Out of Africa

Probably the best thing to come out of yesterday, was this piece from Granta instructing journalists on how to write about Africa:


Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress. 

 In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn't care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular. 

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African's cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it--because you care.

What really got me about this piece was how familiar it was. I was laughing at first, and then I wasn't. This for instance...

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

...really hit home. One of my beefs against coverage of black people in this country is the inability to deal with the simple, ordinariness of black life. Over the past half-century something incredible was created in this country--a broad black middle and upper-middle class. But they're almost invisible to us. There is a dangerous line here--I'm not arguing for ignoring the black poor, or more "positive" articles or propaganda, ("Rich black people. Awesome.") but for stories and narratives that consider the context of our boring, ordinariness.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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