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Milton Allimadi's The Hearts of Darkness...(8)

Posted in: Essays/Articles
Sep 17, 2007 - 1:44:31 AM

The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa

Part 8:  Why Africans Are Not Tribesmen

by Milton Allimadi

Mr. Allimadi is CEO and Publisher of The Black Star News.  This series originally appeared in the Black Agenda Report.


Both Homer Bigart and Emanuel Freedman [racist writers featured earlier in this series] were dead, by the time the research for this study was conducted; Freedman died in 1971 and Bigart, in 1991. However there were other New York Times writers, and former writers, who were able to share their experience with me.

"There is no need for a conspiracy," Tom Johnson, who had been the first Black reporter sent by the Times to Africa, in the 1970s, told me over a lunch interview on January 9th, 1992. "The people who make news decisions are middle aged white men who aren't close to the continent."

By the time we spoke, Johnson was running his own public relations company, Thomas A. Johnson Associates, near Madison Square Garden. He had been the Times West Africa bureau chief from 1972 to 1976.

"By the time the people who make decisions in the newsroom come out of school they know a great deal of European history and nothing about Africa," he continued. "They couldn't care less for Africa. If I had done nothing during my assignment, they wouldn't have cared. It's part of the thinking. Blacks are considered inferior, here and wherever they are."

"Times reporters couldn't care less for Africa."

Africa was also neglected by The New York Times because United States government officials did not treat it as an important continent, Johnson told me. He recalled a conversation he once had with Shirley Temple Black, whom he referred to as a "conservative white Republican who was a real supporter of Africa." At the time, Black was the United States ambassador to Ghana. "She told me how she once asked Henry Kissinger what he was going to do about the Namibian problem," Johnson told me, "and that he responded ‘What's a Namibian?'" At the time, Namibia was then widely referred to by its South African occupiers and the outside world as South West Africa.  

"Journalism is a business," Johnson continued. "What pays dividends is good. When The New York Times go from calling people negroes to Blacks it's not out of concern. They don't care what you call yourselves. They only care that you don't picket or march and draw public notice to what your are doing."

But even if the media were to address the problem of distorted and racist coverage of Africa, another critical issue Black people had to tackle was their own perception of themselves. "We are products of European ethnocentricity," he said. "We look at things the way Europeans do. One hundred years ago, and today. Even beauty. Look at Black American magazines. The standard of beauty is whitish-black."

Roger Wilkins, who is also Black, and was a professor at George Mason University by the time we spoke, was once a member of the Times' editorial board. "Is it racism?" he asked, rhetorically, referring to the Times' coverage of Africa, when we spoke, on January 30th, 1992. "Look, there is a fundamental racism in this country. Many Americans are racist without even knowing it. It's just the way they are brought up. That's the culture, that's how America works. We are a culture that is interested in Europe. Reporters are deployed all over Europe."

NkrumahRobedBWHe conceded that African coverage had improved and that the tone of the writing was "not as contemptuous as it used to be," because younger reporters were now sent to the continent. "But you still get this thing about tribalism or black-on-black violence. That's not what you hear about fighting in the Balkans or Yugoslavia. It's never white-on-white violence." Wilkins was optimistic about the future, predicting that the quality of African coverage would continue to improve: "When people say ‘tax and death are the only two sure things, I disagree. I say add change to that. When I was a child, colonialism looked like it would last forever. Well colonialism is gone."

"Africa is relegated to the backwater."

Michael Kaufman, once a Times correspondent based in East Africa, and who was deputy foreign editor by the time we spoke on January 12th, 1992, had dire observations. "Africa will once again have to prove to the world that it deserves to be in the news," he told me. "We're back where we started. Africa is relegated to the backwater."

He said that Africa had to compete for news space with Western Europe and the former Soviet Union. Moreover, readers had become satiated by the images of famine from the continent and newspapers preferred to cover pressing problems such as the Haitian refugee crisis, closer to the United States. "It's fascinating to me that the era of Idi Amin and the obvious dictators has ended in Africa. The story today in Africa is religious. The rise of Islam. The story is ecology. It's a tough story because it involves a lot of stories. We generally send younger people who don't know too much. After four years we call them back. I defend this approach because we are not Africa specialists. There are publications that specialize in Africa. We deal with a general readership."

