The Enlightenment Dichotomy: African Stereotypes Courtesy of Hollywood

Hollywood is just the most recent example of cultural ignorance in how many United States citizens view the African continent and its people. This perspective goes back more than 400 years to before enlightenment in Europe. Enlightenment perpetuated and expanded this ignorance. This is called the Enlightenment Dichotomy. This term is related to the term “Dark Continent.” That is, Africa is a primitive land with primitive people who have no perceivable civilization. Therefore, the African land and its people deserve no dignity or respect because they are savages and thus can be exploited at will. Of course, the first part of this definition is not true. Africans are not savages. They are no more savages than Americans or Europeans. However, the second part is true; that is, the African people were exploited for their bodies, land, and resources.

It is important to recognize that Africa was civilized before the emergence of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the subsequent colonial imperialism by the European empires. Darlene Clark Hine Et al. discuss this in their book The African-American Odyssey, Volume 1 (6th Edition) and Olaudah Equiano discusses this through his boyhood experiences as the son of a local statesman before his abduction and sale into slavery (See the Readings page for the links). This fact is not salient in today’s general consciousness of contemporary America, nor was it salient in America’s past consciousness. As Jonathan Zimmerman explains and compares the aptitude of American perceptions of Africa through animated movies like The Lion King and Madagascar in his article Americans Think Africa Is One Big Wild Animal Reserve,

For Americans, the Africa-as-animals idea goes back to Theodore Roosevelt’s reports on his safari in 1909-1910, shortly after Roosevelt left the White House. In serialized magazine articles, Roosevelt thrilled American readers with tales of pursuing big game in a vast, “uncivilized” land.

It goes back further than Theodore Roosevelt. The Enlightenment Dichotomy helped perpetuate the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the United States was a part of that trade for almost 50 years until British parliament abolished the industry and the British Navy enforced the policy. The cognition of savagery helped solidify slavery in the United States for nearly 90 years. Cultural continuity does not just disappear over night because of policies like the 13th and 14th amendments, nor does cultural perception of slaves end with the Union victory over the Confederacy. No doubt, Zimmerman is correct. President Roosevelt’s tales helped maintain the African stereotypes through the early part of the 20th century. But incorrect perceptions of Africa have existed in some form or another for a very long time.

What will be viewed in this video are not animals from The Lion King or Madagascar, but rather how African men are portrayed in American cinema. The “Dark Continent” still exists in the minds of many Americans. The budgets allocated to make these movies and the ticket sales accumulated from these movies are a testament to this very idea.

 

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