A Critique of Local Media Coverage
by Christiana Kaiser
Vanessa Johnson, of Syracuse, and another US traveler, stand before the Door of No Return in the fort at Cape Coast, Ghana. The door was the last exit for hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to board ships for the Middle Passage to the Americas. Photo:Africa Bound
While many months have passed since the articles referenced below appeared in the Post-Standard, the misrepresentations that they perpetuated are still commonplace and go largely unchallenged in our media. Critical letters to the editor about this coverage went unpublished. At least five letters of praise were printed.
In October and November
of 2005 a series of special reports entitled "Bound to Ghana" appeared
in the Post-Standard (available in the archives at www.syracuse.com/specialreports).
This series represented a laudable effort by the paper to invest in direct reporting
from an African country. Unfortunately, the product of this investment was 14
full broadsheet pages of reportage that sunk into the usual narrative of African
poverty and disease coupled with American charity. Ostensibly the series was
intended to highlight the many connections between Syracuse and communities
in Ghana, but its view was one-sided, distorting needs in Ghana and overemphasizing
aid from CNY.
Not Charity Cases
Addressing the "Bound to Ghana" series and other articles is necessary, even now, not only because it misrepresented Ghanaians, but because it also misrepresented us as Central New Yorkers and damaged the reputation of our community. Across Ghana there are people who graciously welcomed this reporter, a de facto representative of Syracuse, into their homes and communities and entrusted her with their stories, only to be described by their "twisted front tooth" or characterized as shoddy craftspeople, parents who must be paid to send their daughters to school or helpless charity recipients with no life beyond their highlighted miseries. When these offences are remembered they will be forever associated with our community. Perhaps it was never intended that the people described in these stories would read what was written about them. That is an even deeper offence. Their openness and generosity were exploited so the reporter could tell her story rather than theirs. The compassion, sincere interest, and ignorance of local readers of the series were also exploited as half-truths and distortions were passed off as fact.
Families, Not Chattel
On March 12, 2006 the Post-Standard published another story by the same reporter, "Remember the Slave Coast," about the forts and "castles" that she visited in Elmina and Cape Coast, Ghana. This article too was disturbing. The sites she wrote about are sacred ground. They contain the underground prisons where many thousands of people were killed and many more were terrorized and held for months in unforgivable conditions before enduring the Middle Passage to the Americas. They stand as reminders of a painful chapter in the lives of our other founding fathers and mothers - those whose blood, sweat, knowledge and labor built the foundation of the United States.
A sensitive and well-conceived story about these monuments and the history they embody could have contributed in some small way to the healing of deep historical wounds. However, just as the "Bound to Ghana" series squandered a valuable opportunity to highlight the fellowship and reciprocity of connections between Central New Yorkers and Ghanaians, this article too wasted an opportunity to illuminate the painful history of enslavement in favor of reinforcing a narrow, selective view of African people complete with rehashed myths and dehumanizing language.
The story that was told was one of faceless, nameless "slaves" held in jungle "castles" by unseen, unaccountable traders. Like the series, it failed to do the essential work of journalism - to ask and to find out, "Why?" Why were many millions of people kidnapped, ripped from their homes and families, terrorized, raped, murdered, tortured and enslaved, and later Jim Crowed, lynched, discriminated against and racially profiled? Who benefited and who profited from their suffering? Why has the United States government never apologized for its role in these crimes against humanity? Why, today, are there such gross economic disparities between Ghana and the United States when Ghana is a country rich in natural, intellectual and cultural resources? None of these essential questions were asked.
The story was presented from a perspective that accepts economic challenges in African countries as somehow inherent and inescapable rather than wholly created by our shared international economic system. This perspective relies heavily on colonial, paternalistic ideology that relegates African people to the backdrop of their own history and contributions.
The reporter wrote, of the history of Ghana's forts and of life in Ghana today, "I did not look away. I recorded what I saw." It is, indeed, important to bear witness to history and injustice, but what she reported of what she saw is troubling and begs that we question not only her vision, but our collective American image of Africa and of African people.
Between Accra and Cape Coast the reporter saw "jungle." I have traveled that route many times. There is no jungle there. There are rainforest reserves nearby the town of Cape Coast. Jungles though, are things of racist, Tarzan-type mythology. She saw children, some selling biscuits, and presumed they were "probably starving," offering no basis for her assertion apart from the one implied: they are African children and so must be starving.
In the dungeons of Elmina she saw where "slave women" were violently and systematically raped, but she did not seem to see that each of these women could have been your, or my, mother, sister, wife or daughter. She was unable to see that the "unruly slaves" who were locked in a small cell and deliberately starved to death were freedom fighters who were murdered because they refused to be enslaved, because they rebelled and fought for their lives, for their homes and for their families. She could not see that these people, who were the backdrop of her story, were not "slaves" at all despite being called such every time she mentioned them.
"Slave" - chattel, property - is the enslavers' definition of the human beings upon whom they visited countless atrocities. We must reject it in favor of accurate definitions. Chinua Achebe once said, "Africa is the home of people." This simple truth we, as a society, are yet to fully recognize. The people who were imprisoned in the dungeons of the forts at Cape Coast and Elmina may have been held captive there and later enslaved, but they were not "slaves." They were people. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and grandparents. They were artists, teachers, engineers, doctors, fishermen, farmers, goldsmiths, scientists, spiritual leaders and peacekeepers. Slavery was no more natural for them then, than it is for you or me today.
The real story here is why this reporter and so many other people, particularly European Americans, go to these dungeons or read about them and fail to see the roots of American history and European and American responsibility for what happened there.
The atrocities at Cape Coast and Elmina and enslavement in the Americas were committed, in part, so that my ancestors in the United Kingdom, France, Hungary and the United States could have cheap sugar, rum, cotton and tobacco, and so that the business interests that provided them could become rich.
Today little has changed. Many people in Ghana and around the world, including the US, struggle resourcefully and with great dignity under unjust economic hardship, in part, so that you and I can have cheap chocolate bars and hot cocoa, tropical timbers, aluminum, gold and other resources, and so that the corporations that provide these for us can become even richer.
Slavery, colonialism, racism and globalization are excruciating things to face, but many people in our community and around the world have been facing them for centuries and continue to. It is not enough that we do not look away. We must look inward - and look well beyond the "jungles," "probably starving" children and "slaves" of our collective imagination to see the painful, ultimately healing truth that involves each and every one of us.