In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Image of Africa

  • Introduction
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African Studies The Image of Africa
Curtis Keim
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0026


Since World War II, Westerners have become increasingly self-critical regarding their images of the world. Factors such as the Holocaust, the independence of countries in Africa and Asia, the American civil rights movement, the rise of modern anthropology, and new understandings of evolution and human biology have prompted examinations of how the West imagined other countries to be. For Africa, from ancient times on, Western images of Africa have reflected more the cultures of the West than those of Africa. Thus, for example, as the West became more interested in exploiting Africa through the slave trade and colonialism, Africa’s image in the West deteriorated. Moreover, as the West shifted from biblical to scientific understandings of the world, the West’s images of Africa also shifted, with increasingly biological and evolutionary (and thus racist) explanations for an African difference. Critical studies of the history of images of Africa continue to find new examples of ways images of Africa have shaped and justified Western self-perceptions. An increasing number of studies have also investigated the images of Africa that have emerged in popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Many such images overemphasize what are considered to be African problems and are thus defined as culturalist, because they focus on cultural differences and attempt to explain those differences in terms of Africa’s supposedly less-evolved cultures. By contrast, the images that have emerged in modern Afrocentrism, a movement among African Americans, tend to overemphasize and romanticize the achievements of Africa’s societies and their cultural contributions.

General Overviews

Overviews often emphasize images of Africa in specific periods rather than in the whole of Western history; thus, studies in this section are divided chronologically into four broad periods: Antiquity, Antiquity to the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment, and the 19th and 20th Centuries. In general, Western images of Africa were similar throughout Europe and North America after African colonization. However, individual Western countries developed unique interpretations of Africa especially during the 18th century and since. Sources that focus on four individual countries—Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States—are listed under the section Country-Specific Studies.

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