Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The (Product) Red Man's Burden: Charity, Celebrity, and the Contradictions of Coevalness

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The (Product) Red Man's Burden: Charity, Celebrity, and the Contradictions of Coevalness

Article excerpt

Introduction: The White Man's Burden and the Culture of Imperialism In 1899 Rudyard Kipling (1988: 321) penned the poem, "The White Man's Burden," the first stanza of which reads:

   Take up the White Man's burden--Send 
   forth the best ye breed--Go 
   bind your sons to exile 
   To serve your captives' need; 
   To wait in heavy harness, 
   On fluttered folk and wild--Your 
   new-caught, sullen peoples, 
   Half-devil and half-child 

In the contemporary moment, the "White Man's Burden" ideology is making a comeback, thanks to the efforts of musicians, movie stars, and models. For instance, Time Magazine declared 2005 "The Year of Charitainment" (Poniewozik 2005). Moreover, according to a recent catalogue produced by the upscale American clothing chain Bloomingdales: "In Hollywood, philanthropy is the New Black. You're nobody unless you're using your fame--and your wallet--to promote good works" ("Cause Celeb" 2007: 10). Similarly, an ad for Product Red that appeared in the July 2007 Vanity Fair magazine exhorted consumers that "Meaning is the New Luxury."

In this essay, I examine two discursive moments associated with the Product Red campaign--the July 2007 Vanity Fair issue and a 13 October 2006 Oprah Winfrey Show promoting the effort. My focus on these two discrete yet interconnected moments in time stems from a desire to explore two instances of celebrity activism wherein the celebrities themselves reference their own history of oppression as a motivation for their philanthropy. As a heuristic device for thinking through these issues, I borrow the term coevalness from Johannes Fabian (2006: 146) who theorized the concept, critiquing anthropological discourse. As he explains:

   Anthropology has its foundation in ethnographic research, 
   inquiries which even hard nosed practitioners ... carry out with 
   communicative interaction. The sharing of time that such 
   interaction requires demands that ethnographers recognize the 
   people whom they study as their coevals. 

According to Fabian, at its heart, anthropology is marked by a contradiction: "when the same ethnographers represent their knowledge in teaching and writing they do this in terms of a discourse that consistently places those who are talked about it a time other than that of the one who talks." Fabian calls the effect of such strategies the "denial of coevalness," which is predicated on the idea that a journey "across the space of empire [can be] figured as a journey backward in time" (McClintock 1995: 40). The "Other" lives not only at a geographical remove, but also in a different, anterior, temporal zone. We can see this phenomenon at work not only in anthropological discourse, but in Western representations of Africa found in novels, film, books, newspapers, and so on.

Fabian calls on anthropologists to formulate philosophical and epistemological practices that would better allow them to recognize the people they represent as coevals. He identifies a number of ways in which this might be done, several of which I also find to have broader utility beyond the simple reform of ethnographic and anthropological practice. Fabian describes coevalness as "recognition as cognizing and remembering" pointing out that "to knowingly be in each other's presence we must somehow share each other's past" (Fabian 2006: 144). He goes on to observe that there is a "theoretical gain to be had from pairing memory and alterity" (Fabian 2006: 144).

Unlike many other celebrities, Bono and Oprah's public rhetoric often ties their own personal history and experience to the history and experience of the people they want to help. Oprah invokes her race and gender and Bono the history of Irish colonial dispossession. The question I seek to explore is this: When Oprah and Bono invoke their own connections to a history of colonial subjugation as an explanation for what motivates their philanthropy, can it be read as an attempt to "share in the other's past" and, in that way, stake a claim for their coevalness? …

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