In Search of Brightest Africa: Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884-1936

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In the decades between the Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa and the opening of the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, Americans in several fields and from many backgrounds argued that Africa had something to teach them. Jeannette Eileen Jones traces the history of the idea of Africa with an eye to recovering the emergence of a belief in “Brightest Africa”—a tradition that runs through American cultural and intellectual history with equal force to its “Dark Continent” counterpart.

Jones skillfully weaves disparate strands of turn-of-the-century society and culture to expose a vivid trend of cultural engagement that involved both critique and activism. Filmmakers spoke out against the depiction of “savage” Africa in the mass media while also initiating a countertradition of ethnographic documentaries. Early environmentalists celebrated Africa as a pristine continent while lamenting that its unsullied landscape was “vanishing.” New Negro political thinkers also wanted to “save” Africa but saw its fragility in terms of imperiled human promise. Jones illuminates both the optimism about Africa underlying these concerns and the racist and colonial interests these agents often nevertheless served. The book contributes to a growing literature on the ongoing role of global exchange in shaping the African American experience as well as debates about the cultural place of Africa in American thought.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Written in a lively and convincing style, In Search of Brightest Africa offers significant new insights derived from a close reading of primary materials. It will unquestionably be a major contribution to the study of African identity in America.”—Graham Hodges, author of Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863

“With elegant prose, analytic precision, and archival depth, In Search of Brightest Africa forcefully pushes us beyond the enduring image of the Dark Continent. Jones persuasively demonstrates how little-known images and ideas about a ‘Brightest Africa’ were central to the American imagination as the country was making itself over as modern. The stories here of naturalists and environmentalists, Pan-Africanists and anti-imperialists, also tell us why Africa stays on our mind not just as a record of imperial pasts but also as a haunting yet hopeful recognition of possible global futures.”—Davarian L. Baldwin, author of Chicago’s New Negroes

"This study is a novel discussion of representations of Africa in the early twentieth century, and, if the thesis defended may seem surprising at first sight, the book convincingly makes its point and is a very good work of cultural history."--American Historical Review

“[T]here is much to commend in Jones’s book. . . .[She] has accomplished an important project for the intellectual history of African Americans.”—Lamin Sanneh, Journal of American History

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820333205
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 7/15/2010
  • Series: Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900
  • Pages: 260
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeannette Eileen Jones is an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

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Table of Contents

Preface: What Is Africa to Me?
Introduction: In Search of Brightest Africa
One. A Cry from Africa: Victorians, New Women, New Negroes, and Moderns Confront the Dark Continent
Two. To Bunco a Yankee: America and the Congo Question
Three. Written on the Wall: Pan-African Dreams of African Empires and Republics
Four. To Capture a Vanishing World: Naturalist-Environmentalist Discourses and Displays of Africa
Five. Reel Africa: American Filmmaking and Criticism in Defense of Africa
Conclusion: The Wonders of Africa Brought to America
Chronology of Events
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