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The Social Construction of Africa and Africans in Western Mass Media:  Myth or Reality?

 

Abstract 

Comprehension of the social construction of Africa and Africans in Western mass media as “The Dark Continent” must begin at the philosophical, scientific and literary traditions that spawned them in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and America.  In them we find a power-driven epistemology created for a specific purpose to serve specific hegemonic political and economic agendas.  These images of Africa and Africans helped in justifying, and in the end, legitimized African enslavement, colonization and Africa’s current marginalization in the global political economy.  In the post Cold-War international system, and post-9-11, specifically, using metaphors such as “Globalization,” the “Axis of Evil” “War on Terror,”  “Clash of Civilizations,” and “End of History,” Western powers and the U.S. in particular, have come to share an overarching mission to completely re-colonize or dominate the world.  These metaphors and images, like those before, derive from political and economic interests, which seek to preserve U.S. and European hegemony through the acceptance of “democracy,” “human rights” and a neo-liberal economic order to putatively save teeming non-white populations.

 

The Social Construction of Africa and Africans in Western Mass Media:  Myth or Reality?

 

In discussing the “Social Construction of Africa in Western Media as Myth or Reality,” it is important that we analyze or deconstruct the historical persistence and the ideological power of the metaphor of Africa as the “Dark Continent.”  This metaphor identifies and incorporates an entire continent as “Other” in a way that reaffirms Western dominance and reveals hostile and Eurocentric presumptions of Africa and Africans in travel accounts, news reports and academic writing.  Therefore, in order to understand this metaphor and the explicit framing of Africa and Africans as the “Other,” we must look to the European and Euro-American discourses on Africa during the early and late nineteenth century, which constructed and represented the land and its people to the reading Western public as racially inferior and savage (Jarosz, 1992:1). 

While use of the metaphor- “Dark Continent” has for all intent and purposes been discredited in the academic literature, generally, it continues to play a key role in the contemporary framing of Africa and Africans in the mass media.  As a consequence, what the “Dark Continent” metaphor and others like it succeed at doing is that they homogenize and flatten places and peoples, deny the actualities and specificities of social and economic processes, which transformed the continent.  In doing so, these metaphors obscure a nuanced examination of European and Euro-American cultural and economic hegemony in Africa (Jarosz, 1992:1, emphasis added).  In the end, the “Dark Continent” metaphor legitimizes the status quo and perpetuates unequal relations of power and exploitation.  The preoccupation of Europeans to “civilize” or “uplift” the “beastly” or “noble” “savages” in the nineteenth and early twentieth century Africa did not represent a high ethical stance, but instead served a political and economic purpose- that of quieting and normalizing a population (Johnson, 1991:156, emphasis added).

What is remarkable about the “Dark Continent” metaphor is that it negates Africa.  Consequently, Western construction of Africa and the so-called Third World assume a privileged viewpoint, conceived of as existing within itself, above and beyond history-making and political play.  It is the origin and the truth, to which all intelligent analysis must ultimately speak (Johnson, 1991: 152).  This is not difficult to see.  In the various metaphors of Africa and the Third World, for example, it is Enlightened Europe vs. the Dark Continent, modern Europe as opposed to traditional Africa; rational Europeans in contrast to irrational and magic dominated Africans, progressive Europe and backward Africa.   In other words, Europe is constructed as the central, the core, the ideal that all must follow and the standard by which all else is measured against.  The second term, by contrast, is a disruption, a deviation, an anomaly, which must be checked and brought under control if history is to be played out according to plan, if progress is to be achieved (Johnson, 1991:154).  Put in another way, each side of this dichotomy comprises a particular identity, with the second term’s identity constructed in relation to the original identity of the first.  Let me give you a couple of examples of this dichotomy to illustrate how Africa and Africans were initially constructed in Western philosophical thought.

