As we celebrate another Africa Day, I could not help but remind how at the beginning of this year, Haiti and Africa became the butt of American President Donald Trump’s pathologically racist and profusely obscene verbal assaults. During a White House meeting with Congressional leaders on immigration, he dismissed Haiti and the entire continent as undesirable “shithole” countries. The comments provoked a firestorm of global condemnation from the United Nations to the African Union. Several African countries, such as Botswana and Senegal, summoned US ambassadors to issue official diplomatic protests. Social media exploded with incredulity, outrage, and bitterly satirical hash tags celebrating the beauty and humanity of the disparaged peoples and their lands.
The predictable political script of outrage and support for Trump’s divisive comments was replicated in the media. Outraged liberal pundits excoriated Trump for his racism, but his right-wing cheerleaders heartily defended him for his realism. Elsewhere, among African and Haitian immigrants, and across the continent itself, many were shocked but not surprised. So was I.
The reasons for my lack of surprise were outlined at length by Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Vice Chancellor at United States International University – Africa, in two essays, one written in March 2016, seven months before the US election, entitled “Republicans, Racists, and the Obama Derangement Syndrome”.
The second one is, “The Tragedy and Farce That Is Trump’s America,” written a day after the November elections.
Trump’s obnoxious, moronic, and dangerous racist buffoonery appeals to and embodies the Republican Party’s underbelly of white supremacy and neo-fascist obsession to make ‘America White Again.’ Indeed, Trump’s derogatory dismissal of shithole Haiti and Africa reflects enduring tendencies in the American social imaginary about Africa and its Diasporas. This is to suggest, as outraged as we might be about Trump’s provocative and pusillanimous pronouncements, the Trump phenomenon transcends Trump. The spectre of racism, whose pernicious and persistent potency Trump has brazenly exposed to the world, has haunted America from its inception with the original sin of slavery, through a century of Jim Crow segregation, and the past half century of post-civil rights redress and backlash.
Ever since millions of enslaved Africans landed on the shores of the Americas, a historic tragedy that lasted for four centuries and involved the largest forced migration in world history, negative images of Africa became crucial to the construction of justificatory racist ideologies and racial discrimination against the African Diaspora. The alleged primitivity and undesirability of Africa were used as a hammer to bludgeon the enslaved Africans and their descendants into the complexes of racial inferiority, to make them ashamed of their ancestral continent, appreciate being in America and acquiesce to their subjugation.
The racist opprobrium attached to Haiti goes back to the turn of the 19th century. Once one of the richest slave plantation societies in the Americas, Haiti has never been forgotten or forgiven as the first country in the Americas, indeed in history, where a revolution by an enslaved population succeeded. The Haitian Revolution, which lasted from 1791 to 1803, spawned independence struggles across Latin America and threatened the lucrative slave systems that built the economies of the Americas including the United States and fuelled the industrialization of the Atlantic powers including Britain, the world’s first industrial nation.
The United States and most European states refused to recognize and quarantined Haiti for decades. In 1825, France, the former colonial power, in exchange for recognition demanded an indemnity of 90 million Francs, equivalent to more than $40 billion today. These draconian external pressures, combined with the newly liberated country’s own internal dysfunctions, crippled Haiti’s development prospects and made it a poster child of the costs of black independence in the Americas. The United States itself occupied Haiti for 19 years from 1915 to 1934 to enforce its economic and political interests on the island.
Thus, in the Euromerican imaginary and discourse both Africa and Haiti serve as potent signs of otherness, of eternal inferiority, of being less than. On every measure, in the positivist master references of progress, from levels of historicity to humanity, civilization to culture, economics to ethics, sociality to sexuality, they are always found lacking and lagging behind Euroamerica. This is the import of Trump’s description of Haiti and African countries as shithole, an image that evokes utter depravity, deprivation, and destitution, of countries, societies and peoples living in unimaginable squalor, bereft of skills, of a people who are beyond the pale in making white America Great Again.
Trump has reinforced a sense of moral superiority among liberals, which is too self- serving. When it comes to the homogenization of Africa and dehumanization of Africans the lines between the angels and the devil are blurred. This is to urge the liberal media and academics to engage in critical self-reflection on how they represent Africa. There is now a large literature on the invention of Africa, the construction of distorted images about Africa. It is clear that Africa suffers from what the renowned Nigerian novelist, Cimamanda Adichie, calls the danger of a single story.
The propensity to reduce Africa to a single story is based on the homogenization of the continent, the pervasive tendency to strip it of its bewildering complexities. This, too, is deeply rooted in the social imaginaries of Africa by both the foes and friends of the continent. However, these shortcomings are also evident within the continent itself and in the Pan-African discourses of affirmation. As many critics in African studies have observed, a lot of journalistic and scholarly writing on the countries, societies, and peoples of this vast continent is lazy.
The continent is often reported as a country, eliding the vast differences among its 54 countries, and the sheer size of its landmass and scale and diversity of its histories, societies, economies, cultures, polities, and ecologies. “Africa,” or that favourite cartographic label of Africanist scholarship and the overseers of global geopolitics, “Sub-Saharan Africa,” often prefaces titles of academic books even when the study is about a very specific place or community.
*Paul T. Shipale is a scholar and commentator of contemporary politics. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of this newspaper but solely his personal views as a citizen.