Just So Stories: Stories We Tell About Africa (And Those We Don’t)
Perhaps more than any other part of the world, outsiders have tended to treat sub-Saharan Africa as a blank canvas on which to project their own hopes and fears, logics and irrationalities. For 150 years, since the first British and American adventurers and missionaries began visiting Africa and reporting back home on what they saw, visitors have tended to tell a cluster of stories about Africa and Africans that often, if not always, share common traits. During the Atlantic slave trade and the subsequent plunder of Africa through European colonial rule—in short, from the 1600s to the 1950s, a span of 350 years—storytellers tended to portray Africans badly for a complex set of reasons, which included using stories about Africans as a means of justifying their own errant behaviors and values.
Since the wave of de-colonization and political independence a half-century ago, the narratives about black Africa and its people have hardly changed. A set of five “master narratives” continue to dominate the global conversation about the continent, overwhelming efforts to create new images of the region, and impoverishing the global conversation about Africa, its people and the relationship of the sub-Saharan to the rest of the world. This essay aims to describe the five master narratives whose very persistence belies the notion that it is possible to really see Africa, its people and cultures clearly, if at all. Africans themselves are influenced by the five master narratives, which exert a powerful force on even those storytellers determined to ignore, subvert or transcend them. For Americans, whose special relationship with Africa arises partly from the history of the Atlantic slave trade and the sometimes difficult and always passionate relations between African Americans and their motherland, the master narratives matter. Because the stories we tell about Africa are unsound, the judgments we make about Africa are unsound too. And not only literary and artistic judgments. Stories helps us make sense of the world and our place in it. The stories we tell about Africa mislead us so profoundly as to overwhelm well-intended efforts to become more informed or discerning about the authentic Africa, the genuine Africa. These misunderstandings, borne of explorations in the African imaginary, have real-world consequences, however elusive.
The master narratives about Africa are inevitably political; art about Africa and Africans, especially art created by non-Africans, inevitably becomes intertwined with the historical use and abuse of the African imaginary. The political entanglements of literary artists engaged with African affairs are complicated by the emergence of a new humanitarianism, which presents African problems as a litmus for the moral capacity of wealthy societies to respond to the plight of less fortunate souls around the world. Just as the response to the genocide against the Jews defined the contours of conscience following World War II, so today does the engagement with Africa define the moral condition of the developed world. Because the engagement with Africa is a test, often narratives about the region and its people are consciously fabricated and fantastic; bad means are justified by good ends. Master narratives from a century ago have been revived and renovated, aimed at generating vast global audiences, with lies and distortions rationalized as part of what the storytellers themselves view as a legitimate “campaign” to help liberate Africans from various maladies—from disease, bad leaders, environmental hazards, wars and other menaces we’ve come to associate with the region. These “progressive,” or developmental, storytellers have even gone so far as to willfully ignore or distort African realities in order to tell the worst stories possible—and thus attract the greatest possible support, financial or moral or otherwise, for “saving” Africans. Such stories that diminish or degrade Africans have been justified (though rarely publicly) as necessary; for without such stories—true or not, exaggerated or strictly accurate—it is believed that people around the world would not express sympathy for the plight of needy Africans.
My survey concentrates on five master narratives about Africa and Africans. The persistence, force and appeal of these narratives greatly influence what is said and written about Africa and its people by outsiders and even by Africans themselves. To understand why the sub-Saharan and its people remain misunderstood—why they remain props for an epic theater performed by the rest of humanity—these “master narratives” are essential. And because these narratives are themselves constructions, they can be reconstructed.
THE FIRST FICTION
The root of all fictions about Africa is the name itself.
What do storytellers mean when they invoke the name “Africa”? Do they refer to a race of people? A geography? A brand name? Does the term “Africa” obscure more than reveal? Does the label itself carry an embedded narrative that shapes the way stories about “Africa” are received, repeated, deconstructed and reconstructed?
