Sunday, May 31, 2009

think of africa in fantasized, monolithic terms

Voiceover: "There's something about exploring Africa . . . "

Yes, there is something about it.

Something "white," I'd say . . .

This is advertisement for an upcoming reality show on America's History Channel, "Expedition Africa." This eight-part televised "event" will follow a set of "modern-day explorers" as they attempt to recreate, as fully as they can, the conditions and path of Stanley as he sought Livingstone in the 1860s.

As in any advertisement, key words and phrases were carefully selected to jump out at the viewer from this one. These are the words that jumped out at me:

"Stanley's search for Livingstone is the Super Bowl of all expeditions."
modern-day explorers
wild Africa
dangerous animals
bleeding feet
"There's no turning back."
"There's a chance none of us will make it."

I think that these words were chosen, and then emphasized, because they resonate with a largely white audience's fantasized, fearful, and paternalistic view of "Africa."

Despite the fact that Stanley and Livingstone's "explorations" took place in what are now specific African countries, no mention is made here of them. The only place name used in the advertisement is "Africa."

What's worse than merely conceiving of all things "African" in monolithic terms is that this mythical concept of an extremely variegated continent has specific characteristics--and cartoonish ones, at best. Africa was of course thought of by Westerners in Stanley and Livingstone's day as "the Dark Continent," full of "dangerous animals," "bugs," "diseases," "infections," and the very high risk that any Westerner who "journeys" there "won't survive/make it."

Oh, and there were people in that monolithic concept too, though they never get mentioned in this ad. "Savage" ones, of course, but some tamer ones too. Those are the "Africans" who were willing to help Stanley find Livingstone. I wonder if this program will attempt to recreate that aspect of Stanley's journey, or indeed, anything having to do with the abusive, often murderous colonial relations between Europeans and "Africa."

What I find especially exasperating about this ad is that its makers clearly realize that most white Americans still more or less think of "Africa" this way. As a result, news presented by the corporate media of events in particular African countries quickly fades into this same imagined morass of chaos, disease, wilderness and danger.

And, as another result, Western corporations can continue the centuries-long Western plundering of African resources, largely out of the sight and consciousness of most Americans. And Americans can go on blithely failing to realize how much of their relative comfort is a direct result of that plundering.

Maybe it's unfair to judge a TV show by its ads. Nevertheless, by the looks of this one, I think it's a safe bet that this upcoming effort to provide a glimpse into "history" won't do much at all to educate viewers. Instead, it's going to reinforce some of their dark, ridiculous, and ultimately pernicious and murderous fantasies.


  1. It is indeed fair - the ads are supposed to entice the viewer to watch. Although the words used are supposed to invoke a "dangerous" expedition to get the average person (read City Dweller, probably white) to watch, I seriously doubt that these words would be used when referring to expeditions to anyplace other than the African continent or certain East Asian countries.

    Sadly, it is not just docu-dramas like this; all you have to do is look at nearly any TV show for almost since its inception to find examples of this - and it still happens today (*cough*Heroes*cough). This monolith results in over-broad captions (somewhere in "Africa") instead of being specific (Tripoli, Libya for example). You will rarely find that kind of ambiguous captioning outside of Africa/East Asia.

    Monolithing fails both the viewer and the producer. And until the producers see that, this "Missionary" mentality will make these kinds of shows useless for any real information.

  2. Images like this prove what Binyavanga Wainaina had to say occurs when westerners speak about Africa. It is part of how we maintain a neo colonialism by constructing all of Africa as backward and therefore in need of saving by a "civilizing" agent. Part of it is based in racism and the other is a desire to consume what is not ours.

  3. It's either "darkest Africa" (*scary music rises*) or some gloriana-esque scenario with "exotic" bare-breasted women looking out across the savannah as they wait for their warrior mate to return from the hunt...

  4. Jesus, so contrived, Eurocentric, and self-congratulatory.

    Here are two quotes from a Washington Post article discussing the series:

    "the explorers realized they had no sailing experience but had to cross from the island of Zanzibar to the Tanzanian mainland. 'We could drown,' one of them says. Die? Drown? In front of camera operators and producers? We dare you, explorers."

    "These four explorers are accompanied by two Masai warriors (for protection) and a phalanx of Tanzanian porters (to carry luggage). It's imperialist nostalgia, watching four white people hack through the bush with a support staff of natives."

    My personal thoughts are I'm 1) disgusted and 2) not surprised. In my opinion, almost nothing shows white privlege more than the great lengths American white people will go to be "challenged" psychologically/emotionally.

    So, they do these acute activities in a controlled environment to "feel alive" and put the pictures in their living rooms and feel smug knowing they know all about "ethnic" stuff.

