Americans Think Africa Is One Big Wild Animal Reserve

tags: Africa, Disney



Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor at New York University, is teaching in NYU’s summer program in Ghana. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, which will be published in Spring 2015 by Princeton University Press.

ACCRA, Ghana — Last month, Delta Airlines posted a tweet congratulating the United States for defeating Ghana in the World Cup. The tweet featured two images, each representing one of the countries. For the United States, Delta chose the Statue of Liberty. And for Ghana, it showed a picture of a giraffe.

That’s not because “Ghana” and “giraffe” both begin with “G.” It’s because Ghana is in sub-Saharan Africa, of course. When I showed the Delta message to a friend here, he wasn’t surprised. “Americans think Africa is just for animals,” he said. “There aren’t any people here.”

That’s also the underlying message of The Lion King, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary last month. The second-highest-grossing Disney film of all time, eclipsed only by the recent blockbuster Frozen, The Lion Kingdepicts hundreds of animals cavorting across a rugged African landscape. All that’s missing are Africans themselves.

To be sure, The Lion King has faced its share of criticism over the years. Some American viewers thought the hyena characters—voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin—reflected negative images of blacks. Others said that Scar, the evil uncle of the film’s protagonist, embodied offensive gay stereotypes. But the debate about racist and anti-gay imagery in the film has a narrowly American ring to it.

Caught up in our own anxieties about race and gender relations at home, we’ve lost sight of the fact that our most popular movie about Africa reduces the entire continent to a game reserve. So does DreamWorks's 2005 animated hit Madagascar—in which Ben Stiller voices a neurotic lion—and the 2011 nature documentary African Cats, another Disney production.

For Americans, the Africa-as-animals idea goes back to Theodore Roosevelt’s reports on his safari in 1909-1910, shortly after Roosevelt left the White House. In serialized magazine articles, Roosevelt thrilled American readers with tales of pursuing big game in a vast, “uncivilized” land. He brought back over 20,000 specimens—including lions, elephants, and rhinoceros—for donation to the Smithsonian Institution.

Then came Tarzan, the series of adventure stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Adapted into several Hollywood blockbusters, Tarzan described a boy who was raised by apes in the thick jungles of Africa. And like Roosevelt’s safari reports, it encouraged Americans to think of the continent as a pristine, primitive setting for exotic beasts.

But most actual Africans don’t come any closer to wildlife than Westerners do. …



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