So, Daddy, what in the world am I supposed to have in common with them?" my younger daughter, Liza, shouted at me within the confines of our suffocating train cabin, furnished by the BBC and Zambia National Railways. It was more a cry of frustration than anger. In 1994, we were on a 3,000-mile train trip, filming an episode of Great Railway Journeys for the BBC and PBS.
"Nothing!" her older sister, Maggie, responded on my behalf, hoping to preempt any possible response premised on our commonality of ancestors, of black skin, thick lips, or kinky hair. "They live in mud huts," she continued, "they are covered with dust, their clothes are ragged . . . they don't even wear shoes!"
What do we have in common? I allowed myself to wonder in silence, seeking to avoid the smug intensity of my daughters' gaze as they dared me to try to think of a convincing response, even while some part of them might have been desperately hoping that I could.
As I sat there, amused at my daughters' honesty, despairing to think of a clever one-liner that would deflect the enormous challenge of their question, these couplets from Countee Cullen's "Heritage," standard in black literary anthologies, kept dancing through my mind:
What is Africa to me?
Copper sun or scarlet sea, . . .
Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
And then that curiously ridiculous refrain:
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
I had never really appreciated Countee Cullen's poem before. I had never actually liked the sentiments it expresses about our African heritage -- the emotions ranging from ambivalence, at best, to revulsion, at worst -- shared all too frequently by my American Negro ancestors and my contemporaries, their African American descendants, in the privacy of their families and in ritual settings like the church, beauty parlors or barber shops, sororities or fraternal orders. The African American's relationship to Africa has long been ambivalent, at least since the early nineteenth century, when 3,000 black men crowded into Bishop Richard Allen's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to protest noisily a plan to recolonize free blacks in Africa. Inexplicably, I suddenly thought of my father, who proudly received the "I ain't left nuthin' in Africa" award every year at my mother's family reunion, and I burst into laughter.
"It's not funny," one of my unrepentantly American daughters, now exasperated, shouted at me as I reflected on our standing family joke about my father's aversion to Afros, dashikis, and most things "African."
"I know, I know," I halfheartedly pretended to apologize through tears of laughter and sadness. Truth be told, I wasn't sure that I could answer that question honestly without resorting to platitudes or appeals to sentimentality.
Four years later, I found myself in the Sudan, in the village of Q'ab, an oasis in the heart of the Nubian Desert long believed to hold the key to a miracle cure for rheumatism. In a run-down schoolroom, the elderly headmaster, Mohammed Ali Hammeto, carefully explained in Arabic that the cure had proven to come from the village sand dune and that each year hundreds of people flock to receive it. They are buried up to their necks in the scorching sand for twenty minutes a day over the course of a week, covered by a little awning to keep the sun off their heads. As their bodies sweat, the mineral deposits in the sand are believed to work miracles. The headmaster said he has seen crippled men walk strong from the village. Throughout the Sudan, this dune at Q'ab is renowned; many have sought its curative powers at other dunes, but to no avail. Q'ab alone holds the secret.
As I prepared to be buried, I addressed the assembled schoolchildren and the villagers, explaining that I was an American, a descendant of slaves, and that I had come to make a film so that Americans and Europeans would know more about the glories of ancient Nubia. A brief silence followed the translation of my speech into Arabic, broken suddenly by a woman who shouted at the top of her voice: "Africa is on your face!" Everyone applauded and laughed. As I looked at the crowd of these multicolored people of Q'ab -- their skin medium brown to the silkiest ebony, their hair kinky and tight and soft and straight -- it suddenly occurred to me that there are many ways of wearing Africa on our faces, that my daughters wear the great continent's stunning variety in their own ways, while I wear it in still another.
My father and his father, both of whom I knew, and his father's father, whom I did not, were legendary in our family for scorning any sort of wistful romance with Africa. My family and our neighbors and friends thought of Africa and its Africans as extensions of the stereotyped characters that we saw in movies and on television in films such as Tarzan and in programs such as Ramar of the Jungle and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Cullen's lamentation of being "three centuries removed from the scenes his fathers loved" was not in all honesty shared by my father and his father, and practically all of the American Negroes I ever met in the fifties or early sixties.
