The White Correspondent’s Burden: A Diaspora Response

The African diaspora intellectual gets a two-second mention in reporter Jina Moore’s recent admonition to Western journalists to, “tell the Africa story differently”–or better yet, tell Africa’s stories. Note the plural form. Moore bemoans journalism’s contribution to the dominant image of Africa as suffering from, well, everything. Her solution to this persistent and persistently warped narrative: nuanced story-telling and, she asks that journalists take a leap and re-imagine Africa.

What isn’t needed, she adds, is what many African diaspora intellectuals and activists, among others, have suggested: “taking the mic away from foreigners” altogether. It’s a curious non-option, made even more so by the poverty of her rationale. But I suppose it’s no more curious than the fact that Moore’s essay, provocatively titled, The White Correspondent’s Burden, essentially decries racism and white supremacy without ever mentioning those words. This do-si-do dance of the colorblind is fascinating, and, absurd. An essay calling for an end to the erasure of complexity from African life, erases, too.

If great leaps forward are Moore’s goal, is it possible or desirable even, to scuttle a narrative as old, entrenched and vital to cementing Euro-American identity as “poor black Africa(ns),” without mentioning the white supremacy narrative that it feeds? Is it possible to fight that narrative, half a millennium in the making, by refusing to name it?

“The real problem” with U.S. media’s one-note representations of Africa, Moore says, is “the narrow American imagination.” She repeatedly sources this, erm, “narrowness” to the past, thus beginning the color-blind tip-toe.

We’ve inherited, and perpetuated, a simplistic narrative, which in turn influences how policymakers, investors, and ordinary, curious Americans see Africa and its possibilities.

Do:

We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label.

Si:

Since its first encounters with the continent, suffering is all the West has known of Africa. We’ve caused much of it—centuries of slave trade, followed by a near-century of colonialism and its attendant physical and structural violence, from the rubber fields of the Belgian Congo to the internment camps of British Kenya.

Do:

Like the abolitionists’ stories of the Jamaican slave revolt [which highlighted white churches burned by authorities in retaliation, and not the murdered enslaved Africans], our compassion narratives ultimately are not about the people in whose name they are told. They are about us. We like these stories because at some level, we already know them, and because they tell us we are caring, and potentially powerful, people.

This vanity has consequences. [itals mine]

(Tarzan, Jane and friend)

All of Moore’s examples–Conrad, slavery, colonialism, abolitionist storytelling that re-centers whites over enslaved blacks–are well-explored examples of racism and white supremacy. But even though she repeatedly invokes these past acts as the origin of present representations of Africa, “the real problem,” in 2012, according to Moore, is “the narrow American imagination” or “vanity,” even–but not racism. In an essay about ending it, the word is Kryptonite. It is that unspeakable. And therein lays its power because it is invisibility, which allows racist narratives–sanitized as, “narrowness” and “vanity”–to be replicated and perpetuated in the present-day.

Of course I agree with Moore’s goal of diversifying news from Africa, as well as her stance against only showing positive stories from Africa. But I’m confused by a call for change that disappears race and racism from a conversation about the West’s representations of Africa–but does not feel burdened by the weight of history to explain why. I question a call for change that posits the reproduction of vanity or narrowness–but not the reproduction of white supremacy or racism–as the greatest ethical danger facing foreign correspondents covering Africa. And while I stand behind the effort, I’m wary of a call for change that doesn’t ask, what’s the purpose of these one-note stories that “the West” continues to tell about Africa?

(Kevin Carter, 1993, famine in Sudan)

Narratives, particularly about a people or nation, are not spun for 20+ generations in order to satisfy individual vanity. They exist for a political and economic purpose. I read George Orwell’s fascism-weary essay, Politics and the English Language at least a few times a year in order to remind myself of that fact because it’s rather easy to forget.

Orwell would point out that, “the rubber fields of the Belgian Congo,” are not an example of structural violence, as Moore suggests. (And he’d point out the omission of actual “people” in a sentence about state-sanctioned mass murder)

Structural violence is the institutional arrangements that made the torture and working to death of Africans on those rubber fields appear normal, inevitable or “that’s just how the world is,” to European and American benefactors and onlookers. Structural violence isn’t noticeable, the theory goes, which is part of why it’s so effective. The media narratives fueling political support for those 20th century institutions were stories of, “poor, uncivilized black Africa(ns)” and “powerful white Europe(ans).”

So, which institutions does the current “suffering Africa/compassionate American” narrative support, now? Native and diaspora intellectuals and activists have been tackling that subject, as have some foreign correspondents.  But, as USAID chief Rajiv Shah knows, the threat of institutional change incurs pushback. In the meantime, Moore says, diaspora and aid worker critics want to take the mics away from foreign correspondents, period. She disagrees, by unfortunately, mis-characterizing Laura Seay’s, How to write about Africa, as an unsophisticated nod to identity politics.

Seay argues that major media should hire local reporters to improve foreign coverage of Africa. Her reasons are practical: local reporting will be more nuanced compared to a foreign correspondent reporting a story in five days; local reporters know indigenous African languages so they get details that foreigners miss; and foreign correspondents typically rely on the same five fixers, which leads to producing similar stories over time.

At no point does Seay suggest, as Moore alleges, “that American news is bad because Americans are foreigners, and that natives would tell it better because they’re, well, native.” I’ve followed Seay’s writing for a while now and that position is far too simplistic. It’s just not her style.

I don’t want to spend time on the assertion that someone else should shut up. More productive dialogue could be had by focusing on viable solutions to one-note story telling. I tend to agree with Kenyan consultant Sunny Bindra, that as African economies rise, so too will African media houses. In the meantime, Western media outlets could either replace foreign correspondents with local reporters or, more realistically, encourage collaboration between their foreign correspondents and a paid roster of native reporters.

Moore wants American journalists, indeed all Americans, to “do the hard work of reimagining Africa.” But hard work is not the colorblind practice of ignoring the hardest thing.

5 Comments to “The White Correspondent’s Burden: A Diaspora Response”

  1. Carla, see Taylor and Francis online for the article.

  2. These photos remind me of an essay I wrote for Third Text-“Xenophobes, Visual terrorism, and the African Subject” at
    (1996).
    How can Africa- a continent with a 10,000 year oral tradition-fail at telling cosmic (macro and micro) stories, either via the western media tools, or its own ‘live streaming griots’. Perhaps western journalists are myopic in rating/selecting/covering of stories they feel will appeal to westerners, not Africans. Or perhaps they’re just not listening, a skill those of us in the west need to bone up on.

    • Is there a link to your article? Re the images, I was struck by how *many* exist of white Americans’ or Europeans’ images of Africa. It’s a little obsessive, actually. And I started to wonder, suppose someone catalogued all of them from the first image captured to the present day, what would we learn? Also, with so many images, the question becomes, why? And what do the images communicate to and about the painter/photographer/filmmaker/tourist/colonialist/missionary/medical personnel, etc? It’s the uncomfortable bits of history that we need to pay attention to if we ever want to learn.

      • The link to my article (above) is. You actually need to access it through an institutional library or subscribe/pay-unfortunately. Your remarks are on point.

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