaohs have rarely been told. Most people don't even know the pyramids are there.
"I had heard about Nubia all my life," Gates said, "and I was never quite sure what Nubia was or where it was because so many African-Americans use it interchangeably as a word for Egypt or black Egyptians. And, so, to be able to go there, and to be able to film the pyramids where 40 generations of black pharaohs and black queens are buried -- it was an amazing thing for me. I mean, it was one of the great trips of my life."
Gates says the other "great surprise" for him was Ethiopia.
"Just the fact that it has been a continuous Christian civilization since 324 A.D., and that the Ethiopians claim to have the lost Ark of the Covenant -- you know, the cabinet that Moses put the tablets in. They claim that it's there, and so our whole film culminates with me going to the church where one monk is assigned for his entire life to live in solitary guarding the lost Ark."
Anxiety and anger
According to Gates, the toughest part of his assignment involved facing some little-known or often-ignored facts on slavery.
"Dealing with the African role in the slave trade was a very, very difficult thing emotionally for me. We all know about the European role in the slave trade, but little is known of the Arabic role, and almost not known at all is the African role," he says.
"I don't know about you, but when I was in school we were taught that when Europeans landed in Africa, effectively, they threw great fish nets over all the Africans and just swept them away. But it wasn't like that. They dealt with intermediaries -- middle men -- the Asante, the Kingdom of Dahomey. It made them [the African middlemen] rich.
"And so, without that African role, there wouldn't have been a slave trade. And, in fact, the Asante became great, Dahomey became great through the wealth created by slavery itself," Gates says.
Tonight's second hour ends with an emotional scene in Zanzibar that shows Gates talking to the descendant of a black slave trader about the fact that her ancestors could have been the ones who sold his ancestors into slavery. He confesses confusion and anger about it, asking her what she thinks the two of them should do about it.
"We should close the book on that chapter and shake hands," she says, extending her hand.
He hesitates, and then he takes her hand into his. And then he hugs her. But you can see the mixed emotions in his hug.
"I talked frankly on camera about my anxiety and my anger, my angst, my need to forgive and get over it. You know, it's easy to hate Europe and easy to hate white America for its role, but how does a black man deal with the African role?" Gates said of the moving, on-camera exchange.
Insights despite the ego
"Wonders of the African World" is pretty wondrous television not just in its physical discoveries but also in the historical and sociological insights Gates unearths along the way. If you think you understand race and ethnicity, "Wonders" will make you think again. You will hear black person after black person insisting they are not African but rather Arabic or Persian or Egyptian. As Gates says, " anything but African, because African means you are descended from slaves."
This is not to say the film is flawless. In fact, it has flaws aplenty, many of them relating to Gates. Simply put, there's generally too much of him; you see almost nothing without his face included in the frame.
Furthermore, in far too many of the frames he's wearing one of what seems to be an endless collection of Harvard T-shirts -- to the point where he seems to be a walking advertisement for the school. I could be wrong, but I bet you could do much better interviews with Third World subjects if you didn't walk up to them wearing a T-shirt that announced you as an agent of an institution of incredible privilege.
And there is also ego here, which gets in the way. As well as the confrontation with the descendant of black slave traders works, at other points you want to yell, "It isn't all about you, Dr. Gates, really! It's about Africa, remember?"
But these are relatively small complaints compared to the great truths Gates engages -- truths as profound and perhaps more important to us today than those explored by Kenneth Clark in the landmark PBS series "Civilization," upon which Gates says "Wonders" is modeled.
"I thought it would be great if you could do a black version of 'Civilization,' but with a little more energy and zip, perhaps, than Sir Kenneth allowed himself to manifest on camera," Gates says.
"TV is potentially a great medium for ameliorating the social ills of our society, and I hope with the greatest humility that this series can be even a small contribution to that end -- to ending the ignorance about Africa and the heritage of people of color."
'Wonders of the African World'
When: 9 to 11 tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)