Courtesy Jonathan T. Reynolds

Southeastern Regional Seminar in African Studies (SERSAS)

Spring 2004 SERSAS Conference
26 - 27 March 2004

The College of Charleston
66 George Street
Charleston, South Carolina 29424 USA

Tarzan, Tim Russert and Me:
Teaching About Africa in the United States

Jack Parson
Department of Political Science
The College of Charleston
Charleston, South Carolina 29424 USA

Not for attribution without permission of the author

Copyright © 2003 by SERSAS and Jack Parson
All Rights Reserved


When I enter a classroom for the first time in any course with an African content, I find the same "student" enrolled. The names change and generations of students come and go but "it" is still there. "It" is an 800-pound gorilla I call Clyde[1], a composite of American popular culture, news media and political debate energized by the racial order of the United States and lacking in knowledge and empathy when it comes to the continent of Africa and the people who live, struggle and work there. Clyde's great bulk derives from the accumulation of images and opinions about Africa and Africans average American students bring with them to these classes. This accumulation is the lurking presence of Clyde and like all 800-pound gorillas, he can do whatever he wants to - and usually does.

Three weeks into AFST 101: Introduction to African Civilization in the spring semester 2004, for example, having spent most of that time hammering away at the size and diversity of the continent and the 53 separate countries on it, Clyde, channeling through a student, asked about government in Africa and was there, "like," a President of Africa and who was it? My first reaction (kept to myself) was that one or both of us were wasting our time. My second reaction (also kept to myself) was "haven't you been paying any attention at all?" My third reaction - which I acted upon - was to understand that in Clyde's world "Africa" is, well, "Africa" - you know, "like," a country, like the United States so it (Africa) must have a government and, "like," a President. Through another student, Clyde asked if any of the places were members of the United Nations after being reminded that Africa is a continent with fifty-three countries.

These were not questions and comments from troublemakers, however troublesome Clyde's presence is in general. The original question was asked not by a "cracker" from rural South Carolina but by a bright and intelligent African American young woman. Thank goodness she wanted to learn badly enough to ask, "like," as she put it, a very stupid question.

In my opinion, this is what we are up against teaching African area studies. Before you can begin to teach about current politics, economics and issues and deal with the news of HIV/Aids, debt, civil war, etc., you have to confront a basic lack of context and perspective and an all-pervasive wealth of mis-, dis-, and missing information in the mind of the student audience. These are the defining characteristics of Clyde's personality and he sits there leering at me in his sheer weight and bulk daring me to contradict what Clyde "knows" about Africa and Africans. Clyde's mental inertia is substantial, an inertia reinforced at every turn outside of the three hours a week he spends with me.[2]

This paper focuses on what I have learned about Clyde over the past twenty-five years or so. It deals in particular with a conclusion I have reached about three related obstacles to faculty teaching and student learning in the United States of America when it comes to the subject of African countries and the people who are citizens of those countries. These obstacles create a challenge to our teaching and student learning and define Clyde's life force.

But, while this paper is about the obstacles and challenge it is also about the opportunity this challenge creates. Creative comparative and area studies work can overcome the obstacles and develop more realistic perspectives on politics, culture, economics, etc. in African countries. As a result, the problems, issues and prospects associated with current events and the lives of people in those countries can be empathetically understood. Without discussing what can be done about the obstacles to understanding, this paper would be just another liturgy of self-serving complaint about the abysmal state of American society and K-12 education when it comes to non-western parts of the world. More positively, with this discussion we can begin a process of showing Clyde the door.[3]

Obstacles to Teaching About Africa in the United States

After lengthy refection on my experience of teaching about Africa I concluded that there at least three persistent and related obstacles in the context of the United States to taking seriously and understanding Africa and African people. These three obstacles are: (1) pervasive and enduring negative images of Africa and Africans arising from and reinforcing (2) racism in the United States resulting in (3) a lack of empathy or resonance between the lives of people in African countries and in the United States. Together these obstacles permeate popular culture, the mass media and our classrooms.

Images of Africa in the United States

Part of the problem is the existence of powerful and pervasive but not very conscious negative stereotypes of Africa which students, not all but many, bring to African based courses and which teachers often fail to effectively dispel. These negative stereotypes underlie and inform images and perspectives related to current news and issues. When students come to text, lecture, and other material with these stereotypes there is a tendency to refract what they read, hear and see in class through the prism of what they already "know" about African countries. This "knowledge" tends to be negative and stereotypical and is constantly reinforced through the news media and popular culture particularly television and film.

Typically, this knowledge insists that Africa is an undifferentiated, homogeneous "country" which is either gloriously romanticized or held to be hopelessly mired in primitive barbarism. If you teach that traditional house construction is of mud and wattle in Buganda and that done correctly and maintained well it will provide good accommodation efficiently and cheaply, students may "learn" that "natives" still live in "mud huts." The image of both the noble and happy or immiserated savage is, therefore, actually reinforced.

Students do not always learn what teachers teach. Students learn in the context of what they already "know" and it can be negative knowledge. Teachers tend to think that the mind of the average student in an African survey course is a tabula rasa when in fact it may be a blackhole into which has already been sucked and imbedded an enormous and compelling quantity of mis- and dis-information. Information that contradicts this knowledge is rejected, deemed to be wrong or is discredited on the grounds of a teacher´s (liberal) biases. What teachers teach is not always what students learn.

