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Open Access Publications from the University of California

White Men's Country: The Image of Africa in the American Century

  • Author(s): Bady, Aaron
  • Advisor(s): Wagner, Bryan
  • et al.

It is often taken for granted that "the West's image of Africa" is a dark and savage jungle, the "white man's grave" which formed the backdrop for Joseph Conrad's hyper-canonical Heart of Darkness. In the wake of decolonization and independence, African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong'o provided alternate accounts of the continent, at a moment when doing so was rightly seen to be "The Empire Writes Back." Yet in the years since then, "going beyond the clichés" has itself become a kind of cliché. In the last decade in particular, the global investment class has taken up the appeal to "Re-brand Africa" with a vengeance. Providing positive images of Africa is not necessarily a radical critique of empire's enduring legacies, in other words; it can also be an effort to brand and market "Africa" as a product for capital speculation.

In White Men's Country: The Image of Africa in the American Century, I describe how American literary investments in Africa grew, alongside the slow decline of European cultural imperialism. If European writers and artists worked to legitimize violent conquest by represent the continent as "darkest Africa," the informal American empire of capital created an American counter-narrative, showing Africa to be a brilliant frontier of unbounded future possibility. When this self-consciously American tradition pictured "Africa," I argue, they turned their gaze away from the equatorial rain forests of West and Central Africa that Joseph Conrad had made famous and instead focused on the Great Rift Valley of present day Kenya and Tanzania. There, they looked for and found a renewed vision of the closing American frontier, a "brightest Africa" of rebirth, redemption, and recovery.

My first chapter locates the beginning of this tradition in the United States' emergence from the Civil War, and in Henry Morton Stanley's world famous 1872 exploration narrative, How I Found Livingstone. Stanley was born a Welsh orphan--and in his later years, he returned to this identity as a British gentleman--but when he "found" Livingstone, he was pretending to be an American and his narrative pictures Africa by explicit analogy to the American Southwest. Stanley employs the same narratives and images he had used to describe General Hancock's war on the plains Indians, when he first made his name as a journalist. By omitting the American chapter in Stanley's career, historians have allowed the British author of Through the Dark Continent and In Darkest Africa to represent the entirety of the Anglo-American exploration tradition. In this chapter, by contrast, I recover how Stanley's most famous and influential text explored and exploited the fracture between British and American, asserting the imperial destiny of the rising American state as it symbolically rescued the ailing and elderly British.

In my second and third chapters, I show how Theodore Roosevelt invented himself, on the American frontier, and then repeated the gesture in Africa, popularizing (if not inventing) inventing the big game safari. Before his 1910 bestseller African Game Trails, the word "safari" had signified the dependence of European explorers on their Arab-African guides and interpreters, but Roosevelt introduced the word into global English by transforming the safari into a globally comprehensible practice of seeing, as well as popularizing the sense of Africa which it presumes: an "Africa" which is open and available to be seen and shot. By focusing on the tourist's power to see and comprehend, he made the visibility of skin-color the epistemological dividing line between those who actively see and shoot and those who are passively seen and shot. And by adapting the frontier persona he had created in his "Western" memoirs--Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail, and The Wilderness Hunter--he made Africa a site where Americans could still experience the pleasures of the now-closed Western frontier.

In the 1930's, the safari tradition was divided between the campy fantasy of the Tarzan cinematic franchise--which sought to domesticate, rehabilitate, or render invisible the racialized violence of the Rooseveltian safari--and Ernest Hemingway's nostalgic "realism," which sought to mourn the impossibility of Roosevelt in the modern era. In my final chapter, I stage Tarzan against Hemingway as two sides of the same coin, the fantasy which could not find grounding in fact and the reality which had no room for romance. For both, the problem was the non-existence of what Roosevelt took to be his primary aesthetic problem: transforming racialized violence into paternalistic (and patriarchal) love.

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