Africa: Savage Beasts and Beastly Savages

1 December 1990
Africa News Service (Durham)

From the stories of the African travels of Dr. Doolittle where the monkeys are more intelligent than the people to the modern myths of commercial advertising, Americans are exposed to images of Africa that are almost entirely negative.

Beyond shaping our impressions of a distant continent, says C. Payne Lucas, those images have domestic consequences. As director of Africare, an African-American-run development organization based in Washington, DC, Lucas tries to rouse public interest in African affairs. How can you expect young African-Americans to have any self respect, Lucas asks, when everything they hear about their ancestry and their heritage is negative?

Black community leaders, dating back at least half a century to Marcus Garvey, have tried to organize effective protests against a view that equates Africa with primitivism. And in recent years, scholars in a number of disciplines have explored the roots of racial attitudes and the links between those attitudes and public policies.

Some of the studies have focused on the media, arguing that there is a persistent pattern that assumes African barbarity and that overlooks black sufferings or portrays them less vividly than those of whites.

Beverly Hawk, who now teaches at Maines Colby College, was at How-ard University when she analyzed U.S. newspaper reporting on Zimbabwe during the 1970s a time when coverage of the war in what was then Rhodesia was the main focus of American reporting on Africa.

Hawk found that in a war where 16-20 Africans died for every white person who was killed, only white deaths provoked empathetic descriptions. Major newspapers like the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Hawk says, routinely referred to the killings of whites as murders, massacres and slaughters. Evocative words such as atrocity, butchered and savage were used to describe attacks on whites, while accounts of black deaths were reported most often as anonymous numbers relayed by the Rhodesian governments information service. Of the major national newspapers, Hawk says, only the Christian Science Monitor chose not to carry emotional accounts of white deaths and funerals.

An example of the reporting of the period was the heavy press coverage of the shooting down of a civilian government airliner by Zimbabwe guerrillas in 1978, in which 48 people died.

Please Don't Kill Us was the title Newsweek gave to a two-page spread that detailed the downing of the plane, the subsequent shooting of several passengers and the terror of the survivors. Accompanying the story was a photograph of guerrilla leaders Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe now Zimbabwes president raising their glasses in a toast, as though celebrating the deaths. The photo was captioned We Shot It Down, with no acknowledgement that the picture pre-dated the crash.

By contrast, four months earlier, a South African raid on a Namibian refugee camp in Angola got barely a mention in the U.S. media, although more than 600 people, mostly women and children, were killed and buried in mass graves.

Such unconscious value judgements are deeply rooted, Africanist scholars say, in a distorted historic view of Africa and Africans.

From its earliest days as a republic, Americans saw Africa as a continent of wild beasts and savage people. The reading public was alternately fascinated and repelled by accounts like those of reporter Henry Morton Stanley. Sent by the New York Herald in 1866 to find the British missionary Dr. Livingstone, Stanley regaled audiences with front page accounts of his journeys. His later books about his African travels the most popular were Through the Dark Continent in 1879 and In Darkest Africa in 1890 shaped opinions in both Europe and North America.

Michael McCarthy in his book Dark Continent: Africa As Seen by Americans, says the explorers images of Africa were widely accepted by blacks as well as whites. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially, McCarthy says, a majority of black Americans subscribed either consciously or unconsciously to the dangerous and fallacious idea of African inferiority.

Yet the observations of the popular writers were often ill-informed and misleading. African societies appeared to Europeans to be stateless. Africans seemed to have no religions. Even their fields looked uncultivated. Scholars now know that many Afri-can cultures built powerful empires, that African theologies were complex and intricate, and that crop rows that looked jumbled or untended were often scientifically sound examples of productive intercropping or of shifting cultivation that let marginal tropical soils recover by lying fallow.

But the Africa seen by explorers was used to explain and justify the subordination of people of African descent. The case against black people in America, says McCarthy, was advanced by showing that their African ancestors had failed to develop a fully civilized way of life. If Africans could not do it in their homeland, then how could their progeny possibly do any better in America?

The inaugural issue of National Geographic magazine in 1889 featured an article by the geographic societys founder, Gardiner Hubbard, asserting that Africans had developed a degree of civilization only after coming into contact with Western culture. When that contact was cut, Hubbard wrote, Africans deteriorated into barbarism.

The single most important source of reporting on Africa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, says Michael McCarthy, was an African-American paper called the Freeman, published in Indiana. Articles by explorers and other African travelers were supplemented by cartoon caricatures depicting Africans with bones through their noses and necklaces of teeth. The comic savages spoke in crude dialects, often about their next human meal.

School textbooks, travel writings and childrens literature reinforced the media images.