For most Americans, not only students, most of the time an impressionistic and stereotypical context is the filter through which current events in Africa are processed. For most Americans there is little formal knowledge or direct experience in the context of African countries and people. This tends to be true in most professions, including journalism, as well as at the level of the general public and elected policy makers. It is also true that the exaggerations about Africa and Africans tend to be based on the slimmest of realities and are, in popular culture, almost uniformly negative. And so it is important to ask the questions of what are the stereotypes and why do they persist. A beginning to the answer can be found by brief reference to the development of popular culture through commercial film and how this popular culture finds its way into daily life in the news media, entertainment programs and public policy debates.

From Hollywood: Images of Africa in Film

The popular stereotype of Africa, played out endlessly in Hollywood films,[4] is that of a densely vegetated, hot and humid, tropical jungle. The fauna (animals) inhabiting this environment range from the exotic but relatively harmless giraffe and gnu (wildebeest) to a plethora of dangerous animals like the lion and leopard with some poisonous snakes about and a hungry crocodile thrown in just in case there is doubt about how terrifying a place this is.

The conjuring of such a background in most films set in Africa takes place effortlessly within the first 60-90 seconds of the beginning. Footage of spectacular scenery, perhaps of a sunset through acacia trees under which a lion is motionlessly eyeing a small zebra herd is more or less typical; once conjured, this setting provides an atmosphere in which heroes and heroines, almost always non-Africans, confront and overcome terrifying, or at least dangerous, adversity. National Geographic specials and the Discovery Channel, of course, run actual footage of the animals over and over again reinforcing the illusion that indeed the natural environment is unchanging and universally of this character.[5]

Africans as people in this image serve as an extension of the animal background. Africans are either simple or "natural" (part of the fauna of Africa) or are primitive savages. In the former image, Africans are portrayed as rather romantic and noble beings unversed and unmindful of contemporary global life in the modern era. In the latter image, Africans are rather ominous, directly acting out primitive human emotions in frightening ways with potentially violent and disastrous results whether they are in a "state of nature" or as Cabinet ministers in African governments. These portrayals provide the opportunity for heroes and heroines to do good works among strange and primitive people or, more often, the opportunity to be terrified but victorious in confronting savagery and danger.

Africans, whether portrayed as happy, if immoderate, primitive people or as "savages" are presented as being so very different as to constitute a different species or at least as a group lower on the ladder of civilization than non-Africans, white people in particular. Whether happy or immiserated savages, Africans in commercial films provide a background and context for the storyline of the stars.

"King of the Jungle"

While many negative and racist images of Africa and Africans in the United States can be traced back to the slave trade and slave society, the specific twentieth century origin of these (still popular) images in the United States is to be found in the writings of adventurers and travelers in Africa in the late 19th century. Henry Morton Stanley comes to mind in his quest first to find David Livingstone and subsequently in the two volumes of In Darkest Africa published in 1890.[6]

The mass marketing of the African stereotype, however, has its source in the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the popular Tarzan series. While Burroughs himself never set foot on African soil, he no doubt relished in such as Stanley's tales and Burroughs had a very fertile imagination. Outside the Tarzan series, Burroughs was best, even better, known as a science fiction writer.

The springboard from the written word to the entrenchment of Tarzan and Tarzan's Africa in the visual imagery of popular culture in the United States was the nascent film industry. The film history of Tarzan spans the 20th century. It began with the first silent movie version starring a rather pudgy Elmo Lincoln, "Tarzan: King of the Apes," in 1918. At century's end, "Tarzan and the Lost City" (1998) and Walt Disney's animated "Tarzan" (1999) completed a lengthy series of Tarzan movies. Many of the earlier films, particularly those at mid-century starring Johnny Weismueller - perhaps the most famous Tarzan of them all - continue to be broadcast on the classic movie cable channels and Disney's "Tarzan" will be available on videocassette and DVD for years, perhaps generations, to come.

Burroughs's imagination and Hollywood's magic created and reinforced the dominant set of images and stereotypes. The origin of these can be clearly seen in the original 1918 silent version. Using footage from the bayous of Louisiana and early anthropological film from Belize, Tarzan's jungle and primitive, savage natives came alive.

The essential Tarzan story is now so well worn that it is surely not necessary to do more than summarize it. Orphaned in the jungle, Tarzan is raised by Great Apes in isolation from direct contact with white European or black African people. In the 1918 Hollywood version, Tarzan, the child, discovers his unremembered jungle birth home, teaches himself to read and that he is a human, not an ape, and realizes as a human (and European?) the need to wear clothes. It is never explained how it was that Tarzan's father had single-handedly managed to build a perfectly good one room wood frame home with furnishings while the best Africans could do was mud huts with thatched roofs. The implication of the film is that the explanation involves the innate moral and technological superiority of Europeans in general and white people in particular.

When it came to clothes, the young Tarzan demonstrated his innate ascendancy over the other people who permanently lived in the neighborhood, the Africans, by stealing their clothes then killing the African who, while hunting, killed Tarzan's "mother." As a result, the superstitious Africans set out food and prostrated themselves before the invisible "god" in their midst.