Western attitude of racial superiority over Africans and other peoples was mere cultural bias, supported loosely by a Eurocentric orthodox biblical ideology.  But it gradually grew into a formidable two-pronged historical reality: slavery, the slave trade and formal colonialism on one hand, and academic expressions on the other.  The academic expressions were made by prominent European scholars, among them Emanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel, for example.  Kant explained the emergence of different races in relation to different natural causes bearing on them in different geographical regions of the world.  According to him, the original human species was white.  The black race, he believed, had emerged as a result of humid heat bearing on the skin of the original species.  Kant also believed that it was possible to demonstrate that Native Americans and blacks are a spiritually decadent race among other members of the human stock (Masolo, 1994: 4).  Hegel, often depending on historical and missionary literature and mission reports argued that “History” was a process of change through the intervention of reason in the world.  Through reason, man knows and transforms his reality in a continuous dialectical manner.  In these transformations culture is born (Masolo, 1994: 4).  For Hegel, culture is rooted in reason and dialectics and inferred consequently that where there was “no culture” there was no reason.  In Africa, Hegel contends: 

Life is not a manifestation of dialectical reason but of a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.  Africans live in a state of innocence.  They are unconscious of themselves, as in the natural and primitive state of Adam and Eve in the biblical paradise before the emergence of reason and will.  Africans are intractable.  The condition in which they live is incapable of any historical development or culture.  They have no reason and because they lack reason, they also lack development and culture.  They have no history in the true sense of the word (Masolo, 1994: 5).  

The writings and ideas of Kant and Hegel can be understood in context.  The eighteenth century saw a period of cultural revitalization and power consolidation in Europe.  This revitalization and consolidation often took the form of self-comparison with other peoples in the areas of culture and history.  Frequently, Africa was a ready- example of the opposite of the desirable heights being attained by Europe.  In anthropology, philosophy, and religion, Africa was described as utterly inferior to Europe (Masolo).  Consequently, Europe and Africa are envisioned as separate worlds with a deep and abiding gulf between them and their differences are so irreconcilable that the gulf can never be bridged (Hammond and Jablow, 1992: 124).  European literature of the twentieth century and later, reflect the same story and themes.  The works of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Laurens Van der Post, Joyce Carry and Graham Green, to name a few, assign the African to a lower order, as one unable to reason, or cope with abstractions and incapable of mastering the subtle complexities essential to civilization.  Perhaps the greatest virtue attributed to the “savage” African is his acceptance of his subordinated place in the scheme of things.  This scheme was the social order envisioned by the imperial British in which, properly reflecting the natural order, the superior British and the inferior African played out their complimentary roles.  These attitudes were reflected in various European colonial policies- British “indirect-rule” popularized by Lord Lugard in colonial Nigeria, French “assimilation” policy in Senegal and other French colonies, and a hybrid of the two in Portuguese dominated colonies of Guinea Bissau, Angola and Mozambique.  Throughout their history in Africa, however, the Europeans saw themselves as benefactors.  Many, to this day resist, seeing themselves as self-seeking conquerors (Hammond and Jablow, 1992: 132, emphasis added).

Therefore, philosophers, anthropologists, and early naturalists, including Charles Darwin, subscribed to the European worldview by creating a pseudo-scientific justification for Eurocentric racism.  This was done by the invention of the “negro.”  The “negro” was/ is less than human.  It is a thing rather than a person.  It has no history, no civilization, or culture and thus, it has no humanity.  It follows then that Europeans were not slaughtering and raping a people, only savages (Henderson, 1995:31).  The invention of the “negro” appears to have been necessary in order to provide justification for European supremacy in the “Age of Enlightenment” and today.  In sum, the European and Euro-American dominated “scientific” and “social-scientific” communities fashioned a body of knowledge in which Europeans were superior and Africans inferior.  In doing so, they (Europeans and Euro-Americans) were then able to rationalize the “inhumanity” of the Negro.  It is ideas such as these that gave rise to the “Tuskegee Experiment” where “white scientists” “physicians” like the Nazis injected syphilis into healthy black men or failed to treat the infected even after the discovery of penicillin (Henderson, 1995: 39)    

