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Africa's Great Civilizations Have Been Suppressed, Gates Says


Henry Louis Gates Jr. wants to change the way people outside Africa think about the continent. Too often, he says, people conjure up images of poverty and disease because few know of its great empires, its powerful leaders, its art and the trade routes that shaped the continent and beyond. Gates is the host of a new three-part series, "Africa's Great Civilizations," on PBS beginning tonight. He told our co-host, Steve Inskeep, that he wants to change what we know about the continent.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: The story of Africa has been systematically denied to us for two reasons. The first is slavery. The second is colonialism. Europeans had to invent an Africa as a place of emptiness and barrenness and backwardness in order to justify the enslavement of 12.5 million human beings who were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean between 1501 and roughly 1866.

And then, after slavery finally was abolished - the slave trade - European colonial powers looked at a big empty map of Africa and carved it up like you carve up a pizza pie. And they just passed out slices. They'd say, OK, Germany, you want Tanganyika - here. Senegal, this is for you, France. And what I wanted to do was to tell the story of the great African people and their civilizations.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: So you're telling me that there is this other history, this other very real history, of empires rising and falling and civilizations rising and falling that people in the West know very little about?

GATES: Absolutely. These were sophisticated societies. And Africans were just as curious about what was on the other side of the proverbial other side of the mountain as anyone else was. The first iron technology in the world was developed in Africa in 1800 B.C., even earlier than in India and the Middle East.

Here's another amazing thing. Almost all of the gold used in Europe between 1000 A.D. and 1500 A.D. was mined at one of three regions in West Africa. The richest man in the history of the world, according to networth.com, was the emperor of Mali. And his name was Mansa Musa. Mansa Musa's net worth is estimated to be about $400 billion, which makes my cousin Bill Gates' net worth...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GATES: ...Kind of paltry by comparison. Someone said to me, are you really related to Bill Gates? I said, I wish. (Laughter).

INSKEEP: You can - well, if you go back to Africa, you are related to Bill Gates. Let's remember that.

GATES: I am related.

INSKEEP: Let's remember that.

GATES: We are all Africans.

INSKEEP: So why is it important to bring forward this particular story, this history, now?

GATES: We're in Black History Month. I love Black History Month, but I want every day to be Black History Month. I want these stories, the stories of Africa and its Africans, to be woven into the story of the history of the development of civilization. I want everyone, every schoolchild to understand from day one that they are a citizen of the world.

INSKEEP: Is it a difficult political moment to be making that argument?

GATES: I think that many people are frightened. Alarming signals have come out of the White House over the first month. And I think that many of us went to sleep under Barack Obama because we thought the millennium had happened. Remember all that rubbish about because a black man's elected president, we now entered into post-racial America? Only someone unaware of the history of race and racism in this country would make a ridiculous claim like that. You can't undo centuries of oppression and stereotyping and demeaning associations with the election even of one very articulate, very intelligent black man.

INSKEEP: There must have been this period of eight years or so where African-Americans got to feel that they were at the center of the country's history and that they would have to be recognized as being at the center of the country's history. Where do you think African-Americans are left now?

GATES: I think the fact that the black community did not turn out to vote in this presidential election must give us pause for concern. We have to understand why. I heard someone here at Harvard say that probably this is the first generation where people were not imbued with an inevitable sense of progress.

I heard the other day that 12 percent of African-American males voted for Donald Trump. Why? I think because they felt the same economic insecurity as my white working-class friends in the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia. And I think that we have to conceive of class-based solutions, economic-based solutions. A rising tide will lift all boats. We have to rise the tides, as it were, so that all of our economic boats float higher.

INSKEEP: Henry Louis Gates, thanks very much, pleasure talking with you.

GATES: Any time, my pleasure.

GREENE: Gates hosts the PBS series "Africa's Great Civilizations," which begins tonight. He was speaking with Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.