Looking Backward

I’ve been fiddling with the syllabus for my Image of Africa class, which I am to teach this fall for the first time in a while.

No course in my repertoire has changed as much in my underlying assumptions about its purposes and rationale even while the materials I’ve assigned have been somewhat consistent from iteration to iteration. The first time I taught it, fresh out of graduate school, I came into the subject material with a somewhat doctrinaire understanding of the instrumental role of representations of Africa in the domination of African societies. Even then, I was rethinking that assumption, and teaching the class helped to spur that rethinking. Now, sixteen years later, my own perspective on the subject matter has flip-flopped to presumptive skepticism: I’m unsure of how and when representation is a necessary, let alone sufficient, condition of inequality, domination, or power, though I’m totally willing to credit that representation can cause or shape social action to distinctive ends. This feels like a wide-open set of questions to me now.

I’ve decided to structure the class from a series of contemporary images or tropes backwards into their historical development. Normally I’m uneasy about history courses which start from the present and move back in time, as this can have the effect of squashing all contingency, of making the present inevitable. In this case, I think it works well, because one of the central puzzles of studying these tropes is to understand how we recognize them and reproduce them even when we don’t know their historical referents any longer. This is history as the detective’s art, except that when we finally do get back to the scene of the crime and we know it’s Colonel Mustard and the noose that did the deed, it’s not necessarily clear what the crime actually was or whether it really matters any longer that it was committed.

I’m going to start the class where I’ve started it before, with a slide show of images of missionaries and pith-helmeted explorers in the cookpots of African (or generically black) cannibals. I’ve got a bunch of new images I’ve found in various places. This is a great example of the basic idea of the course: as you trace back, you see how the image disseminated outward from more specifically colonial and African referents into the whole of popular culture and eventually became a generalized trope.

I’m also going to look in the first session at a more puzzling example (which I’ve also used before in the class): Boss Nass from The Phantom Menace, whom a number of critics claimed to recognize as an African chief.

This recognition was part of a general critique of the use of stereotypes in the film. When you look carefully at how Nass was spotted as such, it comes down to several elements. One, the general “blackness” and minstrelsy of the Gungans like Jar Jar Binks (compared to the Charlie Chan Asianness of the Neimoidians). Two, the pidgin that they speak in. Third, the “African” look of Nass’ clothing. But think for a minute about how complex an assemblage that really is: minstrelsy is largely drawn out of American cultural history; evocations of pidgins as colonial language widely reference a number of historical experiences, and the clothing that viewers saw as “African” is a much more contemporaneous image. This doesn’t mean Nass isn’t a stereotype. Once the resemblance is pointed out, I see some callback to many images of avuncular African chiefs in mid-20th Century films like Africa Screams. (Right after this clip starts, for example.)

But then the history that’s caught up in this one image is in terms of process incredibly complex and intricate. Surely George Lucas, whatever his childhood-violating sins might be, didn’t have all this history consciously or even unconsciously in mind. Even more to the point, if the referents caught up in a contemporaneous image are this intricate, what, if anything, is it actually doing with or to its audience?


Right now, here’s the modules I’m planning on doing in the class over 14 weeks, with some sketches of material that we’ll look at, most of it in excerpts or short selections. In some cases, I intend to end with a major scholarly work on the trope, so that we don’t so get that work as controlling authority that dominates the initial encounter with the material but instead as a “further reading” that expands the history. Some of the films we certainly won’t see in their entirety, because many of them I’m using simply as a typical genre representative rather than a unique work which originated or powerfully shaped a genre.

Ideas and suggestions, especially mentions of brief or powerful scenes, images or materials that really fits these themes, are extremely welcome.

