Why was Africa Rising? The Roots and Perils of Afro-idealization

The third and last commentary in our Imagining Africa symposium, to be followed tomorrow by the author’s reply. Today’s post is from Toussaint Nothias, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. Toussaint holds a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Leeds. His research explores journalism, social media and civil society in Africa. He has done research on foreign correspondents in Kenya and South Africa; on the media production of the Africa Rising narrative; on Kenyan journalists’ reporting of elections, terrorism and international criminal justice; and on the social-media led critique of CNN’s coverage of Kenya. Most recently, he is researching Facebook’s initiatives to increase internet connectivity across Africa, and their impact on local media production and civic engagement. The project engages a range of debates about digital advocacy and activism in the Global South, and about tech corporation’s investments in network infrastructures and civil society. Toussaint’s work notably appears in The International Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Visual Communication and Communication, Culture, Critique. He organized the pre-ICA conference “African Media Studies in the Digital Age” in 2017; edited a blog post series on Digital Africa for Africa is a Country; and he is the recipient of the IAMCR’s 2018 Stuart Hall Award.

All posts in this series are available here.

While travelling in Ghana and Nigeria in 1960, the Pulitzer winner reporter Homer Bigart wrote a letter to his New York Times editor, Emmanuel Freedman:

“I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cook. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about” (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).

Freedman responded:

“This is just a note to say hello and tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).”

Such reliance on crude racist stereotypes testifies to the broader place long assigned to Africa in the imaginary and social order shaped by Whiteness – a multilayered, oppressive system of social hierarchization largely born of 19th century racialist thinking. So when the British magazine The Economist published a cover titled Africa Rising in December 2011 – discussed in more detail in the 7th Chapter of Clive Gabay’s fantastic book – it may have appeared, at first sight, like a radical discursive departure. Could it be that after years of critiques from postcolonial scholars and intellectuals, the media took these comments on board and decided to remedy their shortcomings in terms of representations of Africa?  Against this reading, Gabay offers a clear, powerful, and critical argument. This apparent representational change is neither altogether new, nor does it really constitute a change. On the contrary, this trend for Afro-idealization, most notably visible in the metropolitan appetite for Afropolitan fashion shows and festivals, is the result of broader political and economic processes entangled with a set of racial anxieties about Western decline in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis.

Gabay’s much anticipated book provides the most sustained analysis to date of why the early 2010s saw the growth of an “Africa Rising” discourse across a range of fields – from academia and business to politics and cultural productions. One of the book’s main contributions is to provide historical evidence of past Afro-idealizations in Western discourse – from the 1920s debates around ‘native rights’ in Kenya to the 1950s liberal-settler, inter-racial associations and groups in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Through these two case studies, Gabay reminds us that positive accounts of African subjectivities have in fact long been part of the discursive apparatus of colonial power.

A second key contribution relates to the link between such idealizations and Whiteness. After carefully differentiating phenotypical whiteness from Whiteness as a political and economic system of privilege and social ordering, Gabay proceeds to show two things. First, positive idealizations of Africa are linked to anxieties about Whiteness that manifest themselves most strongly in times of crisis. In the aftermath of World War I, for instance, anxieties about the decline of Western civilization and white domination led to a differentiation between “ ‘good’ and praiseworthy African behavior” (p.41) that complied to White colonial rule and ‘bad’ behavior epitomized by the figure of anti-colonial Kenyan nationalist Harry Thuku. In other words, Africa periodically appears in the Western imaginary not only as a foe or negative opposite but also as an idealized site where Whiteness – and its associated corollaries of Christianity, entrepreneurship, civilization, development, individualism or modernization – can be saved.