    They then display their souvenir photographs in their homes and talk about their "amazing" experiences at the currently popular yuppy microbrewery.

    Of course, I'm not talking about "all" white people. But, I'm expressing my gut reaction to this post and doing a bit of venting as well.

  5. After reading King Leopold's Ghost where the writers go into detail about exactly what Stanley did on that expedition and the huge number of Africans who were enslaved, tortured and murdered as a result of this expedition, this show makes me want to vomit.

  6. Thank you for this post Macon. I saw ads for this documentary in a movie theatre (yes a movie theatre...why) and I whispered to my mother, "Look, some more white people exploring Africa!" You pretty much put to words everything I felt in those 2 or 3 minutes.

  7. Wow, looking at the trailer you would have no idea that nearly a billion people live in Africa, three times as many people as live in the United States!

  8. Ugh, looks terrible! I have to admit, though. When I hear news from Darfur or Nigeria, for instance, it becomes "African" news in my mind. The news doesn't stick for me as a country's news, the way news from any European or even South American country does. Like the Air France plane that just went down. If it was an Air Nigeria plane I would think of that differently, like it's an "African" plane. "Monolithing" is a good way to put that. How can I get over that habit? Loook at a map, for starters I guess!

  9. I notice that the only time an actual "African" is depicted in the ad is a very quick shot at 2:08, where a tribesperson is shown throwing a spear at the viewer. This is slotted in quickly after a shot of a scary lion, then the African, then a shot of one of the heroic white "explorers" running for his life in slo-mo, then some kind of eagle thing taking flight from a tree. Get it? There's the heroes, and then there's the wildlife. Ugh.

  10. The ad seems to buy into that "empty wilderness" school of stereotypes re: Africa, where people are absent or relegated to bits of set decoration in the battle between (White)Man and the Scary Flora and Fauna.

    Docs like this one that focus on the personal growth of the individual "adventurers" go beyond relegating the locals to scenery, but suggest some really horrible things about the relationship between people and their environments, and inadvertently suggest that ecosystems that still house dangerous bugs, carnivorous charismatic megafauna, or that have "extreme" weather are somehow "unnatural" and exist to test people. A set of assumptions that leads to the further denigration of the people who actually live there.

    Sometimes I wonder if looking to "classical" history, the classics, would be a useful way to start off a class or essay or discussion on the internal diversity of Africa. Afterall, Mediterranean and North Africa were very much a part of the Greek and Roman worlds, as were points inland (to a degree) and south all the way to Ethiopia. There isn't discussion of Africa as a monolith, but of Carthaginians, Numidians and Ethiopians. Also Egypt. Wonder if finding a way to link Egypt with Africa (rather then the Arab Peninsula) in peoples minds would also foster development towards the spread of popular consciousness that "jee, Africa's full of very different cultures".

    One thing I've noticed regarding my own education about African countries/societies (and that of my friends) is that high schools that do an Africa unit tend to pick one country, maybe two, and look at them exclusively, leaving students with out a variety of cultures to look at, and frequently not going far enough back into pre-colonial history.

  11. I've had the pleasure of hearing Micheal Fay speak at a conference shortly after his mega-transect through Congo and Gabon.

    He was a white guy trekking through "wild Africa", but he spoke in Geographically correct terms, and spoke specifically about the regions in which he walked. He spoke fondly of the staff that he hired and befriended. The team walked for like 2,000 miles through the jungle.

    The purpose was to collect data and aid local governments in establishing nature preserves.

    I really enjoyed his presentation and generally support such efforts. But I wonder if there's a bit of patronization going on there as well. Anyone else familiar with this?

  12. Totally agree with Xay: making a show like this without (apparently) a single reference to the fact that Stanley's expedition was funded by a racist, slave-holding colonial superpower, or talking about how many of his "porters" died on the way, is historical revisionism at its worst.

  13. I could say so much, but I think there's one word that sums it up:


    They pull this same crap. How many Africans have been in Disney movies that take place in Africa? And how often do they tell you where in Africa?

  14. "How many Africans have been in Disney movies that take place in Africa? "
    Hasn't there only been one Disney movie set in Africa? Which had no humans in it whatsoever...

  15. Eusthenopteron, I know there was the Lion King, of which there were multiple squeals (those came out right about the time I was growing out of Disney movies). I thought the Jungle Book and Tarzan were also Disney, but I could certainly be mistaken.

    In any event, the fact that the Lion King has no people is part of the point. And even the way the animals are portrayed is racist - it was clear to us even as little kid that the good lions were white, the bad lions were black, the hyena's were Latino, and the crazy witch-doctor monkey was also black.