Kaufman recalled that while he was in Nairobi, Kenya, he favored two approaches to African coverage: A thematic approach, with articles that were relevant across national borders, and the "ooga-booga" approach. "When I was growing up and Tarzan was about to attack Africans, they would make him speak his fake African, ooga-booga, ooga-booga. That's what I call ooga-booga reporting. It is the National Geographic approach. It captures the thing that is unique to the place. Ooga-booga stories are titillating. I enjoyed it and readers did," he said. Basically, there were two ways of covering Africa, Kaufman insisted: ‘"Look they're just like us,' or ‘look they're completely different.' So you waver between the two. When writing about places like Nairobi with its tall modern buildings, you can't forget the Masai walking in their robes."

Bill Kovach, a former editor with The New York Times' Washington bureau was the head of the Niemann Foundation at Harvard when we spoke in 1992. "You have to start with the understanding that when dealing with Africa or any other country outside the United States, international coverage by a newspaper in the U.S. is strongly reflective of government policy and interests," he said. "If a government is interested in a region and American investment pours into the region, then the United States is interested. If taxpayers' money is going into the region you'd have to be foolish not to be interested. But this means the interest is transitory and episodic. There is coverage when there is a problem in the region."

On the other hand, South Africa was the only country on the continent where the Times and other major Western news organizations had sustained interest, Kovach said. "Joe Lelyveld the managing editor of the Times, who is probably going to be the next executive editor, built his career in South Africa," he said. "Elsewhere, coverage focuses on civil war. A battle here, a war there."

Kovach complained that major news organizations did not send Black correspondents to Africa much earlier. "When the Baltimore Sun sent a Black female reporter to South Africa, she rented a home in a predominantly white neighborhood and wrote articles about how people thought she was a maid. These are the kind of stories we could have had 10 years ago." MPLADashingFighter

Ultimately the problem boiled down to a double standard when dealing with African coverage relative to Europe and other places, Kovach said. "There is a large immigrant population from Europe in this country and the presumption is that they are interested in news from home. There is a failure to understand that there is a huge forced or voluntary immigrant population from Africa."

"Some reporters complained that they'd have to get new wardrobes for Africa. Others feared they'd get shot."

Lloyd M. Garrison, a descendant of the great American abolitionist was The New York Times' first West African correspondent during the 1960s. He covered the Nigerian civil war and was expelled by the military government there for alleged bias in favor of Emeka Ojwuku's Biafran secessionists.  Garrison was director of communications at The Ford Foundation when we spoke on February 5th, 1992 and agreed that, apart from South Africa, coverage elsewhere focused on famine. He complained that there were many good stories being ignored from Africa, including the rise of African soccer and women's liberation. "The best thing the Times ever did in Africa was to send two people from New York to go and cover AIDS in Africa two years ago," he said. "Correspondents can't afford to go and cover AIDS from the villagers' perspective. They fear getting beat by the wire services."

Garrison said he made a proposal, after Abe Rosenthal became the Times editor, that occasionally specialists in science, medicine, law and other fields be sent to Africa on a regular basis to cover stories correspondents could not. Although Rosenthal accepted the proposal in 1969, nothing ever became of it, Garrison recalled: "The medical expert thought in his absence a new drug for heart disease could be discovered. Some reporters complained that they'd have to get new wardrobes. Others feared they'd get shot. They all tended to go to Europe instead of Africa."

In an enlightening essay entitled "What is a tribe?" in his book African Religions in Western Scholarship (1970), the late Ugandan scholar, Okot p'Bitek denounced Western media's use of the word "tribe" exclusively to describe Africans and argued against its continued usage. "Western scholarship," p'Bitek wrote, "sees the world as divided into two types of human society: one, their own, civilized, great, developed; the other the non-western peoples, uncivilized, simple, undeveloped. One is modern, the other tribal."

The word "tribe" when used by Western media to describe Africans always has a negative connotation, p'Bitek correctly insisted. "Corrupt practices by government officials and others, such as giving employment not through merit but by kinship relations, or by concentrating public utilities such as hospitals, schools, etc., in one's own home area, which have been known throughout history and in all corners of the world, are described as ‘tribalism' in Africa," he wrote. "And, even normal demands for equitable distribution of the national wealth, in terms of areas, have been called ‘tribalism.'"

It will not be easy to eliminate the use of the word "tribe" in Africa, but it can be done, and must be done. Many Africans, whether they are Acholis, Gikuyus, Zulus or Igbos, ignorantly refer to their "tribes." But this doesn't mean that things can't change. After all, Africans once had been conditioned to regard themselves as "savages," and "natives" just as in the United States, Black people were conditioned to see themselves as "negroes," or "colored." Yet, modern Africans and African Americans no longer tolerate these pejorative terms.