Tarzan takes no interest in African people as people. On the contrary, the Africans are uniformly presented as dangerous, primitive and superstitious. When threatened, for example, by the hostile presence of the Europeans the Africans "whip themselves into a frenzy" rather than plan a defense or attack. And of course there are the obligatory bare breasted women and boiling cauldron in which who knows what is cooking, perhaps a hapless traveler.

It is not only Africans who are presented in this light, of course. The African American maid, Esmeralda, waiting on Jane is presented as an essentially wide-eyed, hysterical female counterpart of the "step'n fetchit" black male character developed by Hollywood early in the 20th century.

In contrast to Tarzan's reaction to and relationship with Africans, he eventually recognizes his "kind" in the arrival of the Europeans. Upon their arrival Tarzan promptly for the first time has romantic feelings when Jane appears on the scene and of course he saves her from an African abductor. Despite Tarzan's proximity to African women all of his life and the fact that he stole the clothes of young women, his interest in romance is completely dormant until one of his own "kind" arrives.

The culmination of the 1918 version of Tarzan is inevitably his triumphant defense of Jane and her party by burning down the village of the Africans who in classic fashion provide the dangerous background against which our hero triumphs. Environmental danger is represented by a hot, humid, rainforest climate in which appear lions, snakes and other animals as well as a tropical storm. Human danger is represented by unpredictable and primitive but clearly threatening people.

Descendants of the "King"

This scenario is played out over and over and over again in the nearly one hundred years since it was first developed. It is the staple commodity of the Tarzan films up to and including the 1998 film "Tarzan and the Lost City." It has been played out in variations ranging from "The Gods Must Be Crazy" to "Congo" and "Out of Africa" and arguably in the comedic Diaspora setting of Eddie Murphy's "Coming to America." Only Walt Disney avoids these stereotypes of African people by having no Africans in Africa at all. None whatsoever. Disney's Africa is only jungle, animals and Tarzan and his entourage.

The march into the world of the 21st century saw little change in the underlying portrayal of Africa and Africans. However, Hollywood did respond to changes in the taste of its audience, a taste based upon acceptance of the explicit militarism of United States foreign policy. "Black Hawk Down" (2002) and "Tears of the Sun" (2003) reflect this reality in the early 21st century.

"Black Hawk Down," for example, was based on events in the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu, in late 1993 that led to the complete withdrawal of U.S. participation in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions to that country. While based on the outcome of an actual firefight that resulted in the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen, the film primarily dramatizes the personalities and individual lives of U.S. personnel and the collective code of loyalty among soldiers.

The film opens against a background of a dead Somali prepared for burial and pans across a scene of desolation and starvation including young children. Overlaid on these scenes are successive captions that then set for the audience the context in which the killing of Americans takes place. The captions, sequenced and individually framed, are:

Based on an actual event.
"Only the dead have seen the end of war." Plato
Somalia, East Africa, 1992.
Years of warfare among rival clans causes famine on a biblical scale
300,000 civilians die of starvation.
Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the most powerful of the warlords, rules the capital Mogadishu.
He seizes international food shipments at the ports. Hunger is his weapon.
The world responds. Behind a force of 20,000 U.S. Marines, food is delivered and order is restored.
April 1993
Aidid waits until the Marines withdraw, and then declares war on the remaining U.N. peacekeepers.
In June, Aidid's militia ambush and slaughter 24 Pakistani soldiers, and begin targeting American personnel.
In late August, America's elite soldiers, Delta Force, Army Rangers and the 160th SOAR are sent to Mogadishu to remove Aidid and restore order.
The mission was to take three weeks, but six weeks later Washington was growing impatient

Then the title appears "Black Hawk Down" and the film opens on Aidid's militia stealing food aid from starving people.

Quickly we are introduced to a wide range of clean cut clearly virtuous American soldiers increasingly frustrated with the inability to help starving people because of Aidid and the rules of engagement which preclude their intervention. So there is high motivation when the order is given for the surgical strike to capture Aidid.

With almost no exception, Somalis are presented only in the aggregate and as either an immiserated suffering population incapable of doing anything for themselves or as savage heavily armed irregular militia hell bent on maintaining themselves either through the gun or by starving opponents to death.

The exception is the temporary capture of one of Aidid's lieutenant's whose dialogue caused him to say something like "do you think getting rid of Aidid will make us lay down our arms?" The American interrogator says something to the effect that it could lead to peace. The Somali then says something like "without killing there will be no peace. This is how things are in our world." The American presses the point that the way to peace is negotiation and the Somali responds with something like "killing is negotiation." This establishes the hopelessness of trying to help these people no doubt as well as the innate, inherent savagery of Somalis which is then abundantly evident in the ensuing failed mission with the loss of 18 Americans at the hands of a rag tag but heavily armed bunch of savages acting very savagely.

This portrayal of Somalis and Somalia also serves as the background for a key theme of the film. We are caused to care about the U.S. soldiers because of the "no man left behind" code of loyalty among them. We are introduced to and admire the spirit of brotherhood, loyalty and commitment of soldiers to each other in wartime. Increasingly, the film focuses in on the task of ensuring that no man is left behind in the hands of Aidid's murderous militia. And we cannot wait to get out of Somalia and leave it to its own devices.

