1Changing Our Mind About Africa
Most of us who are Americans know little about Africa.1
We don’t even know basic facts about the continent: that Africa’s 11.7 million square miles make it larger than China, the United States, India, most of Europe, Argentina, and New Zealand combined. Or that its 1.2 billion inhabitants speak up to 2,000 languages. In fact, many Americans think of Africa not as a continent but as one country. We might have studied Africa for a few weeks in school or glanced occasionally at newspaper headlines about genocide, AIDS, Ebola, or civil war, but rarely have we actually thought seriously about Africa. If we do want to learn about Africa, it is difficult to find ample and accurate information in our popular media such as television and newspapers. Africa and its people are simply a marginal part of American consciousness.
Africa is, however, very much a part of the American subconscious. Ironically, although we know little about Africa, we carry strong mental images of the continent. Once you begin to notice, you find that Africa appears in the American public space quite frequently. Although it may not figure often in the news, it shows up in advertising, movies, amusement parks, cartoons, and many other corners of our society. And although most Americans do not possess many facts about Africa, we do “know” certain general truths about the continent. We know, for example, that Africans belong to tribes. And we know that Africa is a place of famine, disease, poverty, coups, and large wild animals.
General images are useful and perhaps necessary for our collective consciousness. We can’t know everything about the world, so we have to lump some things into big categories that are convenient if lacking detail. Life is too short for most of us to become experts on more than a couple of subjects. Thus, these images help us to organize Africa’s place in our collective mind. A war in Congo? A drought in Ethiopia? Ah, yes, that’s more of the “African trouble” category. Elephants being used in a commercial? Yes, wouldn’t it be fun to have an elephant wash your car? There are lots of large animals living in the wilds of Africa, aren’t there?
If our general categories are reasonably accurate, they help us navigate our complex world. If, however, they are inaccurate, these categories can be both dangerous and exploitative. If, for example, we are wrong about Africa’s supposed insignificance, we will be blindsided by political, environmental, or
even medical events that affect how we survive. Or, if we think of Africa only as a place of trouble, a large zoo, or a storehouse of strategic minerals, rather than as a place where real people live real lives, we will likely be willing to exploit the continent for our own purposes. France’s former president François Mitterrand demonstrated this possibility graphically when, speaking to his staff in the early 1990s about Rwanda, he noted that “in some countries, genocide is not really important.”2
Although in the short term the exploitation of Africa might help France or us, in the long term the planet’s society and environment will pay dearly for our failure to care.
Anyone who wants to study Africa in depth needs to learn African languages, because language is the major key to understanding how people mentally organize the world around them. Likewise, anyone who wants to understand Americans must examine the words Americans know and use. You can begin to discover American ideas about Africa by trying some free association with the word Africa. Ask yourself what words come to mind when you hear Africa. Be aware that this is not the time to “clean up your act” and impress yourself with your political correctness. Rather, search for the words your society has given you to describe Africa, some of which will seem positive, some negative, and some neutral.
Our students have helped us create lists of words that come to mind using this exercise. Within a few minutes, a class frequently generates 30 or 40 words that Americans associate with Africa. Native, hut, warrior, shield, tribe, terrorist, savage, cannibals, jungle, pygmy, barbarian, pagan, voodoo, and witch doctor are commonly associated with “traditional” Africa. “Tourism words” include safari, wild animals, elephant, lion, and pyramid. There are also “news words,” including coup, poverty, ignorance, drought, famine, tragedy, and tribalism. And then there is a group of “change words” (indicating Western-induced change), such as development, foreign aid, peacekeeping, and missionary. Occasionally, a really honest person will come up with “racist words” he or she has heard, like Moorish whore, towel-head, spear chucker, or jungle bunny.
Although some American words might be positive—kinship, wisdom
, or homeland
—the overwhelming impression gained from studying American language about Africa is that Africa is a primitive place, full of trouble and wild animals, and in need of our help. Regrettably, there still exist many popular and widely held misconceptions of Africa. Internet sites such as Global Citizen, goAfrica, and Aperian Global provide lists of the typical misconceptions about Africa such as the following:3
- Africa is just one large country.
- Africa is poor and disease ridden.
- Africa is technologically backward.
- Africans all live in huts.
- Africa needs aid to help it “develop.”
- Africans all speak “African” and share the same culture.
- Africa is filled with dangerous animals.
- Africa is dangerous and violent.
- Africa is mostly jungle.
- Egypt is not truly African.
- Africa has no history.