The second part of Gabay’s argument about Whiteness is that the evolution of these idealizations about Africa sheds light on changes in the contours of Whiteness itself. By this, he refers primarily to the fluctuating place of phenotypical whiteness within Whiteness: “the idea that Western civilization is the preserve and vocation of certain groups of phenotypically white people is one that has become increasingly unsteady over the past century, all the while that such civilizational standards have remained central to the structuring of international and social order, and thus continue to deny the legitimacy of difference within that order” (p.21). This way, Gabay accounts for the increasing centrality of African actors in the unfolding of Whiteness under the guise of modernization, development or ‘economic take off’. Such an analytical move evokes Fanon’s prescient critique of postcolonial African elites as well as Mamdani’s analysis of the deracializing of civil society in post-independence African politics.

By providing rigorous historical contextualization of contemporary Africa Rising discourses and of their links to Whiteness, Gabay offers two strong and essential contributions to a debate too often reduced to the question “is Africa really rising or not?” Before turning to some of my questions and more critical comments about the book, I want to further highlight two points that stood out to me as particularly valuable for future scholarship about representation of Africa.

To start with, the book calls our attention to the evolving nature of what constitutes historical archives. From the more traditionally analyzed travelogues or colonial authorities’ records, Gabay takes us, in the later parts of the book, to online blogs, literature festivals, cultural reviews, Netflix dramas and financial consultancy reports. Indeed, one of the great strengths of the books is its ability to coherently bring together a wide range of sources implicated in the production of imaginaries of Africa. As such, this is not only a call for historians to engage with the diversity of the representational archive in a digital era, it is also a reminder for media and communication scholars to look beyond news and NGOs representations of Africa that have largely dominated this subfield.

Another revealing insight from the book is the place of left leaning/liberal groups in this genealogy of Afro-idealizations. Indeed, in Chapter 3, we see British humanitarian/Fabian networks shaping a discursive common sense against Harry Thuku and the emerging self-rule movements.  In Chapter 5, it is groups “dedicated to rejecting the overt racism of the right-wing of the settler movement” (p.144) like the Capricorn African Society or the New Kenya Party that rely on various Afro-idealizations to assuage a set of geopolitical and economic anxieties, all the while defending “the exclusion of the majority of Africans from being authors of their own national and pan-continental histories” (p 180-181). As for the Afropolitanism discussed primarily in Chapter 6, Gabay reminds us that it resonated most particularly with progressive liberal audiences. As such, this analysis is a powerful reminder of the ways in which racialized thinking cuts across political lines.

Throughout the book, I believe that Gabay most often describes moments of Afro-idealization through the metaphor of the pendulum: as anxieties about White vitality increase in moments of crisis for the West, the pendulum swings the other way around to Africa where hopes to redeem/safeguard White civilization are projected. In a few other instances, Gabay relies on the more familiar metaphor of the mirror that is well established in African studies. However, I felt like both metaphors failed to capture the complexity of Gabay’s argument, and perhaps pointed to a few blind spots. On the one hand, Gabay demonstrates that anxieties about White vitality are not only recurring but, actually, are always constitutive of Whiteness itself; as such, these anxieties are not as cyclical as the pendulum may lead us to think. On the other hand, Afro-idealizations always co-exist with Afro-pessimistic tropes. With regards to the post-crash Africa Rising trend, one should be reminded of the simultaneous prevalence of pessimistic tropes linked to African immigration in Europe. The pendulum metaphor here runs the risk of sidelining such simultaneous tropes, and the meaning of their co-existence. Could it be that rather than a pendulum, the phenomenon at stake resembles more a DNA-like double helix, which would signal the discursive interdependence of both negative and positive tropes about ‘the West’ and ‘Africa’ while making room for their changing prominence over time?

