My Book "The Hearts of Darkness" Deals With National Geographic Magazine's Racist Concoctions About Africa

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[Commentary]

It's interesting that the editors of National Geographic decided to examine the publication's past racist representations of Africa. If my book The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa (Black Star Books, 2003, 2016) played a role in this re-examination, this is also welcome. In 2016 the online magazine Who,What, Why published excerpts from my book in three parts. I thank the editor Milicent Cranor and Publisher Russ Baker, who was one of my professors at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia.

In 2007, BlackAgendaReport published excerpts from the earlier edition of my book; I thank the publisher Glen Ford.

Western representations of Africa was the subject of my masters paper at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in 1992 and the subject of my subsequent book. After Columbia Journalism Review accepted my Masters paper for publication then backed out later on --even after editing it and inserting what amounted to an apology to The New York Times that the CJR's editors wrote on my behalf without my knowledge--  I decided to expand the research into what later became the book "The Hearts of Darkness" which I published myself. 

 

The book deals with racist representations of Africa dating back to the 17th Century when European so-called explorers started going to the continent to prepare the groundwork for the colonizing powers who came later during the "Scramble for Africa" in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. The book also deals with coverage of Africa in The New York Times (beginning in the 19th century), and later in the 20th century by National Geographic, Time magazine and The New Yorker magazine. My book also deals with concoctions about Africa published in The New York Times and in National Geographic.  

 

In 1992 after CJR aborted the agreement to publish my paper --incidentally the paper won the James Wechsler Memorial Prize at Columbia-- I sent a copy to then New York Times Op-Ed editor Howell Raines offering to write an Op-Ed about the Times' past racist coverage of Africa; I thought it was best for that story to come out. Raines did not respond. I also sent a copy to Arthur Ochs Sulzberger then Times' publisher. Managing Editor Joseph Lelyveld responded on his behalf. Lelyveld agreed that I had unearthed New York Times articles with "crude and ugly" language about Africa. 

 

My research --which took me into the Times' archives-- revealed that while he was a reporter in South Africa, Lelyveld himself wrote letters to his editors at the Times complaining about how some of his articles dealing with the apartheid education system had been edited.  Lelyveld did the right thing when he reporting from Africa. 

 

I published my book in February 2003. 

 

In September of that year I wrote a commentary for Extra! Magazine focusing on The New York Times' own concoctions about Africa -- including creation out of thin air by Times editors of Nigerian "small pagan tribes dressed in leaves"  in an article written by the late Lloyd Garrison and published in the Times on May 31, 1967, prompting Garrison to complain in a letter to his editors on June 5, 1967; and reference to Congolese "pygmies" inserted in an article about Congo's independence by Homer Bigart, published in the Times on June 5, 1960. The article appeared under the headline "Inventing Africa, New York Times archives reveal a history of racist fabrication."

 

My research revealed that when Times foreign editor Emanuel Freedman sent Homer Bigart to report on decolonization in Ghana he wrote back a letter in January 1960 that in part read: “I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. 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.”

 

Freedman himself in a letter to Bigart dated March 4, wrote: “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?”

 

The racist animus Bigart and Freedman harbored toward Africa was transferred into the "news" articles published in the Times as my book shows. 

 

I will be publishing the revised and corrected second edition of The Hearts of Darkness How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa in May, 2018. 

 

Below is Chapter 5 from my book "The Hearts of Darkness..." it deals with National Geographic magazine's African concoctions. 

 

 

CHAPTER 5 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE’S AFRICAN CONCOCTIONS 

 

The journals of the European travelers offered the indelible narrative of Africa as a backward continent inhabited by "savages." The National Geographic Magazine provided the pictoral proof through the decades.

The magazine was founded in 1888 as the publication of The National Geographic Society by a group of investors, geographers, lawyers, bankers and biologists. The magazine's declared objective was to "further the prosecution of geographic research," and to "diffuse the knowledge so gained, among men, so that we may all know more of the world upon which we live." 

 

Some of the so-called "knowledge" that the magazine disseminated to its readers included fictitious incidents, concoctions, and observations about Africans by writers who traveled to the continent. One of the most preposterous accounts published in the magazine was an article by a Briton named Frank J. Magee, in the magazine's October 1922 issue under the headline "Transporting a Navy Through the Jungles of Africa."

 

The article was supposedly Magee's account of how he and 27 English naval volunteers journeyed from the West Coast of the continent, with African porters, into the interior, to assist Belgians in what was then their colony, Congo. The Belgians were then fighting German soldiers on Lake Tanganyika, in 1915, during World War II. Tanganyika was then a German colony.

Magee's article contained numerous concoctions depicting Africans as ignorant savages while providing amusement for readers of National Geographic. It's worth reviewing Magee's article in some detail, considering the magazine's enduring influence and its role in shaping the perception of Africa around the world over several decades. 

 

According to Magee, he and his colleagues intended to first reach the river Lualaba with their dis-assembled boats. From there, the boats, the "Mimi" and the "Tou-Tou," would be re-assembled, and the crew would then sail to Lake Tanganyika. "And so early in the coolness of an African morning," Magee wrote, describing the beginning of the journey, "we turned our backs on civilization and all that it meant, to fade away, but for a short time, we hoped, into the heart of the African bush."

