Henry Louis Gates Jr. Gives African Civilizations the PBS Treatment They Have Always Deserved

Writers, are you currently procrastinating writing? Artists, did you miss Inktober for lack of ideas? Y’all feeling pretty guilty right now? Stop! I have something new to inspire and motivate you. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (“Skip” to his friends) has a documentary on African Civilizations on PBS and it is the cure for your creative blues.

As creatives, and consumers, there are two utterly untrue things that we’re told regularly:

  1. All the good stories have already been told.
  2. European history is the best/truest source of content, particularly fantasy content. Any other source is not “universal” enough to have wide appeal.

This documentary reveals both of those things as the lies they are.

In the 6-part series, Africa’s Great Civilizations, Gates Jr. gives us a beautiful survey of the history of civilizations in Africa. North, south, east, and west, this show travels from earliest antiquity to the Congo Conference (1884). With expert input from African scholars, Africa’s Great Civilizations traces the lines of descent from one civilization to another. Gates Jr. emphasizes the importance of trans-Saharan trade, the impact of religion on the directions of development, and the connections that existed within Africa and between Africa and other regions, including Arabia, India, and Europe. It is the documentary we’ve been missing.

Throughout, the show highlights African rulers and thinkers who should be as well known as the Tudors of England. Kings like Mansa Musa, a man so wealthy his spending sprees could re-value currencies or Queens like Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba, who beat the Portuguese in both diplomacy and battle. Artists and craftspeople are featured, displaying the variety and accomplishments of African art in ceramics, metal-works, wood, and fabric. It is a wide-ranging show, giving lots of tastes of the history that is out there, inviting the viewer to find out more.

The Ife Head on display at the British Museum

American schools do a miserable job of teaching history, this is news to no-one. But it is telling how little of that miserable job even waves at the history of Africa. You probably know more about the feudal system of France than you do about even the broadest strokes of African progress from the comprable time period. We know why this is. We know this is how the system works to justify our continued exclusion by implication: Black folks ain’t never been nothing, ain’t never gonna be nothing.

But while we know *why*, we also know instinctively that it isn’t true. I knew I was being lied to when I was 10 years old, but I didn’t know what the lie *was*. This series shows the truth — that Africa was as central to the development of civilization around the world as any place else.

That’s inspirational for lots of reasons, but it is notable for writers and creative people in particular. As a writer, as a person who spends her time imagining other possibilities in time and space, this documentary feeds my visions of what is possible *and* provides raw material for my work.

African history is full of inspiration for Afrofuturistic art, Black Speculative Fiction, African Historical Fiction, and romantic stories of any kind!

Consider:

  • For 80 years (40 BCE-40 CE), the Kingdom of Meroe south of Egypt was ruled by Queens, not kings. What differences in leadership might you imagine there? What loves and dramas would that court be home to?
  • The Almoravid dynasty ruled an empire stretching from Ghana in the south to present day Toledo in Spain in the north. What variety of mischief could a person get up to with that much land to cross? What merchants and ruling houses are possible?
  • The Swahili Coast was in constant contact with Arabia, Persia, and India from the 800s until the Portugese came along and ruined a good thing in 1498. What fantastic novels can be set in a world based on those 700 years of cultural exchange?
  • The Ethiopian Church sent emissaries to the Vatican in Italy in the 1400s. What did those men see and do? What did they eat?

The works you can create with this information as your starting point are endless. From here there’s enough information to start digging yourself, reading and researching. All of the stories haven’t been told. There are plenty more out there, ones that don’t begin with slavery and genocide, but with wealth and vibrant possibility.

Gates, Jr. The African History Professor we all need.

If you don’t want to put down for the DVD, available from PBS just in time for the holidays, you can watch the episodes on YouTube or on Amazon with a Prime Membership.

This is real life from which we can make amazing works of fantasy. I’m excited by what is possible, inspired by what has come before, ready to start writing. How about you?

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  • L.E.H. Light

    Editor/Reviewer

    Editor, Writer, Critic, Baker. Outspoken Mother. Lifelong fan of sci fi/fantasy books in all their variety. Knows a lot about very few things. She/Her/They.

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