How to write about Africa– and about America

A casual reference by a friend to ‘poor Africans’ made me think of a now-classic essay about how narrow our perceptions of others’ realities can be. In the excerpt below from his biting satire, Wainana reminds his readers that ‘Western’ images of other countries are reductive and unrealistic.

How to write about Africa (originally published in Granta 92)
By BINYAVANGA WAINAINA

‘Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering…

Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people…’

A recent article in Salon struck me as a good companion piece to Wainana’s, because it too points out how dominant, unquestioned narrative devices reinforce false perceptions of ourselves and others.

How can white Americans be free?
By KARTINA RICHADRSON

In the U.S., ‘we expect artists of color to address race or we’ll ask why they don’t. White artists are never asked why they aren’t addressing their experience of race in their work. We don’t have the same expectations of white artists because, of course, they are raceless. We assume that if race is not specified and a specific identity is not discussed, then the identity is white.

In some places, the white default is blindingly obvious, like newspapers. Even in California, where white people are not a majority of the population, the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle both continue to specify race almost exclusively when an individual is non-white. No race specified? Must be a regular person! A white person…’

Although a hasty reader might assume she is haranguing white Americans, Richardson is describing how being the ‘default’ or regular American is a negative rather than a positive identity and deserving of empathetic acknowledgment.

Reading these two seemingly unrelated piece reminded me of a few things:

*There is always a link between how we live locally and the global histories that so thoroughly shape our contemporary imagination

*Richardson makes a very good point about the dilemma of being a white American who does not want to be racist: to truly support anti-racism means displacing oneself if one has majority privilege, but selflessness is a tall order for anyone

Combining advice from the essays leads me to suspect that we need to not only change how we write about Africa but also how we write about ‘regular’ America…meaning that we change how we tell stories about race and culture.

It is important that we speak for ourselves (because no one else can) while also remembering that we do not and CANNOT speak as the default to whom everyone else is merely an exotic other.

Writer: aj

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