The courage and heroism required to honor the "no man left behind" code is directly proportionate to the risk of death required to implement it. This risk is related to the savagery of the enemy and to the intensity of the enemy's demonic nature. The more savage and demonic the enemy, the more dangerous it is for "our" boys to do good and comeback together alive, wounded or dead.

From Hollywood to the Headlines and Corridors of Power

Popular images like those detailed above become part of the public discourse affecting the news media and public policy. There is no reason why this should not be so. Elected policy makers like journalists and filmmakers have little knowledge of Africa and African people.

"Black Hawk Down" is a good example of this in relation to the making of U.S. foreign policy. Films like "Black Hawk Down" have an impact partly because of the reinforcement of stereotypes regarding contemporary Africans. These images are easily mobilized in order to underline the heroism and courage of U.S. soldiers.

But the effect of films like this one is enhanced because it is based on an "actual event." It becomes the historical reality for audiences who may have no other knowledge of the event and this portrayal is consistent with already existing images. As this becomes the historical understanding of the public (and of policymakers), it intrudes into the process of foreign policy making.

In mid-2003, for example, elements of the Bush administration, reluctant to intervene in Liberia, used the excuse of avoiding another Mogadishu as a reason for dragging their feet. General Peter Pace, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was questioned on the prospects for intervening in the Liberian situation during his reconfirmation hearing. General Pace expressed caution and concern because of the risks and, according to the report of his testimony, "cited an ominous precedent, the failed humanitarian [sic] mission to Somalia, which ended after the deaths of 18 troops in a vicious firefight in Mogadishu in 1993…."[7]

"Black Hawk Down" is no doubt partly responsible for the resonance of this perspective for the General and for the general population even though the population could probably not tell anyone more about what happened in Somalia, or why, than what was in the film "Black Hawk Down."

General Pace was not alone. Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," interviewed Senator John Kerry on Sunday, August 31, 2003 on whether or not he would, as President, put United States military forces under United Nations command. The exchange on this point was as follows:

"Mr. Russert: You say good to the United Nations.

Senator Kerry: Yes.

Mr. Russert: We tried that in Somalia, a U.N. command, and we had American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

Senator Kerry: That's not what I would do. What I would do - there are three parts of the mission in Iraq. One part of the mission are the humanitarian component and the infrastructure governance component. I would put these two clearly under the United Nations, and have the United Nations begin to build them. They were extraordinarily successful in East Timore, they were successful in Namibia. We had a joint command in Kosovo and Bosnia. And we can work out the details whereby a United States commander is still in direct command over U.S. troops…."[8]

What is interesting is Tim Russert's assertion, completely unchallenged by Senator Kerry, that the United States soldiers killed in Mogadishu were under United Nations, not United States command. The fact is that it was a United States command that ordered the capture of Aidid. It was United Nations assistance that was eventually called for and used to extricate the U.S. preventing a greater loss of life by the U.S. military. The mythology of Mogadishu, the "Mogadishu Excuse," once more became the reality for one of the most respected television journalists and a respected Senator running for the highest elected office in the land.

The film "Black Hawk Down" is faithful to the book.[9] But the point is that neither the film nor the book makes any attempt to locate the events in any kind of historical context. How did this situation come to exist? The implicit answer is that the Somalis have always been like this and we were crazy to get involved. There was not, for example, any effort to relate our presence at all to our deep involvement in Somali politics during the Cold War.

And so it happens that the "Black Hawk Down" episode 10 years later and more than half a continent away becomes the basis for rejecting timely intervention in an African country, however symbolic the eventual very limited intervention was.

It is also interesting that the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia in 1993 was a key cautionary tale for General Pace when considering an intervention in Liberia but a more dramatic cautionary tale had no impact on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. No "ominous precedent" inhibited the run-up to war in Iraq because of the much greater loss of American military lives in the vicious bombing of our barracks in Lebanon in 1983 with the loss of 241 American military lives.

The expression of the hopelessness of the African situation in film and from the current President of the United States resonates when comparing "Tears of the Sun" with President Bush's trip in 2003. In "Tears of the Sun," as Bruce Willis leaves the clinic in the jungle with the doctor Willis was sent to rescue from marauding militias, the remaining European priest says, "go with God" to which Willis replies "God already left Africa!" President George W. Bush echoed this sentiment at the end of a speech in Nigeria on the conclusion of his trip to the continent in 2003 by saying "May God bless Africa and continue [emphasis added] to bless America." Africa cannot claim God's blessing, but "America" can.

Those who produce current events and popular culture and make public policy related to Africa often do so from a very limited background of systematic study and direct experience. They, like their audience, therefore bring to that work what they already know which tends to be based on stereotypes in American culture. So what captures the imagination are events and motivations consistent with this "reality."

But secondly, commercial films and news directors select subjects and how they portray people with a view to the interests and tastes of the consuming public. What will people pay to see or read? Subjects have to meet a market demand and taste at least for the most part most of the time.

