Mandela and Africa in the American imagination

What Americans see in Africa often reveals more about our state of mind than it does about the realities on the continent.

Ben Curtis/AP
US President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama board Air Force One at the end of the final leg of their weeklong visit to Africa, at the Julius Nyerere airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania Tuesday, July 2, 2013.

•A version of this post originally appeared on Africa on the Blog. The views reflected are the author's own. 

President Obama's three-country trip to Africa this summer has fueled a lively discussion about what – if anything – his presidency means for the African continent, as well as what American policy toward Africa should look like. But how has the trip actually registered with Americans? 

In my experience, black Americans, most of whom have descended from African slaves, tend to think of Africa as an extension of the United States’ own domestic struggle for racial equality. For them the greatest drama of the trip was generated by suspense over whether or not Mr. Obama was going to get a chance to meet Nelson Mandela, and the fear that Mr. Mandela might die during the journey.

Significantly, for those who believe that the Obama administration has been negligent about developing a meaningful policy on Africa during the five years he has been in office, the fact that Obama arrived too late to meet Mandela was a metaphor for the failure of the administration to clearly articulate a coherent Africa policy in general – long after the Chinese, the Indians, the Turks, the Japanese, and the Brazilians had already made significant inroads.

The ties between Africa and America, in the minds of Americans, have always been at once distant and close. We share Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as archetypes of social justice. The mythologies surrounding the two historic figures contain parallels. Like Mr. King, the narrative about Mandela has been softened and diluted in the popular imagination to make his story more acceptable to American institutions.

In America one doesn’t often hear about Mandela’s opposition to imperialism, just as one doesn’t hear very much about King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. One doesn’t hear about Mandela’s fight against the concentration of wealth among a financial elite, just as one doesn’t hear very much about King’s struggles for the rights of poor people and for organized labor in America.

What one does hear is a great deal about is Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, which parallels the institutional emphasis on King’s struggle against racial segregation in the United States. One hears about Mandela’s patience while in prison, and his willingness to forgive his captors, just as one hears about King’s persistent nonviolence in the face of hostile racist mobs in the US. 

Lacking much detailed knowledge about the continent as a whole, for many Americans, Africa is Mandela and Mandela is Africa., So their attention has been riveted by the story of the rapid deterioration of the South African leader’s health, almost to the exclusion of other topics.

For recent African immigrants to America, however, it was another story. This group, while often proudly distinguishing themselves from native black Americans, frequently expressed a less romanticized view of African governments and institutions during Obama's trip. They tended to be much more critical of African governments. They often argued that most of these governments were hopelessly corrupt, and that the only sensible thing for Obama to do was to not try to engage them at all. 

Then there was a third group of Americans – those whose views perhaps most closely reflect the mainstream. Americans often seem to feel most keenly motivated when we believe that we are in competition with someone else. This third group reflected those competitive tendencies, focusing on their fears about the growing influence of the Chinese in the African continent. The greatest question on their minds was how Obama’s trip could be used to counter Chinese investment and business deals with African governments.

Similarly, there were those who watched the trip for signs that it would signal the expansion of an American military presence on the continent as part of the borderless “war on terror." 

A version of this mainstream American thinking was expressed by resentment toward the tendency of some black Americans to continue to claim an African identity, just as many white Americans still identify with their European countries of origin. Those who resent the enduring African identity among black Americans expressed this resentment in their criticisms of Obama’s trip. They saw the trip as being a lavish vacation for the first family at taxpayer expense. They also saw it as being an attempt, by the president and the first lady, to get in touch with their “African roots” and strengthen their appeal among black voters back home. These critics noted that at a time when the federal government is raising taxes while its agencies are cutting services, the Obamas have embarked on a journey to Africa at an estimated cost of $100 million.

The complaints became so fierce that the White House was forced to explain that the president was conducting the nation’s business – but since the destination was Africa, and most Americans are not aware of the rising economic and geopolitical significance of the continent, the president’s attempt to promote his trip as being in the nation’s strategic interest was a hard sell.

Finally, there were small, progressive groups in the country that used media coverage of the trip to promote the view that Americans must take a second look at the African continent. Their message was that there is a “new Africa” emerging, and narratives that focus on corruption, violence, poverty, and disease are missing the point. This final group supports increasing deals and partnerships between African and American businesses, even though they are unclear about precisely how one should go about this.

They are ambivalent about more charitable aid to Africa, believing that such aid is condescending and paternalistic but might also be actually needed. Above all, they are clear about the fact that Americans must treat Africans with greater respect than they have in the past – they see respect, at the very least, as a good starting point.

So, what Americans see in Africa often reveals more about the state of mind of the Americans than it does about the realities in Africa. Reactions in the United States to Obama’s trip reflected what Americans needed to see and believe about Africa in order to reenforce what they see and believe about themselves, as Americans.

For some, Africa is a continent toward which Americans can express their generosity, or contempt, by focusing primarily on charitable aid, while for others it is a continent of budding economic opportunity that they haven’t quite figured out how to get in on. For some, Africa is a romantic and mythological motherland that possesses the mysterious elixir to heal the wounds of over 400 years of American racism, while for others it is a chaotic no-man’s land of failed states, child soldiers, rampant disease, and random acts of violence, and it will be the next battlefront in the US war on terror. And for many Americans, Africa does not even seem to register in their consciousness at all.

The range of reactions to the president’s trip reveals the divided image of Africa in the American imagination.

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