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Mark Seal on Kenya in Vanity Fair: bad implications and dead ends

Posted on Monday, April 28th, 2008 at 5:23 am

Author: Natalia Antonova

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.

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  1. This is a very quick response to your criticism of what sounds like a cheaply sensationalistic, racist slant by Mark Seal. I haven’t read Mark Seal’s article nor have I googled Cholmondeley’s homicide charges in Kenya. I just want to describe from memory a write-up in The Economist magazine about five or so years ago about the first murder charges against Cholmondeley which were dismissed (I think).

    According to that earlier report in The Economist, Cholmondeley (which The Economist said is pronounced “Chumley”) was already a controversial figure in Kenya at the time of the first murder accusation. I think The Economist at that time said he was something of a rural benefactor in his part of rural Kenya, but that he was currently (at that time) making his money by using his Kenyan estate as a high-end hunting resort for foreign big-game hunters (or something like that) and that was somehow leading to conflicts with his ethnic-African Kenyan neighbors. Cholmondeley had apparently developed the practice of personally enforcing, with his own firearms, his property rights to the very letter against squatters and potential poachers (I think). I think the point of the earlier Economist article was that Cholmondeley, in the face of the grinding rural poverty of his Kenyan neighbors, chose to enforce his property rights with extreme strictness and sometimes with violence, whereas a more tactful course might have been to work with Kenyan authorities to find a less provocative solution to the conflicts been Cholmondeley and his wretchedly poor neighbors. In other words, Cholmondeley was oblivious to his own increasing unpopularity in Kenya, and apparently had a personal arrogance that aggravated Kenyans’ hostility toward him. At the time of Cholmondeley’s first murder charges, the Kenyan government itself was not very popular with ethnic-African Kenyans, either, and I think the point of the Economist article was that Kenyan authorities at that time found it convenient to use Cholmondeley as a scapegoat for whatever was ailing Kenyan society at that time in order to distract Kenyans from their dislike of their own government. The Economist article was not supportive of Cholmondeley personally, but it did place Cholmondeley’s first murder charges in the context of the then-ongoing social and political turmoil in Kenya.

    I mention this earlier Economist article so that your readers will be able to understand Cholmondeley’s case both in the context of Kenyan politics, especially now during the tribal and political conflict in Kenya, but also in light of his own personal notoriety in Kenyan society.

    I don’t know whether Mark Seal’s article does the work of portraying Cholmondeley’s murder charges in the context of ongoing Kenyan political turmoil as well as Cholmondeley’s own unpopularity. If Mark Seal doesn’t provide such context, Seal might be counting on his American readers’ likely ignorance of a foreign case in order to “sell” his article by playing on his readers’ latent racism.

    I added these facts from memory just to clarify the context of Cholmondeley’s case. I hope this has been useful.

  2. Seal definitely talks about Kenya’s ongoing problems at great length and how they are influencing the case. The problem with the piece is that it continuously draws up a dichotomy: the civilized, genteel white man, and the scary, unwashed black people.

  3. WHOA.

    I just woke up and I’m sorry that this is the first thing I’m reading with my coffee.

    I think you are reading way too much into the situation with Mark Seal, just as you did with Amanda Marcotte. I’m sorry to have to say it, but I’m positive I’m not the only one thinking that you really are jealous of other people’s careers/

  4. Maybe you should read the article, Sandi.

    Also, what’s with bringing Amanda into these discussions? Wild swings into off topic much?

  5. Gawd. Look, the reason Amanda is relevant here is because Natalia obviously has a history of going after writers alleging racism. I’m not saying she’s necessarily doing this intentionally, but I think she might have a blind-spot, because she is reading the situation from one perspective only.

  6. Sandi, as we agreed earlier, this isn’t The Amanda Marcotte show, plain and simple. “Going after” someone implies some sort of personal vendetta. This is not the case here.

  7. At the very least, Natalia asked some good questions here. I haven’t heard of Mark Seal before, but it’s obvious that article was in poor taste. Is it helpful to talk about it? I think so, yes.

  8. Paranoia?
    In her exhuberance to unearth racist remarks and stereotypes, perhaps Natalia has lost the plot just a little. If Africa circa 19th century with its ethnic wars, slave-trading (by blacks and others), genocide, enslavement (sexual and otherwise) of prisoners of war and wholesale rape and pillage between the various tribes doesn’t constitute a wild country needing to be tamed, I don’t know what is. And all of this before the coming of the white settlers and not to mention the (very) wild carnivors.
    Be vigilant in your search for discriminatory reporting by all means, but pul-ease, take note of history.

