Draft: November 11, 1999

BLACK ORIENTALISM?
Further Reflections on "Wonders of the African World" by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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


WONDERS OF BLACK ORIENTALISM

To all those who have responded to my Preliminary Critique of Gates' AFRICAN WONDERS:

I have received an avalanche of responses since my "PRELIMINARY CRITIQUE OF GATES" went into the Internet. I am grateful for all your comments. Some ninety percent of the comments that I have received are angry, if not outraged, by Gates' television series.

In fairness to Skip Gates, he himself may be receiving many more positive responses from an entirely different constituency. I have no doubt there is a significant market for WONDERS OF THE AFRICAN WORLD, but probably not at many African Studies Centers in major U.S. universities. Africanist scholars seem to be overwhelmingly critical.

Edward Said, the brilliant Palestinian professor at Columbia University, made his mark when he published his book ORIENTALISM -- referring to the strange combination of cultural condescension, paternalistic possessiveness and ulterior selectivity shown by certain Western scholars towards non-Western societies in Asia, "the Middle East" and Africa. Indeed the concept of the Middle East -- which is so Eurocentric -- was itself born out of Orientalism.

The question which has been raised by Skip Gates' television series is whether it signifies the birth of BLACK ORIENTALISM. Are we witnessing the birth of a new Black paradigm which combines cultural condescension with paternalistic possessiveness and ulterior selectivity? The condescension in Gates' television series might have been at its worst in Ethiopia and over the Ark of the Covenant. The paternalistic possessiveness was in Great Zimbabwe and in the wonders of the manuscripts in Timbuktu. The selectivity not only knocked out virtually the whole of North Africa; it also knocked out Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. Nigeria as the center of the three of the largest and most historically dynamic cultures in Africa -- the Yoruba, the Hausa and Igbo -- never qualified as one of the "WONDERS OF THE AFRICAN WORLD", in spite of Skip Gates' close relationship with Wole Soyinka, Black Africa's only Nobel Laureate for Literature. Gates' selectivity also got the white man off the hook for the Atlantic slave trade!

Did Gates boycott Nigeria in his TV series because dictator Sani Abacha was in power? Then why did Gates film in Sudan which had a regime widely regarded as more repressive? At any rate Sudan's policies had killed many more people than Abacha's in Nigeria. Gates' refusal to include Nigeria in his TV series was a colossal lapse in credibility and in judgement!

What has BLACK ORIENTALISM got to do with circumcision ceremonies and rites of passage?

One or two sisters who wrote to me were worried by my remark that Gates was playing to "the Western feminist gallery' when in a casual sentence he went too far in condemning female genital surgery. Some Western feminists are aware that some of the greatest defenders of female circumcision in Africa are WOMEN themselves. We must all convince each other that this particular tradition must end. I personally have publicly spoken against it in Africa itself where it matters. See, for example, my highly publicized lecture on "The Black Woman" given for THE GUARDIAN newspaper in Nigeria on July 4, 1991, and published among other places in RESEARCH IN AFRICAN LITERATURES (The Ohio State University, Columbus, Vol.24, No.1, Spring 1993). But cultural reform requires persuasion, education and example. Cheap rhetoric and denunciations are not very helpful.

What has BLACK ORIENTALISM got to do with linguistic authenticity? My Egyptian and Lebanese respondents in the United States have drawn my attention to the fact that Skip Gates may have been taken for a ride by his interpreter of Arabic when Gates was interviewing a Nubian woman whom Skip refers to as "Ozayya Suleiman" (judging by Skip's pronunciation). The person who praised the Aswan Dam and the relocation of the Nubians was not Ozayya Suleiman speaking in Arabic, but the interpreter in English putting pro-Government words into Ozayya Suleiman's mouth. It was the interpreter who was trying to please the intelligence officer of the government!! Apparently Gates did a grave injustice to the older Nubian woman by assuming she was the one who was trying to please the Government's representative. This interpretation has been given to me by my Egyptian and Lebanese respondents. I have to double-check it further in person.

Where does religion fit into BLACK ORIENTALISM? A couple of respondents asked if my TV series THE AFRICANS: A TRIPLE HERITAGE (1986) had not had a pro-Islamic agenda. I shall always be grateful to Skip Gates for allowing me in the 1990s to challenge Wole Soyinka when he made the same charge in Gates' magazine TRANSITION. Please consult the magazine's issues Nos.54 of 1991 and 57 of 1992. Soyinka and I thrashed that question in full. Although the phrase "triple heritage" is mine, the interpretation of Africa as a confluence of three cultures was partly Kwame Nkrumah's. It was Kwame Nkrumah, founder President of Ghana, who saw Africa as an interplay of indigenous culture, ISLAM and what Nkrumah called Euro-Christian civilization. Before Nkrumah, Edward Blyden in the nineteenth century had published his book, CHRISTIANITY, ISLAM AND THE NEGRO RACE. My TV series was standing on the shoulders of those Pan African giants.

Where does RACE fit into BLACK ORIENTALISM? We must not drift into the fallacy of regarding Skip Gates' point of view as THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN PERSPECTIVE. Skip himself is such an individualist that he would be horrified by such a conclusion. Even more horrified would be African-American Pan-Africanists and Afrocentrists. Almost none of them regard Gates' voice as their voice. On the contrary, Skip has denounced them in the columns of THE NEW YORK TIMES deliberately against the pictorial background of the Star of David, (God knows why!). I have talked to some very angry anti-Gates African Americans recently. His attack on African-American nationalists and Pan-Africanists was later widely publicized and circulated by a Jewish organization.

