The Theology and Critical Race theory facebook page recently posted this article on how, despite improvements, Western media and NGO’s still portray Africa as desperately impoverished, backwards, and teetering on the verge of death and collapse. The article considers various reasons for this determination to equate Africa with chaos and poverty but highlights the role of NGO’s, whose funding often depends on convincing Western donors that the plight is terrible and the catastrophe immanent: only a few dollars right now and you can save a life.
On the other side of these often graphic portrayals of bare life and looming death are pictures of bright, vibrant colorful, Africa. Many nonprofits have switched from the pictures of naked starving African children opting instead for these pictures of abundant life. The logic, however, remains the same: it’s precisely the NGO that can produce this life teeming with laughter, joy, and vitality. And a death-menaced Africa is the natural, historical state of the entire continent; so, the impending deaths are lamentable but expected. When confronted with the graphic pictures of “poverty porn,” one is simultaneously horrified and yet unconcerned (it is, after all, Africa–what else would you expect?).
Within this redemptive work, the “outside” (Africa, the Other) must be perpetually construed–constrained–to be in this state of liminal death. There is a certain antimony here that is, I think, connected to one found in earlier racial schemas of world redemption. For S.T. Coleridge, racial variation is the mark of human degeneration and sin. Through God’s providential grace, God elected the Anglicans (church, culture, race) to be the least degenerate race that has the mission to raise all other races up to the original, truly human form. Within this drama of racial salvation, Coleridge faces the dilemma: the British race is defined by this salvific agency, and thus the successful completion of its mission (whitening the world) threatens its very identity (no more “degenerate races” to save, and thus Britain’s distinctness, whiteness itself, is lost). [On a side note, one can find this same antimony within John Milbank’s theology of religion/culture…]
The point, I think, for Coleridge and also for our present situation with charity to Africa, is neither to resolve the antimony nor even to use it account for the perpetual salvific role of Britain/the West. The antimony is productive because it undergirds a specific intellectual function: the identity of the savior-nation/culture/race/church as well as the degenerate world must be explicated again and again. Intellectual and political energy are directed to producing this account, an account which presupposes and therefore can ignore a certain global arrangement of power and the violence which sustains it.
In Coleridge’s day, this assumption of imperial power made it possible to criticize the brutality of the slave ship without questioning the forced dislocation of African peoples. In our day, perhaps our charity to “dark Africa” is embedded within our own deeper, blind commitment to the U.S.’s position as neo-colonial power.