BOOK REVIEW / The dark continent of white conscience: White on black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture by Jan Nederveen Pieterse, Yale pounds 20

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The Independent Culture
In a world that is becoming smaller and societies that are becoming multicultural, it may be time for Western culture to examine itself critically in terms of its views of other cultures.

Thus the book's opening sentence, and already we are presented with at least one big problem. The problem has to do with this business of multiculturalism, a much-abused term which generally means what the author wants it to mean. This is because its function is almost wholly political, but here the term has been stretched beyond what might be considered reasonable even by those who have a need to interpret the world in their own image. Unless, that is, we grant that the encounter between Africa and Europe can be reduced to the level of a clash of cultures, which is just silly. However:

The transatlantic slave trade marked a clash between divergent cultural traditions and concepts of slavery - African slavery, in which the slaves were integrated into the society . . . and the slavery practised by northern European, predominantly Protestant countries, where there were no social or

legal traditions and where slavery was not subject to any restriction.

One would have thought that the very notion of benevolent slavery, a contradiction in terms, had finally had its day, even among patronising Europeans anxious to assuage their consciences in token payment for the supposed guilt of their forebears. In the process, they deny the African the humanity they otherwise believe is in their power to grant, which is why they end up doing the very thing they claim to abhor: 'The Africa of the explorers,' we are told, 'is a stage decor consisting notably of the absence of that of which the Europeans held themselves to be the representatives.' The author's forebears, in other words, rendered the African invisible in order to perpetrate the crimes which our intrepid academic has set himself to expose in all their shabbiness, the only problem being that he must do the same in order to write the book that will presumably help him sleep better at night. 'Several hundred years of Western hegemony,' we are further told, 'lends Western images a range, complexity and historical weight which images stemming from Africa and from blacks do not possess.'

Africa, it appears, is still inhabited by simpletons, and only Europeans can have complex responses towards the Other, even, in this case, to different groups of the Africans they colonised: 'Europeans viewed the Khoi and San much more negatively than the Bantu speakers. The Khoi and San were regarded as lazy, thievish and ugly.' The tragedy for the Khoi and the San (Bushmen) is that Africans also regard them in much the same light even today, which means that they'll probably be extinct by the time we come to publish - and review - academic texts which can no longer be of the remotest interest to them.

(Photograph omitted)