In many ways, the book engages the evolution of cultural production from the early 20th to the early 21st century. In Chapter 6, Gabay is careful to signpost that what interests him is less the production of Afropolitan cultural industries per se, and more the conditions of possibility of their reception by Western audiences. While he briefly acknowledges the role of technology (p.225-226) in creating these conditions of possibility, he largely puts the emphasis on the more macro political, economic and ideological phenomenon behind Africa Rising representations. Yet, I believe there is more to be said about the centrality and relevance of technology in this Africa Rising moment. The 2010 South African World Cup – whose motto “This time for Africa” perfectly echoes Gabay’s argument about the ideological inscription of Africa’s within a global order that foregrounds Western genius – is an interesting example in that regard. In the years leading to the World Cup, South Africa witnessed the arrival of much foreign investments to build undersea fiber optic cables that contributed to the significant uptake for digital technologies in the region. As such, the Africa rising moment was part of a broader global moment where growing material investments in digital technologies were entangled with hopeful discourses about the democratic potential of these technologies – from the celebration of Obama’s digital campaign strategy to engage voters perceived to be disinterested from politics to the liberatory potential of social media during the Arab Spring. As a vessel for Afropolitan ideas, a site of investment for foreign capital in Africa, and as a discursive tool for the expansion of Western liberal democracy, digital technologies deserve to be centralized in our understanding of the Africa Rising moment.

Towards the end of the book, Gabay turns to non-Western foreign countries like China, India, Brazil, and Emirate States and writes: “What is striking about these state’s engagements with Africa is the extent to which they have recreated the kind of resource and land-grabbing characteristic of the European imperial phase, but are absent of the kinds of racial anxieties that characterize contemporary Western proclamations of Africa’s rise.” (p.215). This question certainly deserves more attention in the future. Take the case of China. There’s evidence that Chinese media have been involved in the promotion of the Africa Rising discourse, most notably through the state-owned, Africa-focused media CGTN. At the same time, the biggest commercial success in the history of Chinese cinema is a movie called Wolf Warrior 2. It tells the story of Chinese soldier turned mercenary who finds himself in a generic African country to save Chinese aid workers, protect innocent locals and fight local rebels all the while fencing off the imaginary disease “lamania”. Clearly, the reproduction of such tropes of hyper-masculine white-saviourism, alongside Afro-idealization, calls into question the idea that Chinese representations of Africa are absent from racial anxieties.

Another aspect that I am keen to hearing more about is the place of gender within the evolution of Whiteness and Afro-idealization. When discussing the British Empire Exhibition in Chapter 2, Gabay notes that it “produced a multiplicity of orientalist tropes through its architecture and the feminised forms that many of the exhibits took on.” (p.53). And in Chapter 6, it is noticeable that most Afropolitan authors discussed are women. How then, does gender come into play into this genealogy? An interesting piece to open up this question is that of Kenyan analyst Nanjala Nyabola (“Why is Africa always portrayed as a passive woman?”) who relates the objectification of Africa in international relations to gendered description of the continent.

The book concludes with a clear sense of urgency that I am hoping Gabay will come back to in his response to these comments. For him, what requires disassembling is not the homogenizing imaginaries of Africa, but rather Whiteness itself. (Chapter 8). More pressing than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s call to break down the ‘single story of Africa’ by providing a greater diversity of representations, Gabay calls for deracializing Whiteness. But what does this mean, concretely for scholars, citizens, activists and cultural producers?  And can’t the disassembling of homogenizing imaginaries of Africa contribute to this very project of deracializing Whiteness?

On this note, I thought I would conclude with a revealing anecdote which, after having read Imagining Africa, now takes an even deeper meaning. I exchanged with the graphic designer who made the 2011 Africa Rising cover for the Economist. It turns out, the child running in the Savannah with a kite is not black: “The boy used was from a photo library but altered to look black. He was white to start with, but was in just the right position for a kid running with a kite.” It does not matter whether the image informs real-life events, places or people. Skin color is literally made up like in a Minstrel show, hereby testifying to the ideological operations of Whiteness at stake not only in the production of this particular cover but in the broader Africa Rising moment, as Clive Gabay’s masterful book demonstrates so brilliantly.

One thought on “Why was Africa Rising? The Roots and Perils of Afro-idealization

  1. Pingback: A Response | The Disorder Of Things

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