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Tag: Izak Dineson

Mau Mau and Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle

1954’s The Naked Jungle might initially seems like it was cowritten by Anne McClintock (or maybe Timothy Burke). Ostensibly set in the Amazon, the colonial tropes line up perfectly: white aligns with cleanliness, while the dark natives are dirty. The jungle is a place of primeval chaos, but Charlton Heston has made himself into “more than a king” by tearing a plantation from the earth, building a dam and thereby (almost) literally creating land where before there was none. As he puts it: “Go ten miles in any direction from here and it’s civilized. Go ten paces past where I stopped and its the bush. It’s the living jungle, where no man has a name, and the only law is to stay alive.” And though he alludes to the always feared prospect of going native — noting carefully that when he was starting out, he had “nearly forgot the English language” — you wouldn’t know it to hear his sonorous voice, nor would you guess it from the verve with which he plays colonial gentleman in the Amazon. Instead of surrounding his house with skulls on fenceposts, he has built a Victorian mansion, and drawn firm lines.

He likes the firmness of these lines, and the movie’s narrative initially seems to takes its shape from them. But the plot gets so much more interesting when he takes the next step: having long been in need of a wife (for children, for serving coffee, and for playing the piano), he imports one, getting a friend of a friend of a friend’s sister shipped out to him. And at first, even this bourgeois desire matches up neatly with the rest of the colonial tropes, for just as he’s ripped a plantation from the virgin jungle, so too does he plan to tear a wife out of this virgin woman he’s purchased. But as things devolve, the movie turns out to be so much more weird than I originally expected, both fascinated in pulling the neat binaries apart, and fascinating for the way it narrativizes this problem.

First, when the mail-order bride arrives, it turns out she’s a widow, and his anger that she’s been with another man is second only to his rage that he suddenly finds himself occupying the place of the innocent. “If you knew more about music,” she says, “You’d know that a good piano is better when it’s been played.” And after a marvelous shot where two whiskey glasses objectify the moment’s sexual tension, he drunkenly smashes down her door only to be treated to her mild reply that it’s never been locked. If you know what I mean. I’m interested partly in the way this kind of narrative problem “troubles boundaries,” to use that old cliché, and especially in the way it does so by staging Charlton Heston’s personal investment in those boundaries. If “gender” de-stabilizes “colonialism,” it does so only because the myth of the white woman occupies a peculiar and powerful place in Heston’s mind; when she isn’t only a virgin he is flabbergasted, and when she isn’t only a whore, he’s crushed. When she’s a woman, in other words, instead of a myth, he has nothing to say.

The narratologist in me is fascinated by the way this narrative problem suddenly gets shunted into the background when the second act plot kicks in, the way the movie suddenly turns into Leiningen vs. the Ants. In a certain sense, The Naked Jungle could be called an adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s short story, beloved of high school English teachers everywhere, but to say so is to drag the horse much too far behind the cart. The entire marriage plot of the first act is an invention of the screenwriter, and in that sense, the film feels less like seeing a “classic” piece of literature brought to the big screen with a romance plot tacked on than precisely the reverse, the weird experience of watching a movie about gender and colonialism suddenly get transformed into a completely different movie. It’s sort of like if The Taming of the Shrew had a horde of ants attacking Verona in act three. In this movie, on the other hand, the invasion of the ants takes an insolvable problem and replaces it with an even bigger (or at least more spectacular) problem, and by doing so, manages to resolve the original, if only by omission. When the chips are down – when the ants are on the march – gender turns out not to matter that much.

The postcolonialist in me, however, is fascinated by the Ants as a European fantasy of the modernized colonial subject, gone horribly wrong, the fantasy which transformed the “Land and Freedom Army” (whatever it was) into a narrative of Mau Mau. To wit: Europeans have come to the jungle to make things better by organization and development, but sometimes the natives actually respond to development by getting
worse, becoming more savage. The fault is clearly not Heston’s; when the ants come, his men flock to him and stay (because he’s a good master), and he stands and fights because of his people. As he puts it, “Fifteen years ago they were savages. I took them out of the jungle. If I leave now, they’ll go back. That’ll be the end of civilization on the Rio Negro.” He plays the enlightened European, uses science against the ants (studying them under a magnifying glass) and uses his ability to dam the water (and release it) as his major tactical advantage, to ultimate victory (of course).