Both historical and ethnographic data, however, presented a picture of Africa and Africans that was at variance with the metaphor of the “Dark Continent.”  When early European explorers encountered the stonewalls and ruins of Great Zimbabwe, they were hard put to explain its origin.  In their view, the ruins were remains of structures too complex and advanced in building technique and design to be a product of native African builders.  The ruins of Great Zimbabwe, as well as Egypt of Antiquity, Empires of Ghana, Mali and Songhai were often explained away by pseudo-history as the remains of some biblical empire (Hammond and Jablow, 1992: 16).   According to Sheik Anta Diop, many scientists during the period were loath to associate black people with the human race, much less with civilization.  Consequently, science bowed before race prejudice and truth recoiled in panic (Henderson, 1995: 29). 

Even the highly regarded first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, under the entry “Negroes” referred to black people as “the unhappy race” and described their behavior as characterized by “idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing,  lying, debauchery, nastiness, and intemperance, which are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience.  The “Negro,” was also looked upon as a stranger to every sentiment of compassion, and an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself” (Lauren, 1996: 22).  In sum, the identification of Africa as the “Dark Continent,” was socially constructed.  These representations, the late Edward Said argued, point to the “politics of hegemonic power-relations between the colonizer and the colonized (Jarosz, 1992: 106).  This is where we must begin to understand Africa’s construction in the Western mass media in Europe and the U.S., specifically.

After four centuries of British writing (less for the U.S) on Africa many of these beliefs have finally been toned down considerably.  The empire is no more and with it the British colonial administrators.  Africa is no longer the great “unknown” waiting to be discovered.  It has become yet another part of the so-called Third World or post-colonial area where people struggle against the vestiges of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and underdevelopment (Hammond and Jablow, 1992: 124; Jarosz, 1992: 106).  Why then do many of these stereotypes, rear their heads every so often on TV, in newspapers and film? 

The answer may lie in the image residues of Africa and Africans from earlier times that remain embedded in modern Western discourse on Africa.  In the first set of images, Africa is represented as a monolith, a continent riveted by civil war, famine and hunger, where fly-infested children with distended bellies roam the bush in search of food and water.  In the second image, the African is lewd and a “beastly savage.”  Finally, there is the image of another Africa.  This is an Africa of proud and exotic peoples and wildlife coexisting in the Serengeti in an almost perfect state of nature.   The long-term dominance of these images or variations of them can be accounted for by their acceptance in European and Euro-American literary and media traditions as the only appropriate ways to conceive and write about Africa.  And authenticity and acceptance are assured when TV and/ or newspaper reports evoke these images.  These images add both color and vitality to what are otherwise, dull narratives (Hammond and Jablow, 1992: 8).  Films, like Tarzan, for instance, have familiarized Westerners with an Africa composed of old notions of the “Dark Continent.”  And in the face of these images, reality has little chance of being accepted.  With few exceptions, no matter how different in style, form or content, all the books and the films based on them present the same Western fantasy and distortion of Africa (Hammond and Jablow, 1992: 13).

Tragically, it is this oversimplification in the mass media that continues to inform the West about Africa.  And people predisposed to distrust what they do not understand readily embrace inaccurate shorthand explanations of a continent and its peoples they know little about.  The preponderance of Western-born and educated reporters, editors, writers and producers ensure that Western images and viewpoints prevail in news reporting.  Although many journalists genuinely try to be objective in their interpretations of events, few can erase or escape their political socialization or deny their culture and the voice that a subconscious bias lends it.  Given the inordinate influence of the Western mass media, negative images of Africa, however unrepresentative or dishonest, only reinforce ancient stereotypes (Husain, 2003: 307, emphasis added).  In fact, a process of cognitive consistency, which is based on the notion that humans, by and large, tend to resist change and prefer stability, perpetuates established images and stereotypes.  Cognitive consistency is thus the subconscious effort human beings often make to avoid potentially contradictory perceptions (Husain, 2003: 311). 

What purpose do these constructed images of Africa serve? 

