Africa’s Tarnished Name

Fatima Seck

Edited by Jahna Hampshire and Rianna Walcott

Illustration by Olivia Twist http://www.yesoliviatwist.com/

In his superb essay Africa’s Tarnished Name, Chinua Achebe asserts that “colonisation gave the world… a particular way of looking (or, rather, not looking) at Africa that endures, alas, into our own day” (1998: 20). I see this way of looking every day in my social anthropology studies. Africa in our curriculum appears only in relation to those topics that are most exotic to the Western consciousness — like witchcraft and magic — and those of strife and poverty that too often dominate the discourse around our continent.

The text describes the origin and preservation of Africa’s position in the Western imagination, exploring how Africa came to exist in the “European psychological disposition [as] the farthest point of otherness… Europe’s very antithesis” (Achebe, 1998a: 17). Achebe, his writing being rooted in colonial critique and postcolonial discourse, stresses that Africa’s existence as “other” is by no means in its “origin the result of ignorance… it is a deliberate invention devised to facilitate two giant historical events: the Atlantic slave trade and the colonisation of Africa by Europe” (1998a: 18). As he posits that fundamental to these operations was the dehumanisation and simplification of Africa and its people, Achebe offers specific examples of this “poisonous” (ibid: 30) perception and representation of our continent. From his fierce critique of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to a thoughtful comparison of two painterly depictions of African men by 18th century painters, to his rebuking of a late 20th century PBS documentary, Achebe’s essay makes clear the ubiquitous and persisting nature of Africa’s tarnished name.

The “invented” conceptualisation of Africa Achebe described in this essay is embedded into the Western consciousness along with the colonial zeal for the African continent that grips many anthropologists — and it is an an omnipresent dimension of studying Africa at university. A truly anti-colonial way of thinking about Africa necessitates more than sporadic changes in the material conditions of our curriculums; I certainly wouldn’t be satisfied with a few added readings about feminism in Africa in our 1st year anthropology courses. What we need — what Africa deserves — is a shift in the epistemological foundations from which we think about Africa in the university sphere. We cannot talk about Africa without context, and Achebe’s essay provides this context, with its pointed remarks and observations situating Western discourse on Africa in the colonial project to which it is indisputably and irrevocably tied.

Lupita Nyong’o notes that “what colonialism did is that it rewrote [the African] history” (2018). I can only echo her, adding that the colonial logic evidenced in Europe telling African stories — in its own terms — continues to be reproduced in universities. Achebe, in contrast, intervenes in the “long tradition of European portrayal of Africa” (Achebe, 1998: 30) that is so perfectly embodied in my anthropology studies, where not one text about Africa I have read thus far has been written by an African person. When our reading lists are crowded with “academics who have made careers out of the pain of others by consuming knowledge obtained in marginalised communities” (Rodriguez, 2017), we must in contrast devise an anthropological curricula that foregrounds African agency, perspectives and subjectivity, dismantling the masters house and its vision of our continent with African tools. Using Achebe’s essay not only to develop a deeper understanding of the relationship between Africa, knowledge and colonialism, but to relocate how we learn about Africa, is critical to truly decolonising our curriculums.  

Colonialism was the architect of Africa’s tarnished name, and academia, in failing to paint true and full portraits of Africa, actively stewards its legacy. Chinua Achebe and his essay Africa’s Tarnished Name ought to be a mandatory part of all courses in the humanities and social sciences — but in anthropology, a discipline perhaps more complicit in the colonial project than any other, it is unfathomable that this essay has not yet crossed my path. My university has only one African lecturer at its Centre for African Studies. Tellingly, we have courses such as “A Global History of Association Football, 1860-1939,” placed alongside others like “Africa in the Contemporary World” and “Anthropology of Africa”, which attempt to condense an entire continent into thirty teaching hours. In my degree programme we seldom think about Africa outside of disease, poverty, and violence. While I certainly resist the idea that we cannot or should not speak of these things academically, I must wonder, as Achebe did in his essay Africa is People, “if [such ills] springs so readily to our minds when we think about Africa, how much do we really know about it?” (1998: 49). Universities and their mechanisms tarnish Africa’s name, but no longer. As we decolonise our curriculums and “scrutinise the logic of power that is behind our syllabi,” (Rodriguez, 2017), we must critically and radically evaluate how we conceptualise Africa, and the violent powers that have informed such conceptualisations. Africa’s Tarnished Name can help us redefine and reclaim the terms in which Africa exists in the academic and anthropological imagination.

Works Cited

Achebe, C (1997). Africa’s Tarnished Name. ed. Bungay: Penguin Random House UK.

Achebe, C (1997). Africa is People. ed. Bungay: Penguin Random House UK

Rodríguez, C. (2017). How Academia Uses Poverty, Oppression and Pain for Intellectual Masturbation. RaceBaitr, [online]. Available at: http://racebaitr.com/2017/04/06/how- academia-uses-poverty-oppression/#

Nyong’o, L. (2018). Black Panther and Re-Imagining Africa: An Interview with Lupita and Danai

About the author

Fatima is a Senegalese anthropology student interested in art, design and African history and culture.

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