For as long as I can remember, I have been passionately intrigued by "Africa," by the word itself, by its flora and fauna, its topographical diversity and grandeur; but above all else, by the sheer variety of the colors of its people, from tan and sepia to jet and ebony. I turned ten in 1960, the great year of African independence. Without prompting from my teachers or, Lord knows, from my father, I memorized the names of each independent African country and its new leader, learning to pronounce these polysyllables just as our evening news commentator did on television each night. By the time I was twelve, I had become obsessed with Stanley and Livingstone, with Cecil Rhodes's unfulfilled quest to create a republic from the Cape to Cairo (suitable, he was quick to add, for the comfortable existence of any white man, a part I chose to ignore), and the painstaking persistence of the Leakeys in looking for evidence of the origins of the human family among fragments of bone and tools and utensils sifted from the East African soil. Could I have been the only black person who wanted to throw a party every time the Leakeys identified still another toe bone that lent credence to their claim that all of humanity had its birth in darkest Africa? Peking Man and Cro-Magnon be damned! Such was my passion for "Africa," a place I knew primarily through the words and pictures of my geography books.
My father's feeling -- shared, I feared, by my two daughters on that sweltering afternoon on the Zambian train -- of complete and apparently unambivalent disconnection from Africa has a painfully long history among "African Americans" (many of whom, if truth be told, have never grown comfortable with calling ourselves "black," let alone "African").
Phillis Wheatley, the very first African to publish poetry in the English language, gave voice to this anxiety as early as 1773, even before it occurred to her to use her powerful pen to indict slavery and European racism: "'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land," she wrote, a land, most probably in Gambia or Senegal, from which she was abducted when she was six or seven. In an earlier poem, Wheatley had called Africa "The land of errors and Egyptian gloom," thanking the "Father of mercy" for bringing "me in safety from those dark abodes" that were the Africa not of her memory but of the Enlightenment imagination of eighteenth-century Europe and America.
"Thank God for slavery," Richard Pryor would outrageously exclaim more than 200 years later, at the end of a devastatingly humorous account of his first visit to Africa. He unwittingly summarized one persistent view among African Americans that no amount of wishful thinking or "political correctness" can seem to wash away entirely, perhaps because its pedigree includes far too many distinguished black intellectuals. Even the redoubtable Frederick Douglass, who as early as 1854 ventured that the liberation of the American Negro slave was inextricably intertwined with the "liberation" of knowledge about ancient African civilization, especially the sub-Saharan "Negroid" origins of Egyptian civilization and what he called the fundamental unity of all Negro peoples -- even he preferred to embrace "Africa" more as an imaginative construct than as an actual place, full of tens of millions of black human beings. In fact, in 1872, Douglass wondered aloud "why anyone should leave this land of progress and enlightenment and seek a home amid the death-dealing malaria of a barbarous continent." The Western stereotype of Africa and its black citizens as devoid of reason and, therefore, subhuman was often shared by white master and black ex-slave alike. Writing early in the nineteenth century, a group of free blacks in Philadelphia adopted the following resolution:
Resolved that, without art, without science, without a proper knowledge of government, to cast into the savage wilds of Africa the free people of color seems to us the circuitous route through which they must return to perpetual bondage.
Douglass would give voice to still another cause for anxiety among African
Americans toward their ancestral kinsmen: slavery, and its complex historical causes, including black African complicity in its origins. "Depend upon it," Douglass wrote,
the savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage, and pocketing the ready cash for them will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia. We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave-trade than to stay here to work against it.
The relation between the descendants of the slaves and their African forebears, Douglass argues, had long been severed by the latter's willing participation in the commodification of their own brothers and sisters. The Negro American was sui generis, not an extension of a noble past filled with black gods and kings, but a new being, shaped on the American continent just as surely as his neighbors of European descent had been. He was urged to forget his putative African past and create a future as an American; as Cullen would put it in "Heritage,"
What is last year's snow to me,
Last year's anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set --
To acknowledge that attitudes such as these run deep and wide in African American culture (assuring my father and my daughters a vast and distinguished company) is not to deny the contrary view, of Africa's and Africans' long and distinguished traditions. The 3,000 black men who crowded into Bishop Allen's church in Philadelphia in 1817 felt compelled to protest colonization because several black leaders such as Paul Cuffe, James Forten, and Allen himself were quite enthusiastic about it.
However, Douglass contemporaries Martin R. Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Edward Wilmot Blyden, among many others, celebrated the connections they believed to exist between American Negroes and the African continent. For Blyden, Africa was "the negro's home." "Your place," Blyden advised his fellow American Negroes, "has been assigned you in the universe as African, and there is no room for you as anything else." Nor was there a geographical locale in the world more appropriate and suitable for the Negro than Africa:
Africa is his, if he will. He may ignore it. He may consider that he is divested of any right to it; but this will not alter his relations to that country, or impair the integrity of his title. He may be content to fight against the fearful odds in this country; but he is the proprietor of a vast domain. He is entitled to a whole continent by his constitution and antecedents.