Robert Cox has eloquently argued in relation to neo-Realist international relations theory, “that theory is always for someone and for some purpose” (Cox, 1996: 87).  In other words, European scientific and social theories of the nineteenth century constructed the world from a specific social and political position and were not independent (Smith, 2001:235).  There is, Cox argues, “no such thing as theory in itself, divorced from a standpoint in time and space.”  When a theory so represents itself, it is important to examine it as ideology and to lay bare its concealed perspective (Smith, 2001: 235).  Secondly, Critical theorists, Post-modernists, neo-Marxists as well as Standpoint feminists, have been concerned about the relationship between Power and Knowledge.  Foucault, in particular, opposed the notion that knowledge is immune from the workings of power.  Instead, he argued that power in fact produces knowledge.  Power requires knowledge and knowledge relies on and often reinforces existing power relations (Smith, 2001: 240).  Thus, there is no “truth” that exists outside of power.

Consequently, the metaphors and images that have come to define Africa and Africans in contemporary Western mass media, like its intellectual precursors of earlier times, have, by and large served Western colonial and imperial interests in Africa and elsewhere.   Although the worldview has shifted from a parochial and conservative Christian worldview to a relatively more secular and liberal one over the last three hundred years, deep-seated negative perceptions of Africa, remain.  Western images of Africa continue to distort and caricature Africa’s reality (Husain, 2003: 304).  The distortion of Africa and Africans is not unique, as Arabs and Muslims, Native Americans, Asians, women, and native populations of Australia and New Zealand have been similarly used to serve the interests of empire. 

Contemporary images, commentaries and assessments attempting to describe or explain the “African crisis” since the 1980s have resurfaced following the end of the Cold-War.  Africa is once more constructed in ways that mimic old Western notions and images.   This would have been amusing today where in not for the tragic events that unfolded in Rwanda in 1994 and unfolding as we speak, in the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions have died. In Darfur, Sudan, thousands are killed or displaced daily while the debate over the meaning of “genocide” continues.  Growing “Afro-pessimism” appears to have taken sway in official Washington, the mass media and the academy alike.  Even those Americans who would be hard pressed to name a few African countries and their capitals are apt to throw their hands in despair and conclude that the continent is a “lost cause” (French, 2004: 12).  This is partly because many Americans have come to know Africa mostly by its wars and tragedies and not the many bold economic initiatives as well as the effort by numerous states to build democratic institutions, a key ingredient to reducing poverty.  One flagrant case of Afro-pessimism is the book by Keith Richburg, Out of America, a soul searching account of an African American journalist who spent three years covering conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia and Zaire.  In the end, Richburg distances himself from his African roots (Popke, 2004: 10) and says:

Excuse me if I sound cynical, jaded.  I’m beaten down, and I’ll admit it.  And it’s Africa that has made me feel this way.  I feel for her suffering, I empathize with her pain, and now, from afar, I still recoil in horror whenever I see yet another television picture of another tribal slaughter, another refugee crisis.  But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because now, I am not one of them.  In short, thank God that I am American (Richburg, 1997: xiv).

Richburg is not alone, some, including George Ayitteh, an African resident in the U.S. have also expressed similar views.  Many journalists and scholars alike attribute Africa’s current crisis to its geography, “a case of bad latitude.”  As tempting as it can be to give into pessimism over Africa, Afro-pessimists make two fundamental mistakes.  The first error has to do with the assumption that Africa, the world’s second largest continent, three times larger than the United States and home to over 780 million people, is incapable of change, just as philosophers and anthropologists of earlier centuries had argued.  The second mistake is focusing on Africa’s tragedies and wars as its defining character while simultaneously overlooking the continent’s real progress in education, health, the economy and democratic governance.  They further compound these errors argues Howard French, an African American, and author of A Continent for The Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, by overlooking one of Africa’s greatest assets- African Americans and their ancestral ties to the U.S. (French, 2004:13).  Finally, Afro-pessimist observations about Africa are driven fundamentally by what Patrick Chabal calls “politics of the mirror,” that is, the tendency of today’s many Western commentators to frame their observations of Africa using assumptions that govern beliefs about their own societies (Popke, 2004: 11).  Chabal sums this up well when he argued:

First we have perennially been disappointed in that the reality of Africa has never matched our expectations.  Second, and more ominously, we have failed to look at Africa as it is… rather than as we imagine it to be.  Third, and as a result, we have confined Africa to the dustbin of history; that is, as a continent the history of which we cannot be expected to understand and on which we eventually “give up.”