The combination of news selection based on the stereotypical predisposition of those who select the news and the fact that this selection will also sell it to an audience, then selects "newsworthy" stories consistent with what is already "known."[10] These are generally stories of death, gore and despair and are, of course, accurate. The incidents reported are not made up however selectively and out of context they are put out on the news media networks. They are realities in Africa and are the daily fare of the mass media of the United States because they exist and are selected as the news, the more sensational the better.

An example is an article published in the New York Times Magazine in October 2003[11] describing a particularly repulsive practice. The article describes the use of cannibalism by rebels in northeastern Congo as a means to instill courage in their troops and fear in their enemies citing a personal story of a pygmy and United Nations sources for other instances of cannibalism. This may even be true. This, along with hunger, disease, and economic distress, is reality. This is news.

These realities of Africa reported in the news are selected and analyzed against the general background of what journalists and the informed public already know or think they know: Africa is backward. Its people and practices are primitive, harkening to a nearly prehistoric time and primordial instinct of violence and superstition. Its progress is charted not as two steps forward and one step back but by one step forward and two steps back. That's the African reality. That's the news.

The article in The New York Times locates this reality in a context of mystical belief associated with the breakdown of any kind of order and the descent back into primitive, atavistic, chaos. It then concludes that despite a thin layer of people with education and a rational outlook, Africa "…is a continent suspended, trapped somewhere closer to the ancient than to the modern, a continent where so many visas lead to places that feel utterly lost, not only for their wretched poverty and cataclysmic civil wars and devastating histories of exploitation and neglect but also for the primitive understanding that may, along with the wretched and the cataclysmic and the devastating, allow for little in the way of modern development."[12] This conclusion reaffirms the validity of the context used to select and analyze this "news" in the first place.

Distant editors, safely ensconced in corporate editorial boardrooms in New York, London or Atlanta, may applaud this candid journalism only because it is consistent with their lack of knowledge and direct experience with realities in Africa. This perspective is, after all, consistent with the images they and their readers share. For them it needs no context beyond the stereotypes.

But what about reporters on the ground? Those sent to cover the events might be confronted with complexities that contradict the stereotypes and the racism that lies behind them. This could lead to a different kind of reporting but in general it does not.

It is important to remember than many journalists themselves enter those stories with little more than a background of stereotypical and other negative images. Journalists also move from one story to the next with amazing rapidity and each seems so consistent with the last that the succession of appalling anecdotes becomes their reality, a reality that is the image. Coping with that image as reality then can result in cynicism and callousness toward the subjects of the news. Aidan Hartley, for example, in a recent journalist's memoir called The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands wrote "at any one time one had six wars, a couple of famines, a coup d'etat, and a natural disaster like a flood or an epidemic or a volcanic eruption, all within a radius of three hours' flight from Nairobi. You could take off at sunrise, commute to witness a battle, or hear a starving man breathe his last and be back home by nightfall, in time to file a story, take a shower, then hit the Tamarind restaurant downtown for mangrove crab and Stellanbosch [wine]."[13] His several years as a stringer and correspondent for Reuters News Service seemed to be a never ending stream of short and superficial visits to places of death and doom relief from which was found mainly in drinking and sex rather than in a maturing understanding of underlying causes and reasons for the events selectively reported.

But it also seems clear from Hartley's experience that the news "business," of which Reuters is a key part, strongly preferred a few moving and sordid stories from an endless succession of desperate places. Stringers and correspondents were not paid or reimbursed for expenses to get to the bottom of events, to be good historians, but to provide a description of the current disaster, then move on. The impression created is that filing in-depth contextual stories would lead to a short, unhappy and financially disastrous career.

Against the background of the actual historical reality in Africa, these popular images of Africa on film and in the news are one-dimensional negative stereotypes. And what is striking is the consistency and persistence of this over the past hundred years or so. What is also striking over the years is that the stereotypes of Africa and Africans show almost no change whatsoever while stereotypes and racist images of African Americans in America in film has changed. This continuity in the image of Africa means that a depiction of Africa and Africans based on race and racism continues to be utterly consistent with the common sense of popular culture in the U.S. even though such a depiction of African Americans is not.

Images of Africa and the Place of Race in the United States

It is the common sense of popular culture and the news media that almost all students bring with them to class and apply to text and lecture presented in class. This is what Clyde has in his head when taking a seat in my class. But it is also true that the impact and significance of such racialized culture differs substantially within the student constituency because of the place of race in the United States.

Second, then, among the barriers to teaching and learning about Africa is the fact that this enterprise takes place in the United States of America. Its historical and cultural contexts are too often treated as epiphenomena unrelated to the academic endeavor. Teachers like to think that within the confines of their Africa course, the cultural context surrounding it can be ignored. Most Africanists try to convey an African experience to students which means endeavoring to shut out, in so far as it is possible to do so, the culture of the country within which their course is taught.

The truth, of course, is that we cannot and should not divorce the content of courses and processes of learning in those courses from the wider society where teaching and learning happens. Like it or not, African survey courses taught in the United States are offered in a culture with a continuing history of racism in which "Africa" has a special, though contradictory, place. The background and context of racism in the United States gave rise to the stereotypes and is one of the reasons for their persistence.