Magee depicted the traditional African rulers his party encountered along the way with the same type of contempt displayed by the 18th and 19th century travelers who preceded him. "One old chief, I remember, was attired in an old British militia tunic and a pair of spats, his crowning glory being an opera hat and a pink sunshade," Magee wrote. "I was aware that a big business in out-of-date uniforms is carried on between traders and these tribes, but the origin of the spats and the sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals."

Here, a perceptive reader may wonder how Magee himself, and his party, lived to tell the tale after the encounter with the alleged cannibals, without also being consumed. Magee claimed that when he and his colleagues then ignited the engine to start up bulldozers in order to clear a path, all the "natives" fled into the bush, thinking it was some kind of monster that had come to devour them.

Later, during the journey, the "natives" happily sang Christian hymns even while carrying loads that exceeded 50 pounds. "They had memorized the tune and words, but they had no actual comprehension of the meaning," Magee explained. "Imagine, therefore, a crowd of natives on the march, each carrying a load of some 60 pounds on their head, with a prospect of a 30-mile trek under a blazing sun, singing such a hymn as 'Now the Laborer’s Task Is Over.'"

 

On September 28, 1915, according to Magee's account, the expedition reached the Lualaba River and after transporting their vessels by railroad, they sailed the rest of the 350-mile distance, shooting crocodile and hippos along the way. When the party reached its destination, it was welcomed by Belgian troops. Magee and his colleagues then started constructing a harbor, using blasted stones. By the time Christmas arrived, all their vessels were afloat. The team waited patiently for the German enemy.

Suddenly, one day, according to Magee's account, a German vessel appeared with guns ablaze and the battle commenced. By the time the smoke cleared, the German vessel, the "Kingani," was immobilized and three German marines killed. Three Africans were missing, while the British suffered no losses, Magee reported.

When the German vessel was escorted to the shore, flying the white flag of surrender, the "natives" erupted in wild celebration of the British victory, Magee claimed. "They came bounding down from the trees and the hill-tops, giving vent to loud whoops of delight and gesticulating wildly, simply falling over each other in their hurry to reach the beach in order to pay their homage to the new Great White Chief, our commander," he wrote.

Magee then followed up with a scenario that was intended to evoke Joseph Conrad and may have, in fact, been plagiarized from Heart of Darkness, or from Georg Schweinfurth's Heart of Africa; or from both books. Magee wrote: "There they assembled in thousands, arrayed in their brightest pigments and grandiest loin-clothes, a jigging, jogging, frenzied mass of black humanity—a sight not to be forgotten." 

 

Once the British commander landed ashore, Magee claimed, "The natives, with grunts of satisfaction and approval, threw themselves flat on the ground and trickled sand on their hair—a sign of respectful homage—as the commander passed among them. The native women flocked around in an effort to be seen by him, regarding this as a fetish which would protect them from evil spirits." In contrast to the "natives'" alleged barbaric form of celebration, the Europeans, Magee wrote, "expressed their joy in the usual demonstrative Continental fashion of embracing and kissing each other and by singing of their national anthem."

The dead Germans were then buried with "full military honors" after which, according to Magee, "specially chosen native troops were put on guard over the graves," around-the-clock. "The significance of this," he explained, "lies in the fact that a large majority of the Belgian native troops were recruited from tribes addicted to cannibalism and some of them might have felt tempted to take the opportunity of indulging in their horrible custom, if precautions had not been taken to prevent it."

Furthermore, the "natives," Magee claimed, were so impressed by the victory over the Germans that they molded the likeness of the British commander, Spicer Simson, in clay and started worshiping him as their new "ju ju." Magee explained: "This was very well for Commander Spicer Simson, but it must have proved rather disconcerting to the Belgian White Fathers of the native mission –who had spent years and years in an effort to open the native mind to Christian teachings—only to find their black folk suddenly turning to a new ju ju in the form of a British naval commander, in clay."

Magee never explained in the article the improbable timeline, from when the molding was made: when the worshiping commenced; and, when the Belgian White Fathers became alarmed by the "natives'" alleged relapse into barbarism.

 

At some point, the Belgians then decided to test a Marconi wireless at the precise moment that they were also test-flying a newly assembled plane, according to Magee. "Picture, therefore, the amazement of the superstitious negroes," he wrote, "when, shortly after the wireless had begun sending testing messages, with the rasping, crackling of electrical sparks, lo and behold came the answer to their prayer to Heaven, as the natives thought, in the form of a low droning, gradually getting louder."

He continued, "Suddenly, the seaplane shot into view out of the sky, describing circles and going through sundry evolutions over the camp. The natives stood spellbound, gaping upward with arms extended, eyes bulging, and mouths agape. The airmen then made a sudden dive downward and that broke the spell. The savages bounded off into the bush, terror lending wings to their progress. Mothers snatched up pickaninies and dived for the shelter of their kraals, shrieking at the top of their voices. It was real pandemonium."

The National Geographic even published an obviously staged photograph purportedly showing the terrified-looking "natives" -- seven Africans kneeling on the ground, gazing up at the sky with arms upraised. The caption for the photograph read: "Spell-bound, gazing upward with their arms extended, eyes bulging, and mouth agape, the awe-stricken natives first believed the aero plane a new kind of monster swooping down from the sky to destroy them."

   

Who would blame any African, reading these lines from Magee's 1922 article today, if she or he wished that Magee had actually been consumed by one of the alleged cannibals he claimed to have encountered? 

 

 

 

 

Allimadi publishes The Black Star News and teaches African History at John Jay College. He can be reached via mallimadi@gmail.com 

 
 

 

 

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