The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa
by Milton Allimadi
While still a student at Columbia University School of Journalism in 1992, Milton Allimadi gained access to the archives of The New York Times, where he "unearthed several racist letters that had been exchanged between the newspaper's foreign editor and the reporters he sent to cover Africa." His appetite whetted, Allimadi continued his research, ultimately resulting in publication of this book.
Mr. Allimadi is CEO and Publisher of The Black Star News, based in New York City. He has graciously given BAR permission to serialize his work.
How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa
"I know that history will have its say some day, but it will not be history as written in Brussels, Paris or Washington, it will be our own." - From Patrice Lumumba's last letter to his wife Pauline
Historically the predominant image of Africans and people of African descent created by the Western media has been that of savages. These images were created from the accounts of the early European travelers to Africa through the journals they published; in modern times the images were perpetuated and disseminated through newspapers, magazines and Hollywood films.
The media's racist portrayals of Africans and Black people in general, have been so effective that many contemporary white writers still view Black people through the prism of bigotry created by their forefathers over several centuries. For these contemporary writers even remotely to write balanced articles about Black people, they must first re-read many of the publications that have formed white people's perception of Blacks.
The following are some of the pervasive stereotypes still enduring:
* The African continent's inhabitants are barbaric.
* Black people are morally, physically and intellectually inferior to white people.
* Blacks' contributions to world history, culture, social, artistic and scientific development are non-existent.
* Africa is the obverse of civilization.
* The African continent itself is physically inhospitable.
The negative representations were so pervasive and effective that they diminished the self-esteem of many Blacks and caused them to suffer greatly from inferiority complexes. Many became convinced that indeed they were the most inferior human species.
What were the reasons for the racist representations of Africans by European writers? When the media portray people in a particular way there are always specific reasons, generally reflecting the political, racial, class, gender, ethnic, national, economic and religious biases of the owners of the media and the governing class. During the era of slavery, the media owners, writers and intellectuals - in other words, molders of public opinion and shapers of policy - represented Black people as sub-human, in order to justify slavery.
"Europeans regarded Africa as a backward continent, inhabited by savage and abnormal human beings."
During the period of colonial conquest and rule, Africans were represented as sub-humans at a lesser stage of physical, mental, and social evolution, and therefore, in need of the Europeans' civilizing governance. Then in the era after independence, some Western media represented Africans as people incapable of governing themselves, thus justifying and exonerating slavery and colonialism.
As early as the 5th Century BC when Herodotus wrote The Histories, Europeans regarded Africa as a backward continent, inhabited by savage and abnormal human beings - using white people to represent the epitome of creation. These representations continued throughout history, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, the journals of the European so-called explorers became the main media of disseminating the stereotypical image of Africa. In the early part of the 20th century, negative characterizations of Africa were permeating major publications such as The New York Times, The National Geographic, Time Magazine, Newsweek Magazine, The New Yorker, and several European newspapers and magazines.
My research has unearthed evidence of some of the Western writers' personal animus toward Africans in their personal correspondences, including those by reporters with major international newspapers. For example, documents from the archives of The New York Times reveal disturbing accounts in late 1959, when one of the world's leading newspapers sent Homer William Bigart to cover events in West Africa at the start of de-colonization from European countries. Bigart was a renowned reporter and had already won the Pulitzer Prize - American journalism's top award - two times while he was with his previous newspaper, The Herald Tribune.
"The Times reporter's favorite terms in Africa included ‘barbaric,' ‘macabre,' ‘grotesque,' and ‘savage.'"
After a visit to Ghana and then later to Nigeria, Bigart complained bitterly in a letter from Lagos to the Times' foreign news editor, Emanuel Freedman, about his African assignment. "I'm afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics," Bigart wrote. "The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr. Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cork. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about."
Bigart's favorite terms in Africa included "barbaric," "macabre," "grotesque," and "savage." This reporter's contempt toward the continent was evidently shared by his editor, Freedman, who wrote back: "This is just a note to say hello and to tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism's leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa. All this and nationalism too! Where else but in The New York Times can you get all this for a nickel?"