- African women are all oppressed.4
The messages that perpetuate such impressions pervade American culture. They are ideas that have deep roots in American history as well as strong branches that entwine our daily lives. At one time in our history, most of white America did not even consider Africans to be equal as humans! By comparison, today’s understanding is positively enlightened. Yet historical misperception, ignorance, stereotype, and myth still cast shadows upon our thinking. Once you begin to look for them, you see inaccurate portrayals of Africa that reproduce the blatant old images in subtler, modernized versions. In fact, a worthwhile exercise is to ask yourself where the words listed above have come from. Home? School? Church? Friends? Television? Newspapers? Magazines? Movies? Books? Amusement parks? It is difficult to get complete and balanced views of Africa in everyday American life. This topic will be discussed further in Chapter 2
This book investigates the histories of our inaccurate and stereotypical words and ideas and suggests alternatives. For example, Africans are sometimes referred to in everyday America as “natives.” You may or may not think that native is a negative word, but its use is a legacy of the colonial period in Africa, when words were weapons employed by outsiders to keep Africans in their place. In the first part of the twentieth century, most Americans believed that Africans could be (indeed, should be) subjugated because they were primitives, natives. The problem is not the term itself, however. The first dictionary definition of native is someone who belongs originally to a place. Thus, “He is a native of Boston” is a neutral and acceptable use of the word. We also use native in a positive political way in the term Native American, which implies that an American Indian has rights and connections that go beyond those belonging to the rest of us who are more recent immigrants. But the term African native evokes a negative connotation, whether intended or not, that is a holdover from its colonial meanings of primitive, savage, or unenlightened. Why can we think of Africans as natives, but never the Chinese? The answer is that we have long thought of Africans as primitive and the Chinese as civilized. Today, even when we intend no insult to Africans, we have these leftover phrases and connotations that get in the way of conceiving of Africans as real people like ourselves.
You can get around the African native and native African problem in a number of ways. For example, if you are referring to an African living in a rural area, you can say “a rural African.” If you mean someone who is an inhabitant of Africa, just say “an African.” If you mean someone who belongs to the Kikuyu ethnic group, use the words “a Kikuyu.” These phrases are more precise and therefore less likely to create images that evoke stereotypes. And, to avoid even a hint of insult, you might steer clear of phrases like “He is a native of Kenya,” which in most other contexts would be neutral but in the African context might elicit musings on whether you are referring to the stereotype.
The Use and Misuse of Stereotypes
In an ideal world, we would abandon our stereotypes about Africa and learn to deal with Africans as they really are. Human cognition does not allow this, however. Everybody stereotypes. And we do it about practically everything. The reason for this is, first of all, that we are biologically wired to try to make sense of reality, even when it makes no particular sense. Whether through science, history, literature, religion, or whatever, humans strive to understand and categorize what is in front of them. We also stereotype because it is virtually impossible to know everything that is going on in reality, and therefore we are bound to base our judgments on partial information. Moreover, we often use ideas provided by our culture instead of investigating things for ourselves. If our culture has a premade picture of reality for us, we are likely to accept it. One way to think about this is to invert the notion “seeing is believing,” making it “believing is seeing.” Once we “know” something through our culture, we tend to fit new information into the old categories rather than change the system of categorization.
To say that we inevitably use stereotypes is really to say that we use mental models to think about reality. But the word stereotype
also implies that some models are so limiting that they deform reality in ways that are offensive, dangerous, or ridiculous. An example is Cherie Booth, a women’s rights champion and the wife of the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, while speaking at an event, told the audience, “Most African ladies’ first sexual experience is rape.”5
Thus we need to strive to make our mental models as accurate as possible. We should, for example, study African art, history, literature, philosophy, politics, culture, and the like so we can differentiate among Africans. We should also ask ourselves whether we cling to inaccurate models of Africa because they shore up our self-image or allow us to do things otherwise unthinkable.
Following are brief discussions that explore different reasons for the persistence of our misconceptions about Africa. Later in the book we offer extended discussions of many of these topics.
Leftover Racism and Exploitation
During much of American history, a large majority of Americans considered racist beliefs and exploitation of Africa acceptable. Racism, according to one definition, is
Although the United States never ruled colonies in Africa, Americans did enslave Africans and maintain both a slavery system and segregation. Moreover, we profited from our businesses in Africa, sent missionaries to change African culture, and did not protest the colonization undertaken by Europeans. This exploitation of Africa, whether direct or indirect, required thinking about Africans as inferiors. In other words, our culture has had a lot of practice, hundreds of years of it, in constructing Africa as inferior. The legacy of racism is obvious in the words and ideas we call to mind when we hear the word Africa.
Our legacy of negativity poses a question: can we attribute a major portion of our modern stereotypes about Africa to our just not having gotten around to changing the myths we inherited from our racist and imperialist past? Perhaps we no longer need most of these myths, but they persist because only a few decades have passed since the end of the colonial period and it has been a similarly brief amount of time since the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Support for this view comes from the fact that African independence and the civil rights movement made it increasingly unacceptable for news reporters and commentators to use the most blatantly negative of the words we once associated with race and with Africa. Likewise, schoolbooks are vastly improved in their treatment of Africa. One could argue that with greater sensitivity to the issue and more time, Americans will change. To put this idea another way, shouldn’t we give Americans the benefit of the doubt and assume that most people do not consciously intend to exploit or misrepresent Africa? We believe that we should. Still, racist ideas about Africa persist, such as the 2018 comment by President Donald Trump who called African countries, “shithole countries” and opined that once Africans (Nigerians) came to the United States they would never go back to their “huts.”7
We are assuming that most readers are not intentionally racist, because people who are probably wouldn’t read this k...