TIME: A huge topic like this is always relevant, so why do this series now? Have new facts or records been discovered recently?
GATES: That’s a good question. In the last 20 years, the digitization of records has made them more accessible, and there has been lots of new scholarship, more archaeological digs, more sophisticated research. We know more about Africa than we did any time recently.
– TIME, Henry Louis Gates Jr. on How Africa Has Always Been Ahead of Its Time.
This question was the first to be asked historian, public intellectual, and African-American studies scholar, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., about his latest series Africa’s Great Civilisations in his interview with Time magazine. The six-part documentary series premiered on American television network PBS on February 27 with plans to showcase extensive discoveries in African history, starting about 200,000 years ago with the Mitochondrial Eve, up until a climactic ‘end’ in 1896 with the anniversary of the “Battle of Adwa” (March 1, 1896).
As, Dr. Gates noted, and we can agree, the question was indeed a good one. One that some Africans themselves would probably ask, albeit with a slightly different twist – Are we really still at a place where we need documentaries to educate people around the world about the greatness and richness of ancient African history?
The answer is yes. We are, and that’s okay because education in itself is a continuous, necessary, and usually efficient gateway to attaining knowledge, as well as crucial to driving change. However, in this particular case, our focus should not rest solely on ‘new’ African history to reshape a Western audience’s knowledge of us, but also for ourselves. We must inquire if we as Africans are also learning anything new about ourselves from such documentaries, be it on a social level or an academic one.
On the surface, it may appear that Africa’s Great Civilisations is simply another documentary that reiterates, and aims to rid the continent of the unpopular myths, stereotypes, and common ignorance that surround African history and its global image, as we’ve probably stumbled upon in some ancient Africa history class or book. A socio-academic struggle Africans and individuals with African heritage, as well as intellectuals interested in the subject recognise all too well.
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. happens to fall into at least two of these categories of individuals, with his career and achievements spanning the fields of African and African-American studies, including his award-winning documentary titled The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, serving as testimonies to this fact.
However, the direction of his latest series – and in fact his previous works – shows this is not your average attempt at a mere glorification or romanticisation of the African continent’s heritage along with its history against skewed, and oftentimes sinister perceptions and documentations of it by the western world.
On one hand, it is an uncovering that presents you with awe-inducing facts that aptly define the historic course of Africa – its civilisations, peoples, and diplomatic and trade interactions with other civilisations, from ancient times up until more recent history. On the other, Dr. Gates’ Africa’s Great Civilisations does a good job – or perhaps had no option – in weaving a tale of historical greatness in Africa with an inextricable relevance to a number of pertinent social themes in contemporary African societies, such as the political role of women (the Queens of Kush, Queen Sheba of Ethiopia), equality, and internal conflicts for example.
Thus, whether we’re extending our knowledge of ancient African history while watching this documentary or re-familiarising ourselves with it, it would do every audience member a world of good to also note the various levels of intellectual gratification that the series promises to deliver.
Therefore, it would be in the interest of academic institutions and individuals dedicated to history education within and outside of Africa, to jump on this bandwagon of cognisance that Africa’s Great Civilisations presents us with, in order to produce a future generation that is not just enlightened and confident, but understands the real significance of learning about African history.