Typical of the prose that Freedman found so much to his liking was an article by Bigart published on January 31st 1960, in the Times under the headline "Barbarian Cult Feared in Nigeria." Focusing on a reported incident of communal violence, Bigart assumed a jaunty and derogative tone, writing:
"A pocket of barbarism still exists in eastern Nigeria despite some success by the regional government in extending a crust of civilization over the tribe of the pagan Izi." He added, "A momentary lapse into cannibalism marked the closing days of 1959, when two men killed in a tribal clash were partly consumed by enemies in the Cross River country below Obubra. Garroting was the society's favored method of execution. None of the victims was eaten, at least not by society members. Less lurid but equally effective ways were found to dispose of them. According to the police, about twenty-six were weighed with stones and timber and thrown into flooded rivers.
"No trace has been found of these bodies. A few were buried in ant heaps. But most became human fertilizer for the yam crops."
The article played on what was then a well-established impression of Africa as a continent inhabited exclusively by cannibals, and it reflected the views Bigart had expressed earlier in his famous letter to Freedman. The veracity of his journalistic production was highly questionable. He was not above concocting scenarios to fulfill his - and Freedman's - morbid fantasies about Africa.
"Dear Manny. It is nice to be in contact with you after the great Cameroun communications black out," Bigart wrote, in another letter to Freedman from West Africa. "There's nothing more demoralizing than to drop a story at a cable office manned by natives under French supervision. I'll never criticize British Cable & Wireless again...These countries are all miserable and I cannot operate efficiently because of the heat and cumulative fatigue. I hope I'll be able to survive the six months and then take a vacation in Spain and England before coming home."
Later that year, as independence neared for what was then Belgian Congo, Bigart complained to Freedman in a May 29th 1960 letter from Leopoldville, which is now Kinshasa: "I had hoped to find pygmies voting and interview them on the meaning of independence but they were all in the woods. I did see several lions, however, and from Usumbura I sent a long mailer about the Watutsi giants."
The Belgian Congo had experienced the most bloody and brutal history of European colonial rule and exploitation in Africa. During the rule of King Leopold II, an estimated 10 million or more Africans were exterminated and countless more permanently maimed or disfigured, all in the quest for wealth. The country was raped of its resources, primarily ivory and rubber at the time. Under the Belgians, African slave laborers, who did not deliver their designated quota of ivory and rubber to their European masters in the Congo, had their hands severed, in order to motivate other slackers. There are remarkable and chilling photographs from that era, in history books, showing African laborers holding up the fire-cured limbs of their colleagues.
Now, finally, at the dawn of the Congo's momentous liberation from Belgian oppression, a reporter for The New York Times has the opportunity to get the reaction of the descendants of slave amputees and perhaps even of some surviving victims. What did this day mean for them? What hopes and aspirations did they have? What was their feeling towards the Belgians? These were some of the questions Bigart could have asked. Instead, his perverted mind is focused on finding Pygmies, one of the most maligned ethnic groups in all of history.
"The derisive headline of the article was ‘Magic of Freedom Enchants Congolese.'"
Having failed to find Pygmies for his news report, Bigart used the next best solution - he created them, as evidenced by his article, published in The Times on June 5th 1960. After all, he was confident that no Pygmy would ever see a copy of his article in The Times and challenge his assertions; and how could he have known that three decades later, an African-born writer would unearth the evidence of his fraud and bigotry from The Times' archives. The derisive headline of the article was "Magic of Freedom Enchants Congolese." The article began: "As the hour of freedom from Belgian rule nears, ‘In-de-pen-dence' is being chanted by Congolese all over this immense land, even by pygmies in the forest." "Independence is an abstraction not easily grasped by Congolese and they are seeking concrete interpretations," Bigart added, before continuing to malign the pygmies: "To the forest pygmy independence means a little more salt, a little more beer."
The type of racism that Bigart and Freedman expressed in their correspondences toward Africans was by no means unique to the two. Even when other Times reporters seemed eager to explore more serious social and political developments on the continent, Freedman steered them back to the racist themes he craved.
