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 chiefâ€™s daughter
4) Superstitious bearer/guide
5) Evil witchdoctor
6) White man â€œgone nativeâ€/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. â€œcluelessâ€ 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]