The effect, in other words, is to displace all the fears and anxieties of the first part of the film onto the people themselves, humanizing the loyalists while animalizing the dissenters. It’s an example, in other words, of how you “Mau Mau” a peasant revolt: to foreclose the possibility that people’s discontent stems from being exploited and denied the fruits of modernization, you imagine that they are angry at the very prospect of modernity itself, that they have chosen, irrationally, to attack rationality. Offered the choice of becoming happy modern subjects, with schools and churches and stuff, these ungrateful savages instead turn to violence and cannibalism and mindless violence (usually under the influence of an authoritarian leader) thereby allowing the good Western liberal to cluck his tongue and reluctantly put his assent to massive campaigns of violence. This is not dissimilar to the way the war on terror has been conducted – I would note, parenthetically – and while Al-Quaeda is certainly not the equivalent of the Land and Freedom Army in Kenya, the narrative strategy taken by the West to the both of them is similar enough to warrant the comparison. In Kenya, there were good Africans and bad ones. And today, as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, there are two possible images the West can have of Islam: “Good Muslims” who have become secular and modern and “Bad Muslims” who have chosen not to.

Nowhere in that continuum is it possible to find Kenyans or Muslims who would like to be modern (or at least not poor and oppressed) but who have been denied the opportunity, which is precisely the point. So you get strange articles like this one, from Time magazine in 1953:

…the fear of spreading Mau Mauism haunts the fertile British Protectorate of Nyasaland. The colony’s 4,400 Britons raise bumper crops of tea, tobacco and citrus fruits along the Shire River valley, which drains the 360-mile-long Lake Nyasa (see map). They are outnumbered more than 500-to-one by 2,500,000 Africans, whom they call “niggers” and “coons.” Last week the British in Nyasaland were faced with the most ominous outbreak of mass disobedience and rowdyism since David Livingstone, Bible in hand, discovered the lush valley 94 years ago…

Get it? Mau Mau is not only a “fear” but it’s the kind of “disobedience” and “rowdyism” that can only be legible as an irrational response to a figure like Livingstone, the guy who came to Africa to end slavery by bringing capitalism. It doesn’t merely contradict the presence of development, it presumes it, and is legible only as a response to it; “rowdyism” before Livingstone is unthinkable. And while the fertility being protected by the British is oddly counterpointed by the blatant racism of the “whom they call” sentence, it still links back to an underlying colonial narrative of protecting femininity, domesticity, and reproduction from scary African men, something that articles like this one or this one make very, very clear. In the former, we get the evocation of African pangas (the machete as phallus) being wielded against white women in isolated plantations, while the latter spreads the rumor that “Negro nursemaids had been ordered by the Mau Mau to murder white babies.” I dreamed I saw Nat Turner, alive as you and me…

Izak Dinesen is the great example of how Kenyan settlers transformed the confusing status of female colonialists – how, after all, could a woman tear a plantation from the virgin soil? — into a pro-colonialist narrative: Dinesen as mother figure to infantilized, animalized Africans. The Naked Jungle is a context inspecific version of a similar narrative, only with “Mau Mau” an explicit presence, instead of merely implied. And if Ernest Hemingway is the other side of that coin – massive masculinity through shooting Africans – it’s only because he read Teddy Roosevelt carefully.

