Bits & Pieces of a 2006 Lecture by Prexy Nesbitt to a Northeastern University “Teaching Teachers to Teach Africa Seminar” (Evanston, Illinois)
Historically, and even to the present, “Africa” is an unknown entity for most Americans. It was never that way for me. Long before I physically landed in Africa, my family had talked to all of us children about Africa. As we were weaned, we learned of our great uncles who had been avid followers of Marcus Garvey- one of them may even have had a membership in Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association(UNIA). My father and aunts took me to listen to W.E.B. DuBois lectures. I can recall feeling my father’s great pride as we stood watching Mayor Richard Daley host Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first President, on his official visit to Chicago. I yet have a book report I authored about Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country which I must have written only days after the book’s appearance when I was but a seventh grader. I grew up with Africa as a known family member.
But for most Americans “Africa” is perceived and discussed as one country, an undifferentiated tropical, steamy land mass consisting of Egypt and South Africa. And in its most exotic application the word is used as much as a verb as a noun. If US citizens know anything at all, it is usually a negative point. Actor Sidney Poitier emphatically makes this same point in his autobiography, This Life (1980), when he discusses his first filming trip to Kenya and how fearful he was anticipating Africa’s snakes. He was under the impression that snakes would be every where and that he would have to leap out of bed every hour searching for the snakes! Asking himself where did all those impressions come from, he answers, “… it arose from the whole mythology of Africa found in Western literature, that characterized it as wild, primitive, infested with dangerous animals.” Answering the same question, Poitier probes his own thoughts more deeply and asserts:
(Also)…let’s (not) let off the hook all those dumb-ass Tarzan movies, and the white hunter Bwana movies, in which lions, elephants And alligators are always chasing the hapless African gun bearer up a Baobab tree, and the most sinister purveyors of African culture, the Jungle Jim-type comic strips that represented the initial exposure of many black American children to “what it must be like in Africa.”
The roots of these attitudes and others like them are very deep. A 1990 special edition of Africa News noted that the inaugural issue of the popular monthly, National Geographic magazine of 1889 featured an article by the magazine’s founder which asserted a view yet prevalent in the USA, namely that African people only developed a degree of “civilization” after being contacted by representatives of Western culture. Cut off that contact and primordial barbarism surges forward.
Much of what is known about Africa in the United States consists of images. African-born, Asian journalist George Alagiah pointed out in the July/August, 2000 issue of the New African magazine that “for most people who get their view of the world from TV…Africa is a far away place where good people go hungry, bad people run government and chaos and anarchy are the norm. Most Americans today yet subscribe to nineteenth century explorer John Speke’s stereo-typical description of African men as working their wives, selling their children, enslaving all they can and, (otherwise) contenting themselves with drinking, singing and dancing like a baboon to drive dull cares away.”(New African, July/August, 2000) Another rendition of the same motif in the minds of many today is that all African men are just sitting around waiting to pass on their HIV viruses to young African women (and any others foolish enough to relate to them).
For centuries words like “gold coast,” “ivory coast,”“diamondland,” “cocoaville,” “coppertown,” conveyed the impression that Africa existed solely and simply to provide raw materials and commodities for the West. School textbooks, travel writings, films and theater, childrens literature, especially comic books, all conveyed the impression of a continent abounding with gold, ivory, oil, rubber and other wealthy raw materials while teeming with ignorant savages incapable of utilizing the riches of their lands.
In 1955 renown author, John Gunther, a regular contributor to the Reader’s Digest and creator of the “Inside” series from Harper and Row, finished a major tome on Africa entitled Inside Africa. While it contributed to making Africa less “mysterious” for the average American reader, it also reproduced basic bigoted views about Africans and their beliefs and desires. Distinguishing between the “more advanced American Negroes,” and Africans, Gunther advances some perspectives that could easily have come from his contemporaries like Joel Chandler Harris and Governor George Faubus. For instance, in the opening chapter, Gunther states:
I like Africans but they are not easy to know or get along with. The friendlier a European (or American) is, the more suspicious the African may be. It is often a risk for an African to be friendly. Some have a strong note of childishness. They are sometimes truculent, schizophrenic and full of inferiority and insecurity which they may express by Exaggerated superiority. (p.9-10)
Clearly, Gunther did not write out of a desire to transform white American racial attitudes. His was simply a quest to open up a “dark continent.” Gunther was in step with many others since from the earliest days of contact to the present, general white American concern with the African continent has not been derived from strong and identifiable humanitarian instincts. Rather, it has grown out of a type of exoticism fixation and/or out of base and materialistic thirsts for King Solomon’s mines, for Africa’s “hidden treasures.”
Then, with the end of slavery, the slave trade and de-colonization, the images change to reflect new constructs, new roles that are intended for Africans and Africa. For example, a recent image of Africa projected in a US fashion magazine was a photo of a head chopped off sitting on a dining room table with the caption,’a too familiar sight.’ This imaging fits entirely with the presentation of the African continent as having nothing to offer but violence and conflict.
Magazines like Time, Newsweek, Harper’s in the United States and Europe have played a leading role in shaping how people throughout the world, including in Africa itself, feel and think about Africa and Africans. The prestigious British magazine, the Economist (May, 2000),for example, editorialized recently that while poverty, wars, government-sponsored thuggery, floods and pestilence were not exclusively African “since brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere, African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.”
I believe that an enhanced knowledge of the African continent, its history, culture and politics better enables us to more fully understand the United States, especially its various citizens of African origins. Moreover it is my belief that in better understanding Africa, we better understand ourselves. Ignorance of Africa and the detrimental ways that Africa has been taught in the United States is intimately linked to the patterns of racism that so deeply permeate and shape American society.