Mistaking Africa

Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind

Curtis Keim and Carolyn Somerville

Fourth Edition • July 25, 2017 • 256 pages

Print ISBN: 9780813349831 • $38.00 USD$49.50 CAN

Ebook ISBN: 9780813350769 • $22.99 USD$28.99 CAN

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For many Americans the mention of Africa immediately conjures up images of safaris, ferocious animals, strangely dressed “tribesmen,” and impenetrable jungles. Although the occasional newspaper headline mentions authoritarian rule, corruption, genocide, devastating illnesses, or civil war in Africa, the collective American consciousness still carries strong mental images of Africa that are reflected in advertising, movies, amusement parks, cartoons, and many other corners of society. Few think to question these perceptions or how they came to be so deeply lodged in American minds. Mistaking Africa looks at the historical evolution of this mind-set and examines the role that popular media plays in its creation. The authors address the most prevalent myths and preconceptions and demonstrate how these prevent a true understanding of the enormously diverse peoples and cultures of Africa.

Updated throughout, the fourth edition covers the entire continent (North and sub-Saharan Africa) and provides new analysis of topics such as social media and the Internet, the Ebola crisis, celebrity aid, and the Arab Spring. Mistaking Africa is an important book for African studies courses and for anyone interested in unraveling American misperceptions about the continent.

Instructor Resources

A Transition Guide is available for professors who are considering Mistaking Africa, 4th Edition for their courses. A PowerPoint Deck for Chapter Ten is also available. Please fill out the online form, and a press representative will be in touch shortly to grant access.

Download the Appendix: Learning More to supplement Mistaking Africa, 4th Edition. (PDF, 79 KB)

Curtis Keim is professor emeritus of history at Moravian College. He is a recipient of the College’s Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and he is coauthor of African Reflections: Art from Northeastern Zaire and coeditor of The Scramble for Art in Central Africa.

Carolyn Somerville is associate professor of political science at Hunter College, CUNY. She is the author of Drought and Aid in the Sahel and co-author of Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices.


Part One: Introduction
1. Changing Our Mind About Africa
Speaking “African”
The Use and Misuse of Stereotypes
Stereotypes over Time
A Word About Words

2. How We Learn
Television Culture
The Internet
Amusement Parks
Other Sources

Part Two: Evolutionism
3. The Origins of “Darkest Africa”
Africans in Antiquity
Western Views of Africans, ca. 1400–1830
Western Views of North Africans, ca. 700–1830
Birth of the Dark Continent
A Myth for Conquest

4. “Our Living Ancestors”: Evolutionism and Race Across the Centuries
The Primitive African
Lingering Evolutionism

5. Where Is the Real Africa?
Troubled Africa
Disease-Ridden Africa
Helpless Africa
Unchanging Africa
Exotic Africa
Sexualized Africa
Wise Africa
Superior Africa
Where Is the Real Africa?

6. We Should Help Them
Authoritarian Help
Market Help
Conversion Help
Celebrity Aid and Raising Awareness
Gift-Giving Help
Participatory Help
Military Help
The Failure of Help
Beyond Aid
Rethinking Development
Helping Out

Part Three: Further Misperceptions
7. Cannibalism: No Accounting for Taste
8. Africans Live in Tribes, Don’t They?
A Textbook Definition
A Word with a History
The End of the Tribe
Contemporary African Uses of Tribe
Other Tribes
African Tribes in America
Alternatives to Tribe

9. Safari: Beyond Our Wildest Dreams
Where the Wild Things Aren’t
The Good Old Days
The Decline of the Great White Hunting Safari
The Tourist Safari: Animals in Pictures
The Safari from a Distance
Hunting Africa

10 Africa in Images
Photo 1: Indigenous races of the earth
Photo 2: Human zoos: Ota Benga at the New York Bronx Zoo
Photo 3: Picture postcard of an Algerian woman
Photo 4: Tintin in the Congo
Photo 5: Tarzan, “Moon Beast”
Photo 6: “Lose Citicorp travelers checks in Maputo . . . ”
Photo 7: “Ankle-biting Pygmies”
Photo 8: CNN misidentifies Nigeria
Photo 9: Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” dreams of an all-white Africa
Photo 10: “I am African”
Photo 11: And the winner is . . .
Photo 12: “We face challenges all over the world”
Photo 13: “Jewelry with a global flair”
Photo 14: “Elegant”

Part Four : New Directions: From Race to Culture
11. Changing Views
Changing Paradigms
The Same and the Other
From Race to Culture
The Dangers of Cultural Evolutionism

12. From Imagination to Dialogue
On Being Human
A Kind of Equality
An African Dialogue

Appendix: Learning More
Works Cited

Praise for Prior Editions
Mistaking Africa is a must-read for American students. . . Indeed, it is a useful book for anyone interested in receiving balanced knowledge about the African continent. The book addresses headlong the exaggerations and stereotypes generated in the West about the reality of the African continent and it does an excellent job in setting apart fact from fiction.”
—Komla Aggor, Texas Christian University

“With this new edition, Professor Keim has updated and expanded an important book for the teaching of Africa in the West. This book does the intellectual heavy-lifting of deconstructing our notions of Africa, but does it in a way accessible and meaningful to students and non-students alike.”
—Jeffrey Fleisher, Department of Anthropology, Rice University

“This book strikes a perfect pitch. Keim takes a serious subject and presents it in a thoughtful, concise, and highly engaging manner. He mixes humorous observations with sophisticated anthropological and historical concepts to make them easily accessible to generalist audiences. As a result, Mistaking Africa contains valuable insights for the novice and experienced Africanist alike. It is a great book for introductory courses on Africa, across a range of disciplines, as well as more specialized courses such as US foreign policy toward Africa.”
—Scott D. Taylor, Associate Professor and Director, African Studies Program, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

“This is essential reading for the current generation of otherwise sophisticated young social entrepreneurs who little realize how their ideas about Africa have been shaped. This welcome update includes expansions of the discussion on development, information on US military interests in the continent, an assessment of celebrity activities and recent representations of Africa in feature films, a chapter on the enduring western fascination with African animals, help for finding African materials on the Internet, and analysis of new images drawn from recent ad campaigns.”
—Edna Bay, Emory University

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