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Lori Maguire, Susan Ball, and Sébastien Lefait (eds), Modern Representations of Sub-Saharan Africa

Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2021, 236 p. ISBN: 978-0-429-34030-7 (ebook). £29.59/$39.16
Monique KERMAN
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Lori Maguire, Susan Ball, and Sébastien Lefait (eds), Modern Representations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Abingdon, UK and New York: Routledge, 2021, 236 p. ISBN: 978-0-429-34030-7 (ebook). £29.59/$39.16

Texte intégral

1This multidisciplinary volume of collected essays aspires to trace the evolution of the ways in which “the West” conceptualizes “sub-Saharan Africa” in politics, geography, news media, and pop culture (namely film and television). In the introductory chapter, the book’s editors explain that it is this evolutionary perspective that makes it unique. Subsequent chapters offer an analysis of how consistently poor representations “contribute to constructing lingering stereotypes,” (p. 11). The first section focuses on terminology, carefully outlining their conceptualization of “representation” in addition to several other prominent terms in the book. The most notable here is “sub-Saharan Africa,” which the authors openly acknowledge as deeply problematic. They explain that “Our decision to use the term was made deliberately because this book examines Western perceptions about the area. As such, a Western name is appropriate, but the problems with that name must be understood from the start. It is an imposed name that has little relationship to the reality of the situation in a widely varying part of the globe,” (p. 4). Indeed, it is a term that is homogenizing, racist, and rarely used by Africans themselves. With the exception of Chapter 8, none of the studies that follow conceptualize Africa in this way, but rather focus on specific countries. The exceptional chapter takes the cartographic and conceptual separation of North and “sub-Saharan” Africa as its evidential point of departure concerning the relationships between mapping and exploitation. The term could have rested solely within this context, beyond which the authors could have avoided its use without any detrimental effect to the clarity of the arguments presented. The unfortunate outcome of repeating the term is its perpetuation and even validation in a scholarly context. The term “West” (and “Western”) is neither defined nor given as much consideration. There is only a footnote stating, “The ‘West’, like Africa, is a socially and structured category with an ambiguous geography,” (p. 14 fn6).

2The editors note many other studies of media visibility that “provide analyses of older or more country-specific media representations” (p. 12; although among the five titles listed only one specifies a country) and explain how they seek to complement these by contextualizing the increasingly popular notion of “Africa rising” in such sources of representation. In so doing, they wish to “venture beyond” any self-congratulatory claims that such a notion shows these African countries’ “progress” and/or “the West’s” more enlightened perspectives resulting from this increasing visibility within a positive light (p. 12). In addition, they explain that the book is premised upon their understanding of the “strong connection between media representation and a sense of collective identity,” accounting for the increased voice Africans have gained through social media. These platforms provide data used to analyze Africans’ positive as well as critical responses to such stereotypical, racist representations. While this observation is certainly accurate, it is only in Chapters 7 and 11 that such responses are analyzed. Nevertheless, they suggest that over the course of the evolution of African representation by Western media described in the book, Africans have become more empowered to respond to negative portrayals by using social media as a tool. While this is undoubtedly true (as seen in the backlash to Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign, for example), historically there have been other means by which Africans were empowered to shape and disseminate their own images to directly counter those crafted by colonial propaganda, photography being a prominent example. It is reductive not to take these into account when making a claim for the “growing importance of self-representation,” (p. 12; author’s emphasis).

3The book is divided into four parts of two to three chapters each, subtitled “Representing sub-Saharan Africa” before de-colonization (I), during de-colonization and independence (II), in academic disciplines (III), and “today” (IV). Chapters 2-5 focus on political actors in Britain and the US, illuminating the political and subsequent public debates around the justification for continued colonial and racist oppression of Africans in Part I and stereotypes associated with their “low standards” of civilization in Part II. The picture that emerges is wholly unsurprising: European and American power brokers have long seen Africans in terms of profit-making and use primitivist ideology to justify racist oppression. The analysis of thousands of letters in Chapter 4, written to support British MP Enoch Powell after his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, concludes that their authors conflated “Africans” with Afro-Caribbeans resident in the UK as a deliberate act of humiliation, weaponizing their white privilege in angry response to the perceived reverse racism in the 1968 Race Relations Act. In the case of US intervention in Somalia, described in Chapter 5, the “White Savior Complex” emerges as a legacy of this rhetoric, even as the Somalis were quickly demoted to enemy combatants and the mission one of retaliation.

