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The Islamic Simulacrum in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Into Africa

Thomas E.R. Maguire


Into Africa, the BBC/PBS six-part series hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., displays the rich heritage of African society at every corner of the continent. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, Gates failed to enhance popular culture with a revised and radical view of Africa. Instead, he reinforced many of the negative stereotypes of Africa and its diverse culture. This paper deals with the way that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. portrays Islam negatively in a manner similar to the traditional and modern manifestations of Orientalism. Using the concept of simulacrum, as introduced by Jean Baudrillard, I will identify the existence of an “Islamic simulacrum” that functions to vilify the Islamic world through Western media. By “Western media” I refer to the English language media in the United States and the United Kingdom where Into Africa was broadcast. In addition, I will examine the deeply intertwined “postmodern simulacrum” that maintains Orientalism and Western domination through rhetoric of pluralism and tolerance. Due to the obscure and endlessly shifting meaning of “postmodern,” it is necessary to specify that I use the concept as Ahmed S. Akbar defined it in Postmodernism and Islam. I will show the ways that the postmodern simulacrum appropriates marginal discourses within Western society to replace traditional figures of domination in the ongoing process of Orientalism. The body of the paper will systematically identify the ways in which Into Africa functions in the postmodern simulacrum as Afrocentric Orientalism. In a separate critique of Into Africa, Ali Mazrui accused Gates of “Black Orientalism”. I prefer the paradoxical term, “Afrocentric Orientalism”, because it specifically refers to the appropriation of Afrocentricism as a marginal discourse. On that note, the use of this term should not be mistaken as an indictment of that discourse, or viewed as a suggestion that Into Africa is an Afrocentric text. Molefi Kete Asante, a pioneer of Afrocentrism, actually referred to the film series as “a Eurocentric enterprise”. In conclusion, I will briefly address the broader issues regarding the relationship between Islamic and African civilisations that Henry Louis Gates avoids through his negative portrayals of Islam. However, this paper is primarily about Into Africa’s complicity with the representation of Islam in Western media, and not the diverse history of Islamic expansion into Africa.

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West Africa Review. ISSN: 1525-4488 (online).
Editors: Adeleke Adeeko, Nkiru Nzegwu, and Olufemi Taiwo.

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