A letter from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

From the dawn of human beings to the colonial era with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In this landmark new six-hour PBS series Africa’s Great Civilizations, we are inviting our viewers to discover the complexity, grandeur, and diversity of the great civilizations that once flourished across the African continent, in the many millennia before the European colonial powers arrived to carve up the map of the continent.

In October 1963, the celebrated British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper infamously claimed: “Perhaps, in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness... And darkness is not a subject for history.”

In the 21st century, this point of view sounds like an embarrassing vestige of a racist past. Yet the great civilizations of Africa and their rich and eventful history remain largely unknown to most Americans, suggesting that this dismissive remark uttered half a century ago still reflects a persistent undercurrent that runs deep in the popular consciousness. Africa’s rich history is not even broadly taught in our school curricula.

Drawing on the research of historians, archeologists, art historians, linguists, geneticists and others completed before, and in the fifty years since, Trevor-Roper argued to the contrary, we definitively lay claims about Africa’s lack of history and culture to rest in Africa’s Great Civilizations, a series made possible by our lead sponsor, Bank of America.

Beginning with Africa’s ancient history as the cradle of anatomically modern homo sapiens, this groundbreaking documentary series brings to life the epic stories of both little-known and celebrated kingdoms and cultures, from the Ancient Egyptians and their Nile Valley rivals in the Kingdom of Kush, through the rich traditions of the medieval Empire of Mali and the glories of Timbuktu in the sixteenth century, to the kingdom of Dahomey and its rivalry with the Yoruba kingdoms in the early nineteenth century, all the way up to the warrior king Shaka Zulu’s legendary consolidation of a unified Zulu state in the 19th century, ending with the Ethiopian defeat of an invading Italian army in March of 1896.

This sweeping saga through 200,000 years of history portrays the origins of human society in Africa, tracing the shared genetic, cultural, and economic connections between the peoples of the great African civilizations with each other, throughout the continent, and with trading partners down the Nile, across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond, as far away as Persia, India and China, and eventually up and across the Atlantic Ocean.

Moving forward in time, the series follows the development of social and cultural complexity throughout the African continent, and explores the enormous economic and political impact of the millennia-long Bantu migration. We investigate how interactions with foreign civilizations and ideas transformed African societies and cultures—and how Africans transformed them-- through stories such as the arrival of Islam in North and West Africa, the adoption of Christianity in Ethiopia in 350 AD, or the rise of a powerful trading maritime civilization on the East African coast that grew in response to trading partners from the Arabian peninsula, Persia, India, and China.

Africa’s Great Civilizations reveals the stories of the Biblical kingdom of Kush, the early Christian fathers, the pyramids at Meroe in today’s Sudan, and the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, in Ethiopian, and examines the kingdoms of Kongo, Ndongo, Asante and Dahomey and their complex relationships to the burgeoning Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The legendary Akan cultures come to life, as well as the technological innovations and strategic brilliance that contributed to Shaka’s rise among the Zulu. The series draws to a close in 1886, as the infamous European Scramble for Africa had begun to erase the memory of many of these great civilizations from considerations of Africa’s place in the history of world civilization.

Along the way, the series profiles unforgettable individuals like The Emperor of Mali, Mansa Musa, whose legendary pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 revealed the great wealth and broad horizons of 14th century Mali, and Queen Njinga, monarch of the Kingdom of Ndongo, whose complicated relationship with the Portuguese encompassed both profitable slave trading alliances and fearless resistance – as well as fascinating characters like the King of Kongo who converted to Christianity in 1491 AD, King Osei Tutu of Asante, and Usman dan Fodio, founder of the mighty Sokoto Caliphate in 1804, among many other fascinating women and men..

But this is not only a saga of powerful rulers and their battles and conquests – although many of these important people and events add drama and excitement to the series. Wherever possible, we also explore the richness and variety of culture and communication that distinguished these civilizations, including their literacy, visual arts, religious practices, gender dynamics, and the intimate details of the daily lives of ordinary people who thrived in these long-forgotten times. In tracing the spread of Swahili inland from the coast, for instance, the series will highlight the human connections that facilitated and shaped this massive linguistic exchange. Even societies that left no physical monuments left clues to their beliefs and social mores that the series will bring to light.

We criss-cross the continent to reveal Africa’s most engaging stories and uncover the secrets of Africa’s most evocative locations – all shot with breathtaking location cinematography. We draw on the expertise of the most significant scholars of African history to identify the best stories and most telling details. Throughout, the series we also spotlight living traces of Africa’s distant history – from chroniclers who have preserved ancient anecdotes and tales, to explorations of the archaeological evidence that today co-exists with modern African cities and people.

Often, the story of how this history was lost, stolen, or misinterpreted over the intervening years becomes part of the narrative, as in the case of the mystery of Great Zimbabwe. For decades, colonial-era historians refused to believe that this magnificent stone city could have been built by Africans, and insisted that mysterious white men – who must have somehow made their way to this remote region between the 11th and 15th centuries – were responsible for its construction, despite the compelling evidence that the techniques and artistry employed to build this great city clearly demonstrate its Shona origins.

In some cases, such as the heartbreaking saga of the books of Timbuktu, the production team weaves contemporary context into the historical story to illustrate both the grandeur of the Malian scholarly tradition that flourished between the 12th and 16th centuries – and the tragic consequences of discounting the historical evidence. When I went to Mali to film his earlier series Wonders of the African World in 1998, I discovered a heroic curator, Abdel Kader Haidara, hard at work reassembling and preserving the collection of scientific and philosophical tomes written by these great scholars. I helped to raise funds from the Mellon Foundation to build a library to house this extraordinary collection, a gift to the history of human consciousness and civilization. Recently, that precious collection was again in danger as political and civil unrest raged in Mali. But through heroic effort, Haidara was able to spirit these precious and irreplaceable volumes to their hiding place in the nation’s capital, Bamako.

The revelation of this long-hidden scholarly tradition and the imminent danger this world treasure faces today is just one of many examples of triumphant stories that will forever change the television audience’s understanding of African history. And I am thankful to our friends at the Bank of America for making it possible for us to tell this remarkable story of the contributions that people on the African continent have made to us all.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


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