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Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind.




PRICE: $33.15

ISBN: 978-0-8133-4894-0

Mistaking Africa is a book about what Africa is not. It presents the stereotype misrepresentation of Africa by the Americans. The book consists of four parts: part one has two chapters, part two has four chapters, part three has four chapters and part four has just two chapters. Chapter one discusses the shallow knowledge of the Americans about Africa. They knew few things about Africa by occasionally glancing through the pages of newspapers about genocide, AIDS, malaria or civil war (p.3). Their popular media also do not help matters as they could not get accurate information about Africa. This actually makes Africa and its people to be a marginal part of American consciousness. Various derogatory terms such as: native, tribe, savage, jungle, pygmy, pagan etc. are often used to describe traditional Africans. In addition, a survey by a major American Museum presents a number of widely held misconceptions about Africa. Curtis Keim however gives reason for this misrepresentation by saying that 'we often use ideas provided by our culture instead of investigating things for ourselves' (p.7). They do this because many of them (Americans) want Africans to be a bit savage so that they could feel more satisfied with their own lot in life (p. 10). The author concludes this chapter with a remark that the way Americans constructed Africa reflects upon who they are in relation to Africa.

Chapter two, 'How we learn,' discusses how this wrong information about Africa came to be so deeply lodged in American minds. These are through unfounded myths that refused to disappear, armchair writers who relied on weak sources of information and television culture that never provide an accurate view of Africa. Others include newspapers, magazines, movies and amusement parks, who always give the same coverage of Africa as television often have two kinds of story to tell: 1. 'Trouble in Africa' 2. 'Curiosity from Africa'. Even though magazines such as New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, etc. have published thoughtful and unbiased articles about Africa, yet the number of 'trouble in Africa' articles outweighs the number of articles that show Africans as real people attempting to solve their problems in rational ways. In addition to the above named sources of information, children books, Africa themed resorts, billboards and computer games are other means through which inaccurate and offensive information about Africa were learnt.

Chapter three addresses the origin of a derogatory term 'The Darkest Africa', one of the stereotypical western views of Africa. Africans who were known for their confidence, adventure and wisdom were been described as primitive who practice the darkest of customs such as: cannibalism, ritual murder, incest, witchcraft and incessant warfare. This dark view about Africa is so predominant that nobody bothers to ask whether Africans have always been faired so badly. Anyway, this is a conscious attempt to make Africa look bad (p.31). With regard to western view of Africans, Africans were regarded as savage and bad men (p.40). This was as a result of the racial pride/consciousness on the part of the westerners in their bid to reduce Africans to the lowest form of humanity (p.45). However, recent research had shown that the image of the 'Dark Continent' is a later fabrication developed in the nineteenth century as Europeans became increasingly interested in both science and African conquest (p.36). In antiquity, the racism is not a significant issue since colour differences were regarded as geographical accident.

'Our living ancestors' in chapter four discusses the key to American thinking about Africa as primitive. The key is what we term 'Biological Evolutionism' and was based on the theory of 'survival of the fittest'. Sequel to this, the logic of evolutionism assumes that Africans were mentally equivalent to children and therefore could not produce art, religion, language and political structure as those of the west. Nevertheless, there were changing paradigms on the western views of other cultures as a result of a global economic depression, Second World War, holocaust, decline of colonialism and threats to the environment. However, in spite of the changing paradigms of the western views about African, the subtle version of it still remains.

Chapter five, 'where is the real Africa', explores what Americans expect the real Africa to be. From the American point of view, Africa is expected to be a survival of the fittest jungle with poverty, sickness, starvation, warfare, corruption and a continent that cannot rise above itself. Africa was therefore presented as a troubled, helpless, exotic and sexualized continent. Chapter six, 'we should help them' discusses various ways through which Americans thought they could be of help to Africa. In what they called 'civilizing mission', Americans aimed at helping African societies to look more like their own. Among the various ways are: authoritarian help, market help, conversion help, gift giving help, participating help and military help. However, it is unfortunate that these types of assistance turned to be problematic for Africa as they replicated the nineteenth century error of measuring African by what they lack.

