Racial prejudice hides in the oddest places

I love to travel. I was scheduled to go to Tanzania in Fall 2020, my fifth trip to Africa. I’ve been to Egypt, Senegal, Morocco, and South Africa. Something had always bothered me a bit about the Tanzania trip; but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then came the pandemic. The trip was cancelled. I wasn’t disappointed … not really.

As COVID restrictions lessened, friends asked if I planned to reschedule the Tanzania trip. I didn’t. I now know what had been missing all along. The trip to Tanzania had been largely about animals. I wanted to learn about the people, the culture.

Travel in many African countries is centered on animals. Visiting the Serengeti plains and viewing exotic animals was to have been the focus of my trip to Tanzania. I hadn’t sought that. In fact, I had already been on a safari in South Africa, but I’d never thought of that trip as a trip about animals. My friends and I had planned everything.  It wasn’t a tour package. We curated it ourselves. We learned about Nelson and Winnie Mandela, David Webster, Steve Biko and Bishop Tutu, the Zulus and the Xhosa, apartheid and the truth and reconciliation hearings – the people, not the animals, were at the core. The safari was just a small add on. But when Tanzania became the destination for my new traveling group, every trip package we examined, from multiple tour companies, focused on the Serengeti plains and what was often referred to as “Africa at its most primitive.”

If you’ve been to Africa or have started planning a trip there, did you notice that?

Primitive Africa. I am of an age when Africa, for many, was defined largely by Tarzan, a fictional white man raised since infancy by apes in the jungles of Africa. Movies and books about Tarzan only feature native Africans as servants carrying crates for white people exploring the jungles. The image of Africa has changed, somewhat, particularly with the fictional depiction of the fierce, sophisticated, and technologically advanced Kingdom of Wakanda in the 2018 movie, Black Panther. But even with this evolving image, is culture and civilization what comes to mind for you when you think of Africa? What is your image? What do you know about African countries? How did you learn it?

Our formal education about Africa remains very limited. I bet you that most well-educated Americans, whether of the age of Tarzan or of Wakanda, can tell you an awful lot about the political, social, and historical reality in western Europe. Western civilization. That’s the focus of textbooks used in schools,  the coverage of major world events in  newspapers, and what is reported on on televised news. Our education is Eurocentric. Our sense of other parts of the world is not driven by formal education, but by cursory classroom exposure or fictionalized presentations. Since that education happens so subtly and nominally about some places, we are often unaware of just how skewed and unbalanced an education we’re receiving.

COVID, while limiting my travel, offered me uninterrupted time to learn.  I watched, and you should too, the PBS series  Africa’s Great Civilizations. Over six hours, historian Henry Louis Gates introduced me to African civilizations and culture — art, history, accomplishments —  that I had glimpsed here and there but never taken the time to fully explore. This is what I had wanted in my Tanzania trip.

Even something as innocuous as travel is racialized. Vacation options continue to underscore Europe as a land of culture and contributions while presenting Africa as a land of beauty and majesty, majestic landscapes and beautiful animals, that is. For the African culture and contributions, sadly, with most tour companies, you still have to dig for those add-on experiences. Primitive, not cultured or civilized, continues to be the projected and marketed image of much of Africa.

Quick quiz:  There are 44 countries in Europe and 54 in Africa. How many on each continent can you name? For how many, do you know the name of the current leader?

14 Replies to “Racial prejudice hides in the oddest places”

  1. Thank you for this post, Tamara, and for the PBS recommendation. I appreciate all of your insights very much.

    1. The documentary is fascinating and fantastic. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  2. Thanks for your always thoughtful and thought provoking insights. As always, you have pointed out blind spots I didn’t even know I had and have done so in a way that created curiosity and a desire to learn more rather than defensiveness. Thank you!

  3. Tamara, I am thankful for your work and how it broadens my perspectives. I look forward to watching the PBS series and learning the names (and locations) of all the countries in Africa. Do you have books to recommend by African authors?

  4. This is a great post, Tamara. Thought-provoking and on point. A few years ago, I worked with a client on three fiction novels set in central Africa, where he had served while in the US Marines. His admiration and respect for the people and his desire to set his stories there resonated with me. Though his work was a military thriller trilogy, he also wanted to include cultural aspects and often overlooked history. I appreciated that too.

    When I served, I visited Mombasa, Kenya, in my travels. I’ve also been to parts of northern Africa (Tunisia, Bur Said, Egypt to transit the Suez Canal four times, Djibouti and the coastal waters south). I, too, grew up with Tarzan (though he was never a favorite, my interests were more toward Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars series). And when approaching Kenya, I felt some of that entering ‘darkest Africa’ trope/stereotypical preface from movies and TV. But only in the sense that I knew so little of the continent’s central part (coast to coast). I’ve always remembered the people there for their smiles and personalities of the many places I’ve been- before and after Mombasa. And I’ve always felt it—Africa—a land of rich stories and history under-recognized by ‘white folks focused on white folks.’ I’m guilty of that to a degree, but I’ve also begun to try to learn more and to read and watch more from that part of thullue world. Series like ‘Black Earth Rising,’ a Netflix Limited Series I enjoyed, and the book ‘Amazons of Black Sparta, The Women Warriors of Dahomey.’ I have notes from that fascinating nonfiction book in my ‘story idea’ folder to use as a reference and possibly create a fictional series around a central matriarchal character from Dahomey. A women warrior and palace guard officer who fought in and survived the First and Second Franco-Dahomean War, 1890 to 1894. France won, and the Dahomeans lost their country, which sets her on a journey that leads the family she founded afterward to the present. But I’ve much more study to do on it and much to learn about Africa before I consider taking that project on.

    Thank you for your post and mention of the PBS Series (going to turn the TV on now to find and add it to my watch list). As always, I enjoy your writing and always learning something.

  5. After following your FB posts of trips, knowing a bit about your work skills and knowledge, and reading this, I believe you could be an outstanding tour organizer and guide with a focus on issues related to race and culture. Maximize sharing of your passions even more widely.

  6. I was much better about the countries and leaders in Africa 30 years ago…which is embarrassing.
    Closer to home, though, I heard a talk on Friday about a similar phenomenon regarding Route 66, which folks here in Amarillo tout to visitors. It was set up for whites only, going through some formerly slave states on the way and farther west really exploiting and commercializing Native American culture for the benefit of white tourists.
    On a side note, Oklahoma has a panhandle because of the Missouri Compromise, which stated that any state joining the union could not be a slave-holding state if it abutted a non-slave state. Texas didn’t want to give up its slaves and so gave the federal government a 50-mile wide stretch so that it wouldn’t abut Kansas or Colorado.

  7. Tamara,
    I couldn’t agree more – I remember thinking as I headed off to college how woefully uneducated I was on the world beyond ancient Egypt, Greece & Rome, and then, as you said, Europe and the US. Taking French hadn’t done much for expanding my horizons either. Maybe if I’d taken Spanish at least I might have learned about Latin and South America. I took extra world history classes when I could, and enjoy history books on “the rest of the world”. At least Chesterfield schools have added Mali to their curriculum of ancient civilizations that elementary students study – not enough, but a start.
    Right now I’m reading “The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts” by Joshua Hammer, c2016. It’s fascinating!

  8. I recommend The Black History Book, by DK Books. It’s written for kids, but I learned an incredible amount (one thing I love about DK is that they never treat their audience as stupid).

    I’m a Museum Educator/Living Historian specialising in the history of historically disenfranchised people. For the past 27 years, it’s been slavery history. I figured that knowing about where the enslaved came from would add to my interpretation.

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