The lost continent

Not any more, as Henry Louis Gates reveals for us Africa's spectacular civilisations. By Kevin Jackson
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The Independent Culture
Back in the Fifties, as Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr recalls in his affectionate memoir Colored People (1994), American television was so pale-faced, so vanilla-flavoured, so relentlessly, monotonously white-bread even the briefest glimpse of a darker complexion would be enough to set his whole neighbourhood humming: "`Colored, colored on Channel Two', you'd hear someone shout. Someone else would run to the phone, yet another hit the front porch, telling the neighbours where to see it..."

Four decades on, when an injudicious use of the term "colored" - without, say, a prophylactic coating of inverted commas - can get a white boy into big trouble (Professor Gates is acute on the complex webs of derision, euphemism, pride and prejudice in American history that helped make his grandfather a "Negro," his father "colored," his teenage self "black," his mature self "African-American" and so on), the good people of Piedmont, West Virginia, would be highly unlikely to raise an eyebrow at the sight of yet another non-white face on the box.

But there's one show coming up later this year that may just get the Piedmont phones buzzing like they did in the old days. Those locals who stayed on in the sulphurous paper-mill town are about to find out their old school buddy, "Skip" Gates, has just finished his own six-part series for the BBC and PBS (America's Public Broadcasting System). Over there, it's called Wonders of the African World; over here, Into Africa. It's an excellent idea for a series, and HLG Jnr - professor of English and chairman of Afro-American Studies at Harvard; New Yorker journalist; author and editor of umpteen books, editions, and reference works; and all-round intellectual superstar - brings to it an ideal mixture of scholarship, passion and showbiz.

Into Africa is the realisation of a very youthful fantasy. "Skip" Gates's own juvenile TV viewing included Civilization and The Ascent of Man. He used to indulge in reveries about some day fronting a documentary series in similar vein, though he now has his doubts about Lord Clark'sstyle of delivery: "He was like one of those Greek statues, though he just seemed like a genius ... Jacob Bronowski was my man," he adds, lovingly mimicking how Bronowski would act out his inner intellectual struggles with lavish gestures.

Gates's own presentational style for Into Africa is a lot more informal. He's anything but professorial, confiding rather than delivering most of his pieces to camera, reminiscing ruefully about his first trips to Africa as an idealistic student, mucking in cheerfully with the locals: "How you doin', brother, my name's Skip." He looks like a TV natural: in reality, the telegenic ease was hard-won.

HLG Jnr's first venture into documentary film-making came five years ago, when he made one of the Great Railway Journey, and met a British cameraman, Graham Smith. "When I did my first piece to camera, Graham just shouted: `Cut!', adding: `That's the worst piece to camera I've ever seen...' We were at Great Zimbabwe, the ruins, and he said: `To me this looks like a big hunk of rubble, I don't think it's beautiful at all.' And I said: `What! What are you talking about. It's not beautiful? Don't you know black people made this, and all these Europeans denied that it could have been made by black people? There was a great kingdom here...' And all the time he was rolling, and when I'd finished everybody in the place applauded - and after that I've been rolling."

Graham Smith acted as cameraman again on Into Africa, a six-part series in which HLG Jnr travels "from Zanzibar to Timbuktu, from the Nile River Valley to Great Zimbabwe, from the Slave Coast of Ghana to the medieval [Coptic Christian] monasteries of Ethiopia." Each programme is a mini- odyssey, or adventure (in Ethiopia, he searches for the Lost Ark - "West Virginia Jones!"). But the overall intention is enlightenment: "Let's face it, when you think of Africa, what comes to mind? Poverty, famine, war, disease... How many people know anything about the great ancient civilisations of Africa, that were just as splendid, just as glorious as any on the face of the earth?" Not all that many Europeans, that's for sure. But if Into Africa will act as a useful introduction for the neophyte, it also serves to correct some of the more fantastical ideas about the continent held by a few of HLGJnr's countrymen: "So many African-Americans spend their first night in Africa in tears," he reflects, and reminds me of the story about the Back-to-Africa enthusiasts who came to Ghana in the early Sixties, gleefully pitched their US passports into the Atlantic and then, a few weeks later, could be seen desperately trying to find them again. One programme also confronts the painful fact of African complicity in the slave trade: a reality that isn't going to win HLG Jnr many friends in Afro-centric circles.

On the whole, though, Into Africa registers Gates's unfeigned delight and surprise at his discoveries. Most places he visited really were new to him, and at least one encounter was a revelation: "In Timbuktu, there's this great university, one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1391, which had 25,000 students and scholars. We met a man who was a protector of this library that had been owned by 12 families in Timbuktu, passed down from generation to generation since 1600... 50,000 volumes! Uncatalogued! Written by black men, in Arabic, between the 14th and 17th centuries! I got a grant from the Mellon Foundation, and [now] we're cataloguing them... It's the mind of the black world, hidden away. Isn't that great?"

In America, the screening of the Africa films and the publication of the accompanying volume, both in October, will coincide with the release of another work that Gates has been dreaming of for decades: Incarta Africana, an encyclopedia in book and on CD-rom of every aspect of Africa and the African diaspora, from Bessie Smith singing the St Louis Blues to "Skip" Gates being a presenter for the BBC: "It's a black Brittanica." In global terms, the idea for such an encyclopedia goes back exactly 90 years, to a resolution by the great black scholar WEB DuBois in 1909. More personally, it goes back to the night when "Skip" sat in an Indian restaurant in Cambridge (England) with Wole Soyinka and Anthony Appiah and vowed they would make DuBois's vision concrete by the end of the 20th century. They've done it, with three months to spare.

Indirectly all Gates' work is the fruit of his Cambridge PhD research on the attitude of European Enlightenment thinkers to African authors: "One of the motifs of my thesis is the claim: "There is no culture, no civilisation in Africa" - Hume said it in 1754, Kant said it in 1764, Jefferson said it in 1785, Hegel said it in 1790, right? So both the series and the encyclopedia are saying..." - and Professor Gates says it bluntly, with an accompanying hand-gesture of the kind Jacob Bronowski definitely didn't use. Then he obligingly paraphrases it for me into more printable form: "They're saying: Hume? Kant? Jefferson? Hegel? Yo' Momma! In yo' face!"

`Into Africa', a six-part series, starts tonight at 8.10pm on BBC2