In their excellent African History (2007), John Parker and Richard Rathbone argue that the very ideas of Africa were constructed by non-Africans chiefly for the purpose of creating “an exotic prism through which outsiders, mainly Europeans, refracted images of ‘the other’ and of themselves.”
Parker and Rathbone conclude that, for many European and American storytellers in the 19th and 20th centuries, Africa as exotica—as the epitome of otherness—permitted storytellers to present Africa as a monolith— timeless and uniform, without history or diversity.
“I had a farm in Africa,” writes Isak Dinesen in her memoir, Out of Africa. First published in 1938, Dinesen’s book presents the essence of Africa through the prism of her coffee farm, which was located in the Kenyan highlands. Rather than pretend to tell the story of European plantations and the white settler community in the Great Rift Valley, Dinesen insists that her farm embodies all of Africa. She erases all the many differences among the people and places in this vast continent in order to present a pure, unadulterated core. Her farm, she writes, “was Africa distilled up through 6,000 feet, like the strong and refined essence of a continent.” Repeatedly, throughout her memoir, Dinesen generalizes about the entire continent, even down to the psychology of its inhabitants. “It is not easy to know the Natives,” she observes (and the capitalization is hers), yet knowing them is crucial because, “The Natives were Africa in flesh and blood.”
Dinesen should not be viewed as merely anachronistic. Trading on the “Africa” brand name is a commonplace. In my own memoir, Married to Africa (2009), I invoke the image of a continent in a similar fashion, though in truth I am only married to a single African who is simultaneously Igbo, Nigerian, West African, and (only) finally African. The Africa “brand” appeals to Africans themselves. On his 2007 album, the Senegalese musician, Yousssou N’Dour, sings, “This is Africa calling” in the song “Wake Up,” which obliterates the diversity of sub-Saharan peoples even as it seeks to celebrate it.
How to generalize about Africa, or even whether to do so, is fiercely contested. Anthony Appiah, a Ghanaian-born philosophy professor at Princeton, has argued that the whole concept of Africa is “an invention.” Africa and African-ness are socially and historically constructed concepts, he explains in the opening essay of In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992). Because it is a construction, the idea of Africa can be de-constructed and re-engineered in order to adapt to changing times. In Appiah’s considered view, “Africa” as a unitary concept is suspect—and has always been so. He quotes Edward Blyden, an African American who moved to West Africa in the 19th century, as emphasizing the importance of diversity among Africans—so much diversity, indeed, that “no single definition, however comprehensive, can embrace them all,” Blyden wrote in 1887.
Over the past fifty years, a new appreciation for diversity within Africa has transformed thinking about the sub-Saharan. Yet the recognition of this diversity even now need not preclude gross generalizations. Granta, the British literary magazine, in 2005, entitled a special issue, “The View from Africa,” as if the various writings collected under this rubric came from the same place. Indeed, the issue editor, John Ryle, entitled his introduction to a wonderful collection of writings, “The Many Voices of Africa.” Yet though affirming the notion of diversity, Ryle insists on the unity of the region, insisting that “Africa is part of everyone’s life, whether they know it or not.” And whoever or wherever you are now, Ryle adds, “Africa is where we come from … our ancestral home.”
Ryle’s confusions underscore how the ‘A’-word obscures more than it reveals. “Africa” is itself a meta-narrative in need of deconstruction, a big lie that we cannot live with or, seemingly, without.
THE FOREVER SCRAMBLE
Poor and marginalized, Africa is the uber-victim, the object of a monumental scramble, an inspirer of envy, an elusive El Dorado forever pursued by an exploiter. The pillage of resources—from human beings to minerals to other natural resources—is synonymous with African history. The Atlantic slave trade draws continuing attention from scholars and ordinary people around the world. The scale of the theft of African resources over the centuries continues to have the power to shock. When in the late 19th century European countries shifted their strategy to political control over African resources through colonial partition, the British coined the term “the Scramble for Africa.” The classic story of scramble involves King Leopold of Belgium, who personally controlled the resource-rich Congo. Adam Hochschild’s beautifully-written and acclaimed 1998 history, King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian ruler’s treatment of the Congo a reminder of how history informs storytelling today and how fresh old wounds can seem. The recent rise in commodity prices, especially the value of “exotic” metals and gold, has ignited talk of a new scramble for Africa. The movie Blood Diamonds about civil wars in Sierra Leone fueled by diamond mining and trading, demonstrated the continuing hold of this narrative on storytelling, as did John Le Carré’s 2001 novel The Constant Gardener about pharmaceutical testing and marketing in East Africa.