But what made “Mau Mau” distinct from other fantasies of African savagery – and here’s why ants are the appropriate animal metaphor – was the very organization by which they opposed development. People like Stanley and Livingstone could afford the luxury of not knowing any better, so they imagined that Africans lived in some version of Rousseauvian anti-development, a tribal life that was close to nature in the sense that development was an absence (and one which, it was implied, “development” would naturally disrupt). By 1952, such an illusion was no longer available, and nature now signified not the absence of development, but the two possible paths a permanently de-humanized portion of the human race could take: the path of the domesticated animal or the path of the wild animal. While the former could be taken in and allowed to serve — like Lulu and Kimante, Dinesen’s antelope and Kikuyu boy, treated by her as categorically indistinguishable – wild animals were those who could never be trusted with development, and who had therefore to be “conserved” in wild places set apart for them. And just as – in the perverse logic of a Teddy Roosevelt – you “conserve” a wild animal by shooting it, the Kenyan state’s response to Mau Mau was to burn the villages in order to save them. Locating the distinction in the animals themselves allowed development itself to emerge as both omnipresent and unquestionable: instead of Stanley’s distinctions been developed people and the not yet developed (but all equally develop-able), we have a distinction between those Africans who are animalized as domestics and those who are animalized as predators, and both by reference to the one-way technology of development which is appropriate to their status: the former is to be mothered; the latter is to be shot.

In The Naked Jungle, then, ants are exactly the unthinkable horror that Mau Mau was taken to be, a perverse and grotesque caricature of development which not only rejects development, but does so by using the very technologies of development to attack it. The ants organize themselves, moving in unison and with an implacable intention to destroy directed against the (newly) feminized domestic sphere of the plantation, and seem to emerge from the jungle in response to Heston’s efforts to create domestic spaces. In a sense, neither Roosevelt nor Dineson had to ever imagine such a thing happening in Kenya; Roosevelt “loved the great game” by shooting it while Dineson pastoral dream was of pulling the thorns out of the feet of metaphorical lions so they could lie down with lambs. For both, the animals loved them back. Yet, in another sense, I suspect these vigorous attempts to imagine pastoral bliss are motivated by a desire to dis-imagine the very contradictions of colonialism which Mau Mau both mediated and made immediate: what happens when Africans turn out to be human? The same thing as when a wife you’ve purchased turns out to have desire of her own. You freak out, and change the subject. “Look! A million billion ants!”

The Colonialist Western and Putting an End to Realism

As you may have noticed, I’ve been watching John Ford movies lately. I like them, a lot. But as tight and symbolically rich as his films can be at his best, at his worst his characters become cut-out figures, signifiers for larger issues without any real presence themselves. When there is ambiguity, it gets evoked so it can be resolved: everything depends on who shot Liberty Valance, for example, but there’s no doubt that he was shot, and whatever troublesome problems that it might cause for Ransom Stoddard to have not actually shot him himself is foreclosed by that happenstance (I think of this, by the way, as the Pioneers maneuver: after toying with the idea of miscegenation for the entire book, Cooper reveals that the male lead is not, after all, of mixed blood at all, and never was. Sort of like ending a book with “And suddenly she woke up and realized it was all a dream.”)
When Ford is messing around with myth, his heavy symbolism is both a blessing and a curse. At his best, he makes it into a virtue: in How Green Was My Valley, for example, the characters are so ludicrously flat and impossible that it becomes a film about the kind of fantasy-work necessary to render memory in such terms. Welsh coal miners speaking in a sort of accentless (neither American nor English, and certainly not Welsh) fairy tale dialect and living in the most bougie of middle class houses is one example, but only one of many in a film entirely about the impossibility of the very events it narrates.

In The Young Mr. Lincoln, I’m still not sure. Since the civil war is sort of a precondition for the movie itself, everything that happens is already predetermined, and because we already know that the young Abe will acquit himself well and unite the town around him (as an allegorical rehearsal for a civil war which, as myth itself, can only be perfect), the character itself becomes something of a cipher. Henry Fonda is a great cipher, but his personal charisma makes up for a real aporia in the script. Maybe its an interesting aporia; I’m still not sure.