Okot p'Bitek enumerated additional reasons why the use of the word "tribe" was demeaning and intolerable. "It means people living in primitive or barbaric conditions. And each time it is used, as it is in the sentence, ‘I am a Kikuyu by tribe,' the implication is that the speaker is a Kikuyu who lives in a primitive or barbaric condition. And when we read of ‘tribal law,' ‘tribal economics,' or ‘tribal religion,' Western scholars imply that the law, economy or religion under review are those of primitive or barbaric peoples."

To be sure, historically, and in rare instances, some reporters did care enough to express concern about how to characterize Africans in their reports. Milton Bracker, a reporter sent to Southern Africa by The New York Times in 1959, wanted guidance from the foreign news desk. "If it has not been determined already," he wrote to foreign editor, Emanuel Freedman, on April 8th, 1959, "I think some style guidance should be furnished on the desired usage of a word to mean African negro."

"When we read of ‘tribal law,' ‘tribal economics,' or ‘tribal religion,' Western scholars imply that the law, economy or religion under review are those of primitive or barbaric peoples."

"In the Congo, such a man is a noir. In parts of French Africa, he is an indigene," Bracker's letter continued. "In Kenya, Tanganyika and the Federation [Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland], he is an African. In the Union of South Africa, he is a Native. I disregard the contemptuous Kaffir, or the racial collective Bantu."

"It is curiously difficult," Bracker concluded, "for a reporter to handle this one consistently in a paper with none of the taboos that determine the various usages listed above. I would appreciate guidance on this point; and if it is not already a matter of fixed style, I suggest it ought to be." Bracker was asking for guidance from the wrong person.

Knowledgeable African and American readers of The New York Times also protested against what they believed was distorted or biased African news coverage through letters to the newspaper's editors.

An article under the headline "Two Leaders in Kenya Boycott Parley that Seeks Tribal Unity," was published on August 12th, 1962 under the byline of Robert Conley. This was one year before Kenya's independence from Britain and Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) was jostling with Ronald Ngala, head of the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) for the post of prime minister. Rather than explore some of the factors that contributed to and fueled the rivalry, the conflict was tribalized in the Times' article. 

jomo_kenyatta The leaders of the two parties had failed to show up for the unity meeting because of "tribal bickering" the Times reported. KADU wanted "regional governments to insure the autonomy of the tribes and to protect them from domination by the Kikuyu, from whom the Mau Mau terrorism emerged in 1952," Conley wrote. The Kikuyus, Kenya's largest ethnic group were once again maligned as "terrorists" for having fought for their stolen lands.

A Kenyan living in the United States, Julius Waiguchu protested in a letter to a Times editor dated August 15th, 1962, accusing Conley of feeding readers with "cheap propaganda that will do nobody any good." Waiguchu believed Western leaders and publications favored Ngala because he was considered more accomodational to their interests than Kenyatta was.

"He does not say that the discord that exists today in Kenya is due to the fact that imperialist subversion has more to do with it than tribal rivalries," Waiguchu wrote. "The imperialist-built and supported elements with Tshombe-type mentalities is the cause of all that." His reference to Tshombe was to the leader of the Belgian backed seccesionist in Katanga province of what had been Belgian Congo. "I think he would do some good to his people," Waiguchu continued, "to come back and then report to us the rivalries of Jim Crow and K.K.K. in Georgia."

Emanuel Freedman, the infamous Times foreign editor, forwarded the letter to Conley, who then wrote back to his editor in a letter dated October 3rd, 1962: "If Mr. Waiguchu thinks there are no tribal difficulties in Kenya, he is misinformed. If he denies there are, he is deluded. We did not invent the difficulties."

Moreover, the "abusive" tone of Waiguchu's letter proved that he was a "crank" Conley concluded. "At least there is one solace," he added. "The Africans call us ‘imperialist' and the white settlers say we libel them, which shows that we are in league with neither." 

"To call these people a ‘tribe' is about as accurate as calling the Scots or the English a tribe."

On November 22nd, 1966, Marvin Harris, a Syracuse University professor wrote to a New York Times editor, protesting the newspaper's reference to the Bakonde in Mozambique as a "tribe," in an article about the guerrilla war. "Incidentally," Harris wrote, "to call these people a ‘tribe' is about as accurate as calling the Scots or the English a tribe."

The professor also complained that the Portuguese colonial authorities in Mozambique had convinced the reporter that the freedom fighters were mere "savages," who were resisting civilization. At one point, Harris noted, the Times' reporter, Lawrence Fellows, had also quoted "Portuguese officials and settlers on the fictitious cannibal heritage of the guerrilla fighters."

