Alice Walker and the caricatured view of Africa

American author Alice Walker came to South Africa last week to talk of her 'connection to the South African soul.'

John Amis/AP/FILE
Pulitzer prize winning author Alice Walker spoke with a reporter at Emory University in Atlanta before giving a reading at the school in March 2008.

In what she called a conversation (which was actually the 11th annual Steve Biko Memorial Lecture), Prof. Alice Walker spoke about her experiences of and in Africa. It wasn’t in that usual “Africa is a beautiful country” kind of way, but it exemplified what I think is a view of Africans, black Africans, held (mostly) by some black Americans:

"Africans are a warm, beautiful, lovely, and generous people."

They are the kind of black Americans who may kiss the ground on their first visit to the continent (I’ve actually seen this) and proclaim to be home. They probably have been wearing dashikis all their lives and may have been at some point (or currently are) called by some other very “African” sounding name that was not theirs at birth. And into this group of black Americans I count Professor Walker.

Her conversation was entitled rather chattily, “Been coming to see you since I was five years old – an American poet’s connection to the South African soul.” And while warm, lovely, and generous can be flattering adjectives, I found Walker’s application lazy, not flattering. She travelled to Uganda and met the warm, lovely, generous African. In Kenya, the same African was there, too. This African also followed the professor to South Africa. I am tempted to suggest that this warm, lovely, and generous African existed nowhere else except in Walker’s mind. She came home, she came to the motherland carrying caricature of an African and she dressed every black person she met in it, perhaps without ever having experienced each individual genuinely.

The professor spent part of her conversation discussing Palestine and how wrong Israel is for its supposed view of all Palestinians as terrorists. She likened it to apartheid South Africa, and how European colonialists viewed Africans as savages and in so doing justified the atrocities they perpetrated on the continent. She said all of this perhaps without realizing that her view of an African, while more flattering than that held by European colonialists, is also a caricature and problematic. Like the colonialists, she and black Americans like her use these caricatures to get what they want out of Africa.

Yes, Africa is undoubtedly important to the descendants of those who were forcibly removed from here, and it is no more mine (as someone who was born and lived here most of my life) than it is, say, Walker’s. I am not questioning her right to say what an African is or is not. And this isn’t an attack on her character, but rather a reassertion of my own individual identity. I am an African. Sometimes I am lovely, sometimes I am not. Sometimes I am a brute and other times, a doll. And unless you lay down your preconceived ideas about me, our interaction will leave us both poorer.

Osiame Molefe blogs at Boos from the Pews.

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