Africa in the American Imagination

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AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

We have had a number of lively discussions over the past few weeks, on Africa on the Blog, about what – if anything – the Obama presidency means for the African continent, and what American policy should be toward Africa. This discussion was fueled by President Obama’s recent three nation tour, followed by his commitment to a $7 billion program to double access to electricity on the continent.

But how has this trip registered with Americans?

Black Americans, most of whom have descended from African slaves, tend to think of Africa as an extension of the United States’ own domestic struggle for racial equality. For them the greatest drama  of the trip was generated by suspense over whether or not Obama was going to get a chance to meet Nelson Mandela, and the fear that Mandela might die during the journey. Significantly, for those who believe that the Obama administration has been negligent about developing a meaningful policy on Africa during the five years he has been in office, Obama’s arrival in South Africa after it was too late for him to have a photo op with Mandela was a metaphor for the failure of the administration to clearly articulate a coherent Africa policy in general, until after the Chinese, the Indians, the Turks, the Japanese, and the Brazilians had already made significant inroads.

The ties between Africa and America, in the minds of Americans, have always been, at once, distant and close. We share Mandela and Martin Luther King as archetypes of social justice. The mythologies surrounding the two historic figures contain parallels. Like King, the narrative about Mandela has been softened and diluted, in the popular imagination to make his narrative more acceptable to American institutions. One doesn’t hear about Mandela’s opposition to imperialism, as one doesn’t hear very much about King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. One doesn’t hear about Mandela’s fight against the concentration of wealth among a financial elite, as doesn’t hear very much about King’s struggles for the rights of poor people and for organized labor in America.

What one does hear is a great deal about is Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, which parallels the institutional emphasis on King’s struggle against racial segregation in the United States. One hears about Mandela’s patience, while in prison, and his willingness to forgive his captors, just as one hears about King’s persistent nonviolence in the face of hostile racist mobs in the U.S.

Lacking much detailed knowledge about the continent as a whole, for many Americans, Africa is Mandela and Mandela is Africa, so their attention was riveted by the story of the rapid deterioration of the South African leader’s health, almost to the exclusion of other topics.

For recent African immigrants to America, however, it was another story. This group, while often proudly distinguishing themselves from native Black Americans, frequently expresses a less romanticized view of African governments and institutions. They were much more critical of African governments, which they described as being highly dysfunctional. They argued that most of these governments are hopelessly corrupt, and that the only sensible thing for Obama to do was to not try to engage these governments at all.

Then, there was a third group of Americans – those whose views perhaps most closely reflect the mainstream. Americans often seem to feel most keenly motivated when we believe that we are in competition with someone else. This third group reflected those competitive tendencies, focusing on their fears about the growing influence of the Chinese in the African continent. The greatest question on their minds was how Obama’s trip could be used to counter Chinese investment and business deals with African governments.

Similarly, there were those who watched the trip for signs that it would signal the expansion of an American military presence on the continent as part of the borderless “war on terror”. Some were reassured by this prospect while others were apprehensive.

A version of this mainstream American thinking was expressed by resentment toward the tendency of some Black Americans to continue to claim an African identity, just as many White Americans still identify with their European countries of origin. Those who resent the enduring African identity among Black Americans expressed this resentment in their criticisms of Obama’s trip. They saw the trip as being a lavish vacation for the First Family at taxpayer expense. They also saw it as being an attempt, by the president and the first lady, to get in touch with their “African roots” and strengthen their appeal among Black voters back home, which could pay dividends in the congressional elections next year, and whoever the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate will be in 2016. These critics noted that at a time when the federal government is raising taxes while its agencies are cutting services, due to austerity measures, the Obamas have embarked on a journey to Africa at an estimated cost of $100 million.

The complaints became so fierce that the White House was forced to explain that the president was conducting the nation’s business – but since the destination was Africa, and most Americans are not aware of the rising economic and geopolitical significance of the continent, the president’s attempt to promote his trip as being in the nation’s strategic interest was a hard sell.

Finally, there were small, progressive groups in the country that used media coverage of the trip to promote the view that Americans must take a second look at the African continent. Their message was that there is a “new Africa” that is emerging, and narratives that focus on corruption, violence, poverty and disease are missing the point. This final group supports increasing deals and partnerships between African and American businesses, even though they are unclear about precisely how one should go about this. They are ambivalent about more charitable aid to Africa, believing that such aid is condescending and paternalistic but might also be actually needed. Above all, they are clear about the fact that Americans must treat Africans with greater respect than they have in the past — they see respect, at the very least, as a good starting point.

So, what Americans see in Africa often reveals more about the state of mind of the Americans than it does about the realities in Africa. Reactions, in the United States, to Obama’s trip reflected what Americans needed to see and believe about Africa in order to re-enforce what they see and believe about themselves, as Americans.

For some, Africa is a continent toward which Americans can express their generosity, or contempt, by focusing primarily on charitable aid, while for others it is a continent of budding economic opportunity that they haven’t quite figured out how to get in on. For some, Africa is a romantic and mythological “Motherland” that possesses the mysterious elixir to heal the wounds of over 400 years of American racism, while for others it is a chaotic no-man’s land of failed states, child soldiers, rampant disease, and random acts of violence, and it will be the next battlefront in the U.S. global “War on Terror”.  And for many Americans, Africa does not even seem to register in their consciousness at all.

The range of reactions to the president’s trip reveals the divided image of Africa in the American imagination.

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