The image of and orientation to Africa arising from the racism of America is diverse and complex but ever present. For example, some African Americans expropriate and assert exclusive ownership over an idealized and undifferentiated interpretation of African history and culture as a reference point of identification and even nostalgia. Such an affiliation with Africa is a positive piece of social and political identification and action. The "back to Africa" movement for the purpose of discovering and cultivating identity can be an indispensable and empowering element for coping with and confronting racism in America.

However, to the extent that this leads to ideologies and stereotypes romanticizing historical "Africa," it can be a negative. It can lead to a refusal to explore certain unpleasant contemporary realities in some African countries including poverty, disease, corruption and political violence and repression.

On the other hand, ideologies rooted in racism revel in those same realities. For some white folks, the "back to Africa" movement means sending "them" back to Africa where "they" belong. White racism is reflected in the classic Tarzan image of Africa, a steamy, dangerous, primitive land and people requiring for salvation a white superhero. This image is very powerful and very American. It also finds its way into the identities and actions of many segments of U.S. society.

Both of these ideologies - and the multitude of shades and nuances in between - are constantly present and mingle in the whirlpool of culture in the United States. Both of these ideologies distort the contemporary reality of African countries and African people. Both of these ideologies arise from the long history of the economic, cultural and political significance of race in American society. And both are very American and find a place in the minds of the student (and many faculty) constituencies I know best - not in all of them, but in many of them. And both can be simultaneously present in a single class getting in the way of learning as well as creating unneeded and often unrecognized tension in the pedagogical process.

African based courses taught and enrolled in cannot in and of themselves change the surrounding society; but that society should not be ignored in the context of those courses. If we ignore the racism of American society or, worse, pretend it does not exist, it may come to operate as an unspoken, self-reproducing and growing undercurrent which silently swells, threatening like a Tsunami to crash ashore sweeping all else before it.

I learned this lesson best through a twenty-plus year association with the National Model Organization of African Unity (now African Union) and its Director, Dr. Michael Nwanze. His leadership of the Model insisted upon simulating a meeting of African sovereign states. However, the model's development resulted from the fact that it took place in the United States. And the participants were mainly American undergraduates drawn from the surrounding society roughly one third each "white" American, African American, and African from the continent itself. Turning the undercurrents of racism in America into constructive rather than destructive directions in the early years of the Model was a guiding principle of its development. Building the ramparts around the African experience in racist America protected the former from the latter by acknowledging its presence. The same needs to be accomplished in conventional classroom settings.

A Lack of Empathy

The cultural and political significance of racism in the United States, giving rise to and reinforcing largely negative images, results, thirdly, in a lack of resonance between what is taught about Africa and life in Africa and the daily lives and thoughts of students. Unrealistic stereotypes that make African countries and people seem to be in another distant, strange and unappealing world prevents us from putting ourselves in African shoes and seeing the world through African eyes. It becomes difficult to make a connection with the common humanity of ourselves and African people despite the fact that 99.9% of all the genetic material of all the people in the entire world is the same.

Our common biological heritage leads to common needs for food, shelter, health care and clothing. The biological commonality of human existence also leads to common underlying social, economic and political issues of how to structure social interaction, produce the goods needed for life and live collectively in relative harmony. We, like African people, want to live comfortably, care for our children, perform useful and creative labor and enjoy in peace the fruits of that effort. African people, like us, laugh and cry, rejoice in birth and mourn at death.

Too often this common human predicament and condition goes unrecognized because of unrealistic and negative stereotypes played out against a background of racism in the United States. If we do not make the connection between our own lives and the lives of people in African countries, then there is no chance that more abstract comparisons can take place. The idea that similar sometimes parallel historical processes are at work is alien. The nature and solution to "African" problems are not thought about in comparison to similar problems and relations in our own lives and society.

This does not mean that people in Africa are all the same any more than we in the U.S. are all the same. The .1% of genetic difference alone creates astounding, if superficial physical appearance, diversity around the world. Similarly, the history of human dispersion results in tremendous variation in experience in different environments producing different and diverse cultural, social, economic and political outcomes and actions. But in the end it is our common humanity that creates a wonderfully simple and direct connection among us all. This should, but all too often does not, promote respect for what we have in common and that which makes us different.

In fact, the dispersion, separation and diversity of experience have created ideologies and actions preventing the recognition of this simple truth. Stereotypes of Africa and Africans and the social and political purposes to which those are put in the U.S. are a case in point. The physical differences among people based on tiny genetic differences, skin color in particular, rather than differences based on historical experience, are used as the explanatory factor. This leads to an inability to reach an empathetic understanding of the life and times of the approximately 750 million people in fifty-three nations on a continent three and a half times the size of the U.S. This learned inability to put oneself in the shoes of another can become an impenetrable wall between what American students "know" and the reality of life for the citizens of the nations on the continent of Africa.

What is to be done? An End to a Beginning: The Responsibility of Scholar-Teachers

It is easy enough to demonstrate the negative images, their passage from and through the racism of the United States and their impact through the news and other media of popular culture. It is easy enough to paint this picture of Clyde. But who is to blame and what is be done to tackle this nexus?

Blame is easy….or is it? Hollywood writers, producers and actors who only know the stereotype are to blame and need to be educated. Journalists, editors, headline writers and publishers are to blame and need to recognize stereotypes and either avoid them or acknowledge them. But where do they get their "knowledge" of Africa and Africans? Largely from each other in an inter-generational circular reproductive process.

