Trope Trove, or Colonial Fairy Tales

I’m teaching my “Image of Africa” course again next semester, and I’ve decided to try and work some more on a pedagogical strategy that has had pretty good results in several of my cultural history classes. Basically, I take a catalogue of persistent images or tropes that are recognizable, persistent presences in post-1950s American or global popular culture and ask the students to do some detective work leading to a long research essay in which they track down the genealogies and if possible origins of these discrete images. In what kinds of texts did they travel, how did they change over time, what sorts of audiences consumed these images at different moments, and so on.

For one example, in my “History of the Future” course, I had students look at the history of tropes like “the flying car” or “the total elimination of disease”. In those cases, I often had very specific works in mind that I could direct them to–for the flying car, “Metropolis” and “The Jetsons”, to cite to examples. Nevertheless, the students often managed to pleasantly surprise me by turning up all sorts of information that was unexpected, describing the diffusion or transmission of the trope in question in more detail than I would have thought possible, or showing that it was a much messier or more intricate image than I suspected.

For “The Image of Africa” class, I think most of the tropes I’ve thought of so far for inclusion on a suggested list of possible assignments worry me a little as I think their deeper histories are going to be harder to track. I’ve got some good guesses about most of them, but fewer highly specific texts to direct the students towards, as I think some of these images began their cultural life very early in European history, have more diffuse origins rooted in specific colonial encounters (some of them not originating in Africa, but applied to Africa at a later date), and so on.

One of the things I’m hoping to do in the course is put Said’s Orientalism in critical perspective from the outset, to shove it off its canonical perch a bit and put it in intellectual jeopardy, partially by demonstrating that “colonial discourse” was constructed less instrumentally, with more of a correspondence to actual dialogues and fractured understandings between Europeans and non-Europeans, than Said’s study and the many other works that use Orientalism as a methodological blueprint commonly assume or assert.

That places a pretty complicated burden on the students doing research, however. One reason that so many academic studies of “colonial discourse” and the images found within it tend to stay mired in imperial or metropolitan texts and contexts is that the methodological challenges involved in stretching beyond those contexts, out into colonial societies themselves, are entirely different. Kipling comes readily to hand if you’re in London or New York, but the correspondence of local colonial officials or missionaries are harder to find and process. So I know that the students are going to be pulled one way by some of the arguments made within the course itself, and another way by the practicalities of the research assignment.

With that in mind, I’m crafting a tentative list of tropes that I will hand out as “pre-approved” topics of study. In a very few cases, there’s a very focused, topically dedicated secondary literature available to help them, as in the case of images involving cannibalism or the image of Europeans being perceived as “gods” by non-Europeans. In other cases, the scholarship is sparse.

I’m interested in any additions that might be made to this list, and also any ideas you have about originary or primary sources that would help locate the image in time and space. These are all tropes that have appeared in some form in 20th Century representations of Africa, but some of them originated somewhere else–the image of the chief who offers his daughter to an unsuspecting European visitor, for example, I strongly suspect is rooted in encounters between Oceanic/Pacific societies and European travellers, and followed an arc from being fairly straightforward descriptions of encounter to being eroticized fantasies to being largely comedic, mostly the latter by the time this image pops up in representations of Africa. A lot of these are highly mobile to all sorts of colonial encounters, drifting easily from representations of Africa to other contexts.

Here’s my current draft list:

1) Hidden city/lost civilization deep in the jungle. Often civilization of whites or non-Africans.

2) Missionary/explorer in a cannibal cooking pot; general tropes of cannibalism.

3) Mysterious ritual that turns out to have been marriage to chief’s daughter

4) Superstitious bearer/guide

5) Evil witchdoctor

6) White man “gone native”/Tarzan figure

7) Kurtz-style descent into madness

8 ) Sexual Africans/repressed whites (especially missionaries)

9) Gold/treasure obsessed white explorer

10) Modern technology/material culture vs. “clueless” Africans (lots of subtropes–“this is my boomstick” images of powerful weapons; mirrors; beads and trinkets; scientific knowhow such as the ability to predict an eclipse

11) Avuncular but clueless chief who is easily manipulated by white visitors

12) Wise, spiritual elder or “witchdoctor”

13) Africa as the abode of unspoiled, primal nature/wildlife

14) African warrior with generic iconography (spear, long shield, tall and thin)

15) Noble, kindly, elderly medical missionary ministering to Africans far from European settlements

16) Iconography of famine and starvation

[crossposted at Cliopatria]

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14 Responses to Trope Trove, or Colonial Fairy Tales

  1. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    Regarding #6: One thing that’s always amused me is that Tarzan grows up in Africa and becomes a jungle lord, but that the Africans who’ve lived there for centuries, don’t.

  2. brenkarch says:

    Hmmm…how about these? (Some of them are admittedly outdated.)