  9. oh, BRA-vo. “it’s not racism! they really ARE savages!”

    you know, here’s where one probably ought to explain Colonialism And Its Legacy 101, but I’m all out of ‘splaininess tonight, so “pull my finger, Frank” is just going to have to do, I’m afraid.

  10. “Amanda Marcotte. I’m sorry to have to say it, but I’m positive I’m not the only one thinking that you really are jealous of other people’s careers/”

    Yes; clearly we all -want- to be the Richard Nixon of the feminist blogosphere.

    Look, is there ever any point where y’all consider that people might actually mean what they’re actually saying? that just because YOU don’t see ___ as racist doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with you? particularly the people on the receiving end?

  11. Frank, by your own logic – colonizing Germany after WWII would have been the right thing to do. Because if you want to talk about savagery, most human achievements in that department pale in comparison to the Third Reich. You probably don’t think that Germans deserve to have their own nation right now, correct…?

    Or, considering the behaviour of the entire planet, you’re probably yearning for the day that space aliens colonize all of us, no?

    However, something tells me that you believe that only scary nonwhite people should get that kind of treatment.

  12. There you go again Natalia, ignoring history. Guess what? The allies DID effectively colonise both east and west Germany after the war.
    But that’s irrelevant. My point is, quite simply, by any reasonable measure, Africa was a wild place back there in the 19th C. I didn’t use the word savagery but it’s true that it can be found all around the world, even today.
    To put my argument another way: a person’s ethnicity is no guarantee of his/her morals or ethics. Hitler was evil and, sadly for his people, so is Robert Mugabe.
    And by the way, other than not agreeing with your point of view, what makes you think I’m not a ‘scary nonwhite person’ myself?

  13. Hmm, I put up an entire comment here, but then I realized that I can’t engage in this debate in good faith.

  14. Very late in the day, but Natalia is spot on here honestly. Frank, she is right. And the way the court case is going, ‘Chumely’ might end up staying in prison for a very very long time, since Kenya has a poor history of hanging its convicted felons. But then again, the corruption in that country might just see the man given ‘Presidential Amnesty’ for ‘good behavior!’ Poor black savage, still a pawn even in his continent.

  15. Natalie has it right– Mark Seal’s article expresses the colonial prejudices of Lord Delamere. But my comment is more about Frank Coates’ comment, which is far more racist than Seal’s article, and even less informed by history.

    I am a historian specializing in Africa, and it is clear to me that Mr. Coates doesn’t know much history. The European nations that invaded and colonized Africa, mainly in the late nineteenth century, did not slaughter Africans with their machine guns in order to ‘tame’ them. Nor did they beat them or cut off their hands and feet in order to tame them. Nor did they dispossess them of their land to tame them. Instead, they did all that to make money.

    Just as in the Americas in earlier centuries, Europeans invaded Africa in order to secure sources of raw materials and protected markets for their industrial products. In some parts of the continent they used forced labor and taxation to get Africans to produce cash crops for the international market, and then forced them to sell these commodities at below market prices to colonial marketing boards. That’s why they built railroads, with coerced or forced African and Asian laborers. Across the continent, Africans who resisted forced labor were beaten by their new colonial masters. In the Congo, the new masters cut off the hands or feet of Africans who did not collect their quota of latex for their Belgian rubber tycoons.

    In other parts of Africa, the colonial governments gave away vasts tracts of African land to European settlers, who then established plantations. Of course, these plantations required lots of labor. So Africans had to work on these European plantations for the privilege of staying on the land that the settlers had just stolen from them— the settlers called these African laborers ‘squatters’. And those Africans who had not lost their land to the settlers were forbidden to produce the cash crops that the settlers wanted to produce, in order to protect the latter from competition. Such was the case in the settler colonies such as Kenya, Algeria, Rhodesia and South Africa, to name a few.

    In the case of Kenya, none of these settler plantations were seized at independence, in part because Jomo Kenyatta feared economic retaliation from Britain and capital flight. Many settlers sold their plantations and Kenya went into debt to buy many of these. Other settlers remained, and many of these learned to respect their African countrymen. Others, like the latest Lord Delamere, have clung to their colonial racism.

    It’s one thing to expect impoverished Africans to accept colonial-era settlers who still profit from their vast stolen estates— but it’s quite another to have to listen to the stupid lie that these lands were stolen from Africans in order to tame or civilize them.

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