Relegation of Africa to the dustbin of history by the mass media and some in the academy has important implications for US foreign policy toward African states and peoples.  While Americans should take pride in the transformative role the U.S. played in Europe, Japan, South Korea and other Asian Tigers and to some extent Latin America following World War Two, one is forced to notice that only Africa has been left out of the party.  But why, French asks, has Africa been left out of the cold?  French contends that:

We have been told that the continent holds no strategic interests for the United States.  It is because rather than embracing the continent as a promising and lucrative new frontier for investment, we have been told, in the words of former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, that Africa is a “rat hole” into which we throw vast sums of aid money only to see it disappear. 

The economic data says, otherwise, however.  As long as a decade ago, each major region of Africa boasted as much trade with the U.S. as all the constituents of the former Soviet Union combined.  Today, the continent is the source of about 18 percent of U.S. oil imports.  This figure is expected to rise to 25 percent in the next decade or two (French, 2004: 14).  This is not to mention the extractive mineral industries that provide inputs for U.S. and other Western industries. 

French, in fact, argues that he is convinced that: 

Africa’s isolation and our stinginess toward the continent is related to the very same long-term discrimination and disdain that Americans of African descent have battled against from their earliest days on this continent.  And one of the most costly and insidious results of the transatlantic slave trade was the near total disconnect between Africans and African Americans which continues to this day (French, 2004: 14).

In his book, The Ties that Bind: African American Consciousness of Africa, Bernard Magubane takes up the theme of “near total disconnect” to interrogate “the nature and meaning of white hegemony, and the image of Africa to which blacks in the Western World were exposed during the age of imperialism.  This, Magubane argues, is of particular import in the development of the black’s self-image in the New World because white ideas about blacks, he contends, did not arise from a vacuum, but had certain economic and political determinants (Magubane, 1989: 15).  Perhaps, it is in this context that one can understand Keith Richburg’s perceptions and representations of Africa in his book Out of Africa.  In this regard, there is remarkable continuity and consistency in contemporary assumptions and images of Africa and those in vogue during the nineteenth century.  Let me give you a couple of examples.  Current BBC reports on the raging war in the Democratic Republic of Congo tell of indiscriminate killings and rising cannibalism among rebel militias that allegedly cook and eat their victims.  A variation of this story is of a white explorer left to boil in a huge pot as savage Africans mill around in anticipation of their white-flesh dinner.  Are these news reports a figment of the European imagination or reality?  Hammond and Jablow, in their book- The Africa That Never Was, contend that reported instances of cannibalism in Africa were mere fabrication.  Yet, paradoxically, the BBC, CNN and in particular the New York Times are also good sources of news, and sometimes, provide excellent coverage of events unfolding in Africa.  Jeffrey Sachs has, among others, used the New York Times as a platform from which to inform the world about Africa and to serve as an advocate for African causes.  The point is, journalists and scholars that take the time to do painstaking research can often deliver a good product.

Another example is the framing of HIV/ AIDS in some academic circles. 

Part of the academic literature on the incidence of HIV/ AIDS today might well have been lifted from the anthropological literature of the nineteenth century of the highly sexed African male and female.  Take this example by the late William Rushing: 

Most groups in Africa have a sex-positive culture.  Sex is viewed as a part of courtship and a form of recreation; the relations between lovers are viewed as affairs between friends.  The men tend to be “womanizers”;  premarital sex for females is accepted as in female adultery. Polygamous sexual relations are thus widespread for the married no less than the unmarried.  This is the hallmark of a sex-positive culture.  It also facilitates the spread of HIV (Rushing, 2004: 251-2).

