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My Visit to the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute of African and African American Research at Harvard University

Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

April 21 2011

On April 18, 2011 the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research of Harvard University honored the quintessential activist and artist Elizabeth Catlett and I went there along with my good friend professor Teodros Kiros to join the spirited and enthused audience that virtually packed the small auditorium in the second floor of the Institute.

The event was opened by a brief remark of the charismatic Vira Grant, the Executive Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute and then the Professor and Director of the Institute, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (popularly known as Skip Gates) arrived and gave a speech on his long-awaited ‘Blacks in Latin America’ PBS series and the biography of Elizabeth Catlett. According to the brochure distributed for the event, “throughout her career, Catlett has been committed to art as a vehicle for social change.” This wonderful woman has just turned 96 and it is quite a blessing to enjoy such a longevity especially for a person whose entire life was dedicated to the liberation of humanity from oppression by the dominant classes, be it in the economic, social, and political realms.

Ms. Catlett is physically frail and in fact she was seated on a wheel chair and she had difficulties hearing the questions forwarded to her from the audience, but she is mentally very alert; one can tell that she still has a brilliant brain behind her very expressive forehead and above all she was very witty and answered almost all questions with substance and sense of humor.

Following the conversation of Henry Louis Gates with Elizabeth Catlett, the audience was invited to view the work of Ms. Catlett on the 3rd floor and to a reception. Long before the event started, however, Professor Kiros and I had toured the Institute and I was very much impressed by the overall organization, libraries, and exhibition rooms of the Institute, and I said to myself, “Skip Gates must have been doing a superb job in intellectually embellishing the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute.” The African and African American Research at Harvard is at once a research center and a custodian Institute of the Black experience.

During the reception, Vira Grant came along and with bright and twinkling eyes behind her eyeglasses and a big smile on her face – altogether pleasantly hospitable – she approached me and asked for my name. I said, “I am Ghelawdewos Araia, Professor of African Studies at the City University of New York,” and then she exclaimed, “Oh wow! You came all the way from New York” and she left. Then came Skip Gates walking toward his office and he came directly to where I was standing and to my pleasant surprise greeted me with the Ethiopian language (Amharic) and said Tiena Yistlign (literally ‘may God bestow health upon you’ but figuratively it means ‘how are you’). This is the first time I met Gates in person although I have known him for a long time and even corresponded with him when I founded the Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA, Inc.) in 2002 and he was one of the many who wrote me letters to congratulate me. I also used to correspond with him when I served as senior editor to the African Link magazine and to which Skip Gates contributed views and articles. Incidentally, I deliberately took one issue of the magazine so that I can share it with him; I showed him the Volume 8, No. 4 of the African Link magazine in which a debate between him and Ali Mazrui on the ‘Wonders of the African World’ was posted. We published the debate so that readers can have the privilege of learning from both perspectives, but the ultimate objective of posting the debate was to “call a truce” between the two giant Africanist scholars.

In any event, Mazrui’s “preliminary response” and “further reflections” on the ‘Wonders of the African World’ was constructive and he even calls Gates “a friend”. By the same token, Gates in his rebuttal was extremely civil and humble and her is how he put it then:

“Only rarely as a scholar does one have the opportunity to discuss one’s passion for a subject, the reasons for one’s choice of it as one’s life work, and the raison d’étre for the production of a specific work about it. The extraordinarily energetic reactions to my film series, “Wonders of the African World,” provide such as an occasion for me to address these issues generally and, more specifically, to respond to questions raised by the distinguished African scholar, Professor Ali Mazrui.”

When the reception was about to end, Professor Teodros Kiros and I were seated and relaxed, and Gates while entertaining his guests pointed unto us and jokingly told the other guests seating nearby, “these two came from Ethiopia!” and soon after Vira came out from her office, saw us and rushed back into her office and came back with a camera to take a picture of us. We were perhaps the best-treated guests throughout the reception and I for one felt very much at home at the W. E. B.  Du Bois Institute.

When I returned back from Cambridge and the Boston area, I watched the first episode of ‘Blacks in Latin America’ of Henry Louis Gates on April 19, 2011. The first episode is about the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two contrasting nations that evolved out of Hispaniola.

I am delighted that Skip Gates’ ‘Black in Latin America’ is out for public consumption, and luckily for me the documentary will visually reinforce one of my popular courses, ‘Politics and Cultures of African People in Africa and the Diaspora’ that I have created for the General Studies Department at Lehman College of the City University of New York (CUNY). The objective of the course is to introduce students to the basic tenets of politics and cultures of the people of African descent in Africa and the Diaspora. The course is designed in such a way that students would be able to explore specific cultures and political parameters of particular African, Latin American, Caribbean, and US societies in due course of class lectures and discussions.

I have no doubt in my mind that my students are going to enjoy the ‘Blacks in Latin America’ series and it is for the following simple reason:

During the brief conversation I had with Skip Gates, I told him (and this is from the bottom of my heart) that I am proud of him and he reaffirmed to me by saying that he is doing his best. Professor Gates has accomplished enormously, but his achievements are our achievements as well (especially for those of us in the academia) because his works (books, documentaries, interviews, and speeches) are remarkable corpus of scholarship enriched by ineluctable facts that are altogether inexorable.

Unlike some self-contained professional discourse, Professor Gates ‘Blacks in Latin America’ is a reconstruction of the history of African people in the Diaspora, and most importantly it is a discussion of the Black experience in a socio-cultural and political contexts that systematically embraces a larger perspective and, in turn, links the context of African Americans (the macro sense of the concept) daily encounter with the distant past of their cultural ethos.

‘Blacks in Latin America’ is dynamic and innovative in its presentation of the relevant frameworks and unified synthesis of the history of African presence and experience in the Caribbean and South America. But at times, during his interactive dialogue with scholars and ordinary people alike, Gates seems to capture and encapsulate the subtle nature of race relations in Latin America. For instance, the narrative on how the people of the Dominican Republic identify themselves is a shocking revelation. Although the learned men and women or the politically conscious segment of the population acknowledge their black heritage, a significant majority suffers from deracination. This is not simply a “double consciousness” psychological makeup á la Du Bois; it is a total negation of African ancestry and an attempt to obliterate black consciousness and identity. In a word, Negritude is dead in the Dominican Republic and it seems to thrive in Haiti.

We at IDEA like to invite all students at all levels and scholars and academics all over to watch ‘Blacks in Latin America,’ which could serve as a companion educational film to relevant subject matters in the academia. The documentary has a tremendous amount of information and it makes a systematic survey of the generic borderland of race relations in the Americas. It is also a well-synchronized synthesis of the Black life (their ordeal and achievements) and a demystification of the stereotype on people of African descent in the Western hemisphere. It is in effect a break away from the present dominant ideology that negatively portrays Africans without completely losing touch from the past.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2011. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia is Adjunct Associate Professor of African Studies at Lehman College of CUNY and Professor of International Studies at the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and he can be reached for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org