Cannibal cookpots and Boss Nass
Binyavanga Wainana, “How to Write About Africa”

Safaris, great white hunters (2 weeks)
Contemporary wildlife & nature programming
The Ghost and the Darkness
The Naked Prey
Africa, Texas Style
Ernest Hemingway, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”
Theodore Roosevelt, African Game Trails
H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
Frederick Selous, A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa
Edward Steinhart, Black Poachers, White Hunters

Africa as Hobbsean nightmare; war, genocide and atrocity (2 weeks)
District 9
Far Cry 2
Hotel Rwanda
Press coverage and other writings on Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Darfur, Congo
Tears of the Sun
The Wild Geese
Colonial documents on African violence and warfare
King Leopold’s Ghost
Heart of Darkness
Press coverage of the Anglo-Asante War (1873-74) and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879)

Africa as diasporic heritage and lost homeland (3 weeks)
Heritage tours in Ghana (Ebron, Holsey)
Oyotunji African Village
Henry Louis Gates, Wonders of the African World
Kevin Gaines, African-Americans in Ghana
Shaft in Africa
George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile
Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
Ibrahim Sundiata, Brothers and Strangers
Pagan Kennedy, Black Livingstone
Edward Wilmot Blyden, selected work
James Campbell, Middle Passages

Africa as natural history museum exhibit (1 week)
“African Voices”, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
“Hall of African Cultures” controversy; Arnoldi, “Reflections” essay
Trophy heads and body parts controversies, 1990s-2000s; Skotnes, “Civilized Off the Face of the Earth”
Art/Artifact exhibit
Robert Gordon, Picturing Bushmen
Coombes, Reinventing Africa

Africa as tribal, as icon of the primitive (1 week)
“I Am African” ad campaign
Going Tribal, Discovery Channel, “Return to Africa”
Dover African Tribal Designs
eBay search: African + Tribal
The Gods Must Be Crazy
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle
Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls
Disneyland, the Jungle Cruise
Africa Screams
Darkest Africa

The witch doctor (1 week)
Diablo III, Witch Doctor
Ross Bagdasarian, “Witch Doctor”
White Witch Doctor
White doctor books: selection
Herge, Tintin au Congo
Witchcraft ordinances, colonial era
Peter Geschiere, The Modernity of Witchcraft
“Saving Africa’s Witch Children”

African rulers and power (2 weeks)
The Last King of Scotland
Congo (brief clips)
Mobutu imagery (1970s-1980s) and When We Were Kings
Press coverage of Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa
Coming to America
Black Panther comics
Kwame Nkrumah iconography (1960s-1970s)
Sanders of the River
Shaka Zulu miniseries
Thomas Mofolo, Chaka
E.A. Ritter, Shaka Zulu
James Stuart archives
Carolyn Hamilton, Terrific Majesty

Final week
Ruth Mayer, Artificial Africas

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22 Responses to Looking Backward

  1. jmccommenter says:

    Blood Diamond would be a good fit–sort of a hybrid of the Great White Hunter and Hobbesian nightmare sections of the course.

  2. jpool says:

    It looks like a fun course. The decision to work from recent images backwards is an interesting one, particularly since caricatured images often gain their power from a history of circulation and use. Can you talk a bit about your decision to not include Curtin’s The Image of Africa?

    A couple thoughts:

    I don’t know if you caught this post over at Africa is a Country, but they seem like they’d be fun images to play with during the Tribal section.

    The museum I work for is engaged in a exhibit development project on the various cultural and political moments of the year 1968. While that year was less of a turning point in Africa than in other parts of world, one of the more interesesting-to-me elements that came out of my colleague, Brian Horrigan’s examination of press coverage during that year, was the images of starving children from reportin on of the Biafran War. It was a striking reminder to me how that has set the template for Western coverage of war and famine in Africa for the period since.

    It might also be interesting in the the Witch-Doctor section to look at contemporary images of the jujuman in Nollywood films. Given the cross-pollenation of caricature, missionary critiques and current evangelical proselytizing, it might be useful to think about to what extent African’s have picked up and developed these images.

    Probably more thoughts later.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Curtin’s book deals with the earlier part of 19th Century, and I’m increasingly convinced of the intense complexity of the interaction between the chronological period he’s focusing on and the 20th Century. It’s also a very formal intellectual history of a kind that fewer and fewer scholars write–Meyer’s Artificial Africas is a really interesting text to consider just to see the difference between an older mode of formal intellectual history and a more hybrid intellectual-cultural history. Also Curtis Keim’s new book, which I’m likely to use in some fashion. In any event, I’ve discovered in past iterations of this class that Curtin is a good text for me to know and constantly reference but not such a good text to teach with. Including it would be doing something I’ve learned to avoid, which is to privilege coverage of the canonical historiography over what works to catalyze discussion and analysis.