The scramble narrative has a structure: a foreigner, usually a white European, extracts wealth from African soil, often in a brutal, self-serving and unreflective way. In the updated version, the white foreigner feels guilty about profiting from African suffering and takes action against the very “scramble” system. But the altruist is invariably doomed; the heroic character in Blood Diamonds can save a black friend but not stop the exploitation of resources. The white whistleblower in The Constant Gardener is murdered.
After African independence some 50 years ago, the scramble narrative required updating, since Africans were now nominally controlling their resources. In his 1972 book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, the Afro-Guyanese historian Walter Rodney described an Africa ruined by foreign meddlers, an idea that has enormously influenced both the popular and academic view of African history. According to Rodney, the legacy of “exploitation” distorted the African personality, providing the “true explanation” for “underdevelopment,” which is not economic but rather psychological or even spiritual. “An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonized world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis,” Rodney wrote. “That means that the African himself has doubts about his capacity to transform and develop his natural environment. With such doubts, he even challenges those of his brothers who say that Africa can and will develop through the efforts of its own people.”
Rodney’s version of the scramble narratives has rivals, most notably Things Fall Apart, the best-selling African novel of all time, published in 1958 by Chinua Achebe. Realistic in style and written in spare straight-forward English, it charts the life and times of Okonkwo, a doomed hero who cannot adapt to the changes brought to his land by British colonial rule. Okonkwo’s elaborate sense of honor, dignity and place collide with the presumed pragmatic of the foreign occupier. In the end, Okonkwo disgraces himself in the eyes of his fellow Igbo and violates the rules imposed by outsiders by committing murder. Achebe’s “take” on the familiar scramble story is complex, many-faceted; in short, great art. He once described his motive for telling stories about Africa as an attempt to correct the historical record by showing “that African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty; that they had poetry and, above all, they had dignity.”
Things Fall Apart is thus an important corrective, and even today the novel has the power to open new vistas and shatter conventional ways of thinking. Achebe’s story of a ruined Africa has been re-told in different ways many times in the 50 years since publication. Yet perhaps no other writer has brought together in a single work so many facets of the tragedy of the scramble for Africa. And this scramble continues to this day, led not only by foreign buyers of African resources but international charities and humanitarian aid agencies whose product is benevolence. In the closing scene of Things Fall Apart, Achebe anticipates the new scramble for Africa, a scramble by morally upright outsiders who use Africans as proxies in a fight to gain the moral high ground on questions of international order and equity. Achebe chooses to have Okonkwo hang himself from a tree. A British security force finds his dead body. The Igbo from Okonkwo’s village, following custom, cannot cut the body down, so they ask the British to do this dirty work.
“Why can’t you take him down yourselves?” the leader of the British asks.
“It is against our customs,” one Igbo says. “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life … His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.”
When the British asks whether the villagers can at least bury Okonkwo, he is told, ‘We cannot bury him. Only strangers can.”
Achebe’s evocative fiction prefigures the scramble among foreign-aid groups to find Africans to assist and African institutions to partner with. And as with the task of burying Okonkwo, often Africans cede the messy jobs to outsiders. In Things Fall Apart, Africans even offer to pay the Europeans for handling the burial. Achebe’s counter-narrative suggests a persistent narrative trope: having broken Africa, outsiders must now fix it.
ALWAYS THE DARKNESS
In countless narratives, both fictional and fact-based, Africa germinates threats, the unexplained, the destructive, the incomprehensible and the reprehensible. At the core of African metaphysics, in the ultimate darkness of a jungle that is both real and metaphorical, rational and civilized men turn primal, mad and animalistic, whether imported from distant lands or home-grown sophisticates.