Additionally, in his haste to convey the Portuguese' opinion of the freedom fighters, Fellows in his article had characterized them as "relatively primitive," "feared," and "detested." Fellows "neglects to state what the guerrillas think of the Portuguese," Harris wrote.

The professor also wondered why the article had not discussed the United States' role in supporting a discredited colonial system and how the State Department had ignored appeals for help from the guerrilla leader, Dr. Eduardo Mondlane. "We are driving him steadily toward the left," Harris wrote, "against all his sentiments and learning, for we give him no other alternative." Moreover, Fellows had not treated Mondlane respectfully in his article, Harris noted. "It is well known that the Portuguese have done everything in their power to prevent the development of an African elite. The odds against Dr. Mondlane obtaining a doctorate can be stated quite precisely: one in six million. On behalf of his many friends and respectful colleagues in the United States," he wrote, "I urge Mr. Fellows to take his words more seriously." Mondlane had a Ph.D from Syracuse and the Portuguese apparently took his words more seriously than Fellows and the State Department did  - so much so that they assassinated him with a letter bomb in the 1970s while he was living in Tanzania.

How did The New York Times respond to Prof. Harris' observations and counsel? In a letter dated December 22nd 1966, George Palmer, an assistant to the managing editor, wrote to Fellows asking whether he wanted to respond based on their "guidance" or for the foreign desk to write on his behalf. "Professor Harris touches so many bases after swinging his critical bat that I feel you should see what he has to say," Palmer wrote. "There is no urgency but I think he deserves more than my bare acknowledgment of his letter."

The most interesting documented complaint about the use of the word "tribe" came from Garrison, while he was the West Africa correspondent. In a letter dated June 5th, 1967 from Nigeria, Garrison complained about the edited version of his story published on May 31st, 1967.

The Times' editors, presumably with the approval of the notorious Freedman, had maliciously fabricated some "tribesmen" and inserted them into Garrison's news article. "The reference to ‘small pagan tribes dressed in leaves' is slightly misleading and could, because of its startling quality, give the reader the impression there are a lot of tribes running around half naked," Garrison wrote, complaining about the concoction by his editors. He protested to the numerous use of the derogative term in the story, and added: "Tribesmen connote the grass leaves image. Plus tribes equals primitive, which in a country like Nigeria just doesn't fit, and is offensive to African readers who know damn well what unwashed American and European readers think when they stumble on the word." FrelimoChessano

Garrison knew he was fighting a difficult battle but he was ready to fight. "If it is not enough to say Yorubas or Ibos, as one would the Welch or the Walloons, then use the word tribe," Garrison wrote. "But not tribesmen, please. The first is less offensive, the second invites the image of savages dancing around the fire."

"Tribes equals primitive, which in a country like Nigeria just doesn't fit."

Some of the writers who complained to the Times editors were angered when their stories were tampered with, distorted, or censored. Joseph Lelyveld was based in South Africa twice. During the 1960s, his tour was cut short when the apartheid regime expelled him for suspected liberal leanings; he returned as a correspondent during the 1980s.

Lelyveld wrote a series of articles about South Africa's segregated education system and how it discriminated against Blacks by denying adequate funding to their schools. When the articles were distorted, he fired off angry letters to the foreign desk. In one letter, dated January 6th , 1983, Lelyveld complained that "virtually all the original reporting" conducted over a one month period had been omitted. In one story, the subject of white control and racial hierarchy in the education system was deleted, he complained. The printed version of the article was like "a salami sandwich without the salami, just slabs of stale bread," Lelyveld wrote, or "if you prefer a baseball image, the wind up without the pitch, in other words a balk."

When another article was censored, Lelyveld sent another angry letter, dated April 18th , 1983, to foreign editor Craig Whitney. "I wrote the following sentence: ‘the idea of a referendum among blacks was never considered for the obvious reason that it would be overwhelmingly defeated.' That became: ‘officials made it clear that the idea of a referendum among blacks... etc.' To what officials did the rewrite person talk? How does he or she know they made it clear? This exact phrase has been written in my copy before. Officials make damn little clear here."

After the end of his South African assignment, Lelyveld wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the corrosiveness of apartheid. He later became managing editor of the Times in the early 1990s, and then executive editor, as Kovach had predicted, before retiring in 2001.


