Further Response on Wonders of the African World

Ali A. Mazrui
Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities
Binghamton University, State University of New York at Binghamton, New York, USA

Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large Emeritus and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large
University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria

Ibn Khaldun Professor-at-Large
School of Islamic and Social Sciences, Leesburg, Virginia, USA


If Henry Louis Gates Jr. was as polite and circumspect in his television series, WONDERS OF THE AFRICAN WORLD, as he seems to be to his critics on the Internet, he would have had far fewer critics. I personally never appreciated Skip Gates' good manners more on the Internet than when I had to deal with Biodun Jayefo (BJ). A number of friends have e-mailed to advise me to stop debating the likes of B.J.. They feared that such debaters would bring me down to their own level quite fast. One West African scholar familiar with B.J. has written to me to say the following: Your friend B.J. has gone absolutely berserk! Having finally watched the Gates series, he now comes up with this usual post-modernist garbage that is every bit more narcissistic and (to my mind, definitely) more dishonest than he has accused others of being. I have the friend's permission to quote him, but I have decided not to mention his name.

Let me now turn to a second point in Skip Gates' favour. In this debate (though not necessarily in previous ones) Skip seems to have studiously avoided direct personal attacks. B.J. is a master at it, and he is forcing the rest of us to respond in kind. That is why friends would like me to distance myself from B.J. before I become indistinguishable from him.

A third point in Skip Gates' favour is that he does not use people's ethnic background against them *per se*. B.J. is not so inhibited. In his piece on _Greatness and Cruelty_ he descends to the gutter of tribalism and ethnic politics. Suddenly B.J. decides that my hostility to Gates television series is because I am an Mswahili. Gates asks in his television series, "I wonder how long it will take the Swahilis to call themselves Africans." B.J. actually blames me for being an *African* all these DECADES. He does not want to deal with a corpus of WRITTEN evidence of over forty years in which I have affirmed my Africanity time and time again. Instead he wants to suggest that in 1999 I am a strident more-African-than-thou! One had hoped that as the century was coming to an end, at least educated Africans would shun ethnic politics. Not B.J. In contrast, Skip Gates was fully aware that I was a Mswahili. He even sent to me for evaluation the draft of his chapter on the Swahili people in the Spring of 1999. I sent him a critique in April 1999. I have referred to that in my memo on BLACK ORIENTALISM. Skip Gates may have abused the Swahili people, but he did not engage in ethnic politics against me personally. Indeed, one of his best friends is from Asante (Ashanti) right there at Harvard. By implicating the Asante in the slave trade, Skip has still avoided personalizing the issue through his friend. B.J. is incapable of such finesse and such sophisticated differentiation.

Skip Gates wonders why I am not more saddened by Africa's collaboration and involvement with the slave trade. I am indeed saddened. I have lectured in different countries in what I have called AFRICA TRIPLE HERITAGE OF SLAVERY: INDIGENOUS, ISLAMIC AND WESTERN. I have lectured on that theme in Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Turkey and the United States.

Biodun Jayefo and Wole Soyinka seem to think that I have been holding back on my ancestry. Yet they draw different conclusions. Soyinka thinks that because I am a Swahili Muslim, my own television series was partly inspired by Islamic Fundamentalism. B.J. believes that because I am a Swahili Mu slim, my critique of Gates is partly inspired by holier-than-thou Africanism. Soyinka believes I am a firebrand Islamist. B.J. believes I am a firebrand Africanist. Where is the evidence in either direction? On the personality issue Henry Gates has maintained a dignified distance recently. Nor should we be intimidated by B.J. from referring to my own television series, THE AFRICANS: A TRIPLE HERITAGE. Although my program 4 does emphasize the role of the West in the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, the program does also address the triple heritage of slavery.

In the words of the program! Africa exported to the West men (instruments of production) and imported from the West guns (instruments of destruction). Slaves in exchange for guns... We had our own slavery too. Domestic [indigenous] slavery was not unknown in Africa.... Of course, Arab slavery was evil, but Western slavery was worse.