But in The Prisoner of Shark Island, I’m more certain. The opening shot tells us that Mudd will be pardoned and his reputation restored. But unless you come to it with an overwhelming Gone-with-the-Wind love for Dixie, Mudd has to rank as one of the least interesting of all Ford protagonists: as a Christ figure, he ultimately “redeems” the south through his trials and tribulations, but it’s a passion play that gets performed on a stage bare of anything but really questionable race politics. And don’t get me started on the The Lost Patrol: one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, especially because the ending is so clearly telegraphed by the film’s first half.

Where it’s working, in other words, it works because his films become anti-realism, expressions of the impossibility of realism. That’s a fascinating thing for a filmmaker to do with a medium for whom the camera-doesn’t-lie is still a watchword, especially given his fascination with historical memory and how it gets created. When it doesn’t work, it’s because we can look back and see Ford’s own fantasies for what they were: confederate nostalgia (and where Ford, an Irishman born, came up with this crap, I’d love to know) and reflexive anti-Arab racism. That’s the trick, right? Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, works very hard to mask its own racism by foregrounding race as, itself, a mask and a blindness, and a lot of what the novel does and says can be excused by Conrad’s efforts to displace it all onto Marlowe, making it all about Marlowe’s blindness. But there are still moments when it falls into the conventions of realism; for me, the simple fact that Conrad imagines a white man could simply show up in the “deep jungle” with a rifle and a dream, and assemble a fiefdom of adoring Africans to do his bidding (which is something that happens and is represented through realist conventions independent of Marlowe’s perceptions) is an example of an early twentieth century racist perspective we still cling to (as the “open arms and flowers” fantasies of the neo-cons illustrates).

I have an axiom that I don’t get to use nearly often enough: plots are a novel’s way of asking really hard and interesting questions, but endings are a novel’s way of provide uninteresting answers. Part of the problem for these works (though not an unsolvable problem) is that the ending is a place where realism always seems to re-assert itself, where ambiguities and anti-formalism run up against the chips down question of: how does the film end? And lots of novels and films get betrayed by their endings; Defoe, for example, tells us that the message of Moll Flanders is that women should be good Christian wives and save their money. But the plot of the book (which you have to ignore for this “moral” to be taken seriously) illustrates that a woman can make a lot of money by commodifying her sexuality, and do at least as well as she could by being a good wife, especially when she ends up in the same place in the end. Defoe is a good example because Moll Flanders is one of the “classic” examples of the novel genre, but I think this dynamic is at the heart of at least most narrative literature: endings close down ambiguities that the work has spent all of the rest of its time opening up. Some works have ambiguous endings, of course, but all novels and films do end, and in a formal sense, that fact means that something ultimately gets said, even if, a la Heart of Darkness, that something is simply that Africa is a scary, nasty place. But when Marlowe is still sailing up the river to find Kurtz, when Kurtz is still just a voice in his imagination, anything can still happen because it’s just about his imagination. Meaning has not yet been foreclosed.

Kafka had a hard time finishing his novels, and I wonder if this had something to do with a desire not to fall into exactly this trap. Perhaps metameat knows? In any case, an overly holistic kind of narrative theory will always miss this dynamic: the way the most interesting stuff in a movie is the questions it asks, and the least interesting thing is the ending that answers them. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, for example, has the most ridiculous ending it could possibly have: after an elegiac “passing of the West” story of failure and the remorseless passage of time, a retired John Wayne rides out into the empty desert towards an impossible California of the soul, only to be called back by the machina of deux: appointment by both northern and southern generals to be captain of the frontier scouts, or something. It goes against everything the film has done up until that point to append a happy ending to it (and an almost unforgivably bizarre cotillion at the cavalry base): poignancy over inevitably lost possibility is the thing that the film does well, and (for once) the unreconstructed confederate thing has actually worked well for the film (I particularly like the scene where they bury an aged private with the honors due to the rank he had in the confederate army, a redemption of sorts, but only to be found in death). To appreciate what the film has done up to that point, in other words, you sort of have to ignore the ending, a little. Even in films like Chinatown or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, whose endings are so powerful and are so well integrated into the rest of the film, the neatness of a gunshot is strikingly superficial when placed next to the unbelievable richness of the rest of the plot. After all, the whole point of Chinatown is that things are just too complicated for a detective to figure out or resolve (and in this sense it wants to be anti-noir), so why should the ending come along and resolve it? Maybe that’s why Chinatown had to spawn a god-awful (yet fascinating) sequel.