4In Part III, Chapter 7 tackles the enormous topic of “misrepresentations of Africa in Western scholarship.” It is thus necessarily limited in its examples, which fall under the book’s focus on the views of “Western nations, especially English-speaking ones (and, in particular, the United States and the United Kingdom)” (p. 1). The author concludes by noting that social media has amplified African voices, empowering them “to present their Africa” “as counter-narratives to Western representations,” (p. 118). Chapter 8 explains the ongoing land dispossession in Africa through the mechanism of mapping by foreign investors and businesses, demonstrated as legacies of colonialism. There is a brief contrast with “citizen-generated mapping” in Bidibidi, Uganda, by resident refugees (p. 136). As in many instances throughout the book, comparative African examples are rare, which leaves readers unable to fully recognize the distortive characteristics of the European and American ones.

5Chapter 9 is a study of Guardian Online news articles on issues of gender equality and women’s rights in Africa, which demonstrates their emphasis on dehumanizing victims and the rhetoric of moral panic. The three remaining chapters before the “Conclusion” are studies of representations in television and film. Chapter 6 looks at the portrayal of African genocide in American-made television shows while Chapters 10 and 11 discuss films made by directors of African descent. Chapter 11 is an analysis of social media posts by both Africans and African Americans that seeks to identify the audiences most impacted by Black Panther, to measure its transformative effects, and to assess the extent to which viewers’ perceptions of Africa and Africans were altered. Despite the author’s interpretation that the data show a warm appreciation for the representation afforded by an almost all-black cast and the film’s positive messages of Wakanda’s power, intelligence, and success, his own subjective reading of the film is much less affirmative. He asserts that T’Challa’s nonviolent stance and planned aid to lift African Americans (and the global diaspora) out of poverty, rather than overthrowing an institution or system, in fact underscores the geopolitical order, symbolized by his assimilation into the United Nations. The reader is left balancing the quantitative analysis against the author’s own divergent interpretation.

6In the lengthy conclusion, the editors describe the post-colonial instabilities in Africa as misgovernance, including violence, inherited from the colonizers. They acknowledge the fact that foreign aid continues to be top down, paternalistic, and embedded within the “White Savior Complex.” They explain 21st century “Africa rising” narratives as products of disingenuous investment campaigns as well as the desire to assuage white guilt. Included is a brief analysis of American vs. African political cartoons as well as a short history of photography in Africa from 1840 to the present. In both mediums, online platforms offer opportunities for better and more self-representation of Africans. Regrettably, none of these are illustrated. In fact, there are no illustrations in any of the chapters, either figures or tables, which is unfortunate in a book about representation. Overall, this collection of essays offers cursory glimpses into African representation in specific times and places. The ambitious aim to present an account of Africans’ improving self-representation in the face of enduring white supremacy is mitigated by the specificities of these studies and the various disciplinary methodologies they employ. The editors write that “this book is a tentative approach to unpacking reception in the context of the continuation of discriminatory behavior, and…we are aware of the practice of merging perspectives and self-representation (and intertextuality),” (p. 216). The extent of this awareness does not lend itself to resolution in the final paragraph. While this is an informative and compelling set of essays, readers should be cautioned against any tendency to make false equivalencies of the examples therein.

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Monique KERMAN, « Lori Maguire, Susan Ball, and Sébastien Lefait (eds), Modern Representations of Sub-Saharan Africa »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/12777 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.12777

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Monique KERMAN

Western Washington University

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