""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 fruit--a thoughtful, copiously illustrated survey of 22 outstanding sites that is the companion book to an upcoming PBS series--will 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"" history--that the land was uninhabited until the first white settler arrived in 1652--by 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.)
Reviewed on: 10/04/1999 Release date: 10/01/1999 Genre: Nonfiction
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