I often listen to the Canadian radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi and this particular episode is very enlightening about how stereotypes about Africa continue to propagate in the western world.
Neelika Jayawardane, a professor of post-colonial literature at Oswego State University of NY, discusses how usually books about Africa carry a cover that depicts an acacia tree.
No matter the story inside, apparently nothing says “Africa” more that the acacia tree. The stereotype emphasizes the old colonialist notion of Africa: vast plains, wild animals and primitive people, so western readers don’t feel confused or threatened by a modern and more complex version of the continent. Or at least that’s what western publishing companies think…
Here are 36 examples of book covers depicting the acacia tree. 36!
And if you keep looking you’ll find many more. Without much effort I found these two different covers of the book Notes from the Hyena’s Belly (with acacia trees, of course):
And I kept looking and found these:
The acacia tree might be big or small, but it’s always there… and if it is not, the second choice is a big red sunset or wild animals frolicking around and the occasional native.
Of course these choices of images don’t necessary mean that the content is stereotypical –although sometimes it is- and probably the authors have no saying on what goes in the front of their books, but boy, it says a lot about what Westerners think of Africa…
Why publishers do it? Are they lazy? Maybe they think that an stereotyped image of Africa is simpler to grasp, to understand? Because they underestimate the intelligence of readers in general? It could be that those landscapes make people dream of escaping to a cleaner place, more real, more natural? Or it might be that the African acacia and sunset remits to a “simpler” time, a colonial time when Africa was the white people’s playground. Some sort of nostalgia for the past, a past of masters and slaves, of wild hunting of animals and brown people alike?
I think there is a combination of all of these things which of course are the base of the African stereotype.
Another interesting thing would be to know how many images are assigned to a book and their differences. I took the novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Half of a Yellow Sun as an example, and so far these are the images I found as book covers or movie posters:
As you can see there are many to chose from:
(Apparently this is the current book cover in Nigeria)
(Italian Version – No acacia trees, but palm trees)
And these are current images with the acacia/sunset treatment:
Interesting how a stereotype dumbs down a good book and how much more interesting are the other images.
It’s really sad, knowing that there are so many extraordinary African artists (and non Africans too) that could do a much better job of depicting these stories, specially when many of them are of more modern themes, like contemporary family relations, immigration, political realities, etc. that have nothing in common with wild Africa.
Let’s hope that in the era of the e-book, when few readers browse on brick and mortar bookshops to buy a book by its cover, publishers change the approach to what image they choose to illustrate a book.
The Dangers of a Single Book Cover: The Acacia Tree Meme and “African literature” Africa is a Country
Oversimplifying Africa: lessons from a book cover cliché Q Blog