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African scholar's interpretation of Africa raises hackles

The Africans: A Commentary by Ali A. Mazrui PBS, Tuesdays, 9-10 p.m. for nine weeks, check local listings. Writer and presenter: Ali A. Mazrui. Producers: Peter Bate and Timothy Copestake. A coproduction of WETA/Washington, D.C., and the BBC. ``The West arrived in Africa with a bang; our soil is still recoiling with a whimper,'' says Ali A. Mazrui in Part IV of ``The Africans.''

But neither in the controversial series nor in person is there any sign of whimpering on the part of this Kenya-born professor of political science. Instead there is fury, protest, poetic but pointed analysis, defiance -- and predictions of a better, black-dominated world to come.

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Even before the series begins airing in America (it has already been seen in England), there is bitter controversy: Why such kind and gentle treatment of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, critics ask. Why such harsh treatment of the Western influences on Africa? Why a condemnation of the West for taking slaves when there is barely any criticism of the Arab world for similar practices? Why concentrate on the problems of the new Africa instead of focusing more on the glories of the continent's pre-colonial past?

The criticism comes from all sides. Lynne Cheney, who chairs the National Endowment for the Humanities, which provided $600,000 of the program's $3.5 million budget, calls the series an ``anti-Western diatribe.'' Accuracy in Media and the National Conservative Foundation label the show ``an insidious attack on the Western democracies.'' From the opposite end of the spectrum, the Coalition Against Black Exploitation in Los Angeles charges that the series will fuel latent racism in America by probing too deeply into Africa's problems.

PBS, for its part, insists that the series clearly represents one man's viewpoint and that he should be free to state what he believes.

After previewing four episodes of the series, I tend to agree somewhat with each of those criticisms.

Dr. Mazrui [interviewed next page] explores the three legacies of Africa, what he calls ``the triple heritage'' -- African, Western, Islamic. Perhaps his own Islamic background (his father was chief Islamic judge of appeal in Kenya) explains his tendency to view many influences as ``contributed'' by Islam but ``imposed'' by the West. The Arab slave trade, from Mazrui's perspective, was mainly a pretext for Western intervention in Africa. Ironically, Mazrui complains that often the West generalizes about Africa, as he goes about generalizing about the West.

Starting with the powerful influence of Africa's ecology in Part I, the series goes on to investigate the role of the family in the continent's lifestyle; the Africanization of Christianity and Islam; exploitation during the colonial period; current political, social, and economic conflicts in African nations; successful and unsuccessful independent African nations; problems of technology and corruption; the clash of cultures, and the continent in today's world context. There seems to be an honest attempt to cover all aspects of emerging Africa.

It is in the final episode, ``The Global World,'' that some of Mazrui's opinions have antagonized previewers. ``America tried to teach black Americans to be ashamed of Africa,'' he states boldly. Blacks, unlike other hyphenated Americans, by dint of being brought to America as slaves, were ``denied the right to nostalgia'' about their place of origin, he says. ``There were Irish-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Polish-Americans -- and there were Negroes,'' he says. But then he adds inconsistently, ``Forget you are African; remember you are black.''

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``The Africans'' does just what it sets out to do:present Africa through the eyes of one outspoken African scholar. It is sometimes irritating and argumentative, sometimes biased and opinionated. But it is always bold and provocative. You may find yourself challenging many of Dr. Mazrui's interpretations of history, but the series will undoubtedly challenge your own thinking about Africa, race, and Western democracy.

PBS attempted to defuse controversy over the show by changing its title from ``The Africans'' to ``The Africans: A Commentary by Ali A. Mazrui.''

Suzanne Weil, PBS's senior vice-president for programming, told the Monitor: ``Our first concern is respect for the audience, to see that the subject matter is handled as fairly as possible. And in cases where it may not be fair, to see to it that it is clearly labeled where it is coming from. We want the person responsible to have the proper qualifications.

``We do not set out to stir people up, but we do accept the fact that people are not harmed by listening to concepts with which they may disagree. I would hope there will be other views of Africa on PBS as time goes on. As long as we are being criticized from all sides, I feel we must be doing something right.''

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