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While many students spent the summer working in air-conditioned office buildings, DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. traversed eastern Africa with a BBC camera crew at his heels.
Gates, his wife Sharon Adams, and his daughters, Maggie and Liza, completed the 3,000-mile train trip from Zimbabwe to Tanzania last August.
"It was the trip of a lifetime, a tremendous bonding experience for my family," Gates said.
WGBH will air some of the footage from the family train trip tonight at 9 p.m.
The show is one episode of a seven-part BBC series titled "Great Railway Journeys," where other narrators ride trains through different parts of the world.
Nick C. Shearman, the producer of the series, said Gates was selected to host this episode because "he is a well-known cultural historian who brings the black perspective to the film. He has his own story to tell."
Gates requested that his family accompany him on the trip, and the BBC expanded the show to include them.
"To take the family was...a very special approach to this kind of work," Shearman said. "They all have their varying approaches and different things to say, but all are equally valid."
The trip had the most impact on the children, according to Adams.
"It was a way for them to understand their father in a way that they hadn't before," she said. "They never had first-hand knowledge of what his real talents are, his interests in people that he's never met."
The train ride was long and often uncomfortable, Gates said.
"It was rough, no first-class, no air conditioning...these were pure funky African third world trains," he said.
The real hazard of the trip, however, came when Gates, Adams and their guide searched for elephants in the wilderness.
"I wasn't too afraid in the beginning, when the guide said we could just walk up to the animals," Adams said. "But then he put on a bandolier of bullets the size of lipstick tubes. He looked pretty impressive."
The group spotted and approached one elephant ahead of it, but didn't see another in the brush to its left until it was in a position to charge them.
"It's like a skyscraper coming at you," Gates said.
The guide talked down the elephant, which never actually charged.
In that position, though, "it became something that could be really threatening instantly," Adams said.
Gates and the BBC are currently negotiating a larger project, to be called "The Seven Mysteries of Africa."
The collaboration would produce another seven-episode series with an accompanying book, which would "explore Africa in greater depth and reflect the varied cultures and civilizations" of the continent, Shearman said.
The televised train ride follows a trend of publicity for the Afro-American Studies Department, Which includes Gates' photo on the cover of a New York Times section last Sunday.
"We've collectively worked hard to build a center for Afro-American studies," Gates said. "The most pleasant aspect was the support of the Faculty and administration here at Harvard."
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