You’re five years old. You hold your father’s massive yet reassuring hand while you marvel at a herd of seven elephants stampeding towards you. Ten minutes ago you were riding the A train in Manhattan. Now you are in the American Museum of Natural History aboard an “invisible train” as it takes you on a safari through Carl Akeley’s vision of Africa. The museum boasts comprehensive replicas of African wildlife, including people dressed in grass and hide and mud and shell. You remember your father telling you about the Egyptians, but you see no sign of them. He tells you to ask the tour guide. You do. The man answers: Natural history museums don’t exhibit the cultures of “white people”; go visit the Met across the park (xii). These early memories of author Jeannette Jones serve as a powerful metaphor for her first book, In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884–1936. Jones, an assistant professor at Nebraska University, weaves a compelling examination of outsiders’ first impressions of Africa through film, thought, bullet, and plunder.
Jones aims to unravel complex evolutions in white American and African American thoughts about Africa. In her assessment, the modern American view of Africa formed from a collision of white naturalists and black nationalists during events bookended by the Belgian occupation of the Congo and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. The resulting debates sought to characterize the continent during a time when America looked outwardly to define its own relative modernity at the expense of African people’s ability to define themselves on the world stage. Both the white naturalists and the black nationalists sought to protect Africa from Western expansion, but wished to keep Africans in the role of observer. Jones effectively writes with a sense of symmetry that links seemingly disparate events in a purposeful way, such as the rise of the rubber trade, the birth of modern pan-Africanism, and innovations in taxidermy.
Jones organizes events well, ascribing two distinct Western responses to Africa: one white and one black. I will address her analysis of black responses later. Jones’s bifurcation further breaks up white responses into European and American. European responses then divide as either imperialist, typified by the attendees of the Berlin Conference and led by the Belgians, or missionary, exemplified by institutional efforts to spread Christianity intended to eradicate traditionalism and stall the Islamic influence. Jones separates American responses into either definitive, reinforcing the collective view of America as modern in opposition to a perceived African retardation, or primitive, an appeal to American game hunters wishing to express rugged masculinity by dominating an uncivilized frontier much like America’s Wild West.
The Belgian occupation of the Congo also brought the area’s wildlife to the attention of the upstart American Museum of Natural History who sent naturalist-environmentalists on expeditions, under the approval of Belgium’s King Leopold, to amass collections by shooting and skinning the animals they wished to preserve. In the process, they stumbled upon ethnographic evidence that challenged their assumption that the Congolese were benighted compared to white, American modernity. Bantu African advancements in metallurgy, it appeared, brought civilization to Egypt and then, by extension, to Europe and ultimately America. These discoveries were not widely accepted and instead were [End Page 493] replaced with a more palatable metanarrative of Africans as savage children, mistreated by the superior, yet crafty, white Belgians (80).
In Jones’s evaluation of naturalist-environmentalist discourses on and displays of Africa, no individual looms larger than Carl Akeley does. Akeley’s single-minded efforts to preserve what he viewed as a vanishing Africa led him to innovative methods in taxidermy and wildlife display, unmatched even today. Jones dedicates one of the five chapters of In Search of Brightest Africa almost entirely to Akeley. It flows well and is easily the most focused of the chapters, but chapter 4 seems strangely fractured from the rest of the book. However, if it was a stylistic choice...