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Telling the story differently

August 9, 2012

The following is from Jina Moore’s recent essay in the Boston Review on the problems with foreign journalism about Africa:

But there is a deeper problem, I think, that has not been sufficiently acknowledged. 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. But it’s also been our narrative preoccupation.

In his contribution to the book Humanitarianism and Suffering (2011), historian Thomas Laqueur charts the birth of “the sentimental narrative” and its role in changing hearts and inspiring action. “In the late eighteenth century,” he writes, “the ethical subject was democratized; more and more people came to believe it was their obligation to ameliorate and prevent wrongdoing to others.”

The sentimental narrative Lacquer identifies is a sneaky one. Superficially, it seems humane, a good-hearted response to the impoverished and their plight. But it also objectifies the sufferers it nominally empowers—people with pain to ameliorate, against whom wrongdoings are to be prevented, on whose behalf this compassion is to be invested. However many noble or real or useful things that investment may bring, it also flatters us, by affirming our own righteousness.

…Even if this is a “democratization” of storytelling, it misses an undemocratic truth, one also at the core of our narrow understanding of Africa: being an object of compassion is not the same thing as being the subject of a story. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. In American newspapers and on American TV, Africans remain objects—of violence, of poverty, of disease, and ultimately of our own compassion. Like the abolitionists’ stories of the Jamaican slave revolt, 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.

The entire article is really good and definitely worth your time. She also has a follow-up post on her blog, “Good News from Africa,” (and by “good news” she is referring to well written) in which she highlights a number of pieces that are representative of what she would like to see more of coming from journalists writing about Africa:

…Like any piece of writing, none of them is perfect, or complete.  But they are imperfect and incomplete in an unusual way: they point to worlds bigger than themselves, and they make me think of other stories I want to hear, other things I want to know.  They remind me that ‘complete’ is the work of a lifetime of attentive reading and listening and dialogue (and, for some of us, writing).  They don’t leave me thinking I understand a place, or that the place is all suffering.

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