Is there ever a “right way” for someone to make themselves up in Blackface? Nope.
But is there a difference between (a) the inherently exploitative act of Blackfacing and (b) experimenting with cultural and cosmetic aspects of identity in an equitable, inclusive, constructive, and respectful way? I think the answer to that one is “Maybe“, but I’m a European/American White guy. Continue reading “Blackface For Good: Only With the Right Foundation?”
Here’s a question missing from the U.S. presidential candidate debates: Why should Americans involve their money, political capital and other resources in an African country’s challenges when there are so many problems at home demanding attention?
As Americans, we’re inundated with images of hungry African children, but what about the plight of children in this country? Our child poverty rate is at its highest level in 20 years, with nearly one in four children living in homes without enough food. Among our homeless population, there are nearly 2.5 million children. [T]he staggering rate of incarceration for African-American men […] is nearly six times the rate for white men.
Why work on an African country’s problems instead of American problems at home? I enjoy this question every time it’s put to me by plenty of folks from American states and African countries. My answer is always the same: economics.
I don’t care about “saving Africa”, I don’t work and invest in African countries for charitable reasons, and I don’t think USAID and any major U.S. charity does either. I’ll leave it to scientists to untangle the necessary self-interest from an individual’s motives of altruism, faith or moral orientation.
I want to work with my partners in African countries to make or do something we can all get paid for.
More than that, I truly believe that all of humanity benefits when there are more people who can more freely create and exchange more things: art, ideas, goods, services, etc.
When that happens then even domestic problems of jobs, economic growth and social services become easier, not harder. Tell me what today’s telecommunications, art, medicine, renewable energy, transportation etc. would look like without the participation of China and India, South America and Asia, or an America-bound immigrant family from Syria.
And on the flipside I believe that the fewer people with less freedom to do the above (and the longer we go without it), the more humanity risks the a global catastrophic destruction of lives and property. Economic and social/political exclusion means minds and resources and bodies that *cannot help us* stay ahead of the game Nature is constantly playing against us — disease, environmental changes, food availability, etc.
That’s a much stronger imperative and a more reliable moral compass than a cultural convention to “be charitable”.
Or worse, something is accused of promoting a false or damaging image of life in an African country. Often this is equated with promoting colonialism or “a colonial view”.
I’m a White American born to a White Austrian mother. Aside from friends and business interests my everyday life has no affiliation with the African continent. But I know things that are “real” about Africa. I want to participate in this discussion. I just don’t know if my opinion matters.
As Far as the Eye Can See
Aside from what the “Real Africa” isn’t (e.g. the World Bank portfolio population of “average households”), the first reality of Africa I know is that “Africa” is really many different countries, peoples, languages, regions, etc. ad infinitum. That’s not counting the yet-uncatalogued flora and fauna. Unless talking about natural phenomena (“Africa’s coasts”, “Africa’s latitude and longitude”, “Africa’s rivers”) Africa comprises so much diversity that it almost makes at little sense to talk about the “Real Africa” as it might the “Real Eurasia”.
The second reality I know is that the peoples of North America, Europe and Asia (here including what most call the Middle East) will never stop being part of everyday life on the African continent.
Geography and climate are part of the “Real Africa”. Africa has more resources than any imperial ancestor of the nations now sitting on the governing boards of the United Nations or the World Bank. But compared to conditions in the “heartlands” of Europe and Asia, those natural aspects made it difficult to establish large, centrally-controlled feeding, defense and administration of large populations over large areas. They made it difficult to grow, store and distribute a lot of food (especially not with domesticated livestock). There was heat, disease, huge areas of land and a diverse set of ethno-linguistic populations.
There were empires on the African continent before the foreigners came. They had large cities and agricultural projects, able to project military force over large areas. But Europe and Asia had the stronger armies, the stronger appetites and the stronger administration to take on even the mightiest historical African nations. Human nature and the strategy of “divide and rule” also helped. Rome took on the Carthaginians and the Egyptians. Islamic empires took on North Africa. The European empires took on West, South and East Africa.
None of those conquerors ever really stopped attacking. What we call Colonialism was just an episode in that history of attacks: conquest of a non-neighboring people, involving more administration than assimilation, with unequally distributed benefits for both conqueror and conquered.