Back to Ford, one of his virtues is the tightness of his plots, and this tightness makes him really, really good at self-parody (or, if you like, ironic detachment and critique of the form). And so his best films begin at the end: just as the West is defined by “the closing of the frontier,” so too are his “America” movies defined by a history that is already written. And in doing so, they call attention to the process of writing, of how historical memory is created. By the same token, the virtue of his “genre” films isn’t that they invent the generic conventions, but that they work so hard to make otherwise scattered symbols into conventions, playing so hard on this generic conventionality that the movies become more about genre more than anything else. How postmodern, eh?

I haven’t yet figured out what I think of Mogambo, a 1954 Ford remake of an earlier film (1932’s Red Dust), but it seems to me that Ford is at least playing on the conventionality of the questions the film asks as he is interested in the questions themselves. Casting a noticeably too-old and too-shaggy Clark Gable to reprise the same role as he played the earlier film, too, seems like a highly self-conscious gesture.

But what is it self-conscious of? Beyond Red Dust, which I haven’t seen, I want to put forward a strikingly large and interesting genre of European writing under the moniker colonialist western. Not that the American Western isn’t itself colonialist, of course (and there’s a “postcolonial John Ford” essay that needs to be written out there), but it’s amazing how many novels and texts about colonialism are post-colonial in the sense of being, like a John Ford movie, written from the ending. The bad-wrong way to approach the “imperialism” of Victorians and early modernists is to imagine that they thought colonialism had a future, that they really believed in the imperial visions of the British Empire or France’s civilizing mission and so forth. Some did, of course, but you’ll find that those aren’t the people we read, because those people simply aren’t interesting: their blunt (and now counterfactual) realism makes their texts as valuable and as desirable as a betting stub for a race that’s already been run. And I’ll wager they weren’t even the texts about empire people were that interested in then. Rudyard Kipling, for example, is obsessed with race and cultural racism, but his obsession is driven by fear and anxiety: the fear that the Empire is failing (and his work, if you take the biographical long view, reads like one long jeremiad against the dying of the light).

In this sense, a text like Out of Africa (book or film) is not so much about proclaiming that imperialist fantasies are true (or real) as they are about wishing they were, and even about lamenting that they’re not. And in this, I find it to be quite typical of imperialist Victorianism like Conrads, which makes the fantasy into the focus. The extent it escapes from realism is the extent you stop calling it racist: it’s about racist fantasies, which it recognizes as such. And while an unforgivable piece of text-crement like Out of Africa obsesses over a lost vision of innocent racial domination, the book is hard to dismiss because, even in in 1938, years before the Mau Mau revolt, imperialism could only be represented by her as a lost possibility. To the extent that the book is anything more than an offensive collection of racist fantasies, then, it’s a collection of racist fantasies that knows itself as such; by dreaming of Africa, it refuses to live in the real world, but it does at least understand (like Conrad) that it’s a dream. Where is the status of realism for such a test? More complicated, I think, than any formal analysis can acknowledge.

This vexed relationship to realism is what makes a category like “colonialist western” stick for me. Just as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance remarks on how myth-making precedes the “reality” of the “West” (“when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”), colonialist Westerns like Out of Africa are obsessed with the failure of the colonialist enterprise, unable even to to imagine what it is except in terms of the imagined traditional Eden it disrupts and the impossible utopia it fails to achieve. Those disruptions and failures are the central narrative (as the torn-from-a-dream nostalgia of an Out of Africa illustrates), far more than the out of focus utopias or edens. And just to bring us full circle, I offer you the ultimate (and most obvious) colonial Western of all: Peter Hewitt’s Kenya Cowboy.

