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Five Common Stereotypes About Africa

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Five Common Stereotypes About Africa

Lagos, Nigeria

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Africa Is All Jungle

Never mind that the Sahara Desert makes up one-third of Africa. Thanks to Tarzan films and other cinematic portrayals of Africa, many mistakenly believe that jungle occupies most of the continent and that ferocious beasts roam its entire landscape. Black activist Malcolm X, who visited several African countries before his assassination in 1965, took issue with this depiction. He not only discussed Western stereotypes of Africa but also how such stereotypes resulted in black Americans distancing themselves from the continent.

“They always project Africa in a negative light: jungle savages, cannibals, nothing civilized,” he pointed out.

In reality, Africa houses a wide range of vegetation zones. Only a small portion of the continent includes jungle, or rainforests. These tropical areas are located along the Guinea Coast and in the Zaire River Basin. Africa’s largest vegetation zone is actually savanna, or tropical grassland. Moreover, Africa’s home to urban centers with populations in the multimillions, including Cairo, Egypt; Lagos, Nigeria; and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. By 2025, more than half of the African population will reside in cities, according to some estimates.

Black American Slaves Came From All Over Africa

Largely due to the misconception that Africa’s a country, it’s not uncommon for people to assume that black Americans have ancestors from all over the continent. In reality, the slaves traded throughout the Americas originated specifically along Africa’s western coast.

For the first time, Portuguese sailors who’d previously traveled to Africa for gold returned to Europe with 10 African slaves in 1442, PBS reports. Four decades later, the Portuguese built a trading post on the Guinean shore called Elmina, or “the mine” in Portuguese. There, gold, ivory and other goods were traded along with African slaves—exported for weapons, mirrors and cloth, to name a few. Before long, Dutch and English ships began arriving at Elmina for African slaves as well. By 1619, Europeans had forced a million slaves into the Americas. Altogether, 10 to 12 million Africans were forced into servitude in the New World. These Africans were “either captured in warring raids or kidnapped and taken to the port by African slave traders,” PBS notes.

Yes, West Africans played a key role in the transatlantic slave trade. For these Africans, slavery was nothing new, but African slavery in no way resembled North and South American slavery. In his book, the African Slave Trade, Basil Davidson likens slavery on the African continent to European serfdom. Take the Ashanti Kingdom of West Africa, where “slaves could marry, own property and even own slaves,” PBS explains. Slaves in the United States enjoyed no such privileges. Moreover, while slavery in the U.S. was linked to skin color—with blacks as servants and whites as masters—racism was not the impetus for slavery in Africa. Plus, like indentured servants, slaves in Africa were typically released from bondage after a set amount of time. Accordingly, slavery in Africa never lasted across generations.

Wrapping Up

Many myths about Africa date back centuries. In the modern day, new stereotypes about the continent have emerged. Thanks to a sensationalistic news media, people worldwide associate Africa with famine, war, AIDS, poverty and political corruption. This isn’t to say that such problems don’t exist in Africa. Of course, they do. But even in a nation as wealthy as the United States, hunger, abuse of power and chronic illness factor into everyday life. While the continent of Africa faces enormous challenges, not every African is in need, nor is every African nation in crisis.

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