In Search of Brightest Africa
Reimagining the Dark Continent in American Culture, 1884–1936

Jeannette Eileen Jones

A critical look at the American intellectual tradition of enthusiasm for Africa


“Written in a lively and convincing style, In Search of Brightest Africa offers significant new insights derived from a close reading of primary materials. It will unquestionably be a major contribution to the study of African identity in America.”
—Graham Hodges, author of Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863

“With elegant prose, analytic precision, and archival depth, In Search of Brightest Africa forcefully pushes us beyond the enduring image of the Dark Continent. Jones persuasively demonstrates how little-known images and ideas about a ‘Brightest Africa’ were central to the American imagination as the country was making itself over as modern. The stories here of naturalists and environmentalists, Pan-Africanists and anti-imperialists, also tell us why Africa stays on our mind not just as a record of imperial pasts but also as a haunting yet hopeful recognition of possible global futures.”
—Davarian L. Baldwin, author of Chicago’s New Negroes

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In the decades between the Berlin Conference that partitioned Africa and the opening of the African Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, Americans in several fields and from many backgrounds argued that Africa had something to teach them. Jeannette Eileen Jones traces the history of the idea of Africa with an eye to recovering the emergence of a belief in “Brightest Africa”—a tradition that runs through American cultural and intellectual history with equal force to its “Dark Continent” counterpart.

Jones skillfully weaves disparate strands of turn-of-the-century society and culture to expose a vivid trend of cultural engagement that involved both critique and activism. Filmmakers spoke out against the depiction of “savage” Africa in the mass media while also initiating a countertradition of ethnographic documentaries. Early environmentalists celebrated Africa as a pristine continent while lamenting that its unsullied landscape was “vanishing.” New Negro political thinkers also wanted to “save” Africa but saw its fragility in terms of imperiled human promise. Jones illuminates both the optimism about Africa underlying these concerns and the racist and colonial interests these agents often nevertheless served. The book contributes to a growing literature on the ongoing role of global exchange in shaping the African American experience as well as debates about the cultural place of Africa in American thought.

Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900

Page count: 260 pp.
9 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Jeannette Eileen Jones is an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.