But since no one actually reads that one, let me toss out two more texts that such a category helps illuminate. When telling a friend about an attack on a Turkish troop train, T.E. Lawrence wrote, “I hope this sounds the fun it is … It’s the most amateurishly Buffalo-Billy sort of performance.” As the article I found this in elaborates: “at times, he was even oppressed by the sense that he was a kind of vaudeville cowboy, and Arabia a ‘foreign stage on which one plays day and night, in fancy dress, in a strange language…. The whole thing is such a play, and one cannot put conviction into one’s daydreams.’ I want to read the Seven Pillars and re-watch the film with that in mind. And, thirdly, this image from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (and T.R. Was the ultimate maker of the American cowboy legend): when he met a bunch of Boer settlers in south Africa, he sang them a Dutch song his grandmother had sung for him, and mused on how their ancestors had left Netherlands the same time his ancestors did, a narrative in which “American” and “South Africa” as expressions of frontier colonialism are explicitly rendered analogous. Also, the first book he ever read was an account of Livingstone’s travels in Africa, and though he understood only the pictures, I can’t help but feel that his lifelong practice of reading Africa through cowboy mythology might have the opposite derivation: a lifelong reading (and writing) of the western as colonial.

Sound good? Still thinking it through. But I think it’s got legs.

Recycling Africa

Pliny the Elder is endlessly quoted for the saying “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” a phrase most easily translated as “Out of Africa, always something new.” I’m not sure what he meant when he said it. I’m not sure what a first century Roman thought “Africa” meant; the Romans gave the continent its name, but Africa to them was neither a “Heart of Darkness” nor a symbol of primeval nature. I’m also not sure why he thought there was always something new coming out of it.

But the phrase must do something useful, because it keeps getting recycled. The most famous is Izak Dineson’s Out of Africa, the memoir of a Danish countess’ spiritual rebirth from having a farm in colonial Kenya. Her book begins with the phrase “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills,” and like Elspeth Huxley and Kuki Gallman (with whom she has much in common) the book uses tenses to indicate trauma: she had a farm in Africa. This line has been quoted and revered numerous times; Dineson is held to be a master stylist and this line is seen as having style. Many people like the idea of having a farm in Africa.

I think it has the cadence and depth of a Toto lyric. Alexander McCall Smith liked it, and he began his massively popular The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with the words “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of the Kgale Hill.” Smith and Dineson both use the “having” of a thing in Africa to represent a certain kind of female empowerment, but the comedic Mma Ramotswe plays for laughs what Dineson plays in a tragically minor key: Dineson’s farm is in the past tense because her husband gave her syphilis and her lover died in a plane crash, the Mau Mau revolt burned up her pastoral paradise, and Kenya became independent. Colonial Africa could mean something to her because a strong woman could have a place there that she couldn’t in Europe, exactly because she was a white woman. Her ignorance could shield her from the kinds of knowledge that would make her beautiful dreams impossible, so she elegizes the life that was possible no where else; where else but Africa could a woman be a cowboy? In the 1940’s, where else but the colonies could a woman be a pioneer and farmer and doctor and business owner all in one?

African fashion

Thanks to Sepoy, I was recently viewing these pictures in the “femail” section of the UK Daily Mail, one of the many frighteningly popular quasi-tabloid British broadsheets. “Femail,” in case you were wondering, is a section devoted to “lifestyle” issues for women. What kind of lifestyle do women enjoy? Well, five of the six top stories for that day were: the tragic saga of a soccer star’s cheated upon wife, the fact that “the wait is over” for actor Sean Bean’s lucky newlywed wife (his fourth), the revelation that the wife of the new boss of the Chelsea soccer club is weird, a story about what kind of what woman will abase herself sufficiently to marry a millionaire, and the story of a wife whose husband was brain damaged in a crime of some sort and she has, in this sense, received a “life sentence.” You go, girl! You’ve come a long way!

