Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, was made commander of the National Order of Benin by the president of Benin, Mathieu Kerekou, in a June ceremony in Cotonou. President Kerekou also conferred honorary citizenship upon Gates. These honors recognized his work in editing the “Encarta Africana” CD-ROM and The Africana Encyclopedia, and his exploration of African civilization in the BBC program and book “Wonders of the African World.”
In his remarks to the University of Benin, where Gates was awarded an honorary doctoral degree, Gates commended President Kerekou for his candor in exploring the African role in the slave trade that depopulated West Africa and forced approximately 12 million men, women, and children into bondage – a theme that Gates explored in his film series.
Gates also called on the U.S. government to accept its own responsibility to address the legacy of slavery. While he is sympathetic to the ongoing debate over reparations, and particularly to the proposals outlined by Professor Charles Ogletree of the Harvard Law School, he suggested that in the short term, reparations can be effectively linked to the urgent need to provide vigorous American assistance to the Global Fund against AIDS recently proposed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Specifically, Gates urged the Bush administration to commit $2 billion to the annual fund, and he asked African Americans to support the cause in recognition of their historic ties to Africa. Gates also advocates accelerated debt relief, as outlined by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard, as another form of reparations for the effects of the slave trade.