Skip Gates has always been very gracious to me personally. He even consulted me on the chapter about the Waswahili for his BOOK, though he did not consult me in any capacity about the television series. For the single chapter he accepted some of my criticisms and rejected others. Did he accept minor editorial criticisms and reject major ones? The truth lies somewhere in-between.

I am a member of the OAU Group of Eminent Persons on Reparations for Black Enslavement. I and eleven others were "sworn-in" before the Presidents of Africa at a summit meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Dakar, Senegal, in 1992. As an OAU Group of Eminent Persons on such a momentous topic, we are supposed to explore the modalities and strategies of campaigning for reparations from the Western world for the enslavement and destitution of the Black people. Our Chair in the Group was the late Chief Moshood Abiola of Nigeria.

Now Skip Gates' television series virtually tells the world that the West has no case to answer. Africans sold each other. Presumably if there are to be any reparations in the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, it would have to be from Africans to Africans. Skip Gates succeeded in getting an African to say that without the role of Africans in facilitating it, there would have been no trans-Atlantic slave trade at all.

To my astonishment when watching "Wonders of the African World", I heard a Ghanaian tourist guide at a slave fort (Elmina) tell African-American tourists that they were sold into slavery by Africans. Is this the policy of the Ghanaian government to tell tourists that it was not the white man but the Black man who was responsible for the Atlantic slave system? If not, why is not the guide sacked? He was saying to African Americans "We Ghanaians sold you!"

The Ghanaians I have spoken to since Gates' television series are convinced that the Ghanaian guide at the slave fort was given an "inducement" to blame the slave trade on Africans! Who is behind this rewriting of the history of the slave-trade? I am sure Gates was as surprised as I was when he heard such frankness from a Ghanaian tourist-guide.

But even if some Africans were collaborators in the slave trade, why is Gates presenting the story as if the victims were only the Diaspora Africans (exported) while Africans in the ancestral continent were ALL villains? IS BLACK ORIENTALISM racially masochistic?

What about the families of the captured Africans who did not see their loved ones come back home? What about the Africans who were victimised by slave-raiders but were never exported? What about African resistance to slavery? What about the Africans who were not involved in the slave trade at all either as victims or as villains? Why is Skip Gates presenting us with a simplistic picture of continental Africans (villains) selling their brothers and sisters (Diaspora African victims) -- and provoking what he regards as the curse on Africa for selling its children? In reality only a small minority of the inhabitants of Africa could have sold and exported fellow Africans. So why is Africa as a whole presented in such stark evil ways? Why does Henry Louis Gates Jr. virtually let the white man off the hook on the Atlantic slave trade apart from a throw-away sentence? What is going on? What is the agenda? I hope the idea of Black Orientalism is not to sabotage all claims for reparations for Black enslavement.

What has BLACK ORIENTALISM got to do with the Jewish experience? It partly depends upon the style of the Black Orientalist. In history Jews suffered as slaves, benefitted as slavers, and were also among the abolitionists and liberators.

Some of you have expressed surprise that I included a reference to Jewish capital in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. There were several reasons. Gates has sometimes used Jewish symbols in his attacks on Pan-Africanists and Afrocentrists. Secondly, Gates has used a significant part of this television series to expose ARAB participation in the slave trade. Why not complete the Semitic picture and refer to JEWISH participation in the trade? Thirdly, I regarded it as odd that in a television odyssey in Africa Gates should remember to wear what some regarded as a "Jewish shirt" (or at least a shirt with Hebrew written on it) but never once wear an African shirt as his own informal attire! After all, many African Americans wear such shirts right here in the United States routinely. (Gates was ceremonially dressed in Sudan and in Kente regalia for a Ghanaian occasion, but he managed a few snide remarks and jokes in the process.)

Jews were a minority of the Western financiers of the slave-trade. Jews did not invent Western capitalism. They were sucked into it. But Gates deliberately tries to irritate by juxtaposition. Gates goes out of his way to tell us that in 1970 he came to Africa for the first time through Israel. Was that supposed to be a metaphor? He proceeds to tell us that Tanzania was a culture-shock in discomfort (after Israel?). The juxtaposition of Israel with the discomforts of Tanzania was startling and unnecessary. Skip Gates did not have to tell us that he had a bad "home-coming" to Africa after passing through Israel - a place of happier "home-coming" for returning Jews. What card was Skip playing? A compliment to Israel? Or an insult to "Black Zionists" wanting to return to Africa?

However, I do sympathise with the respondent who insisted that it was not JEWISH capital in Europe which was used in the slave trade. It was just CAPITAL. Similarly, it was not Arab and Asante slavers who sold Africans -- it was just SLAVERS! Perhaps we should dis-ethnicize evil when we can. In any case, most Jews were probably against the slave trade all along. Some of my friends think that because I did a television series of my own, I should have remained silent on the series by Skip Gates. But I was an African long before I did a television series for the BBC and the PBS. I am responding to Skip Gates' TV series first and foremost as an African. But secondarily, I am responding to it as a senior and elder Africanist. Skip is a friend. But he knows he and I have huge differences. If he feels he has a right to criticise Africa and abuse the Swahili people and still love Africa, I feel I have a right to criticize Skip Gates and still count him as a friend!!!


First Online: 21 November 1999
Last Revised: 2 April 2000

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