The recent racist western media coverage of the monkeypox virus outbreak has tragically taken us centuries back in history, as we are painfully reminded of the times when black people have derogatively been compared to apes.
The biased way the monkeypox virus has been constructed in the Western media, evokes distressing memories dating back to the days of slavery and colonialism, when Africa was described as a ‘dark continent’, trauma relived of the cruel, horrible history of simianisation – when black people have been compared as being equals to apes.
We realise that in the brutal history of slavery and colonialism, the ape stereotype evolved into a ‘persistent marker of otherness’ (Silvia Sebastiani, 2016), in the racially fraught era, which has transcended generations.
We witness in present-day media reporting how animalisation and bacterialisation remain widespread elements of racist dehumanisation.
We remember, Cameroonian woman X in 2004, in France, who was subjected to offensive media publicity after scientists there ‘found’ that the new strain of HIV she was showing was a result of gorilla-to-human transmission. Woman X had never been in touch with any gorilla or monkey species, or anyone who had.
Consequently, as leading academics argue the way the media portrays global health issues reflects the power structures shaping public health thinking in the international community.
Lending credence to prevailing views on how the western media influences and aides systematic racism by dehumanising black people, the manifestations of which we are daily resisting through campaigns such as the #BlackLivesMatter.
Disturbing outdated images are circulating, to tell a story, that has nothing to do with people portrayed or the African continent, but mere conjecture – only useful in serving a selffulling prophecy about Africa or its people.
The intention of this article is not so much about scientific issues as they relate to the monkeypox, but rather, a concern about, the historically demeaning, unscrupulous journalism which reinforces racism and homophobia – lacking any modicum of professionalism and respectability.
Accordingly, raising important questions on the role of the media in prompting racism, how information disseminated impacts belief and value systems vis-à-vis as it relates to racial differences, stereotypes and racial micro-aggressions, (Kassia E. Kulaszewicz, 2015).
The way the monkeypox news has been framed, immediately makes one believe for a little while, that the affected have either been to Africa and got infected there or have been in contact with someone who has. Turns out not.
Further reading and research suggests otherwise, the current monkeypox virus, over a 100 confirmed cases in 20 countries, originated in communities of these countries with no links to a black person or the African continent.
Consequently, I argue here that there is a history to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes, ‘that assigns calamity to the African race and privilege or immunity to other races,’ as the outraged Foreign Press Association Africa (FPAA), rightly voices out.
Award winning author Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, ‘The danger of a single story’, takes centre stage, how the Western media has risked credibility, blinkered by negative stereotypes about ‘other’ people or places – Africa being a place of disease and catastrophe. Meaning that the reporting by racist western media on the monkeypox is a ‘dangerous single story’ caught in action.
There is a history and context to this dichotomy of ‘white purity’ and ‘black calamity’, or the deliberate distinction between barbarism and civilisation.
As we assess and dig deeper, we recover important knowledge about our past, at the same time dismantling negative biases and stereotypes as fronted by early European historians, which were based on racism and ethnic superiority.
Leading us to identify the problem here being in the logic of the ‘Master narrative’ which is rooted in historical ethnocentrism as told through Eurocentric views about Africa by colonists. A place devoid of ‘light’ the ‘dark continent’ (Henry Morton Stanley), a place of conquest and a people easily subdued, Christopher Columbus, “ these natives are so nice, we’d be crazy not to enslave them!”
That rediscovery tragically, takes us back to Enlightenment science, where the humanisation of the orangutan (ape) went hand in hand with the animalisation of Africans and Ameri Indians.
In the journal article ‘Challenging Boundaries Apes and Savages in Enlightenment’, Silvia Sebastiani,(2016), interrogates two cases that emphasize the historical and epistemological relationship between apes and slaves: the Scot-tish judge James Burnet, Lord Monboddo (1714-99), who saw the orang-utan as exemplifying primordial man, and the English planter Edward Long, who stressed the resemblance between the orang-utan and the African.
More distressing history – Louis Agassiz a Harvard Professor of geology and zoology, ‘a venerated’ scientist of his time, 1873, would argue that that blacks were a separate species, a “degraded and degenerate race”.
Patrice Lumumba during his inauguration speech in 1960, would boldly remind Belgian colonisers, “Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques!” (We are no longer your monkeys). A statement made in context.
We read journalist Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle, here she narrates Ota Benga’s appalling ordeal in the hands of vile racists, when he is brought in from Africa to the United States, as a human zoo exhibit.
Benga is exhibited as part of an anthropology exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair, after which two years later, he is caged together with an orangutan in the the New York Zoological Gardens in the ‘Monkey House’. An attraction that is described as an ‘international sensation’, making global headlines.
The reporting on the monkeypox, has reminded us of our struggle against racism, triggered emotions of a centuries long history, that we have been treated as sub-human.
A history that still haunts us as we struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic we realise how black and brown bodies are disproportionately impacted to white ones – a medical apartheid.
In her commentary, ‘A Pandemic on a Pandemic: Racism and COVID-19 in Blacks’ Cato Laurencin, interrogates COVID-19 cases and deaths that are on the rise among black people, arguing that this has to be partly associated with medical effects of policing, medical mistrust associated with negative police interactions, and medical bias in our health care institutions.
In conclusion, I say that we can only overcome the ‘Master Narrative’ by telling our own stories, funding our own media institutions and continuing to re-write our history, through our lenses and experiences.