    The Biafran War thought is a really good one, as is the link to the post earlier this month at Africa is a country. The Nollywood example is a great thought–it’s the kind of thing that I want to point the students to in order to suggest that once tropes “get out of the box”, it’s not really very clear how or whether their history of circulation and use travels along with them.

    Still thinking about how to structure the research assignment for the course–I really want to do something different than a conventional term paper, and one thought I have is for the students to do a blog or wiki (or both) devoted to a particular trope that they’re assigned at the beginning of the semester, and to do a lot of transmedial analysis and tracking.

  4. theotherprofessor says:

    In addition to your slideshow (first day?) you might consider having the students search for the images already in their heads. I do this in a course on music of Africa, and have the students write the images on the board. Then we step back and look: inevitably the board is dominated by “drum,” followed closely by ‘rhythm,” “dance” and not infrequently “fire” or “religious.” Our discussion about how we come by those images helps shape later discussions of documentary footage, etc.

  5. samsadow says:

    I’m not quite sure where it would fit exactly, but Alfredo Jaar’s The Rwanda Project (1994-2000) is an incredibly powerful work of contemporary art dealing with the Rwandan civil war, media coverage, and the politics of representation. It’s an expansive work, encompassing multiple photographic installations, so it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of conceptually, but it would add a “fine art” element to all of the popular culture, literature, and cinema that is already on the list.

    Also, what about the portrait photographs of Seydou Keita and Malik Sidib?? in Mali or Philip Kwame Apagya in Ghana.

  6. samsadow says:


  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Photography is a real area of weakness for me in terms of knowledge, so thanks very much for those suggestions.

  8. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    Have you read, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins. _Reading National Geographic_. (Chicago, 1993)? The book gives a nice analysis of National Geographic’s approach to photographs, the editorial process and some insight into audience expectations.

    On the downside, it covers more than just Africa, so it might be too broad for you to assign the whole book to the class, but you might be able to excerpt it. On the plus side, its easy for undergraduates to read, it has a straightforward methodology for looking at the images and the way their take on representation isn’t jargon laden.

    Sounds like a great class!

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I used Lutz and Collins the first time I taught this class–the last chapter. I thought it worked somewhat well, but what I’ve done since in this class (and others) is describe the findings of that last chapter, which I think is a very clever way to get at audiences.

  10. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    How do you well do you think Lutz & Collins’s findings track backwards into the nineteenth century? I am still trying to figure out what if there is more continuity or change between the nineteenth and twentieth century. My project is on photography in East-Central Europe. I used to think that World War One represented a break, but now, twenty years after 1989, I am not so sure that break is really there given the recent resurgence of certain tropes.

  11. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    shoot. I should have proofread that better. I meant to ask,

    How well do you think their findings about audiences map (or track backwards) onto the nineteenth century?

  12. alanba42 says:


    Sound like a good course. There is a lot more stuff out on the web on Chinese views of Africa, which I know is not your major focus. You can find a lot of it by following links from Exporting China’s Development


    Still no good books in English, as far as I know.



  13. David C says:

    There I was, shamelessly procrastinating on the final edits for my book??n images of Africa in German advertising around 1900–when I decide to pop over to Easily Distracted–“just for a minute or two”–only to have the topic be on Images of Africa. Hmmm, bad behavior (my slacking) rewarded by the internet gods?? 🙂

    This looks like a great class! The backwards-trajectory sounds really interesting.
    I’ve been amazed by how many images German advertisers of 1900 lifted directly from British ads from the 1890s?? who in turn lifted them from directly from British engravings from 1879 war coverage, and so on backwards down the line?? some of the persistence of clich??s comes from the literal use of “clich??s”??hat is, physical drop-in intaglios in printing. Expensive, so often re-used and re-patterned.

    Oddly, in Germany, the explorer/missionary-in-the-cannibal’s-cook-pot image really doesn’t take off until the Weimar era (1920s)?? it appears earlier in German humor magazines, but doesn’t get much broader traction in the face of other image-patterns, like the innocently-savage-but-civilizable child, the anonymous burden-carrying porter, the noble warrior (doomed, of course), or the foolish cross-dresser (African chief in loincloth, top-hat and spats), which all have specific applications for domestic commercial purposes like selling soap, establishing value, demonstrating the effectiveness of shirt-starch, etc.