As for the ancestral innuendoes by B.J. and (earlier) by Soyinka which took them both to the gutter of ethnic politics, let me remind them of my remarks in program 4 of THE AFRICANS television series: My own extended family is mixed. It is descended from both masters and slaves, from both rulers and subjects. (BBC/PBS, 1986). Is that very different from the majority of African Americans? Perhaps Skip Gates was for once more sensitive than his African mentor, Wole Soyinka. For once Skip Gates was less tribalistic than either B.J. or Soyinka.

However, we cannot permit B.J. to get away with the far-fetched literary apologia that WONDERS OF THE AFRICAN WORLD consists of four programs of African glory and two programs of African cruelty. How come B.J. classifies the first program on Nubia as pure glory when it is about Egyptians and Sudanese trampling under foot their Nubian compatriots? Egyptians and Sudanese irrigation dams are used by Gates as metaphors for racial oppression against the Nubians. Is this glory or cruelty Skip Gates thinks I mistook an Egyptian guide for a Westerner in the story about Egyptian trampling Nubians underfoot? I did nothing of the kind. I was referring to the Western WOMAN who was answering Gates' questions about race and Nubia among the pillars and ruins of ancient Nubia. With regard to Ethiopia, I certainly have yet to meet an Ethiopian who has seen the TV series and has not been offended by it. B.J. may think that this series is a salute to the glories of ancient Ethiopia. This is certainly an affront to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today idea that it is all right to portray Africans as still engaged in slavery provided we also show that Africans were once kings, this is palpable nonsense. Glories of the past are not a compensation for cruelties of the present. No, indeed.

Did Gates royalize the past and demonize the present? That indeed is the ultimate cynicism. He did some demonizing of both the past and the past. Martin Kilson's brilliant but merciless critique of the Gates phenomenon stumbles on the issue of whether my agreeing to write a blurb for Gates book was in appreciation of my being invited by Gates to give a series of Harvard lectures in 1999. If that was the trade-off between Skip Gates and me, I would never have criticized his TV series!! Since my lectures have not yet been given, was I not gambling by criticizing Gates several months in advance of my Harvard lectures? I had full confidence that Gates would abide by the rules of academia and welcome me to Harvard in March regardless of our disagreements. My greatest debt to Gates goes back to when, without hesitation and seemingly without consulting Wole Soyinka, he agreed to let me use the pages of his magazine TRANSITION to deal with Wole Soyinka's ethnic and sectarian politics against me in 1991. Skip Gates became my friend by the spontaneity of his response to my request.

He describes his love for Africa as tough love. Is there also such a thing as tough friendship? Professor Jacob Ade Ajayi of the University of Ibadan (formerly Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos) is also a member of the Organization of African Unity's Group of Eminent Persons (GEP) on Black Reparations for Enslavement. He has joined the debate on Skip Gates' television series. [I am also a member of the GEP]. Dr. Ajayi is one of Africa's top historians. Why did African chiefs in West Africa enslave their neighbors? Because Western slavers whispered threateningly into their ears: If you do not attack your neighbours and enslave them for us, we will ARM them to attack you and enslave your people for us!

You have a simple choice: Please enslave your neighbours for us, or we will make it possible for your neighbours to enslave you! The formulation is mine, but the logic is what professor Ajayi has brought into the debate. African Chiefs were BLACKMAILED (or WHITEMAILED) into becoming slavers for the white man. Since the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was DEMAND-DRIVEN, and the demand was in the West, Africans were forced into collaboration. Often literally at the point of a gun. Dr. Ajayi tells us that African participation in the [slave] trade was the result, not the cause of the European initiative, finance and capitalization of the trade. The collaboration of a handful of Jews with the Nazi had never been claimed as justifying or diminishing the need to find compensation for the victims. The collaborators were themselves victims.


First Online: 12 December 1999
Last Revised: 3 April 2000

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