Joseph Conrad famously coined the phrase, “heart of darkness,” bestowing it on a haunting novella, first published in 1902 and drawn from a brief visit he made to the Belgian Congo in 1890. In it a European sailor, Marlow, leads an expedition into “a place of darkness” in order to discover the fate of a mysterious ivory trader. Kurtz, he learns, has fallen prey to (inner and/or outer) demons and degenerated into corruption, rapacity, greed and ultimately self-destruction. In describing his situation to Conrad’s astonished narrator Marlow, Kurtz famously cries out, “The horror! The horror!” This defining moment in the narrative refers as much to the damaged psyches of Europeans as their encounter with the perceived unsettling realities of African life.
Conrad’s depiction of Kurtz has been subjected to conflicting interpretations. Conrad defenders insist Heart of Darkness indicts the European colonial project and exposes the moral failures of the men who carried it out. Critics of Conrad, notably Achebe, say Conrad shared many of the invidious attitudes towards Africans that animated the European exploration and exploitation of Africa. Achebe accuses Conrad of presenting “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor.” Conrad’s error, Achebe insists, arises from “a preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance,” because the real source of darkness is “the breakup of one petty European mind.”
Kurtz, of course, did implode but stories by European adventurers, such as Henry Stanley and Richard Burton, recount Africa as a “testing ground of character,” conclude Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow in their neglected classic, The Africa That Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing about Africa (1970). In the 20th century, many accounts of African safari—most notably, Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa (1935)—present Africa similarly as providing a stage in which cultivated men can discover stylish ways to overcome adversity.
Africans themselves are not immune to leveraging the “darkness” narrative. Two recent novels by young West Africans rely chiefly on the durable notion of Africa as a spawning ground for bestiality. In a short debut novel published in 2005, Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala trades on the image of African child soldiers as youth with little to lose and easily transformed from innocent villagers into cold killers. Iweala, a Nigerian from an elite family who attended Harvard University, describes the inner life of one child soldier. Reviewers praised his insights into depraved African personalities and heard echoes of Conrad; The New York Times described the main character as possessing a “heart of darkness.”
The notion that Africa breeds a special kind of threat and, yet at the same time, presents a special opportunity for good works and redemption is a persistent literary trope, powerful enough to overwhelm any set of facts, or fictions. To Toni Morrison, surveying literature about Africa over the 100 years ending in the 1950s, “literary Africa…was an exhaustible playground for tourists and foreigners. In the novels and stories of Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, whether imbued with or struggling against conventional Western views of benighted Africa, their protagonists found the continent as empty as the collection plate—a vessel waiting for whatever copper and silver imagination was pleased to place there.” In Morrison’s view Africa was “accommodatingly mute, conveniently blank.” For her, darkness was only part of the narrative. “In novel after novel, short story after short story,” she has observed, “Africa was simultaneously innocent and corrupting, savage and pure, irrational and wise.”
Some of the most visible stories about Africa today are about Americans or Europeans expending a great deal of time and money helping Africans. These stories are partly compelling because they feature celebrities (Bono, Madonna, Angelina, Oprah) or the very successful (Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Pierre Omidyar, Bill Clinton). They also possess appeal because they show the redemptive side of people and implicitly carry a universal message: we are all in this together.
Stories about Americans and Europeans helping Africans inevitably carry echoes of the 19th century notion of “the white man’s burden.” One of the justifications for colonialism and the carving up of African territory by European powers was that Africans would benefit from what Andrew Mwenda, a Uganda writer, sneeringly calls “the saving hand of the West.” Indeed, efforts to save Africans—whether to save their souls through religious conversion, or their minds through education, or their bodies through medical and famine relief—were often based on a belief in African inferiority and Western superiority. Colonialism would bring improvements and thus, as Rudyard Kipling wrote famously in 1898, represented “the white man’s burden” to assist the less fortunate.