    For your class, what about the Doctor In the Jungle??? In terms of Germany (my field), Nina Berman has an interesting book, “Impossible Missions,” organized around accessible biographies, which includes a good chapter on Albert Schweitzer and his “image.” I see the doctor-in-the-jungle-imagery as a post-Nazi moral recasting of the naturalist-in-the-jungle (Otto Finsch, Gustav Nachtigal). From 19th century head-measuring to 20th century head-bandaging??
    Also, there’s an English translation of Tintin in the Congo (printed in the 1950s, I believe?), though the illustrations are black-and-white. It’s the “real” version from 1931, not the (slightly) sanitized version re-released in 2005. I’ve used it in European culture-of-imperialism courses, and it works really well.
    I’d love to see the syllabus once you finalize it!

  14. I’m planning my own take on my university’s “Peoples and Cultures of Africa” course for the fall, and have decided to define “peoples and cultures” as something other than a tribal mosaic: I will teach about ethnically bounded groups, of course, but I will also teach about transnational trade networks (MacGaffey & Bazenguissa, “Congo-Paris”), urban hip hop artists (Ntarangwi, “East African Hip-Hop”), market women in Ghana (Clark, “African Market Women”), and even Wazungu/Toubabs (Krotz, “The Uncertain Business of Doing Good”).

    HOWEVER, I recognize that students coming into the class will be expecting the tribal mosaic. So I plan to bring my library’s copy of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher’s beautiful volume of photographs entitled “African Ceremonies” (c. 2000) to the first class, and pass it around the table. Students can browse its images of striking cultural purity. I will then explain how these photographs bear little resemblance to the lives led by ordinary Africans, as a way of justifying how I’ve organized the course thematically. I may also read aloud from Wainana’s “How to Write About Africa” for good measure.

    Other suggestions for readings: on Africa as a site of Hobbesian warfare, see Emmanuel Dongala’s novel “Johnny Mad Dog” (also made into a film, which hasn’t been released in the US as far as I know); on a visual anthropology of European missionaries and their representations of Africa, see Gullestad’s “Picturing Pity”:


  15. Ah yes, and then there is Curt Keim’s very accessible book “Mistaking Africa,” recently out in a 2nd edition, which is all about how the Western mind has come to (and continues to) misperceive Africa and Africans.

  16. nnyhav says:

    Having read Shiva Naipaul’s _North of South_ recently, I’m curious what your take on it might be (mine is that comparison to Orwell is justified).

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Johnny Mad Dog is a nice idea.

    I’ve been trying to figure out where to use Keim’s book. I’m certainly going to somewhere, but if I want to build this around discovery capped by an exposure to scholarly analysis, Keim sort of fits in almost anywhere at the end of one of these units. Maybe in the last week along with Mayer.

    I have read lots of Naipaul but actually not North of South. He is an interesting figure to think about in these terms, certainly.

  18. Emin Pasha says:

    On Africa as Hobbesian nightmare, you can’t do better than two articles by the novelist Denis Johnson on Liberia published in Esquire some years ago. George Packer’s first book on his peace corps experience in Togo is also very good. I would think you might want to include a section on the problematic depiction of Africa as a locus of moral concern–as relevant in today’s era of Hollywood activists as it was when Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle joined in the fight against “red rubber” and King Leopold’s misrule of the Congo.

  19. nnyhav says:

    NB: Shiva not V.S.: there’s not so much of the younger brother to read.

  20. Timothy Burke says:

    Nice thoughts, Emin. I use Packer’s Peace Corps book in my intellectual history of development course. I like trying to do something on Africa-as-Samaritan-fixation (Africa-the-suffering, Africa-the-victim, etc.).

  21. In the same vein as “Africa-the suffering/victim”: I once heard a concert organizer announce the featured artist, Vieux Farka Toure of Mali, as someone with dedication to “the cause of Africa.” And I thought, Africa must be the only land mass that is also a cause!

  22. naunihal says:

    Under Hobbesian, I know there’s a lot you can include but I would definitely include the article version of Robert Kaplan’s The Coming Anarchy

    I also start my African politics class by asking my students to talk about all the images which come to their own minds. While I don’t have the time to return to this theme, it’s a great exercise to do in a class devoted entirely to images of Africa.

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