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Constructions of Africa in Young American Minds

By Farooq A. Kperogi Two events, which I shall narrate shortly, inspire guarded optimism in me that the next generation of Americans may ...

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Two events, which I shall narrate shortly, inspire guarded optimism in me that the next generation of Americans may grow up with more favorable and balanced impressions of Africa than all the generations that preceded them.

My daughter is on spring break this week and I decided to take her to the Children’s Museum of Atlanta. It turned out that the Museum was (actually, still is) having an exhibit on West Africa titled, “From Here to Timbuktu: A Journey Through West Africa.” The exhibit, which started on February 5, 2011, will last till May 30, 2011. In the spirit of the exhibit, the entire museum is replete with West African historical and cultural artifacts. Except for the white kids running around in the museum, you would think you were in some West African country.

I found this pleasantly surprising. The exhibit isn’t merely a pictorial rendering of West Africa; it also transports children to a riveting visual and textual excursion into the rich histories, cultures, foods, customs, and geography of West African countries. The portrayal is neither overly romantic nor characterized by the customary simplistic, racist caricatures of Africa that we’ve grown used to here. It’s the most realistic portrayal of Africa I have seen anywhere in America since I’ve been here.

Going round the museum, kids are exposed to different parts of West Africa: the coastal rainforest belt, the Savanna grasslands, and the Sahel adjoining the Sahara Desert and extending to Timbuktu, the celebrated ancient center of learning that was also famous for its gold trade.

 The kids get to go on a pretended travel by camel, get on a simulated fishing boat to catch fish on a West African coast, and even experience the sights, sounds, and smells of the Apapa marketplace in Lagos! They also learn African dances, especially the "Djembe dance" of Niger, “live” in African houses, and partake in common activities that African children engage in. They end their exploration by “visiting” Timbuktu where they not only learn about the awe-inspiring history of this historic city (that is located in what is now the Republic of Mali) but also learn to write their names in Arabic and Tuareg, Timbuktu’s two major languages, and “send a postcard detailing their ‘travels’.”
Imagine it! The Children's Museum of Atlanta
All the children had boatloads of fun when we were there last Wednesday. But my daughter had even more fun than the rest. The exhibit heightened her self-esteem and deepened her sense of worth. I know this because she proudly told all the kids she met there that she was “African” and that the exhibit was about the place where she was born. Her “African credibility” instantly made her several friends at the museum. Although she now speaks English with a perfect American accent (when she chooses to), the American kids in the museum knew she was no black American. Her new friends asked her a torrent of questions about Africa, which she answered with infectious excitement and passion.

Interestingly, before coming to America, my daughter had no consciousness of an African identity. Although she’d learned about the “seven continents of the world” in kindergarten in Nigeria, she couldn’t relate to “Africa.” It didn’t make any sense to her. She only knew herself to be a Nigerian. But after only a few days in her new school here, she one day came home to ask me why her classmates called her “the African girl.” She wanted to know if being identified as such was demeaning. She wondered why she wasn’t called the “Nigerian girl.” She said she told her classmates that she was Nigerian, not African.

I spent a lot of time to explain to her the concept of continents— and of Africa. My job was made easier by several Africa-centered programs we watched on a popular children’s channel called Sprout. To my surprise, the hosts had an incredibly accurate portrait of the peoples and cultures of Africa, especially for kids.

My daughter began to take pride in and ownership of Africa when the host of an educational program, whom she adores tremendously, said, “you know, Africa is a cool and awesome place.” The adjectives “cool” and “awesome” have particularly strong resonance in American teen and preteen pop culture. This host’s praise of Africa did more to inspire pride in an African identity in her than my many days’ lectures. “Daddy, did you just hear what she said?” she asked me excitedly. “She said Africa is cool and awesome! Wooohooo!! We are from a place that is cool and awesome.” After that day, she began to wear her “African girl” appellation with swagger in school.

In all the educational children’s channels I’ve watched with my daughter, I am yet to come across any program about Africa that rehashed the familiar racist stereotypes I am used to seeing in adult television. So this week’s exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta was like the culmination of a pattern of balanced and fair-minded portrayal of Africa that I’ve started to take notice of in children's TV programming here.

Is America having second thoughts about its age-old negative depictions of Africa? If so, what is responsible for this? Could it be a spinoff of Barack Obama’s presidency? Or is this just a happy coincidence? Perhaps it is. After all, I started watching kids' movies and TV programs only eight months ago when my daughter joined me here. For all you know, there are racist, inaccurate portrayals of Africa and its people lurking somewhere in some kids' TV programming that I’m yet to see.

But I can’t help basking in the afterglow of the self-pride that radiates in my daughter each time Africa is mentioned here. America has made her a prouder African than I had ever imagined she would be. That was not what I’d prepared for.

Whatever it is, if the social sensitivity to non-dominant groups I see in contemporary American children's TV programming is actually a trend, it seems reasonable to project that the budding generation of Americans will be out and away more tolerant and broadminded than their parents. But I am probably being naïve.

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