Iweala, born here to Nigerian parents, wrote “Beasts of No Nation” after meeting a Ugandan war survivor. “This huge story came out of it,” he says. (photo By Susan Biddle — The Washington Post)

Concluding b real‘s comment on the previous post is this quotation:

he who captures the symbols by which public feeling is for the moment contained, controls by that much the approaches of public policy. … a leader or an interest that can make itself master of current symbols is the master of the current situationwalter lippmann

Today Africa has many successes throughout the continent. Unfortunately, one rarely hears of these successes. Rather one hears of war, famine, and natural disaster. Africans are portrayed as helpless, people whose survival, and whose success, is entirely dependent on the generosity of the developed world. This narrative is constantly reinforced by celebrity condescension, Bono (see Kameelah’s observations on Bono) for example, or the constant humanitarian ad campaigns that portray suffering children. Humanitarian ads pop up constantly on television, magazines, the internet, reinforcing the picture of helpless suffering in Africa.

Back in July, Uzodinma Iweala wrote in the Washington Post about “humanitarian” campaigns:

Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continent’s corrupt leaders, warlords, “tribal” conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like “Can Bono Save Africa?” or “Will Brangelina Save Africa?” The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and “civilization.”
There is no African, myself included, who does not appreciate the help of the wider world, but we do question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one’s cultural superiority. My mood is dampened every time I attend a benefit whose host runs through a litany of African disasters before presenting a (usually) wealthy, white person, who often proceeds to list the things he or she has done for the poor, starving Africans. Every time a well-meaning college student speaks of villagers dancing because they were so grateful for her help, I cringe. Every time a Hollywood director shoots a film about Africa that features a Western protagonist, I shake my head — because Africans, real people though we may be, are used as props in the West’s fantasy of itself. And not only do such depictions tend to ignore the West’s prominent role in creating many of the unfortunate situations on the continent, they also ignore the incredible work Africans have done and continue to do to fix those problems.

In advertising itself as a humanitarian agency, dispensing aid with guns, AFRICOM is riding on the back of these condescending perceptions.

But there is a much nastier side to the perceptions enabling Africom, its exploitation of terror and those it calls terrorists. And a large part of this exploitation is taking advantage of traditional racism in the US. Racism is an important piece of American political history and discourse, though these days the language of racism is carefully coded.

Pictures of the Niger Delta miltants touch the core of this racism, which has been described most eloquently by digby, including in posts on the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans.
The government wanted to quell the violence first — violence we continued to hear a lot about, but never actually saw. Rumors of gang rapes and shoot outs and even necrophilia in the convention center and the Superdome continued to be reported all day in the media as we watched the dehydrated elderly and crying babies waiting for rescue.

I remember watching what was happening in New Orleans and feeling there was a huge disconnect between what I was hearing and what I was seeing. Even so, I didn’t completely discredit what I was hearing, I just couldn’t make sense of it. If there was so much violence and danger, how come with camera crews all over, there were NO pictures of violence? TV loves pictures of violence, if there had been violence to film, we would have seen it.

Ever since 1791, there have been white Americans who get very nervous when they see a large number of angry black people in one place. That was the year that Haiti’s slaves rebelled and killed almost every Frenchman on the island. The fear of slave revolt — black revolt — entered the consciousness of the American lizard brain and has never left. From Gabriel Prosser to Nat Turner to Malcolm X to Stokely Carmichael and the long hot summers of 66 and 67, notions of barbaric vengeance being wreaked upon unsuspecting white people has lurked in our racist subconscious.
. . .
During the 60’s the anger became explicit and words like “by any means necessary” reached deep into the American psyche and fueled the backlash against the civil rights movement — and set the conditions for the Republican dominance of politics today.

Race is America’s deepest psychic wound that festers in different ways over and over again. It has lost much of its original blazing pain, but it is still there, buried and waiting to come to the surface.

I work with many white people who would be deeply shocked if someone were to call them racist. But I often hear comments revealing underlying assumptions about the helplessness of Africans, and the dangerousness of black people. And it isn’t just white people. I remember working in a city neighborhood during the 80s, where the mostly African American youth referred to Tarzan movies as a reference point when they talked about Africa. And I worked with a black colleague who was trying to change jobs so she would work mostly with white people because she didn’t like working with black people. Race truly is a psychic wound in America.

This is NOT to say that Africom is about racism. I don’t think that is true at all. I think it is about oil, and that it is about terrorism only insofar as exploiting terrorism is useful to coopting the oil. But Africom is carried along by the tide of American racial fears and perceptions. And the people who bring us Africom, the Bush GOP, have shown repeatedly that they are happy to exploit racial fears for gain.

Returning to the celebrity/humanitarian narrative, aside from gratuitous insults, what worries me is the macro aspect of the celebrity condescension and “humanitarian” ad campaigns. By painting Africans as people unable to help themselves, the celebrity humanitarian narrative, and the media attention it gets, make it much easier for the US, using Africom, to engage in imperial acquisition in the name of humanitarian aid and development. “They” are helpless and dangerous, so “we” need guns to help them. Africom presents a new and lethal round of western exploitation.

b real wrote in his comment on the previous post about the cover of a book on terrorism:

i recently finished reading a book, the history of terrorism: from antiquity to al qaeda, which i cannot recommend btw, and one of the things about it that perplexes me is the cover. the front photo is a shot of a boatload of niger delta militants, donning camo, masks, and clutching their AK-47’s, however, there is nothing in the book at all about the niger delta. there is a mention of nigeria, in that no international act of terrorism has ever occurred in nigeria, but, otherwise, the cover is entirely out of context. unless the message is that coal-black men w/ guns equates to terrorism. but again, that falls in the domain of the psychological characteristic of terrorism.

we already see how easy it is to evoke emotional reactions to stereotypical images of arabs in respect to western concepts of terrorists to “legitimize” u.s. foreign policies.

is that part of what is in store for africa, as the u.s. “takes” the GWOT to the continent? playing on white fears of stereotyped images of black men? hope i’m not reading too much into that one picture, but it’s really got me thinking about stereotypes.

I do not think the cover of the book was accidental. I wouldn’t necessarily blame the author, authors have varying degrees of control over the cover art, often none. Editors have a lot of say in the choice of artwork. As digby points out, the recent Republican majorities owe a great deal of their power and position to exploitation and manipulation of racial fears and attitudes, from Reagan and his talk of welfare queens, to Lee Atwater, to Karl Rove. The language is coded now. Open racism is generally not socially acceptable. And now, many of the people who are attacking immigrants have personal roots in the white supremacy movement. I have been worried for awhile about how the images of the militant young men in the Niger Delta might be used in ramping up terror fears. For many Americans these men will be the essence of danger and “other”, and it will be very easy to see them as terrorists, and very easy to persuade people that it is important to “do something” about them.