If you thought that a recent cover of Vogue magazine had a whiff of King Kong about it, consider the possibility that this month, Vanity Fair may have given Vogue a run for its money. Just remember that while words are subtler than pictures, they are no less suggestive.
I am a fan of Vanity Fair, and this column is therefore more difficult to write than usual. My column does not usually feature the issues I am about to discuss, but I felt that a digression, at present, was necessary.
Now, I didn’t get a hold of their April issue until recently, but once I did, I noticed that it features a story entitled “Prisoner of Kenya,” by veteran journalist Mark Seal. A potentially intriguing piece, correct?
It is intriguing indeed, but mostly for the wrong reasons.
The story centers on a wealthy white grand-grandson of “Kenya’s most prominent colonizer,” the third Baron Delamere who, the article says:
“virtually established Kenya for white settlement… After…the British government built railways, erected Nairobi, and forced the Masai tribesmen from their ancestral grazing lands to make way for white colonists, foremost of whom was Delamere.”
Meanwhile, the great-grandson in question, Thomas Patrick Gilbert Cholmondeley, was cleared after being accused the killing of one person before landing in jail again for the killing of another. Both victims were black Kenyans, from different tribes. From behind bars, Cholmondeley protests his innocence and insists both killings were accidental.
The prisoner is a polarizing figure in Kenya, and the fact that he walked free the first time around sparked outrage and protest. Now there is pressure on the Kenyan government to make sure Cholmondeley does not get away so easily.
Here’s a quote, taken from the body of the piece and splashed across a solemn picture of Cholmondeley to draw the reader in:
“If found guilty by the black judge who will decide his fate, Cholmondeley could face execution by handing.”
This immediately struck me as interesting. Why stress the point that the judge is black if not to freak out white people?
You know how it goes: Good heavens! A white man will get his fate decided by a BLACK MAN! Oh dear, oh dear!
However, I decided that Mr. Seal was probably highlighting the role reversal that has taken place. Historically, a white man decided the fate of a black man, and there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that times have changed.
Anticipating a fascinating tale, I kept reading.
Then I was greeted by the following quote:
“… in April 2005, [Cholmondeley] became ensnared in a scenario as bizarre as anything his grand-grandfather had encountered while taming the wild country.”
TAMING THE WILD COUNTRY???
Perhaps, considering the way the piece was progressing, I should not have been surprised. I am sorry to report that its tone does not improve from there.
This article positions itself as an exploration of how general turbulence in Kenya may have contributed to a possible scapegoating of Cholmondeley, but it falters badly by trading on the racist sentiments of white people horrified by the wild, scary, dangerous blacks. Those crazy black peoples! They sure needed a little taming! And now that the British Empire is gone, just look at what they’ve been up to! Fighting tribal wars and locking up white aristocrats, that’s what!
Of course, it was published around the same time as the Vogue cover was being debated, and as problems of racism famously reared their head in the feminist blogosphere. In the same month that New York police officers escaped punishment after riddling an unarmed black man, Sean Bell, with bullets. I am not comparing tragedy to ill-chosen words and pictures, but these issues are, in fact, related.
Do decent people get caught up in bad situations? Of course they do. Is Kenya going through serious problems right now? Yes it is (and we have a legacy of colonialism playing a role in this, of course). It is very well possible that Cholmondeley is indeed a scapegoat, though I have to say that Mark Seal’s piece, with its constant emphasis on scary, dangerous black Kenyans and the civilized, genteel Cholmondeley is not doing the latter any favours.
Even the title of the piece is, when examined along its contents, problematic. I understand that sensationalized headlines sell magazines, but I can think of a number of better titles off the top of my head – titles that do not reinforce the barbarian dark person/white victim narrative.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never used problematic language myself. Most people have, at one point or another. I don’t believe we will ever reach that utopia of all-encompassing enlightenment either. Most of the time, I’d much rather watch “SouthPark” than strive for a utopia, to be perfectly honest.
However, a college freshman could have proofread Mark Seal’s piece and found it jarring. Mark Seal is a professional with decades of invaluable experience, a successful career that any writer should strive for. I can’t help but wonder how much of the blame for the tone of this piece lies with his editors.
Like millions of people, I enjoy Vanity Fair. Unlike most mainstream publications, VF inevitably has something new to say, a new angle to explore. Some old stories, however, have a way of reviving themselves despite our best intentions.
So what’s the solution? Is it useful to point out that a phrase “taming the wild country” is a slap in the face for those who were “tamed”? Some people would argue that no, it is not. Some people would say that this is nitpicking, or character assassination, or jealousy on part of a small-time writer trying to take a giant down, or an attempt by a white person to boost her own reputation, or that this simply poisons and complicates race relations even further.
Out of all such possibilities, it is the last one that concerns me the most. Criticism should serve a purpose. Simply picking apart a work might get one a pat on the back from academia, but what’s the point then?
I am asking this question because, at this point in my life, I honestly don’t know. I know that as someone trained to read between the lines, it is my responsibility to burrow into texts for their meaning; as someone who thinks that prejudice has ugly and terrifying consequences, it is my responsibility to make sure I don’t merely ignore it.
But how do we turn criticism into a catalyst for something that’s actually positive? I’d like to ask Mark Seal this very question. Most importantly, I’d like to ask you.