Most of the conquerors left but they never really let go. They come for religious conversion. They come for economic gain. They come for the prestige of holding African land and African treasure. They take that land and treasure to defend against their enemies and defeat their foes, or to feed and enrich their own populations.
Even today, it’s not unreasonable to ask the difference between (a) a White European Colonial Officer writing reports, administrating a subject population and lounging at the Officer’s Club and (b) a White European/American aid company employee writing reports, administrating a multiple aspects of a community (health care, education, etc.), and enjoying privileged benefits such as paid travel and a relatively high income compared to the surrounding local population.
An irony is that while much of the above-mentioned interaction is carried out in terms of “developing” African countries or “saving” them, it’s really the other countries of the world that need saving by their African sister states.
They need African food and African natural resources. They need African markets. They need African artists, innovators, entrepreneurs and scientists. Never mind that they need African countries to not produce the next close-call global pandemic (e.g. Ebola) or the next globally destabilizing organization (e.g. Al Qaeda).
So there’s no way these non-African nations will ever stop being part of what makes Africa, Africa. Their historical experiences of African countries, too, remembered and imagined, are part of what makes Africa, Africa. One can be certain that in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike against China, Europe and the USA there will still be boatloads of 21st Century Stanleys and Livingstones injecting themselves into everyday African life.
Who Labels the Labellers? It might be that whether or not something is the “Real Africa” or a “colonial view of Africa” depends on who is showing or labeling. Not what is being shown.
Yet Ms. Omolayo’s suggestions of what represents the “Real Africa” make the term more rather than less confusing.
A cover of Drum Magazine (An English-language publication in South Africa)
A photograph of buses in Cameroon in the 1950’s (that’s French-administered Cameroon, and vehicles evolved from the machines of Europe’s Industrial Revolution)
A photograph of South African diamond miners (then almost totally controlled by the English and the Boers)
What makes any of these images more representative of the “Real Africa”? If Taylor Swift had incorporated these exact images into her Wildest Dreams video, would she have been spared the accusations of promoting a “colonial view” of the history of White people in African countries?
I agree with that. I cannot tell someone living in Africa, especially someone who’s family has lived in Africa, that I know more than them about what the “Real Africa” is or whether there is a “Real Africa” at all.
But interaction with people and resources in an African country is part of my everyday life, as it has been historically for the USA ever since its (at least partially) foundational slave-oriented agricultural industry.
Yet another outlook comes from a Somali photographer:
When you Google ‘Mogadishu’, the photos that surface convey a sense that life in Somalia’s capital is an endless cycle of death, destruction and despair.
Most of the images are of men and boys with guns, children playing in rubble, families huddled in refugee camps and scenes of carnage from explosions. Here and there there are snapshots of the city’s stunning beachfront and signs of hope and revival: new buildings rising in the skyline, solar-power-lit roads and brand-new ATM machines. While both types of images depict facets of reality, they don’t give a sense of daily existence for the city’s two million-plus residents, and what makes life worthwhile for them. http://trueafrica.co/picture_story/somalias-photgraphers/
That last part seems key. Daily existence. What makes life worthwhile. If that is what defines the “Real Africa”, then it would really be different for everyone in every part of every country on the African continent.
And then I look at the pictures taken by the Somali photographer Abdulkadir Mohamed and I wonder if the pictures have more or less meaning, based on who is taking them.
Both the international press and the international aid industry employ the eternally recurring image of people in African countries as children or women or something “helpless”. (The blog Imaging Famine has a great breakdown of what’s wrong with that kind of imagery, like here and here.)
But maybe, just maybe, this is more a problem for the “West” than it is for people in African countries. In both the case of the Taylor Swift video and the death of Cecil the Lion, the “international outcry” seems disproportionately heavy in countries off of the African continent. There is no doubt that people in African countries have opinions about these issues. But maybe those opinions are considered less important by people in the “West”.
While the World Bank is juggling numbers to determine whether there is or isn’t a “bottom billion”, while the Economist magazine figures out whether the African continent is “rising” or “hopeless”, people in African countries are getting along with their everyday life.
And that life, I assume, is different for every person relative to their family, their country and everything else that makes a person’s experiences unique.
A) Countries in Africa are not literally border-to-border packed with black people, cities, women grinning at the camera as they pump water, farms, schools full of smiling children, and village markets.
