America’s Africa and Black Cultural Identity

Marcus L. Harvey is the Assistant Professor of  Religious Studies at UNC Asheville.
Marcus L. Harvey is an Assistant Professor of
Religious Studies at UNC Asheville.
By Marcus L. Harvey, PhD

The black American community’s sense of cultural identity is profoundly fragmented.

This fragmentation is rooted in an acute psychological revulsion to Africa, especially African cultural traditions. Perhaps an experience of revulsion explains why references to the African continent made in black barber shops, churches, and at family dinner tables frequently involve words like “pagan,” “heathen,” “witchcraft,” and “black magic.”

Scholars such as Dr. Elias Farajaje-Jones and Dr. Dianne Stewart describe this fearful revulsion as “Afrophobia.” But what accounts for the problem of Afrophobia in the black community? I suggest that the black community’s Afrophobia can be partially explained through a consideration of contemporary American narratives about African cultures found in mainstream American news reporting and popular culture.

News coverage of Africa on major American television networks typically focuses on what economist Dambisa Moyo cynically refers to as the “four horsemen of Africa’s apocalypse.” The four horsemen are war, poverty, disease, and corruption.

The issue is not that these problems appear in nationwide news reports on Africa; rather, it is that these problems excessively appear in such reports, thus supporting the narrative that foreign intervention in Africa is permanently necessary because social and medical instability are somehow endemic to the numerous indigenous cultures comprising the African continent.

This narrative is strengthened, for instance, by reports of ethnic conflicts in South Sudan, the violent activities of the militant Islamic group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and the federal Nigerian capital of Abuja; political corruption in South Africa; Africa’s “need” for additional economic aid from the United Kingdom; and a recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea and Liberia.

Imbalanced international reporting of this kind seems purposefully calibrated to elicit in American audiences a psychological response to continental Africa characterized by extreme fear and pity.

Mainstream American news coverage of the African Diaspora is no different. For a recent example, one need only consider reports on the devastating earthquake that struck the Caribbean island of Haiti in 2010. Most reports on this disaster questioned whether Haiti’s economic and political infrastructure would ever recover.

Comparatively little was said about the crucial role of Haitian Vodou priests and other practitioners as first responders, offering any assistance they could to earthquake victims. Moreover, not long after the earthquake occurred, Pat Robertson—conservative televangelist, Chancellor of Regent University, and founding Chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network—publicly blamed Haitian Vodou (an African-derived tradition with origins in Benin) for the catastrophe, claiming that Vodou devotees made a “pact with the devil” immediately preceding the Haitian revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Bearing in mind the problematic reporting discussed above, and the narratives such reporting reinforces, it should come as no surprise that a related narrative can be found in American popular culture, particularly movies and television. This narrative treats Haitian Vodou as well as the Hoodoo tradition associated with Louisiana and other parts of the American South as 1) indistinguishable from all other African and African-derived religions, and 2) vehicles for perpetuating stereotypical perceptions of African religions as inherently demonic and hence dangerous.

Worth noting is the fact that these perceptions are historically consistent with centuries-old, fear-inducing observations made by deeply biased European missionaries and slavers during the colonial period in West and Central Africa who had no serious interest in African religions beyond the obstacles they posed to the erection of Judeo-Christian colonial institutions.

Two popular American films that evoke such biased perceptions and their attendant colonial histories are Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, released in 1988, and Iain Softley’s The Skeleton Key of 2005. Another clear example from the realm of American television is season three of the FX Channel’s critically-acclaimed series American Horror Story, which aired in 2013 and concluded in 2014.

The American media’s commitment to biased narratives about Africa is a grave threat to the black community’s sense of cultural identity. As James Baldwin explained at Cambridge University in 1965, to be black in America is to be trapped in a “system of reality” whose dominant social narratives constantly describe blackness and its African cultural foundations as tragic but menacing problems that require media-driven mis-education and systemic repression.

As products of America’s system of reality, popular narratives about African cultures stoke the flames of Afrophobia in the black community, resulting in widespread avoidance and dread of Africa.

American narratives about African cultures reveal what may be described as America’s Africa. America’s Africa is essentially a dysfunctional Africa that is both a foreign policy burden and a potential global threat.

The task before the black community does not consist merely in objecting to America’s neocolonial narratives about Africa, nor does it involve a romanticized reclamation of Africa. Instead, this constructive task requires a broad-minded willingness to engage in careful study of indigenous and diasporic Africa’s rich philosophical, ethical, and spiritual traditions in order to critically learn not only what it means culturally to be a person of African descent, but also what it means to be a human being.

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