Curtis Keim in chapter seven and eight discusses cannibalism and tribe as other derogatory terms which the Americans often use to describe Africans. Various cannibal jokes are often made with reference to Africans. The description of Africans as cannibals was not base on careful fieldwork in Africa but on deeply prejudiced 'Dark Continent myths'. This derogatory term is offensive in the sense that it distorts reality and justifies exploitation. The use of tribe to describe Africans has long been rejected because it is confusing and inaccurate. The myth of Africa as tribal relies on outmoded concepts formed during a more racist and imperialist era. A textbook definition of tribe and historical background clearly shows that the term does not fit for Africa at all.

Chapter nine, 'safari beyond our wildest dreams,' discusses how Americans associated Africans with wild animals such as lion and elephant. It investigates the preconceived way through which Americans interact with African animals. The author later discovers that the Africans hunting safari is a purely western experience and therefore suggests that Americans should now drop the stereotype myth that animals are plentiful all over Africa; especially when animals in fragile environment are under extreme threat. With American brute efficiency, "the safari was more about colonialism and subjugation of nature than about conserving or understanding nature'. (P.133). However, since the Second World War, the glamour of the hunting safari declined and Africans have been managing their remaining wildlife more carefully.

'Africa in images' in chapter ten presents how Americans portrayed Africa in images. These (images) are found in internet, magazine, newspapers and in books. Among the images was the skull of chimpanzee that was falsely inflated so as 'to give the impression that blacks are ranked lower than the apes', (p. 142). Other images include: 'Affectionate curiosity of the Rosako women', Tintin in Congo, Map of Central Africa, Tarzans Moon Beast, Africa: A political Jungle, etc. The major aim of the sit-at-home investigators that produced these images is to entertain the American readers and reinforcing stereotypes of Africa. With these images, Africa was depict as violence, irrational, disorganised, fearful, venal, dirty and childlike, while they (American) use images to celebrate their advancement in civilisation at the expense of Africa.

Chapter eleven presents the paradigm of the unity and plurality of race and culture. It claims that the original African ancestors were not the black people that were associated with the sub-Saharan Africa today. However, Keim discovers that the whole system of racial classification such as: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Pygmoid, etc. is a cultural artefact of the era in which western Europeans attempted to substantiate their own racial superiority. He therefore concludes that, in order to survive in the global society that is growing up around us, people must learn to deal with difference.

Chapter twelve, which is the last chapter reveals how Americans often imagine what Africa look like by depending on the limited knowledge and shallow categories of reality. It discusses evolutionism as a product of western civilisation. It shows that evolutionism from the Americans' point of view 'assumes that the truth about reality is best embodied in western culture', and that others including Africa, were less evolved (P. 179). This clearly shows another way through which some Americans made mistakes about African culture. Keim therefore suggests that Americans need to learn more about African in an objective way as this will help them to know that cultures are equal "but just different". In addition, America should listen to African cultures and make attempt to discover African in its own words and in its own context. This suggestion, according to Keim, is possible through regular dialogue.

Curtis Keim's Mistaking Africa is a book that reveals the stereotype perception of Americans about Africa as well as the Africans. It is a confessional account of the preconceived idea of the Americans about Africa as a continent. The author quarries how this misrepresentation came to be so deeply rooted in American minds. He therefore concludes that the best way to get real fact about Africa is to read African newspapers and listening to African radio. As an additional book to the growing literature on African studies, this book will, no doubt, contribute immensely to situating Africa in her rightful place. The appendix and the long list of works cited that shed more light on how to learn more about Africa makes the work an invaluable one. I therefore recommend it for students of African studies, African culture and general readers who are eager to know more about what people say and think about them.

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Author:Richard, Ogunleye Adetunbi
Publication:The Western Journal of Black Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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