 In the medical arena, the different patterns of AIDS infection exhibited by African countries has resulted in the development of a plethora of research on AIDS in the continent which resembles earlier narrow-minded colonial efforts to understand patterns of TB and syphilis (Opong and Kalipeni, 2004: 255).  Often, explanations of the different patterns invariably lay blame on the peculiarities of African customs, traditions, and behaviors that relate to issues of sexuality and reproduction at the expense of other significant factors as the colonial historical context, poverty, dependency and underdevelopment (Opong and Kalipeni, 2004: 255).  Rushing’s stereotypical assertions are far too general to be of any meaningful use to the understanding of the AIDS epidemic in Africa and such careless propositions tend to encourage a premature narrowing of research questions.  Africa is often discussed as if it were a monolith (Opong and Kalipeni, 2004: 255).

In sum, images and descriptions of Africa in the popular press and some academic research suggest that the African continent is a troubled land where corruption, ethnic warfare, poverty, hunger, environmental destruction, and pestilence prevail.  Some have even suggested that Africa is a lost cause, asserting that the continent should be “written off” by international development organizations.  (This may, in fact, account for the lack of a concerted global/ Western effort to end the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo where approximately three million people have since died compared to the overwhelmingly positive Tsunami response in Asia).    Meanwhile, commercial tour operators also hawk the region as a place of high adventure and excitement.  Even quasi-scholarly publications such as the National Geographic Magazine often promote a vision of a primitive or wild Africa or both (Mosley, 2004: xiv).  What these popular and commercial descriptions hold in common is the level of superficiality and one-sidedness.  Yes, as elsewhere, bad things do happen in Africa, and there is beautiful scenery to be seen, but this is only one part of a varied and very complex picture.  It is the apparent willingness, perhaps laziness and ignorance of many popular commentators to provide a more nuanced view of an enormous continent that is often frustrating to Africans and many Africanists alike (Mosley, 2004: xiv).  

Africa is, after all, a place of extraordinarily diverse, vibrant, and dynamic cultures.  Since the early 1990s, specifically, no other continent has seen more dramatic improvements in human rights, political freedoms, and economic development- from the overthrowing of apartheid in South Africa to the revitalization of economies in countries such as Ghana, Mali and Uganda.  Although environmental threats are real, African societies have proven their capacity to use resources with sustainability.  The importance of human relations, family, and good neighborliness in many African societies also stand in stark contrast to the more closed and individualistic tendencies in a number of Western settings (Mosley, 2004: xiv). Therefore, the construction of Africa in Western mass media is more myth than reality.   

            In conclusion, comprehension of Africa’s social construction in Western mass media must begin at the philosophical, scientific and literary traditions, which were, spawned in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and America.  In them, we find a power-driven epistemology created for a specific purpose to serve a specific hegemonic political and economic agenda.  These images of Africa helped to justify, and in the end, legitimized African enslavement and colonization and Africa’s current marginalization in the global political economy.  In the post Cold-War international system, and post-911, specifically, Western powers and the U.S. in particular, have a mission which is reminiscent of missions European powers had earlier.  There overarching mission is to completely re-colonize or dominate the world and the so-called Third-World, specifically, using such metaphors as “Globalization,” the “Axis of Evil” “War on Terror,”  “Clash of Civilizations,” and “End of History,” to foist “democracy,” “human rights” and a neo-liberal economic order to putatively save these teeming non-white populations.  These metaphors and images, like those before them, derive from political and economic interests which seek to preserve U.S. and European hegemony at a time when the politically more salient discourse should focus on how to achieve genuine change in a so-called New World Order, that is neither new nor orderly (Murphy and Tooze, 1991: 13).  The tradition continues. 

**Gambian born  Dr. Abdoulaye Saine, is a Professor of Political Science & African Studies at Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056. He is co-author of  Not Yet Democracy:  West Africa's Slow Farewell to Authoritarianism.    

 


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