Intellectually Irresponsible

I was going through some old photos of mine from Pittsburgh, when I came across this one. I didn’t take it because I found the drummers amusing. Instead, I took this photo because I was so furious.

It was a relaxed Sunday afternoon when an older American friend and I decided to go to a cultural festival in downtown Pittsburgh. I imagined that I would taste Ethiopian Cuisine, dance to Rhumba and have a French dessert. I was generally disappointed when I found a handful of stands squeezed together under one roof with people selling ordinary knick knacks. These were the type of things one could find in any other part of town during any other weekend. However, what upset me the most was the only performance of the day, which happened to be the ‘African Performance’.

We sat eagerly as two barefoot men came in making heads turn as they sang in a West African language. It could have been Igbo, Yoruba, Temne or Wolof, I had no idea, and so I smiled when my friend asked me if I understood what was being sung. The men were dressed in spotted animal strips that lay over thick skirts of plant fibers. With each step the skirts moved dramatically. On their faces, the men bore random white paint splurges, above which sat a pitiful crown of small feathers.

“I’m so glad we decided to come!” My friend said to me, “now I can get to understand more of your culture.” She assumed that by watching this ‘African’ performance she would learn more of my general heritage. It was not her fault that she was once again lumping 54 diverse African countries into one homogenous heap, she really had tried to learn about Zimbabwe in the couple of months that I lived with her. Hence, I brushed it off, and prayed that the two men we were now watching would somehow make the continent proud.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” He caught our attention, “You are no longer in Pittsburgh! You are now in Africa which is where we are from. Pretend you can hear the sound of the animals and the people on the street…and clap with me…you gotta dance and forget yourself,” said one of the drummers. The small crowd curiously watched the African pair. Awkwardly toes began to tap and heads nodded to the foreign beat. They were Americans watching a typical ‘third world’ show. I refused to move. I sat still and stared the drummers down. Here they were, two Ivoirians with an opportunity to educate Pittsburghers about the rich culturally diverse heritage of the continent. But instead they had decided to foster the incorrect Lion-King mentality that much of the Western World suffers from.

What they were telling the audience was that image of the half naked man with ‘tribal’ face markings was indeed correct. All Africans whore animal skin, all Africans drummed for fun, all Africans danced barefoot and were one with nature. If it had been up to me, the two men would have dressed in colorful Ivorian cloth and shared a little bit about their specific country. They wouldn’t have made Africa seem so barbaric and homogenous. They would have translated a local praise poem demonstrating the complex traditional stanzas. But it wasn’t up to me, and so I left before performance- a mockery of Africa was over.


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