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Greatness and Cruelty: Wonders of the African World and the Reconfiguration of Senghorian Negritude

Biodun Jeyifo


Having now watched "Wonders of the African World," the first question that comes to my mind is: Why didn't ANY of the commentaries on the series prepare me for what I can only describe as the 2-to-4 fissure in the intellectual and ideological body of the series? This, after all, is a wide and gaping crack. Two episodes, "The Swahili Coast" and "The Slave Kingdoms" are relentless in the way in which they assail African complicity in the brutal and tragic history of modern slavery in Africa and are clearly out of sync, at least on the surface, with the other four episodes, "Black Kingdoms of the Nile," "The Holy Land," "The Road to Timbuktu" and "The Lost Cities of the South." In these four episodes, one by one, in episode after episode, Gates confidently and exultantly reanimates cities and monuments of architecture, religion and learning that were affirmed by Europeans to be beyond the capacity of black Africans to create - Nubia, Meroe, Kush, Axum, Lalibela, Asante, Timbuktu, Zimbabwe. In other words, four episodes celebrate what are considered the marks of greatness in the African past, and two episodes dwell relentlessly on what are said to be marks of cruelty and violence in that same African past. Because of this 2-to-4 fissure in the body of the film, I find myself pondering (a) why Gates in the first place chose to celebrate "wonders" of the African world in the contradictory light of greatness and cruelty, and (b) why almost no commentator on the series has pointed to this fissure, let alone try to explain it.

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West Africa Review. ISSN: 1525-4488 (online).
Editors: Adeleke Adeeko, Nkiru Nzegwu, and Olufemi Taiwo.

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