Another Times reporter, Leonard Ingalls, who was based in South Africa, had sought guidance from Freedman, as his letters revealed: "You asked me before I left New York to give you after I had been here awhile my impression," he wrote in a letter dated June 14th 1956, to Freedman: "Perhaps the most obvious and fundamental fact to strike the newcomer is that the Negro, by sheer weight of numbers, will take control of Sub-Saharan Africa within the next generation or two." (A year after this seminal observation, Ghana won its independence from Britain, and six years later, most African countries began formal de-colonization).
"As you know, white South Africans call themselves and all other white persons Europeans. Sometimes, in trying to defend their white supremacy policies, they will argue that South Africa has been their home for 300 years and that they must fight - and they mean that literally - to preserve white civilization in South Africa because they have no place to go," Ingalls' letter went on, "I was talking with an African friend about this argument recently and his observation was: ‘They call themselves Europeans, let them go to Europe.' Usually when the question of political, social, economic or educational opportunities for Africans is raised with white persons south of the Sahara they reply: ‘You don't expect us to give them to savages, do you?'" Ingalls continued: "That is fair enough in a sense. There is a big ‘but' attached though, and that there doesn't seem to be very much enthusiasm for getting on with the job of helping the savages to better themselves."
Ingalls pointed out in his letter that the whites in South Africa seemed not to have learned anything from the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, where Africans were fighting against whites who had ousted the Kikuyu people and robbed them of their fertile ancestral farmlands.
"I have talked to quite a few literate, intelligent Africans," Ingalls continued, in his letter, "My recollection is that they have said they do not want to force the white man out of Africa. What they do want is the help of the white man in improving the lot of their people. They do not think they are getting that help."
Even U.S. government officials believed only more white presence in Africa could rescue the continent, Ingalls revealed in his letter to Freedman: "A few weeks ago George V. Allen, a United States Assistant Secretary of State, spent nineteen days touring Africa south of the Sahara. I was told that he gave it as his private opinion that the solution to the African dilemma was more white immigration. I wonder where all the white people are going to come from and what they are going to do when they get here."
Were these the kind of burning issues of the day that kept foreign editor Freedman, back in New York, awake at night? Evidently not, judging by his letter of July 25th 1956 to Ingalls in South Africa, "We read that in Black Africa, where the principle of the wheel was scarcely known a generation or two ago, there is now a great demand for bicycles," he wrote, "a trend is underway toward two-bicycle families. Is there a light economic air-mail feature in the increasing mobility of the aborigines?"
At a time when the continent stood at the crossroads of profound changes such as de-colonization, African leadership, and the reconstitution of the relations between whites and Africans, Freedman, foreign editor of an influential newspaper such as The New York Times, preferred storylines, presenting Africans as buffoons and savages to Western readers. "Where do they buy their bikes?" Freedman continued, in his letter, "What do they cost? How long does it take a man to earn enough money to buy one? Is his status advanced? Does he have roads or bicycle tracks, or does he ride through the bush? What is the usual biking costume-robe, breech-cloth, animal skin or birthday suit?" the foreign editor continued, "How is the bicycle business? Are dealers getting rich? Are there bicycle garages in the bush? What social effects is the bicycle having?"
"Freedman preferred storylines presenting Africans as buffoons and savages."
Public relations firms inspired some of the articles preferred by Freedman. After Albert Fick, a South African publicist, suggested a story idea to Freedman, he passed it on to Richard Hunt, a correspondent in South Africa, in a letter dated September 12th 1957. "Albert Fick, who as you know, now enjoys desk space in our wire room, sent me a note suggesting a feature that you might find interesting," Freedman wrote. "It does sound like a good project for a time when you have a chance to take it on." Fick's own correspondence to Freedman in part had read: "I have long been fascinated by raw black men being flown from the bush, where some of them have probably never used or maybe seen a wheel, straight into Johannesburg for work in the mines. The Transvaal Chamber of Mines would probably give Hunt a ride on one of their airlift planes, with these rookies. A good human story, from the middle ages into the 20th century, by air."
During the late 1950s as the rivalry between the West and East increased, the political struggle for allies was also played out in Africa and Western coverage of the continent reflected this competition. One of the publications that served as a vocal cheerleader for "Western values" and apologist for continuance of colonial rule in Africa was Time magazine. Its co-founder and editor, Henry Robinson Luce was an avowed Christian fundamentalist who wanted to continue the crusade he had lost in China when Mao Xedong's Communist movement had crushed his idol, Chiang Kai-Shek.