But it wasn't always that way. In fourteenth and fifteenth century Europe, pictorial art was the mass media of the era. A study of the period by the Menil Foundations Image of the Black in Western Art project has unearthed and catalogued thousands of images from artworks and published several large volumes of its on-going research.

In the stunning reproductions, blacks appear as royalty, saints and sages as well as in more diverse roles as servants, pages and musicians. Imperial Europe gave Africans a large place in its veneration of saints, its heraldry and its art.

The institution of slavery changed all that.

The large-scale contacts between Europeans and Africans coincided with the development of the slave trade in the sixteenth century. Explorers found that, despite its fabled wealth, Africa did not readily yield its riches to European entrepreneurs. From an economic point of view, says Volume 2 of the Menil study, Africa had only one thing to offer: manpower. The establishment of colonies in the Americas, built on labor- intensive crops like cotton, intensified the demand for chattel slavery and the need to justify it.

White Over Black, Winthrop Jordans classic 1968 study of racial attitudes, says that from the early 1700s in many parts of the Americas, one of the major daily concerns of responsible men was the effective control of masses of slaves. With slavery viewed as an economic necessity says McCarthy, theories about the origins of races were developed in order to classify Africans as subordinate.

The shift is clearly discernable in art. Within a period of a few years, says Volume 2 of the Menil books, new, more negative portrayals had eclipsed an image of the black that was the fruit of a centuries-old evolution.

Christian doctrine, which had taught that all people were part of the human family and equal before God, was transformed into the dogma of polygenesis, which held that races had been created as distinct and unequal. Twelfth century enamels of apostles addressing a white man and a black man, symbolizing the variety and unity of humanity, were made obsolete by the evolving theory that Africans had been divinely fitted for servitude. (Jordan points to the anomaly that the curse of Ham, cited even today as a Biblical explanation of black inferiority, says absolutely nothing about skin color.)

Even the abolitionist art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped erase the diverse, often posi-tive, earlier perceptions of blacks, says art historian Hugh Honour in the latest of the Menil volumes. So potent were the images of blacks as victims, he says, that they reduced the possibilities of representing blacks in the former roles of saint or devil, proud Magus, regal personification of Africa, or even richly dressed and petted page boy.

The legacy of that history persists in modern popular images of the continent. The 1981 movie First Family, starring Bob Newhart and Gilda Radner, featured an African ambassador who threw his diplomats out of airplanes to appease the gods.

A Citicorp ad of the previous year showed a white traveler in a safari suit surrounded by scantily-clad, spear-wielding Africans but still miraculously within the reach of the banks financial services. Lose Citicorp Travelers Checks in Maputo, said the ad whose geography was as fuzzy as its ethnography and You're Not Up the Zambezi Without a Paddle.

A study by James Larson of the University of Washington found that, between 1972 and 1982, African stories although less likely to make the network television news shows than stories from elsewhere were 11% more likely to be about crisis.

The crisis orientation, says University of California historian Sylvester Whitaker, misses one of the most compelling African stories the sur-vivability of African communities.

If you read that the GNP is disastrous, Whitaker says, that investment is in decline, that health problems are growing how are Africans making out at all? When you ask yourself that question and actu-ally begin to look for some experience to answer your question, it turns out that theres an awful lot of creativity that grows out of the dilemmas of African states. Those are stories, Whitaker says, that Americans never hear.

Yet major African crises can go unremarked, too. In 1973, Robert Maynard, who became owner/editor of the Oakland Tribune before he died in 1994, chastised the U.S. news media for ignoring the genocidal civil war in Burundi that killed as many as 250,000 people, including half the countrys primary school teachers. Stories that conveyed the horror of events in Burundi, Maynard argued, could have pressured the U. S., as the principle outside economic force in the country, to take action that would have saved lives.

Even the Ethiopian famine of 1984 that seared its images into public con- sciousness was all but ignored by the networks for two years after it had been documented, wrote Joanmarie Kalter in TV Guide, and it became a crisis of unprecedented proportions partly because it was ignored.

But like the abolitionists crusade that solidified an image of blacks as victims rather than actors, the fly-encrusted, stick-thin children of the anti-hunger campaign have had an unintended result. What is being called compassion fatigue has fused with a contemporary view of Africans as either brutal and corrupt or passive and exploited. The dark continent has come to be seen as the lost continent.

Things could have been different, says Dominique de Menil, who launched the Image of the Black project in 1960. There was a time when the West adopted a black knight as its patron saint, she says, a time when artists did not neglect to include an African among the resurrected, a time when a white King Solomon embraced a black Queen of Sheba.

But the dream of an authentic cooperation between Europe and Africa, of a sharing of ideals and knowledge, she says, was shattered by crimes so atrocious that they left no images.

This article was published originally in "Capturing the Continent: U.S. Media Coverage of Africa," a special 1990 edition of Africa News.

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