Kipling’s poem, written in 1899 following the American annexation of the Philippines and then sent to President Theodore Roosevelt, is worth reading. The poem, which was published in the influential McClure’s Magazine, frankly urges America’s best and brightest to embrace the “burden” of assisting needy peoples in faraway places:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child…
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Ye dare not stoop to less—
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.
Kipling’s poem views the recipients of Western assistance, whether Africans or Asians, as inferior to those giving the assistance. Today’s stories about Americans helping people around the world aren’t justified in terms of American superiority but the belief that the well-off have an obligation to help the less fortunate remains central to narratives arising from the impulse to aid faraway peoples, especially Africans.
The main rationales for this assistance are presented in the cluster of “help them” narratives, for example that problems in Africa are so glaring—brutality, disease, famine, neglect of children, the persistence of slavery—that not offering assistance seems shameful to those who possess the means of providing it.
Perhaps the most compelling storytelling idiom in the “help them” narrative is slavery. Many storytellers about historic Africa put slavery at the center of their narrative. and contemporary ones often do the same. They invoke the “S-“ word in order to rouse distant outsiders to confront the “heart of darkness” with powerful Western therapies. These current chroniclers construct tales of child slaves, sex slaves, wife-slaves, even adult-male slaves. The rhetoric of slavery is so incendiary that an aggrieved reaction seems guaranteed. The mere headline, “I Was Born A Slave” (from the National Geographic, September 2003) unleashes a flood of powerful emotions sure to overwhelm nuanced analysis.
Worse, some claims about the persistence of slavery are distorted, exaggerated or false. Kevin Bates, a relentless advocate for view that slavery remains widespread in Africa, has repeatedly exaggerated his evidence. In 2002, after The New York Times magazine wrote a florid profile of a “child slave” in the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast, editors were forced to concede that the writer, a freelancer, had fabricated the child’s existence—and lied about the essentials of the story. In 2007, a flurry of stories came out of Ghana about small boys enslaved to fishing boats on the Volta Lake. The International Organization for Migration labeled the children as slaves and claimed to have rescued hundreds of them. Ghanaians asked the agency to use the more neutral term, “forced labor”—which includes indentured servitude, serfs and prison labor as well as slavery—to describe the children’s conditions. The IOM continues to use the term in these situations, partly because of the media attention that ensues.
In their unguarded moments, campaigners against “slavery” in Africa privately admit that their real enemy is forced labor. Yet the term lacks emotive power, so the slave stories persist. While these distortions may incite compassion and engagement among international audiences, they also serve to further tarnish our conceptions of African culture and the humanity of some Africans.
The story of an American physician who gives up his lucrative practice to live and work in Africa is a staple of humanitarian mythmaking. Scores, if nor hundreds, of “bush doctors” are spending part or all of the year in Africa. The transition depends on the bravery and self-sacrifice of highly-skilled Westerners but their action reinforces the view that Africans are too callous and ill-equipped to take care of their own. Paul Farmer, immortalized by Tracy Kidder in Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), is only the best known of a new generation of humanitarian workers whose passions echo those of the colonial-era physician Albert Schweitzer, who gained celebrity status for his altruism but at the same time famously denigrated Africans as inferior.
One of the cornerstones of stories about helping Africans is that help is easy to give. The ease with which money can presumably be directed toward alleviating African poverty creates a powerful incentive to do precisely that—to throw money rather than understanding at problems. The rage for combining consumption with assisting the needy is a prominent part of Bono’s (Product) Red project or the widening campaign to get grade-school children in Middle America to forego a meal at a fast-food restaurant and instead spend $10 on a bed-net for an African living in a malaria zone.
The willingness of the well-off to share their wealth with distant Africans, however, gives rise to a powerful counter-narrative of good intentions gone awry. William Easterly, an economist, examines unexpected outcomes, or what some call “market distortions”, that result from international aid in his book, The White Man’s Burden. A critique of Western assistance to poor countries, Easterly accuses aid proponents of being utopian and haphazardly doing more harm than good.