The foregoing material surely must convince every honest reader that historically America's and Europe's major print media - newspapers, magazines and books - have been guilty of racism toward Africa, Africans, and Diaspora Blacks in their representations. Racism has been long evident to Black people all over the world. However confronting it is always more effective when one is armed with conclusive evidence such as the material assembled in The Hearts of Darkness.

We were able to show how journalists and other writers who many people assumed were truth-tellers and disseminators, were in fact not. They were, and often still are, vehicles of racism and inequity. Maybe that should not come as a surprise; why should one expect such people to be above the pervasive racism in their societies?

"One is left with a sense that the world has been governed - and is still governed - by maniacal and clueless people."

Another impression emerges from this journey into the history of Black representation in Western media. Generals, diplomats, statesmen, "explorers," and journalists who shaped the perception of Africa in the West were ignoramuses. One is left with a sense that the world has been governed - and is still governed - by maniacal and clueless people, and those who just plow ahead for profit, regardless of what they know. This is not a happy thought - but the statement of it may do some good in chipping away at the wall of bigotry.

NigeriaPMTimeMagCover The only way to effectively combat the stereotypical and racist representations of Africans and people of African descent that still persists in some Western media is by exposing how these representations evolved and the various agenda behind them.

To be sure, there has been appreciable improvement in the tone, substance and context of African news coverage and representations of Africans in most major Western media. After African countries won formal independence during the 1960s many students and diplomats traveled to Western countries. The increased interaction dispelled some of the racist perceptions of Africans and also made it difficult for media to continue publishing false stereotypes about Africans. In the United States, academic interest in Africa coincided with the civil rights movement and the creation of departments of Black Studies and African Studies in universities.

During the 1960s and the 1970s, African countries were comparatively stable even though the economies were disrupted by the 1980s after the shock of the oil price increase of the 1970s. During the 1980s when the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union intensified, countries that were allied to the West such as Samuel Doe's Liberia and Mobuttu's Zaire were covered less critically, despite the corruption and despotism of these leaders.

With the end of the Cold War both Washington and Moscow abandoned their African client regimes, a few dictators, including Doe and Mobuttu were swept aside and weapons became readily available in the rural areas as some national armies collapsed. When a number of African countries, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire, Sierra Leone, Angola and Liberia, suffered anarchic conditions, articles recalling the glorious days of colonial rule began to appear in major Western media.

"The dissolution of the former Soviet States or war in the Balkans was not accompanied by pejorative news reports about ‘white-on-white' violence."

During the same time period in the 1990s, similar anarchic conditions prevailed in the Balkans, separatist Chechnya, Georgia and several other former Soviet Republics. Yet, in contrast to the coverage of African conflict, the dissolution of the former Soviet States or war in the Balkans was not accompanied by pejorative news reports about "white-on-white" violence. In these regions the news reports explored the roles of unsustainable military spending, combined with the desire to settle old ethnic and religious scores and agitation for democratization, as factors behind the conflicts. In African countries the wars were presented as the natural way of life.

To say all this is not to justify tyranny or incompetent leadership in Africa. No doubt prolonged bad leadership, lack of political accountability, and the absence of enduring institutions of governance have blocked development in many African countries. But all this should not provide license for continued biased representations of Africa, including by some Western media that promotes the political and commercial interests of their own governments - the best example is the BBC's distorted coverage of the land reform program in Zimbabwe, simply because the British government reneged on its promise to finance the acquisitions of land from white farmers by Mugabe's government.    

Some of the most persistent and vocal critics of tyranny in Africa have been African writers such as the late Ugandan writer, Okot p'Bitek, the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'O and the Nigerians Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. At one time or another they were all either imprisoned, tortured or exiled from their countries. Yet none of these writers have described Africans in pernicious racist terms. Western writers must free their minds from the racist perceptions created and perpetuated by their forefathers through the centuries.

© Milton G. Allimadi

Part 1:  How Europeans Created the Racist Image of Africa

Part 2:  Blackness as Bestiality

Part 3:  A European Meets a 'Savage' Intellectual

Part 4:  The New York Times as Apartheid's Apologists

Part 5:  The Mahdi Defeats Gen. Charles Gordon

Part 6:  Viewing Africa Through Western Writings

Part 7:  Time Magazine Denigrates Congo Nationalism

Part 8:  Why Africans Are Not Tribesmen


The Hearts of Darkness: How European Writers Created the Racist image of Africa

Published by The Black Star Publishing Co.
P.O. Box 64
New York, N.Y., 10025

To order the book call (212) 481-7745 or visit  The Hearts of Darkness


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