B) Anyone with an ounce of familiarity with cinema would see the deliberate shots of antique filming equipment indicating that this is a “movie about a movie”.
So, based on (A) and (B) this video is a more honest use of “African” imagery than most of what Hollywood and the International Aid/Development industry puts out.
For example, it doesn’t make any pretense of using “African” imagery (I keep forgetting Africa is a single, homogeneous landscape of identical-looking people) as anything other than a background for a campy movie about a campy love story.
You want to see hurtful imagery? Look inside your head. How quick are you to think of a person in an African country as “an African”? Do you picture them as black or white, and to what degree? Do you picture them dressed like you, or dressed in donated t-shirts? When you picture them in school, do you picture them in a classroom like the one near you, or in some kind of makeshift construction? When you picture that person getting medical treatment, are they getting it from a White NGO doctor or from one of their fellow citizens?
That same stereotype is what people are reading in the Taylor Swift video, when they say that it doesn’t show the “real Africa”.
You want to see White Privilege? Ask yourself if American sitcom The Big Bang Theory is “inauthentic” because it doesn’t show poor young Americans who can’t afford to go to college, let alone finish High School? Or if someone filmed a music video walking through the Arizona Badlands, would it be inauthentic if it only showed rock and sand, instead of those Republican boogeymen, the illegal immigrants?
White Privilege here the open anger at the video just reinforcing the fallacious perception of “the West” and “White people” as central to the identity and destiny of people in African countries.
Which is ludicrous. We’re talking about 1.1 billion people distributed among 54 countries covering 11 million+ square miles.
Taylor Swift’s music video only matters to teenagers who listen to Taylor Swift music. If her audience grows up with patronizing, undignified stereotype of a person in an African country, then they learned that from the news and the “save the helpless” donation requests from NGOs and the way that audience’s own government engages with those African countries.
Art is art. But I already see the film as an artwork of “narrative colonialism”, where the dominant story about South Sudan is still the story told by the West.
That’s how it appears from the trailer: the music that triggers a feeling of tension or drama, the West’s “confrontation” with China, the exotic dress and architecture of South Sudanese people, the Western stereotypes like the heavily accented American evangelist.
Oil companies, multinational institutions and Jesus freaks aren’t the real story in South Sudan. It’s like if you made a movie about democracy and business in the USA, and you focused on Donald Trump. He’s loud. He’s controversial. And he’s largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
The West needs to stop pretending like South Sudanese aren’t real people who want the same thing as them — a mediocre but minimally financially sufficient job that leaves enough time for leisure.
The movie seems to cast sensationalist tint over South Sudan. It fits in with popular Clooney/Prendergast initiatives like Satellite Sentinel and the newly announced Sentry, which watch and itemize the destruction of lives and property in South Sudan without any mechanism for actually stopping the violence.
What does such a movie accomplish? Watch! Get excited! Get angry! And then…what?
Will this sort of story build bridges between ordinary Americans/Europeans and South Sudanese? Help them see one another as peers?
Will it make it easier for ordinary South Sudanese to run their farms or businesses, by getting them cash or tools or mentors?
Will it help the audience’s break out of this image African countries as unchangeably dangerous, exotic, alien landscapes full of strange characters?
Will it treat the South Sudanese like real people who want to live their lives, rather than figments of the narrator’s imagination?
Why do some still call for a more military- and intelligence-based U.S. engagement with African countries? Did U.S. surveillance drones “bring back their girls” in Nigeria? Did U.S. arms and training given to South Sudan’s army prevent the current civil war? Did U.S. support for the ouster of Qaddafi “fix” Libya?
We keep looking for Africa’s emergencies instead of looking at the emergence of African countries. African countries whose populations are getting richer, healthier and more educated while their governments evolve in a more democratic and more capable direction. African countries whose main killers are diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS — not militias.
We mustn’t turn this into another crisis that makes African countries look helpless and weak. That inevitably leads to giving money to contractors and consultants who “know how to fix it” and putting more resources and credibility into the hands of elites.
That’s the opposite of what the Obama Administration should do, if the goal is to curb corruption by strengthening the citizens’ control over their own government.
Instead, we should put the money directly into local businesses and local organizations. Don’t route it through the government. Set up a matching investment/grant fund with the African Union and other pan-African institutions. Help African customers and producers move out of the informal sector — where they are most vulnerable to abuses of power.