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“Wonders of the African World” by Henry Louis Gates Essay

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Updated: Dec 9th, 2020

  • Who is Henry Louis Gates and why did he travel to Ghana? (identify two reasons)
    • Henry Louis Gates is an American historian, filmmaker, and critic who investigates the history of African Americans. His two reasons for traveling to Ghana were the investigation of a history of slavery in Africa and an understanding of his roots and his ancestors.
  • What is his planned itinerary?
    • Elmina (Cape Coast) – Kumasi (the Ashante Kingdom) – Abomey (the Dahomey Kingdom) – the Ouidah Coast.
  • Why does he describe himself as typical of African-Americans?
    • Gates believes he is a typical African American of his generation. He is obsessed with tracing his roots and African history. His great-great-grandmother was one of those African slaves who were brought from the coast to the new world.
  • What were African-Americans hoping for when they returned to Africa in the 1960s upon the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah? In what ways might they have been disappointed?
    • It was a ticket for many Africans to return to their home, live, and avoid American racism, being surrounded by the blacks. They threw their passports out into the ocean, but the next day they wanted these passports back and went away. The memories of slavery and an understanding of what their ancestors came through could not be neglected.
  • Why does Gates describe Elmina slave castle as “our Auschwitz”?
    • The comparison with “Auschwitz” was based on the fact that about 150-200 women had to stay in a tinny room without any furniture for about three months. They had no rights and freedoms, and there was no choice for them in this life.
  • As the camera pans out to explore the slave castle (the door of no return, the exterior facade, etc), how do you feel? Why?
    • The slave castle, including the door of no return and the exterior façade, causes negative emotions and even fear. It was hard and painful to realize that millions of Africans had to be there where suicide was the only chance to become free.
  • According to the documentary, how did European slave traders justify their brutality? And what was the role of Africans in the slave trade?
    • The justification was closely connected to Christianity and other religious beliefs. Selling people was hard, and it was necessary to turn off their humanity to complete their mission. The role of Africans was severe because they had to find and enslaved their people and give them to European traders.
  • How does the historian describe the Ashante kingdom at the time of the European slave trade?
    • The Ashante Kingdom was powerful and bigger than the British Empire region. The king had to give his permission to reach the coast. Soldiers were ready to protect their land against invaders anytime.
  • What is the role of the Queen Mother in contemporary Ghanaian society?
    • The Queen Mother is defined as the mother of all children and all people in modern Ghana. She allows marriages and controls all family traditions as a leading figure among the Ghanaian people.
  • When you watch this scene with the Queen mother, what social customs do you notice to show courtesy & politeness? (identify two)
    • There was no hurry or pride in the scene with the Queen Mother. Each visitor could have a seat in front of her, and people do respect this woman by giving her a hand while walking. She does not demonstrate any emotions but listens carefully and answers questions (not directly but via a servant). She is polite when she allows shaking and even kissing her hands.
  • What comparisons can you draw between this singing performance and our reading of Sunjata?
    • Similar to the reading of Sunjata, the singing performance is available to all people. The singers tell the story and use music on the background to set the tone. Although people around are probably aware of the song and the story, they attentively listen and sing along without interrupting the singer.
  • Why does Gates go shopping for Kente Cloth? What surprising cultural differences do you observe related to shopping in the market? (identify two differences from the kind of shopping you are used to)
    • Gates has to buy some clothes to be more appropriate for his participation in the royal ceremony. Compared to a modern shopping experience, the traditions of Ghanaians differ. First, there is no order, definite prices, or classification of goods, so food and clothes can be found in the same places. Second, rich people do not usually visit Kente Cloth and send their servants.
  • Describe the royal ceremony – what is going on? Why does it end early?
    • The royal ceremony aims to honor the ancestors and appreciate history. The whole city gathers and walks the streets with their chiefs sitting on special constructions being carried by their servants. People enjoy this tradition but has to give up this time early because of the rain.
  • Gates seems critical of his last interviewee – why?
    • An understanding that Africans sold each other to gain profits and survive made Gates critical in his last interview. The fact that many people had to live and be treated like animals or even worse frustrates the historian. He realizes but refuses to believe that inequality and fear are still present in Ghana.
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IvyPanda. 2020. ""Wonders of the African World" by Henry Louis Gates." December 9, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/wonders-of-the-african-world-by-henry-louis-gates/.

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