For Blyden, the future itself belonged to Africa and the Africans, because "Africa may yet prove to be the spiritual conservatory of the world . . . it may be that [Europeans] may have to resort to Africa to recover some of the simple elements of faith." In a gesture that must have struck his colleagues as quite bold if not outrageous, Blyden declared that the Dark Continent, with its millions of supposedly benighted Africans, would be the salvation of a decaying and decadent Western civilization.
Like his friend and colleague Alexander Crummell, Blyden believed that it was incumbent upon the American Negro, perhaps out of reciprocity, to serve as the vanguard in the reclamation of "the continent" and "the race"; Crummell maintained that "both our positions and our circumstances make us the guardians, the protectors, and the teachers of our heathen tribes." It is, however, worth noting that even Pan-African nationalism was sometimes infected with a certain ambivalence and condescension toward its African brothers and sisters, the very same condescension felt by those who longed to leave Africa far, far behind in the historical past. As James McCune Smith, a black American physician educated at Edinburgh and friend of Frederick Douglass put it in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Negroes' identification with Africa, and their habit of calling themselves "African," waned as the Civil War approached:
The terms by which orators addressed their leaders on [the day the African Slave Trade was abolished in 1808] was universally "Beloved Africans!" The people in those days rejoiced in their nationality and hesitated not to call each other "Africans" or "descendants of Africa." In after years the term "Africa" fell into disuse and finally discredit.
Still, the ardent desire to honor and reclaim the Negro's link to Africa -- by color, by history, by culture, by "blood" -- never entirely disappeared, even among those who refused to romanticize the American Negro's return to the Continent. Instead, for those so inclined, Africa became a metaphor for an ancestral greatness, for roots, for spirituality, in which American Negroes could share. Mary McLeod Bethune, the great black activist and educator, identified herself as "my Mother's daughter," and claimed that the "drums of Africa still beat in my heart." Frederick Douglass, echoing a belief voiced by John Stuart Mill in 1850, railed in 1854 against "the fashion of American writers to deny the Egyptians were Negroes and claim that they are the same race as themselves. This has . . . been largely due to a wish to deprive the Negro of the moral support of the Ancient greatness and to appropriate the same to the white man." Alain Locke confessed in 1925 that Negro Americans had shared a "missionary condescension . . . in their attitudes toward Africa," which was "a pious but sad mistake. In taking it, we have fallen into the snare of our enemies and have given offense to our brothers." Locke went on to say that "Africa is not only our mother, but in light of most recent science is beginning to appear as the mother of civilization."
Among black scholars, then, the role of Africa was hotly disputed. As the historian Carter G. Woodson put it: "[T]he contemporary school of thought which taught that the American Negro had been torn completely from his African roots in the process of enslavement had done incalculable harm, especially in the education and training of younger Negro scholars."
In part, this dispute stemmed from the absence of "African Civilization" in the college curriculum. W.E.B. Du Bois himself -- the greatest American Negro intellectual in the twentieth century and an ardent Pan-Africanist who would emigrate to Ghana, where he died in 1963 editing the Encyclopedia Africana -- even he once confessed that he had no idea of the depth of the history of African civilization until the German-born anthropologist Franz Boas revealed this to him in a lecture at Atlanta University in 1906. Moreover, Paul Robeson had to attend the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in the early thirties to learn "that along with the towering achievements of the cultures of ancient Greece and China there stood the culture of Africa, unseen and denied by the looters of Africa's material wealth." "I am a Negro with every drop of blood and every stir of my soul," Robeson declared. "I want to be more African."
The effect of the West's systematic ignorance of African history was to treat it as if it had slept for millennia, even as the rest of the world's civilizations erupted. Marcus Garvey, for example, the most passionate Pan-Africanist of his generation (the one preceding Robeson's) and the father of the modern "Back to Africa" migration movement, argued that "when Europe was inhabited by a race of cannibals, a race of savage men, heathens and pagans, Africa was peopled with a race of cultured black men who were masters in art, science, and literature."
Nevertheless, "You do not know Africa," precisely because "Africa has been sleeping for centuries -- not dead, only sleeping." Garvey demanded that Africans take charge of their own destiny: "Wake up, Ethiopia! Wake up, Africa! Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed, and mighty nation. Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations. Africa for the Africans at home and abroad."
Excerpted from Wonders of the African World by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.