In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936

In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936

In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936

In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936


In the decades between the Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa and the opening of the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, Americans in several fields and from many backgrounds argued that Africa had something to teach them. Jeannette Eileen Jones traces the history of the idea of Africa with an eye to recovering the emergence of a belief in "Brightest Africa"--a tradition that runs through American cultural and intellectual history with equal force to its "Dark Continent" counterpart.

Jones skillfully weaves disparate strands of turn-of-the-century society and culture to expose a vivid trend of cultural engagement that involved both critique and activism. Filmmakers spoke out against the depiction of "savage" Africa in the mass media while also initiating a countertradition of ethnographic documentaries. Early environmentalists celebrated Africa as a pristine continent while lamenting that its unsullied landscape was "vanishing." New Negro political thinkers also wanted to "save" Africa but saw its fragility in terms of imperiled human promise. Jones illuminates both the optimism about Africa underlying these concerns and the racist and colonial interests these agents often nevertheless served. The book contributes to a growing literature on the ongoing role of global exchange in shaping the African American experience as well as debates about the cultural place of Africa in American thought.


Technically, the genesis of this project can be located in that long ago fateful semester (1996 to be precise) in Gail Radford’s Twentieth-Century United States seminar at the University of Buffalo, when I had to come up with a research topic. Knowing that I would be returning to “Strong Island” for the upcoming break, I decided to select a topic that I could research while at home. a year earlier, I had written a research paper on the Shinnecock Indian Nation, whose reservation is in Southampton, Long Island. in that paper, I explored the ways in which colonial and U.S. constructions of race—particularly with regard to “Indian” intermixing with ”Negroes”—circumscribed the Shinnecock’s campaign for federal recognition. Out of respect for their quest for federal status as Native American, I abandoned researching their African ancestry as a possible dissertation topic. Yet, it was this paper that stirred my intellectual curiosity about race and representation in American history; more specifically, I was interested in how America arrived at its metanarratives about race.

The scholarly journey from the Shinnecock reservation to the American Museum of Natural History was a long one, despite its ninety-mile distance. On my intellectual passage from Southampton to New York City, I took a detour across the Atlantic to explore the ways in which Western racial ideologies influenced museum classifications of the Benin Bronzes seized in the British Punitive Expedition of 1897. I also decided to investigate generally how Western museums displayed Africa during the early decades of European imperialism on the continent. My findings confirmed what I learned throughout my graduate career. Race was not simply a pseudobiological category, but an ideological trope, a metanarrative that organized and produced Western knowledge about everything from aboriginal rights to museum displays.

Although the two research papers that resulted from my foray into museum culture inspired my decision to examine representations of Africa in museums closer to home, my fascination with Africa dated back to my childhood and youth. As I visited the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the United Nations, I also sorted through elusive memories: my grandmother’s African “male friend” who worked at the United Nations, the painful departure (for me) of four . . .

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