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Africa in the American Imagination

A photograph displays red posters with the text
Kony 2012 posters on a Washington, DC fence, viewed from the National Mall looking east towards the Capitol. Source: Uncommon fritillary via Wikimedia commons

One of the charms of Africa for Americans has long been its purported blankness. The two most influential interpreters of the continent never set foot in it: Edgar Rice Burroughs and Marcus Garvey. Starting in the 1910s, Tarzan novels and films depicted an Africa in which a great white man raised by apes was morally and physically superior to any of his black counterparts. His most noble companions and fearsome adversaries were, respectively, animals and Europeans. Garvey, operating at about the same time, directly contested this racist point of view and through his highly popular Universal Negro Improvement Association posited Africa as a homeland for the black diaspora. But he, too, seemed little interested in Africans and spoke of the vast, diverse, and complex continent, “as if it were a little island in the Caribbean Sea,” as fellow Jamaican-American Claude McKay put it (p. 20). A diverse range of American men, especially, have for the past century been much more interested in Africa’s animals and vistas than its people, though Africans have increasingly contested their romantic quests.

The white adventurers who started making pilgrimages to East Africa early in the twentieth century treated the “boys” who supported their expensive safaris as interchangeable brutes, save for the occasional gun-bearer, such as Stewart Edward White’s Memba Samba, whose extreme devotion and loyalty to “the [white] superman” set them apart (27). Legendary taxidermist Carl Akeley and pioneering filmmaker Martin Johnson posited and presented a less bloody Africa but also found transcendence and meaning in the continent’s animals and vistas rather than its people.

African Americans had a more complicated relationship with Africa and Africans. W.E.B. Du Bois played an instrumental role in the first Pan-African Conference and in the movement’s subsequent growth until his death in Ghana in 1963. Africa was a key component of his African American identity. The widely read journalist George Schuyler denied Africa’s relevance for black life and skewered Du Bois for his unwillingness to confront the cruelties of Liberia’s black elite. Langston Hughes in 1923 grappled more personally with particular black Africans than did Du Bois or Schuyler. The light-skinned poet was dismayed to find that black Africans laughed at his assertion of racial solidarity. But Africa taught Hughes vivid lessons about racism and colonialism, and he remained engaged with its cultures.

American women tended to associate more directly with Africans than did their male counterparts, though they tended to focus on traditional rather than more modern Africans. Delia Akeley, after her divorce, undertook an expedition among the Congo’s Pygmies. Widely published missionary Jean Kenyon Mackenzie lyrically celebrated the courage and gracefulness of Kameroon women, friends who taught her to become, “in spite of my blood, . . . something more like a lady” (51). Radical African American Eslanda Goode Robeson during her 1930s anthropological research in Uganda was also impressed by its “delightful, intelligent, companionable” women (63).

Black African independence movements by the mid-1950s made it much more difficult to posit an Africa without Africans. Articles on Africa in mainstream publications such as Reader’s Digest and Life became both much more common and complimentary toward Africans. Even Tarzan had admirable black friends by the decade’s close. Robert Ruark, the most widely read American interpreter of Africa in this period, realized that African independence would ruin “my paradise” of sublime safaris populated by brave white hunters and happy black servants (90). Black Americans expressed much more enthusiasm over this new Africa. Ebony, the publication of the growing black bourgeois, celebrated African modernity, and by the time of Ghana’s independence in 1957 black liberation movements in the U.S. and African seemed in concert. Maya Angelou and other “Revolutionary Returnees” did not find the socialist haven they had sought in Ghana in the 1960s and were often discomfited to find that black Africans did not share their racial definitions; by the decade’s close Pan-Africanism’s de-politicized cousin, Afrocentrism, posited more symbolic expressions of black solidarity (166). Alex Haley’s wildly successful novel Roots and the subsequent mini-series popularized the concept of Africa as a black motherland in the 1970s.

By the twentieth century’s closing decades, white Americans widely regarded black independence as a disaster. It had become the “Third World of the ‘Third Word,” as Time put it, a place of famine, war, and desperation—the ideal staging point of idiosyncratic existential white quests (188). Novelists such as Lawrence Sanders, William Harrison, and Philip Caputo posited a stark, bloody, often sexualized landscape in which solitary white male protagonists sought redemption through extreme adventure.

American women expressed a more sociable Africa. Early in the 1960s Peace Corps Volunteers had begun going to Africa hoping to spread and express American idealism and good will. Africa commonly chastened and deepened them. Roberta Warrick, under the pen name of Maria Thomas, created stories characterized by dense, often tragic but occasionally warm intercultural relationships. Gloria Naylor, Paule Marshall, and Toni Morrison wrote African American fiction deeply informed by African culture and sensibility, a sort of deep Afrocentrism of shared suffering and redemption.

Two trends collided by the twenty-first century’s outset. Celebrities spearheaded a resurgence of interest in Africa by depicting the continent as an abject canvas on which to demonstrate American compassion and virtue. But black Africans inside and outside of Africa have more commonly contested this point of view. African scholars criticized Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s “Wonders of the African World” TV series for being African American-centric. The cosmopolitan and acerbic Teju Cole coined the term “White Savior Industrial Complex” to skewer paternalistic white American enterprises such as Invisible Children’s viral video “KONY 2012,” whose popularity was soon blunted by a chorus of African critiques of its naïve and offensive portrayal of African conflicts and people, respectively (296). South African comedian Trevor Noah, well known even before becoming the host of “The Daily Show,” skewered Oprah Winfrey’s opulent South African school.

By the 2010s, more Americans than ever before were hearing about Africans from Africans. Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels and classic TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” presented Africans as varied, complex people who defied American stereotypes. Disney, ordinarily a reliable purveyor of hoary African stereotypes, in 2016 presented the “Queen of Katwe” a major movie featuring not a single major white character while aptly reflecting the joys and challenges of African life. Certainly this achievement owed much to the fact that executive vice president of production Tendo Nagenda and director Mira Nair were born or had long lived in Uganda.

To be sure, Africa remains a place in which white Americans, especially, can readily imagine themselves to be special and virtuous. A wide gap in standards of living and deeply embedded assumptions about white and western superiority still inform every interaction. The Legend of Tarzan, 2016, tried to give us a heroic Tarzan without embodying Burroughs’s racism. But a uniquely virtuous white man remained at the center of this story set in Africa.

The creation of fictional and actual interactions between Americans and Africans characterized by collaboration and respect still requires unspooling deeply held assumptions of white, western, and American superiority.

All references are from: Peterson del Mar, David. African, American: From Tarzan to Dreams from My Father—Africa in the US Imagination. London: Zed, 2017.

David Peterson del Mar is an Associate Professor of History at Portland State University. African, American is his seventh book. He is the President of Yo Ghana!, a nonprofit devoted to helping youth in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest to educate, encourage, and inspire each other.