Thursday, June 23, 2016

Africa on the Map

When I tell people I’m going to Paris or Hawaii, they all ooh and aah and smile with envy. When I tell them I’m going to Ghana, there’s a huge silence. Not their fault— folks simply don’t have a picture of what that means or if they do, it’s poverty, war, jungle beasts or famine. So much of our knowledge of the world begins with an image, an image planted by some form of media—a book, a movie, TV news—and then reinforced until it carries the weight of truth.

When I was a kid, I read a Dennis the Menace comic book about Dennis in Hawaii that tickled my imagination and stirred my longing to go myself someday. Listening to Ricky Nelson’s Travelin’ Man song (“pretty Polynesian baby, over the seas, do you remember the night? When we danced on the sands of Waikiki and I held you oh so tight”) fueled that desire and the TV show Hawaii Five-O added fuel to the fire. And so it was later with England via Beatrix Potter, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Charles Dickens, many places in the U.S. with Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Paris with Debussy, Satie, the Impressionists, Gertrude Stein-Hemingway-Henry Miller-etc.etc. and again etc. When I finally arrived in these various places, I had already visited them in my imagination and they resonated with some mythic melody I had already been singing that now I could taste first hand.

But what of Africa? You can guess. The book Little Black Sambo, Tarzan movies, National Geographic magazines of bare-chested women, horribly racist cartoons of bumbling natives with booming drums, the book King Solomon’s Mines. Jungles everywhere, though in this vast continent, a very small percentage of the land actually is, primitive people who had missed the boat to civilization and were awaiting the great white saviors. Through education, reading and actual travel, I came to see that the ignorance of those portrayals was stunning (the “Dark Continent” refers to the darkness in the minds of outsiders trying to define a people and a place through their own limited and misguided lens), still, as Kofi had us do in a recent lecture, if someone catches me unaware and shouts “Africa!”, images of Sambo and Tarzan and of course, an elephant or lion or two arises from some deep pit in my childhood first exposure.

I wonder about children today. Perhaps “The Lion King” comes up first or Nelson Mandela, but I’m pretty certain that there’s little or nothing of the complex diversity of places and peoples, nothing that comes close to capturing one of the highest forms of the human imagination cultivated through song, drum and dance in complex, life-giving, welcoming and spirit-stirring performance. Kids probably are not being fed images of the beautiful kente cloth or the wisdom of the proverbs or the unique tastes of banku or fu-fu or ground-nut soup. And—this is my point—they should be.

Turns out that Africa has not only been minimized in the collective Western imagination, but it actually has been portrayed smaller on maps. The entire United States fits into just the northern part, with room for six other large countries that include China and Argentina (can’t remember the rest at the moment). Racism is not just a random failure of people who should learn to treat each other better and get along, it is a deliberately crafted and evil systematic institution that closes the doors of human minds and hearts by purposefully spreading ignorance. Even African-American kids are growing up in the land of the right side of the hyphen with bad attitudes about the left. Education—the actual facts, like the map story above—can help, but I think what’s even more powerful is the mythology that enters our bloodstream at an early age, hits below the belt. I want a kid to read Dennis the Menace Goes to Ghana and start to long to see this marvelous land someday.

And so a call out to artists, musicians, authors, filmmakers, educators and TV newscasters to put Africa on the map—with its correct shape and size and tastes and smells and sounds, its beautiful contributions to the human experiment. Yes?

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