There is seemingly nowhere in the cycle for different information and views to form and gain traction….or is there? Are there people out there who do have experience and information that recognizes the stereotypes, the reasons for their reproduction and the destructive power of those images? The answer is "yes" and in the words of Pogo's analysis of the war in Vietnam, "we have met the enemy and they is us." American scholars whose content area is somewhere in Africa have been producing very good scholarly work on Africa for a very long-time and in particular since the development of area studies programs in the 1960s with considerable funding.

So my question is "why after many years of accumulating meticulous academic research and publication on Africa by American scholars[14] there seems to be so little change in mass media and popular knowledge and understanding?" I myself spent nearly eleven years living and working first in Uganda, then Botswana, and have been teaching and publishing on topics of African politics in the U.S. for more than twenty years; yet, I and other academics have apparently failed to effectively communicate that experience. And having failed to communicate that experience, I and other scholars therefore failed to effect student, media and popular understanding of current events and trends, of life and its contours, in African countries.

Kurt Vonnegut, writing as Kilgore Trout in Breakfast of Champions relates a similar story "about a tragic failure to communicate." Here is the story: "A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing. Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club." A tragic failure to communicate.

Too often when scholars present their work to students and the public, it appears to be nothing more than "farts and tap dancing," unintelligible, suspect -- and potentially dangerous. To put it in less literary terms, but at the risk of being accused of speaking like Zog, scholars are not generally adept at presenting their work in an understandable way to the general public and often to their own students. Richard Pells, himself an historian, argued the case that "…too many academics, including historians, are content to write only for one another. The result is that America's scholars are increasingly isolated from the public, with little impact on social issues or cultural trends."[15]

But it is not only that scholars do not try. Pells goes on to observe, "worst of all, academics are not putting on a good show. Which is why Americans these days learn their history from Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, rather than from us."[16] To have an impact it is necessary to translate academic concepts and information into understandable language and it must be "entertaining" in at least some way.

In order to avoid "a tragic failure to communicate" in my course, I organize it around three principles: The first is the need to develop a realistic perspective on how to understand current events and trends in Africa from a base of academic scholarship. But second, to do so bearing in mind the key barriers in American society that makes its penetration by good information so difficult when it comes to the subject of Africa. The third principle is to attempt to make it "entertaining" by making the subject relevant to the life of the reader. The subject matter has to matter.

In the course, unlike this paper, I do not spend a lot of time initially on the stereotypes and images themselves. The first thing I do is talk with Clyde about the United States, not at great length but in the context of the obstacles discussed above. Having told Clyde that stereotypes exist, that they are racially based, persistent and still amongst us, it is essential that Clyde should be able to himself identify and critique the stereotypes. But, at that point he really does not have the basis to do so. If it is true that Clyde comes to class with a stereotypical picture in his head, to ask him to critique that means asking him to reject what he more or less believes and knows based upon all of his experience and education. It is my word against all that. I lose.

So after two periods discussing the obstacles, we then spend two weeks on the basics of geography, climate, countries emphasizing the diversity and size of the continent as well as the need to understand that there are 53 countries with 53 different and separate stories to tell. In addition, we talk about genetics and race relying on elements of Steve Olson's Mapping Human History to understand the biology behind skin color and the rejection of race as a biological category. Clyde has to complete an assignment based on data on five variables (e.g. population growth, resources, geography) and 12 countries responding to questions about the extent of diversity on the continent.

That section is followed by several classes talking about the movies, news and other views during which Clyde completes an assignment based on watching a movie, documentary, or television show related to Africa. The assignment is designed to promote an ability to describe and critique stereotypes.

The point is to get Clyde to use what he has learned about the realities to become adept at identifying what are stereotypes. Then, at last, it is possible to begin the course Introduction to African Civilization or the course Politics in Africa. It takes time to get to that point and even after that point it is essential to constantly make reference to comparative examples from the U.S. and Europe but at least then one can talk about historical and current events, trends, issues and news in a context sensitive to the role of race, stereotypes and empathy in the United States.

For example, I develop a scenario without a context of time or place as follows: Suppose you know nothing about a nation other than the following: There is a country where a presidential election occurs. Two weeks after the election there is a continuing dispute about the counting of ballots and the result in one critical state. One of the candidates, the son of a former president -who was defeated in a bid for re-election- and who (the father) had earlier been director of the nation's spy agency - declares himself the winner. An elected Secretary of State of the self-declared winner's political party certifies the results in the critical state and the Governor of that state is the brother of the self-declared winner. And this takes place in a system where the self-declared winner has 300,000 votes less nation-wide than his opponent.

I then put it to Clyde that if this is the sequence and facts of current events and you come to that current event with the image that this country is undemocratic and rampant with nepotism, corruption and tribalism, then you would conclude that nothing is new and the stereotype is true. If there is nothing in your knowledge that creates a context of understanding of how the current events are part of a more complex historical reality, then the only context is the stereotype. This being the case, the stereotype is likely to be reinforced.

The hypothetical case above is obviously the United States in November of 2000. And Clyde knows that the current event is not to be necessarily or first of all or finally explained by nepotism, corruption and the inability of the people to govern themselves. But when Clyde hears about a disputed election in Africa, all he has to fall back on to explain and understand the event is the stereotype.

