Chinua Achebe, in his essay “Africa’s Tarnished Name” (1998), talks about why Europeans put Africans in a bad light: it is because they fail to see Africans as fully human, a side effect of the slave trade and colonialism. You see it in many (but not all) Europeans who work in news, film and anthropology – even in those who are in Africa helping people.
Despite how close they are to Africa, Europeans tend to see Africans as being “not like us”, as being so different that maybe they are not completely human. It has nothing to do with skin colour or looks. We know that because before the 1700s European descriptions of Africans were almost indifferent and matter-of-fact.
Africa as a strange land of cannibals and savages is an invention of the 1700s. It was pushed hard by defenders of the slave trade. It made the slave trade – and the colonialism that followed – seem like an act of mercy: Europeans were merely saving Africans from themselves.
This view reached its fullest flower in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1902). He tells of a journey down the Congo river in the 1890s:
We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on the earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first men taking possession of an accursed inheritance.
Only it was not like that. Men had been living there for thousands of years and even Europeans had been there for hundreds. In the early 1500s it already had a black Christian king, Nzinga Mbemba, who could speak Portuguese and whose son spoke to the pope in Latin. It was hardly the stone age land of near-humans that Conrad imagined.
Here is Conrad’s description of an African who looked after the boiler on the riverboat:
And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hindlegs.
Achebe calls this “poisonous”.
Some say Conrad was merely “of the times”. Yet here is David Livingstone, one of Conrad’s very own heroes, talking about the character of Africans:
After long observation, I came to the conclusion that they are just a strange mixture of good and evil as men are everywhere else.
Without doubt, the times in which we live influence our behavior, but the best or merely the better among us, like Livingstone, are never held hostage by their times.
It is one thing to talk about the troubles of Africa – genocide, poverty, disease and misrule – which in fact must be talked about and quite another not to see Africans as fully human:
Perhaps this difference can best be put into one phrase: the presence or absence of respect for the human person.
- stereotypes about Africa
- Zora Neale Hurston: What White Publishers Won’t Print
- racism is unnatural
- “It was the times!”
- How racism helps and hurts white people
- Ota Benga – an African put in the Bronx Zoo in 1906