The “help us” counter-narrative risks turning African self-reliance into a destructive article of faith. Fifty years ago, independence-era leaders in Africa glorified self-reliance. “Africa for the Africans,” Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, declared in 1957. “We want to govern ourselves in this country of ours without outside interference.” Such noble sentiments, however, led Africans to shun for a time even legitimate outside help. In choosing a complete break with the French government, Sekou Toure, the first president of Guinea, declared in 1958 that his people “prefer freedom in poverty to riches in chains.”
The story of self-reliance, however appealing, can provide an excuse for the persistence of poverty—and a convenient cover for the ill effects of authoritarian rule. In Nkrumah’s case, within five years of assuming complete control of Ghana, he grew power-mad, paranoid and abusive. His ethos of self-reliance—insistence on driving away well-meaning non-Africans—became a tool for consolidating his repressive state. In a similar way, at present Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s dictator, continues to justify his mis-rule by invoking the powerful myth of “Africa for the Africans,” heaping contempt on any appeal for aid to outsiders.
Striking a balance between self-reliance and slavish dependence on others isn’t easy. Yet narratives about Africa are dominated by extremes that overwhelm more nuanced, sophisticated and accurate counter-narratives that emphasize both independence and inter-dependence.
Roots, or the special claim that African Americans have on Africa as motherland, is another powerful “master” narrative that contains unexamined (and often unintended) consequences.
If the narrative, “we should help them” permits all manner of people to engage in a universal project of helping Africa, then the “roots” or “motherland” narrative achieves the opposite effect by dramatically narrowing the number of people who possess an authentic claim on caring about and engaging Africa deeply. For hundreds of years, Americans of African descent were condemned to think deeply about their region of origin because of skin color alone. In the 19th century, African Americans were the first “to perceive the contours of the entire [African] continent” and to conceive “the idea of a singular African people … as a tool of redemption,” historians John Parker and Richard Rathbone have observed. By the early 20th century, W.E.B. Dubois positively depicted African civilization and history in The Negro (1915), which became the key text in the first history class in the U.S. ever devoted to Africa (offered at Howard University, beginning in 1922). More recently, in an era of comparative racial equality, African Americans have actively constructed a special relationship with Africa that continues to nourish an important storytelling tradition.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the 1976 novel by Alex Haley, is the single most important example of this tradition. Haley’s book, which was made into a wildly popular television series, became both blueprint and metaphor for varied efforts by African Americans to reconnect with their African roots in the post-civil rights era. In the long period of racial prejudice and legal segregation, African Americans were often made to feel ashamed of their African heritage. With African independence and the civil rights movement (arising simultaneously in the late 1950s and early 1960s) came an outpouring of new stories about Africa, many organized around the “roots” structure. Celebration and black pride inform most of these stories, such as Maya Angelou’s intelligent memoir, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, of her sojourn in Ghana in the 1960s. While inspired by the warmth, energy and self-confidence of Ghana’s people, Angelou also knew that a mere visit to Africa could not erase her own sense of alienation from an ancestral homeland. Walking the streets of Accra at the start of her journey, she wondered: “Were those laughing people who moved in the streets with such equanimity today descendants of slave-trading families? Did that one’s ancestor sell mine …?”
The longer Angelou spent in Africa, the more grounded she felt. She ultimately accepted that the slave trade brutalized every African touched by it. The realization saddened her, but also gave her hope—and made her willing to forgive those African ancestors who sold her own into bondage. “I had not consciously come to Ghana to find the roots of my beginnings, but I had continually and accidentally tripped over them in my everyday life,” she writes. In departing from Ghana, she was not sad, “for now I knew my people had never completely left Africa.”
Angelou’s experience is illustrative. “As paradoxical as it may sound, Africa has served historically as one of the chief terrains on which African Americans have negotiated their relationship to American society,” observes James T. Campbell, a historian at Brown University. “To put the matter more poetically, when an African American asks, ‘What is Africa to me?’ he or she is also asking, ‘What is America to me?’”