    There's lots of other racist crap in other Disney movies. I even have a problem with the new one with a black princess, but then that' sway off topic.

  16. The Jungle Book and Tarzan weren't set in Africa. As I recall, The Jungle Book had a tiger in it, not an African animal. I'm not sure where Tarzan was set, but I'm sure it wasn't Africa.

    Linda: as for always seeing Nigerian, Zimbabwean etc news as "African", I think visiting a country would make a huge difference. Especially the cities.

    The scenery and nature looks rather similar, but the cities are all very different and have different atmospheres.

    And, as a South African, I've noticed the people from overseas think of three things when I say I'm South African.

    1)You have... the internet? 2)You're not black so... you must be racist or 3)The notorious Johannesburg crime.

  17. Your right, PattiLain. The Jungle Book popped into my head because of the apes, which of course were given stereotypical black characteristics, but were not in Africa. Tarzan was in Africa, however, complete with white explorers.

  18. Ah, yes, Tarzan was set in Africa. My mistake. It's probably because I've never been to the more jungle-y places. I'm more used to the dry grasslands of Southern Africa.

  19. "I thought the Jungle Book and Tarzan were also Disney, but I could certainly be mistaken."
    Fuck, I forgot Tarzan.

  20. I think Africa and its problems are one of the reasons why many whites think blacks should be grateful to be in America and stop
    "whining" aka demanding equal rights and justice.

  21. The same goes for everywhere. Some people in South Africa think black people should be grateful that white people came here and introduced black people to modern technology.

    Yeah... and enslaved them and took their lands, rights and dignity? Try again, forefathers.

    But then again, I think some people believe white people are to thank for "civilising" all sorts of groups. Yeah...

  22. Mike, you said:

    "I think Africa and its problems are one of the reasons why many whites think blacks should be grateful to be in America..."

    I think you have a valid point and I think it goes beyond just stereotyping and racism.

    American culture is incredibly shallow. Our de-regulated neo-liberal economic framework pits Americans against Americans and gives many of us status anxiety. People are judged by their cars, homes, clothes, teeth, etc... as much as their character.

    So, on top of stereotyping and racism, I think the condescending view Americans have toward the African continent and African-descent people in general is also bolstered by the fact that Africans are not (very often) seen on the news wearing Nikes, drinking Starbucks, wearing veneers, of any of the other culturally-bankrupt status symbols we assign value in America.

  23. "The Jungle Book" is set in India! And based on a book by Ruyard Kipling, one of the first literary names (one of the only?) that many American's associate with India. He was raised there during the British colonial era, and his work is often taught, to, well, kids. Don't know if any of the content is controversial, but it seemed worth mentioning.

    Aside from Tarzan there is the Madagascar franchise (with Pixar?), and, interestingly a couple of live action movies for kids (don't know if they're disney or not) like "Born Free", about some scientists and a Lion. And surely some stuff set in egypt?

  24. Kevin Lockett said...

    In any event, the fact that the Lion King has no people is part of the point. And even the way the animals are portrayed is racist - it was clear to us even as little kid that the good lions were white, the bad lions were black, the hyena's were Latino, and the crazy witch-doctor monkey was also black.

    There's lots of other racist crap in other Disney movies. I even have a problem with the new one with a black princess, but then that' sway off topic.

    June 2, 2009 8:02 PM

    Its so funny the things you do not see as a kid. But now that you point it out, i totally see all the stereotypes.
    Majority of the problems in Africa right now were created by white males. I could go on and on but that will not solve anything. I think a lot of Africans have been brainwashed and some are just plain ignorant. This is coming from a Nigerian who was born and raised there.
    I def understand why i cant stand most of these "expedition shows". they always manage to find the most remote village and label it as Africa! And of course, the idiots at home who don't know better, imbibe this bullshit and come up to me to ask how long i have been speaking English.

  25. umm... overreacting here?

    We say "the ocean" is dangerous as if speaking of one monolithic thing, but it is way larger and more varied than even Africa.

    We say "Space" is dangerous in the same way.

    I have heard people talk a lot about "America" as one consistent whole, but it is also varied and diverse.

    "Antarctica", "Australia", "Erope" the list goes on. It is just speaking briefly.

    Your blog is called "stuff white people do" for crying out loud!

    Honestly, do you wish they had titled the show "Expedition: portions of a somewhat dangerous, but certainly difficult journey through select regions within certain African countries, but not in any way descriptive of all the qualities of either these countries or the continent as a whole"

    That really rolls off the tongue.

  26. Ignorance, ignorance and ignorance

  27. just one comment about the "the Good lions being white" James Earl Jones is White? or are you trying to say that SCAR was the good lion?


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