By following through with an analysis of African history related to the key variables of gender, class, politics and culture (ethnicity) it is possible to make some headway with Clyde. In doing so I use as many comparative analogies as I can drawn from the history of the United States. For example, to create some understanding of stress and potential instability in post-colonial Africa I remind Clyde that after a bloody revolution the United States had two constitutions in twelve years and a disastrous civil war seventy-five years later. Transformation and change is not easy and is never finished.

Another way to look at this approach is to use the biblical David and Goliath story. The 800- pound gorilla, Clyde, is my Goliath and my task is to find the appropriate tools (the organization and sequence of the syllabus is my slingshot) and ammunition (the right comparative material and presentation are my stones). With a slingshot and stone in hand, the trick is to find the right point of vulnerability in slaying such a behemoth with these meager resources. That point of vulnerability is the fact that behind Clyde's imagery lays a brain capable of critical thought. If my stone hits the right spot it opens a world of questions and skepticism that will forever alter Clyde's perspective.

I systematically adopted this approach only in the spring of 2004 having danced around it for years. So far, I think it is having a useful effect, not least on my own ability to judge where my students are coming from and "like" where they are going. For me, my student's (Clyde's) "stupid question" after three weeks about whether there is a President of Africa represented an epiphany in her/his understanding of the continent. And we still have weeks to go. Clyde, the 800-pound gorilla is now at least off balance and is leaning toward the door. Stay tuned.


  1. With apologies to the Clyde's of this world including Clyde the Cougar, mascot of College of Charleston athletic teams.
  2. These observations, of course, are not news to Africanists who teach at the undergraduate level. For a sampling of the contribution of mainly American Africanists to a debate ten years ago about teaching see Patricia Alden, David Lloyd and Ahmed Samatar (editors), African Studies and the Undergraduate Curriculum, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994). However, the persistence of this problem calls for new approaches to it. The project of which this paper is a part seeks to develop a new approach.
  3. In the interest of full disclosure, parts of this paper are also part of a much larger work in progress, a manuscript for a book to be used in Africa based courses at any level for any discipline where the constituency is American students whose knowledge of and perspective on Africa and people in Africa is based on popular culture and the news media. That includes about 99% of the students I have taught and teach and I suspect that is consistent with the student profile around the country. The manuscript, currently with the working title Africa is (Not) a Country (or alternatively Everything You Think You Know About Africa and Why You Are Right and Wrong), is being designed around the challenge to teaching and learning discussed in this paper.
  4. A sampling of books related to images of Africa in film would include Kenneth M. Cameron, Africa on Film: Beyond Black and White, (New York: Continuum, 1994), and Peter Davis, In Darkest Hollywood: Exploring the Jungles of Cinema's South Africa, (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press [Ravan Press], 1996). A video version of the latter was produced by Daniel Riesenfeld and Peter Davis in two parts entitled "In Darkest Hollywood: Cinema and Apartheid" distributed by Villon Films, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Rob Nixon explores aspects of American film and culture and its connections to culture and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa in Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood: South African Culture and the World Beyond, (New York: Routledge, 1994). Josef Gugler's African Film: Re-Imagining a Continent, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003) is a recent analysis of seventeen films related to themes of African history and cultural change most of which are films by African filmmakers.
  5. Textbooks are not immune from this compelling image. Global Studies: Africa, (Guilford: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin, tenth edition, 2004), a book I am using in AFST 101 this semester, has on its cover a Zebra against the backdrop of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Every other book in the Global Studies series (China, the Middle East, Latin America, Japan and the Pacific Rim, India and South Asia, and Europe) has on its cover a picture that demonstrates the hand of man, e.g. the Great Wall of China or a mosque or other piece of architecture. Africa gets a Zebra and Mt. Kilimanjaro. The book and series are useful in other ways and I also use the cover in class to illustrate our problem in learning about African countries and African people.
  6. Henry M. Stanley, In Darkest Africa or the Quest, Rescue, and Retreat of Emin Governor of Equatoria, Two Volumes, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890.
  7. New York Times, July 25, 2003, p. A3.
  8. Transcript posted on the website of "NBC News' Meet the Press," for Sunday, August 31, 2003.
  9. Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, (New York: Penguin Books, 2000, first published in 1999).
  10. Some perspectives on media treatment of Africa are found in Beverly G. Hawk, (editor), Africa's Media Image, (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992).
  11. Daniel Bergner, "The Most Unconventional Weapon," The New York times Magazine, October 26, 2003, pp. 48-53.
  12. Ibid., p. 53.
  13. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003, p. 6.
  14. This academic work goes back to the pioneering effort of scholars like W.E.B. DuBois and others in the historically black colleges and universities, the work of people like Melville Herskovits and others who developed contemporary African Area Studies after World War II and to the efforts of organizations like the African Studies Association and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.
  15. Richard Pells, "For Academics, Too, It's All in the Telling," International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, March 24, 1999, p. 9.
  16. Ibid.
  17. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

Return to the SERSAS Home Page

Send corrections/suggestions to Kenneth Wilburn, Web Editor for SERSAS.

First Online Edition: 19 March 2004
Last Revised: 22 March 2004