In Kenya, as Luce saw it, the good guys were the British colonial officials, the police and soldiers under their command. The bad guys were the African "terrorists" and the "witch doctors" that commanded the uprising. Time magazine devoted many articles to portray the guerrillas in Kenya as godless savages with no credible objectives. Under the abusive headline "Black & Red magic" in an article published on September 1st, 1952, Time magazine explained: "In recent years, the Black 97% of Kenya's population has banded together in a dozen fanatic, anti-white secret societies run by witch doctors and pledged to the slogan Africa for Africans." So, in one malicious paragraph, Time was able to belittle a legitimate uprising, and at the same time, criminalize the entire five million Black population of Kenya.
Whenever Black people resisted dispossession by white colonials seeking to conquer their land, they were demonized as "anti-white" and allied with witchcraft. (This technique has not deviated much even up to recent times, as evidenced by the 21st century Western coverage of Zimbabwe's attempt to re-distribute land from the white minority who stole it in the 19th century to the Black majority. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe was portrayed, particularly by the British media, as "erratic," "unstable," and "racist.")
The 1952 Time magazine article perpetuated the enduring image of Africans as incapable of fighting for just causes - they could only be inspired by irrational witchcraft and barbarism. Another Time magazine article ridiculing the uprising was published on November 3rd 1952 under the contemptuous headline "The Meow-Meows," and it described the situation this way: "Part land hunger, part savage revolution against the domineering white man and the bewildering 20th century, the Mau Mau's blind fury could, if left unchecked, turn the Crown Colony of Kenya into another Malaya." The reference was to the country now called Malaysia, which at the time was a British colony facing serious insurrection.
Luce's Time magazine set the tone for the coverage by other American publications. On December 7th 1952, The New York Times contributed with the following news lead: "Over the equatorial landscape of Kenya, the British Crown Colony in East Africa, lies the frightening shadow of Mau Mau, a secret tribal society whose campaign of murder has forced the imposition of martial law." The article conceded that much was not known about the "terrorist" but added: "The first aim of the Mau Mau, with its voodoo apparatus of disemboweled animals for warnings and long machete-like knives for their killings, seems to drive the 36,000 whites out of Kenya."
"The bad guys were the African ‘terrorists' and the ‘witch doctors' that commanded the uprising."
The article also questioned whether the insurgency was "a spontaneous native uprising" or instigated from outside, since the organization seemed to "bear some resemblance to the cells of a communist organization." The sentence purported to explain the communist connection read: "Jomo Kenyatta, who is held for trial as the suspected leader of the Mau Mau, received part of his education at the London School of Economics, married a white woman and thereafter visited Moscow." The article never explained whether it was Kenyatta's education at the LSE, his marriage to a white woman, or his trip to Moscow that confirmed his "communist connection."
The coverage of the Mau Mau uprising by American publications directly reflected British propaganda. Even today when dealing with Africa, major U.S. publications, including The New York Times still take their cue from and reflect the biases of British media such as The Financial Times, The Economist and the BBC - as if the U.K. could ever be a disinterested interpreter of events in Africa. Fifty years after Kenyatta was demonized, Zimbabwe's president Mugabe was characterized as a devil when he instituted land re-distribution.
During the Mau Mau, American and British media were so successful in perpetuating the image of savagery taking control over Africans in Kenya that even British officials were evidently affected. Consider what Oliver Lyttelton, the British colonial secretary and one-time governor of Kenya wrote in his memoirs, The Memoirs of Lord Chandos (1963). In one passage, he revealed that he was haunted by the Mau Mau's voodoo while serving His Majesty's Government in Kenya. "As I wrote memoranda or instructions," he recalled in his memoirs, "I would suddenly see a shadow fall across the page - the Horned shadow of the Devil himself." The good Lord Chandos could have benefited from some serious psychiatric counseling and treatment, even if he was simply perpetuating British propaganda.
© Milton G. Allimadi
Next week, Part Two: Blackness As Bestiality
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