Roosevelt as Sportswriter

by zunguzungu

…the contradictions being papered over in such statements are precisely what necessitates their expression as clichés, for their pithiness makes thinking superfluous…

That’s from my dissertation. But writing those three posts about the World Cup in Africa made me think about how, that if I squint at my dissertation the right way, it’s sort of about sports writing, and if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to spool that thought out a little.

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt invented — or at least popularized — a particular way of thinking about Africa, the safari, and produced a narrative about that experience that made it into a performance of all sorts of studiously unexamined assumptions about masculinity, violence, power, race, and justice; to go on safari in Africa is, now and forever, to walk in his footsteps in some very important ways, something which it‘s very easy to do without realizing. Before Roosevelt, after all — goes my argument — Africa was a dark heart of darkness, forbidding, ominous, and scary. After him, it was a place filled with animals and inviting panoramas and stuff for you to do: the safari. In other words, it was Roosevelt who made Africa into a place that you could visit for sport, not only defining it as a place that you could understood through that experience, but — to push a little harder — precluding any experience of it outside of that experience.

It should go without saying, of course, that such a way of framing “Africa,” that way of defining “you,” and of conceptualizing how “you” and “Africa” related to each other, was always a profoundly partial and limited picture of the continent. That’s sort of an obvious statement in one way, but also, I think, deceptively profound: in order to make us see Africa in the way he wanted us to see it, as a welcoming and inviting place for tourists, photographers, and sport hunters, he had to simultaneously un-see all sorts of stuff that actually was there. And in order to make us think of Africa as a place where something as bizarre as going on “safari” was a natural thing to do, he has to un-think all sorts of things one might otherwise be doing (a claim which it‘s the work of my Roosevelt chapter to flesh out).

But take this photograph, for instance:

This is the Africa which a broad sweep of Rooseveltians — Hemingway being the most prominent example — have seen by borrowing Roosevelt’s magnificently myopic eyes. Rather than the thick jungle he could have photographed, we see an empty panorama of unlimited visibility, an Africa whose absent features make it open to our surveillance. Instead of baobabs or some other exotic, we see the most non-specific grassland possible, a landscape composed by the absence of anything distinctive or strange. And most importantly, instead of an Africa inhabited by Africans, we see the Africa of the white safari, a place defined by the white men who strides through and hunts it, and an Africa which — defined by his intervention — has no independent existence in and of itself.

A prior tradition of Arica-writing emphasized the opposite, jungle narratives of explorers and missionaries and heart-of-darkness-ism (which Patrick bran linger nicely genealogized here); Africa was, in this tradition, an impenetrable darkness you couldn’t grasp or comprehend and didn’t want to. This stuff isn’t completely absent from Roosevelt’s narrative, of course; he has his moments of exoticism and revulsion. But he downplays it compares to the pleasure he takes in Africa, giving us, instead, a new and very different way of seeing the landscape, one defined not by the darkness that impedes your vision but the unlimited scopic potential of both your camera and your rifle. Nothing you see resists your sight, and if you do see new and exotic things, nothing you see is unknowable.

Of course, he actually saw all sorts of things he didn’t understand. He just didn’t write about them. The place he visited was not unimaginatively complex, but it was complex in all sorts of ways he worked scrupulously to stop himself from imagining. He was a Thomas Friedman before there was Thomas Friedman, visiting Africa to convince himself and us how easy it was to understand in the particular terms we wanted to understand it, an Africa that invited us to photograph, shoot, globalize, and colonize. And so, to get at the power of his writing, we have to think about all the stuff he was working to unthink, the power of cliché to preclude the kind of thinking he doesn‘t want, as I said in that quote above. But while that quote was originally written about Roosevelt, I suspect it could be easily applied to the how and why of the worst sports writing out there, the stuff which is written not to illuminate but to do the reverse: to obscure from our view all the interesting complexity and deeply interesting contradictions that sports takes us to, the unsettling experience it really is beneath all the tired narrative simplicity that gets endlessly and tirelessly recycled.

In African Game Trails, after all, he says nothing surprising, nothing interesting in and of itself. Instead, what’s interesting about the book is how powerfully he doesn’t say all sorts of things, how persuasively he buries all sorts of realities about the country he’s seeing under clichés, stereotypes, unexamined assumptions. And so I think the real inventiveness of the book — what makes it an unfortunate watershed moment in the West’s history of (mis)representing Africa, I argue — is the creative manner in which he amnesiates entire strata of reality out of existence, the things he works to forget and to help others follow in his footsteps forgetting (and which I demonstrate by placing back in the frame as visible absence, or something).