Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Play Ball! (And Other Cliches)

This week's Sports Illustrated magazine has an article on a South African who hopes to become the first African player in Major League Baseball. Mpho Ngoepe's story is a compelling one and SI vet Gary Smith tells it well. And I do not expect American sportswriters to be either specialists on Africa or even to be particularly attuned to African issues. But there is something truly vexing about Smith's insistence on using "Tribesman" to describe Ngoepe. Now there is the chance that Ngoepe used the term himself in the way that Africans sometimes do, which is as shorthand for something more complex. But Ngoepe is not from the bush. He comes from Johannesburg, one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world and one fairly tied in to a larger universe. The repeated invocation of "tribesman" to describe Ngoepe (indeed on more than one occasion Smith simply refers to him as "the Tribesman") serves merely to perpetuate and fetishize images of Africans as primitive others. Ngoepe's story is quite remarkable enough without adding to it these misconceptions and stereotypes.

[Crossposted at the FPA Africa Blog, where I have also been writing about, among other things, Hillary Clinton's trip to Africa, the responsibility of journalists to Africa, what I call the "boosters vs. bashers" debate, rugby, and much more.]


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