    -Africans as primates or a different species (I’m thinking of the European exhibitions of “primitives” in the late 1800s.)

    -The civilized African — think full-white suit

    -The indolent African, lacking discipline and work ethic

    -Perpetualy warring tribes, general anarchy

    -Nomadism — all Africans roam the plains

    -Africans as rebellious, unthankful

    -For some in the black diaspora, Africa as primodrial homeland

    -Africa as the land of plenty, of unlimited natural resources

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh my god, yes, Africa as the land of unlimited and untapped natural resources, that’s got to be on the list.

    A few of these others are, I think, fairly historical. That’s another issue I like to think about in this class: looking for tropes that were once common and are now uncommon. Something like the “civilized Africa” or “mission boy” was an incredibly common, powerful image in imperial European cultures but after that point, stopped being in circulation nearly as much–it doesn’t reappear in New Yorker cartoons, pulp fictions, and so on like so many of the others. Same I think for both Africans-as-other-species and Africans-as-Edenic-noble-savages.

    The Africa-as-homeland one I will include, as a good third of the class is devoted to images of Africa within the African disapora.

  4. back40 says:

    How about villagers as incapable and destructive resource custodians. This is perhaps related to the other nautural/envirommental themes you’ve mentioned but seems particularly relevant at this time due to “new political ecology”.

  5. eb says:

    Specific landscapes: desert and jungle, savannah. (This may fit into #13.)


    Africa as a site for European/American leisure: hunting, safari, etc.

    Source of mysterious objects with mysterious powers such as masks, etc.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Gary, that’s a good one, though for various reasons it seems to me to frequently “settle” on South and East Asians or Latin Americans rather than Africans.

    The “superstitious bearer” trope is clearly a subset of a whole host of safari/hunting tropes.

  7. Like the hunting/safari use, what about the agricultural use of Africa (Kenyan coffee planters)?

    In Italy a striking number of the sugar packets and coffee packagings are “African,” including some visual usages that wouldn’t have flown in America in the last 30 years (my students were shocked that these things were on restaurant tables). They’re in the same vein as Juan Valdez. It’s a topic I’d love to set for one of our own Media & Society majors next time I’m there with a group.

    nasty flash interface, but try this and download their images/icons:

  8. emschwar says:

    H. Rider Haggard did a number of stories about Africa in general, including the seminal She (1886), focusing on the hidden civilization, #1, and King Solomon’s Mines. He undoubtedly influnced Burrough’s Tarzan, and most likely is at least partially responsible for much of the fantastic and popular fiction concerning Africa. His stories cover pretty much all of your listed tropes except for #16, and may well touch upon that; I haven’t read anywhere near his entire works.

    I honestly don’t have any idea whether he originated any of those tropes (I rather doubt it), but it’s certainly a useful touchpoint for tracing the evolution of popular European and American views of Africa in the late 19th century.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    King Solomon’s Mines is indeed a key point of origin, though Haggard derived some of his characteristic images from a number of even earlier sources. I’ve taught the book in all the versions of this course that I’ve offered.

  10. Doug says:

    Trope #1 is clearly very old, possibly tied to the idea of the Garden of Eden. What sprang to my mind first was the legend of Prester John’s kingdom, which from the early 1400s onward was thought to be in Africa. (A little surfing shows that earlier it was thought to be in Asia, but European contact with China, India and Mongolia refuted that notion.) Clearly, though, the students will have to do a lot of narrowing on this topic to have any sort of manageable project.

  11. A couple of things spring most readily to mind beyond the ugly cartoon stereotype of the blackface, big-lipped jungle cannibal. The first likely ties in to #13, and that’s the old myths of the elephant graveyard and the hidden valley where dinosaurs still roam. The other has less to do with so-called “black” Africa than North Africa: the legends and myths of the French Foreign Legion in the Sahara. You could tie into it other stories of the “casbah” (oooo, Charles Boyer) from one direction, pre-war 20th century romance, and from another direction the “Dogs of War” stories of white mercenaries of someone like Frederick Forsythe. After all, your current students are likely to be far more familiar with the trope of a post-colonial Africa roiled by war and revolution, by Idi Amins and Robert Mugabes than they are Albert Schweitzers and Doctor Livingstons.

  12. grussell says:

    I know this is late but John Holbo just mentioned this over at Crooked Timber.

    – child raised by animals in the jungle (The Jungle Book, Tarzan?)

    – lone animal-like African woman, super strong and strong-smelling, might “seduce” visiting foreigner (Heart of Darkness, Anais Nin)

  13. rootlesscosmo says:

    The hidden civilization ruled by a mysterious white queen–or the white woman who accompanies the European explorer as his magical talisman for to overawe the Africans. (This is alluded to, ironically, in the script of John Huston’s Beat the Devil.

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