Gates on Leave to Host Films On Africa

Skip Gates has a new project.

This semester, the chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department is taking a leave from teaching, electing to spend the term writing and hosting an international film series celebrating the seven wonders of the African world.

"Let's face it--so many people in the West view Africa through two dominant images: poverty and flies are one, and disease is the other," Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. said in an interview. "I wanted to do a series that would talk about the glories of the African past, the truly great monuments of human imagination in Africa."

Gates, who also is DuBois professor of humanities, has already left campus and will be working on the film project throughout the fall. After returning to teach in the spring, Gates will revisit the project and complete the series over the summer. It will be aired by PBS and the BBC.

Gates said he also plans to write a travelogue of his journey across Africa, to be published next fall.


Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah will assume Gates' responsibilities as department chair for the semester. It is Gates' first leave of absence in nine years.

The film project is nothing new for Gates, who traveled from Zimbabwe to Tanzania last August, and narrated a BBC program about that 3,000-mile trip. The success of that program was the impetus to work on another, Gates said.

He said that he hopes to expose average American and British citizens to the African continent.

But there is a deeper personal experience as well, Gates said, whenever an African-American returns to Africa "in search of roots that can never be found."

Visiting ancient African monuments, Gates said, reminds African-Americans both of native roots and also of the different paths African-Americans have taken over several centuries. "The continuity, but also the acute awareness of discontinuity, is the tension in the film," he said.

The series will actually feature only six "wonders," Gates said, including pieces on the ancient region of Nubia, the Swahili Coast and Timbuktu.

In Gates' Absence

Gates was expected to teach African-American Studies 137z: "Black Women and their Fiction," this semester, according to last year's course catalogue. That course will instead be offered in the 1999-2000 academic year.

During his time away, Gates will return periodically to aid in the recruitment of new faculty members, one of his strengths as chair. Gates has been credited with attracting such academic stars as Professor of Afro-American Studies Cornel R. West '74 and Wiener Professor of Social Policy William Julius Wilson.

Gates said that he expects a major social scientist to join the department in the spring, although he remained silent on the scholar's identity:

As acting chair, Appiah will temporarily oversee the department's application to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for a Ph.D. program. Appiah is already familiar with this process, as he chairs the Ph.D. program committee, Gates noted.

Appiah said that he hopes that the program, which is expected to gain official departmental approval at a Sept. faculty meeting, will commence in the 1999-2000 academic year.

Appiah will reduce his teaching load while serving as chair. He is planning his own sabbatical for the spring