In the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen asked, "What is Africa to me?" Wonders of the African World
, a stunning African travelogue by Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr. (arguably America's most public and prolific black intellectual), takes up that question for a new generation. A beautifully illustrated, literary companion to a PBS documentary series, Wonders
traces Gates's 10-month sojourn through the African motherland, from the haunting pyramids of the Egyptian/Nubian empire in Sudan and the ancient Christian heritage of Ethiopia to the lost city of Timbuktu and the fabled University of Sankore. Erudite scholar that he is, Gates uses his trip to investigate the promise and perils of contemporary Africa, considering, among other issues, the unifying potential of the Swahili language and black complicity in the slave trade. Gates also takes aim at the Enlightenment, the subsequent colonialist occupations by European nations, and the worst aspects of Afrocentrism. Ultimately, he reveals an unbreakable, albeit ill-defined, relationship between Afro-Americans and Africans: "I have learned that I am neither Fon nor Beninian, Asante nor Ghanian, Swahili nor Kenyan, Nubian or Sudanese," Gates writes. Though not a member of any one of these great peoples in particular, I am, as a descendant of a West African slave and of ex-slaves, the product of a truly Pan-African new world culture forged out of the crucible of slavery." --Eugene Holley Jr.
From Publishers Weekly
"I knew that any meaningful explanation of what Africa was to me would depend on discovering what Africa was, and is, both to Africans and to all of us." That imperative led Harvard professor Gates (Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man) on a journey through a dozen countries in an attempt to learn "who 'the African people' were and what, in fact, they had contributed to civilization." Its fruitAa thoughtful, copiously illustrated survey of 22 outstanding sites that is the companion book to an upcoming PBS seriesAwill open a new world to readers of all stripes. In Ethiopia, Gates visits Axum, where the practice of Christianity is older than in any Western European country and where the Ark of the Covenant may reside. In Mali, Gates explores Timbuktu, which was once "the site of black Africa's most important center of scholarship and learning... rivaling Europe's emerging universities." His excursions into Ghana and Benin provide the backdrop for an unflinching look at the role Africans played in the slave trade. In South Africa, he refutes the main tenet of apartheid's "counterfeit" historyAthat the land was uninhabited until the first white settler arrived in 1652Aby journeying to the lost cities of the Shona kingdom. The author scrupulously distinguishes proven facts from hopeful conjecture, and the text is lightened by numerous humorous anecdotes. Though the book's rapid switches between present and past are occasionally awkward, the structure allows Gates to fuse his scholarship with candid accounts of his own longing for, and later discovery of, the richness of African history. The result is a marvel all its own: a book that celebrates the continent's neglected achievements. BOMC and Doubleday Natural Science Book Club selections. (Oct.)
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