Campbell explores these questions in Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. His book chronicles the fascinating, rich relationship between Americans of African descent and their ancestral homeland. Many significant African Americans in the 20th century, from poet Langston Hughes to novelist Richard Wright to political leader Malcolm X, journeyed to Africa in order to discover something about their heritage—and themselves. Hughes was so excited about traveling to Africa that he tossed overboard his books after boarding his vessel, believing there would be no need for reading where he was going. Africa would be, Hughes believed, the “real thing, to be touched and seen, not merely read about in a book.” He was wrong. Recounting the voyage and the visit in his autobiography, The Big Sea, he was dismayed to find Africans regarding him as “a white man.” In short, Africans failed to meet his expectations. The same disappointments were experienced by novelist Richard Wright, who visited Ghana in the mid-1950s. Unlike Hughes, who remained sanguine about Africa, Wright’s visit left him disillusioned. He called Ghana “a vast purgatorial kingdom” and concluded Africans were a “shattered” people.
The stories African Americans tell about Africa remain vitally important, because their engagement with the region has been more vital, long-lasting and complex than any relationships sustained by white Americans or Europeans. African American narratives about Africa have much to teach in an era when more people than ever are engaging African affairs and, implicitly or explicitly, asking the very question that animated Harlem writer Countee Cullen in his 1925 poem, “Heritage”:
What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his father loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
One hundred years ago, a former American president, Teddy Roosevelt, on leaving office, went on a “safari” to East Africa, shooting animals almost non-stop for eleven months, criss-crossing a vast area then under the control of the British colonial government. Roosevelt wrote an entire book about his experience, a detailed account entitled African Game Trails, which chronicled what historian H.W. Brands, a Roosevelt biographer, has called “the most sustained excitement of his life.”
Today, the son of a Kenyan is president of the U.S. While Barack Obama hasn’t gone on an African safari, in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama journeys to Kenya, covering roughly the same ground as Roosevelt, trying like the other, earlier president to find in Africa raw materials out of which to help construct his own robust identity.
So much has endured about how Americans view, and use, Africa, both to tell their personal stories, and to live their own lives. And yet so much has changed. Roosevelt found savagery and violence in Africa, a terrain on which to test his oozing masculinity. Obama found his “authentic” self in Africa, the fruits of a different kind of romantic journey.
The two narratives about Africa suggest that nothing is frozen; stories about Africans and their people are fluid, dynamic and subject to revision, reinvention. Africans themselves will lead the creation of new master narratives, but the legacy of engagement with Africa and its people will likely mean that Americans also will have a hand in the new “master” narratives arising out of African soil, and the African imaginary alive everywhere. That Africa captivates the imagination in a variety of predictable ways only highlights the importance of moving from “imagination to dialogue,” as Curtis Keim, a historian of African art and politics has written in the 2009 edition of his book Mistaking Africa. “Today it is still difficult for Americans not to stereotype Africa in one way or another,” Keim writes. While he provides no panacea for the problem of imposing master narratives onto African experience, he suggests a starting point that rings true to my own experience as the spouse of an African woman from one of the region’s most coherent and culturally-expressive ethnic groups, the Igbo of Nigeria. “The first step to understanding African difference is to ‘listen’ to African cultures and attempt to discover Africa in its own words and in its own context. We should work at understanding how Africans conceive of reality and how that reality has been shaped by their environments and histories. In other words, we must allow Africans to be our teachers.”
To learn from Africans, in ways devoid of romanticism and the insidious projections that dominate the meta-narratives described in this essay, is serious work. For such a learning journey unites the personal and the political, the spiritual and the artistic, and is specific in its character. Such learning defies easy generalizations and categories. Inevitably, true stories about Africa are about individuals acting autonomously, standing outside of the stereotypes and pre-conceptions that even their own societies promote and protect. Only out of a heightened awareness of difference and a fidelity to the autonomy of Africans and their admirers alike can arise the raw material out of which new and necessary narratives about Africa.
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