image of america, the blinding lights

In many of the Africa-related courses that I have taken, the very first assignment is very often called ‘Image of Africa.’ This is a way for students to explore what they know or don’t know about Africa and what preconceived ideas they have about Africa. This is a great assignment that helps many students to change their ideas to a more clear and accurate image of the continent. However, what this assignment does not take into account is the ‘image of America.’ The assignment does not address the potential vice versa of the issue of an ‘image of Africa.’ What I have experienced in Ghana so far leads me to believe that perceptions and false images is a two lane highway.

So far I have met some great people in Ghana. They are very interested in talking about issues, watching soccer, and making sure that we are taken care of in Ghana. However, I have also met a great number of people who are not as concerned and are more interested in getting our American dollars. There is an interesting perception that if you are American then you must have a lot of money. Sure, yes we do as compared to the common Ghanaian, but we do not have money on trees at home. This false perception is evidenced through the numerous interactions that I have had with Ghanaians in my three weeks here.

There was the conversation with Richard and Joseph, who work at the hostel, about America. Richard could not believe that there is poverty in America and that certain stories he had been told, by a man who visited America, were extremely false (you are not shoot for turning the wrong way). There was a love of President Bush. He is a man for his actions in Iraq and they love him as a brother, even though the US government has nothing to do with Ghana. Later while playing soccer I met a coach who was very nice. The conversation turned to where I was from. As soon as he found out that I was from America he mentioned that maybe I would be interested in supporting his soccer program. The false perception of America was even more strongly enforced when I met a man, getting ready to bathe, on the streets of Osu as we searched for a jazz club. He was very nice and helpful, asked where I was from, and asked since I was American – if I was rich. I said that I am far from rich, I am a student. He replied with, “Yes, but you are American.”

All these experiences remind me of reading one of our course books, Our Sister Killjoy. The story is of a Ghanaian student who has to opportunity to travel to Europe. She had all these preconceived notions of Europe and ‘white’ people. They are slowly broken down over her stay in Germany and she comes to realize that many people have no knowledge of Africa. In the world perceptions can be very dangerous, as she learns, and these false perceptions can be created by anyone.

This false ‘image of America’ is a very interesting issue for me being here in Ghana. The greater question that comes to my mind is, ‘Where did this perception come from?’ Where does this blinding light of America come from. I think I have discovered the answer and it all comes from the media. The media is life. Here in Ghana, American pop culture has penetrated, as in most corners of the globe, the major media scene. American music is played everywhere and spin-offs of American TV shows dominate the airwaves. In the TV shows and the music videos the wealth and opulence of America is expounded. How is anyone to gain a different image of America if all that is shown is wealth and commercialism? The VOA radio show is advertised heavily and VOA runs the TV Africa channel. Foreign films are often shown and American talkshows are aired everyday.

The media rules all, here they have helped to create a false image of America. We encounter this image daily. Sadly the results of this false image can lead many people into cynicism and a jaded view can be developed. That is where I will cry foul because it is of no fault to the people who has been enamored with the ‘Image of America.’ Blame the media, blame your media, and blame yourself. We all create perceptions, many times false. No one is beyond making a false judgement on anything that they do not know much about. So many Americans make terribly false judgements about Africa. As I noted before these perceptions can go both ways and today making a world of perceptions can be very dangerous. I like to think that I do not create perceptions and I do not have expectations about places, but there is no way that I did not create some idea in my head about where I was going. Keeping an open mind and watching with open eyes is the only way that we can defeat perception and learn of reality.

Index of blog post series on Ghana.

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4 Comments

  1. Your insight (and timing of the blog) is very interesting and relevant. Just recently I have started talking more and more to the international students that have stayed on campus over the summer (many from Saudi Arabia) and they too have many perceptions of America and the people. Most of their misconceptions are about females and are also based on the media that they have access to back home. It has been an interesting challenge to teach them about the true “American woman” and not the Playmate or the Baywatch lifeguard that they were so used to seeing. Once again, great blog and I look forward to future insights from your travels.

  2. Hi, I like your blog, Adam. Saw it by way of leanneinghana.In any event, I think that as much as what you write holds resonance with the truth, I think you unwittingly create the perception that ALL Ghanaians–or at least those you have met–can be tarred with the same brush as far as perceptions about Americans are concerned.IN my view, the only reason why this is problematic is because it is an impression being created without taking into account the reality that not ALL Ghanaians are of a particular class. The middle class might be hard to find in this country, but there is a perception of its increasing growth, and you’ll be hard-pressed finding a middle class Ghanaian espousing that view that America is the land of plenty, when most likely, that middle class Ghanaian would have had an opportunity to either see the truth for himself, or been sufficiently educated to throw that theory away.So, in short, it’s about the class. It’s a very subtle and discerning point I find most xpats writing about Ghana fail to observe. Cheers!

  3. Your points are interesting, but the effects of misperceptions of Africans v. Americans are not equal. I know you aren’t suggesting this–you’re simply pointing out it goes both ways. While the media is a good place to start, don’t forget to delve deeper into: after all, misperceptions can emerge from power relationships.Since the African continent is frequently misrepresented as powerless/poor/hopeless/insert-your-negative-misperception-here, it’s possible that on the other side, the U.S. is understood as powerful and none of those negative qualities. Americans are considered and represented as universally wealthy to justify and explain U.S. power.I don’t know if that makes sense, but it’s just a thought.

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone. Emmanuel, I am not at all trying to make any generalizations about Ghanaian people. I specifically did not write about ALL Ghanaians, and chose to write about Ghanaians that I have met thus far. I am not sure what you define as middle class, but I have met some Ghanaians of different class standing and the view is largely the same.Monica, thanks for the insights and thought provocations.

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