The sixth story, however, was this: “Out of Africa: The incredible tribal fashion show inspired by Mother Nature”

African fashion

Indeed. To quote the writer, the good Marcus Dunk: “Here, a leaf or root is transformed into an accessory. Instead of a scarf, a necklace of banana leaves is draped around a neck. In place of a hat, a tuft of grass is jauntily positioned. A garland of flowers, a veil of seed-pods, buffalo horn, a crown of melons, feathers, stems and storks – Mother Nature has provided a fully stocked wardrobe.”

Why is this so wrong? First a bit more. The article notes that “the origins of this astonishing tradition have been lost over the years – the Surma and Mursi spend much of their time involved in tribal and guerilla warfare – their homeland is a hotbed of the arms and ivory trades,” a sentence that is even less grammatical in the original. And they go on to assert that “Fifteen tribes have lived in this region since time immemorial, and many use zebra skins for leggings, snail shells for necklaces and clay to stick their wonderful designs to their heads. As they paint each other’s bodies and make bold decisions about their outfits (all without the aid of mirrors), it seems that the only thing that motivates them is the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off to other members of the tribe.”

African fashion

The article is struck by the strange paradox of Africans having fashion. And, indeed, one of the things colonialists had to work the hardest to impress Africans with was clothing. Not that Africans didn‘t wear clothes, of course, but they wore clothing that was appropriate to the environment they lived in, and they didn‘t understand things about cleanliness’ proximity to godliness. They took a lot of teaching in some cases.

And in some cases not. After all, it’s not that some Africans didn’t think of clothing as a commodity in ways that parallel the European practice of “fashion.” Many did. In fact, one of the ways that economic historians gauge the relative economic strength of the pre-17th century West African states vis-à-vis Europe is by noting patterns of trade in cloth. for example, John Thornton reasons that since West Africans could actually make better quality cloth than the early and pre-industrial European textile industry (and wool was next to useless in the tropics) the only reason they would ever trade for European cloth in those days was because it was a kind of luxury item, a valued (fashionable?) possession precisely because it was unique and different from normal styles and makes. An older historiographic tradition held that Africans weren’t buying much cloth from Europe because they didn’t have the economic surplus to be able to afford that trade; Thornton‘s intervention, after going over the evidence that they did, in fact, produce substantial surpluses, was to argue the existence of any trade at all (given how poorly European cloth compared with African cloth) pointed to a market in luxury goods that only bolstered his original point: Africans had a lot more control of their fate than European historiography tended to imagine. But at a much later period, when Europe’s military and economic strength had gone through the roof and a lot of work went into convincing Africans to grow cotton to send to Europe, where value would be added, and to then buy the cloth back.

African fashion

But that, of course, is not why it’s being called a fashion show. These fashionable items are not created by labor surplus, but by manna from Mother Nature. That’s what’s charming about it, right? And why is it that they “make bold decisions about their outfits” and why is “the only thing that motivates them…the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off?” What makes these kinds of dress-ups into something on par with “the runways of Paris and London”? Why is it called “Out of Africa”? To a practiced grader, this article shows all the marks of a hastily written and poorly thought through student paper; if not actually plagiarized, there’s certainly not an original thought in it. So where is this narrative coming from?

You can’t tease some warped version of gender out of this racism, the way masquerading as feminism covers over something much less appealing. But when the same thing keeps coming back, again and again, its got to mean something. And we keep getting the same goddamned story told again and again, not just in Dineson, Gallman, and Huxley, but in the execrable movies made from them, I Dreamed of Africa and Out of Africa. Why does exploiting gender make racism palatable? Why is it that Elspeth Huxley has to challenge her parents’ old world patriarchy by dressing-up as African with the servants? Why is it that Dineson becomes free of her horrible husband by playing veterinarian with the local African children? Why is it that Kuki Gallman becomes a complete woman by giving birth to a “child of Africa” who is fascinated by the wilderness? Why films need to retell those stories, complete with vivid scenery? Why does Mma Ramotswe have to invoke “Out of Africa”? Why does this article? Why does it keep getting recycled?

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