Reading List: Cara Moyer-Duncan

Media scholar Cara Moyer-Duncan wrote a book about postapartheid South Africa. Here she gives her book picks for our #ReadingList series.

Kwame Onwuachi, author of Notes from a Young Black Chef. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Now that the longest semester in my more than a decade of teaching has concluded (thank you COVID-19) and I have a little more time to read (when my six year old will let me), I am catching up on recent books that focus on culture, identity, race and nation, much like my own book, Projecting Nation: South African Cinemas after 1994.

Media in Postapartheid South Africa: Postcolonial Politics in the Age of Globalization by Africa Is a Country’s own Sean Jacobs is an engaging read that gives astute insight into two decades of democracy through a range of “media events.” Jacobs argues that in the years following the transition to democracy, “popular media, corporate interests and national political agendas aligned together to construct a mostly neoliberal, uncritically capitalist and consumerist vision of South African social life.” This includes the media spectacles surrounding/following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, especially his appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and media coverage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Government political programs and elite business interests also used the rhetoric of rainbow nation and aspirational politics to imagine “postracial futures and a globalized South Africa”—for example, advertisements for consumer goods such as beer, the global branding of South Africa spearheaded by International Marketing Council of South Africa, and primetime programing for the SABC, the nation’s public broadcaster. However, Jacobs notes that the new democracy also “created or opened spaces for social movements to shape discourse.” The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a group leading the grassroots HIV/AIDS movement, is perhaps most notable in this regard. The TAC used media and new technologies to pioneer ways to compel the South African government to expand access to antiretroviral medications and thus make South Africa a more equitable nation. Others sought to create or reinforce insular spaces, as seen in what Jacobs describes as “the second Afrikaner state in Cyberspace.”

Kruger National Park (KNP) figures largely in the way South Africa has been and continues to be imagined, both within and beyond the nation’s borders. Jacob S. Dlamini’s recently released Safari Nation: A Social History of the Kruger Park complicates the prevailing understanding of KNP as a place of racial exclusion. Dlamini argues that the focus on black exclusion from the park as a result of colonial and apartheid policies is a mischaracterization. While there were limits in terms of access to rest camps and restaurants, especially during the height of apartheid, from the inception of tourism to the sanctuary, black people were allowed to visit. Dlamini thus focuses on “histories of presence” as he offers a fascinating account of black engagement with KNP—as residents, laborers who worked at or moved through the park, poachers and tourists, as well as insights into the contemporary dimensions of this contested space.

In Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners, Lynn M. Thomas documents the contentious and complicated history of skin lighteners, a global commodity promoted through advertising and other forms of mass media during the 20th century. For some, Thomas argues, skin lighteners function as a “technology of visibility” in colonial, racist, patriarchal and capitalist contexts as they navigate the various boundaries associated with these oppressive systems. For others, they signify the physical and psychological threat posed by toxic ingredients in these products, and the internalization of dominant standards associated with social, political and cultural conditions. Consequently, the promotion and sale of these products spurred various forms of resistance. This history is largely told from the vantage point of South Africa, but in conversation with developments and practices in other parts of the world, namely the US and East Africa. Thomas explores, with nuance and sensitivity how skin whitening/lightening figured into precolonial concepts of beauty, how these practices took on new forms during the colonial and apartheid eras, and how they endure in a neoliberal democratic South Africa.

I am a Top Chef fanatic, so I eagerly read Kwame Onwuachi’s Notes from a Young Black Chef. Co-written with Joshua David Stein, Onwuachi, who has roots in Louisiana, the Caribbean, and Nigeria, traces his coming of age in New York and Ibusa, and the flavors that animated his early life. Onwuachi documents his rise in the white/male dominated world of haute cuisine, and the racism he experienced in and out of the kitchen, set against the backdrop of Obama’s two terms in office and the election of Trump. Dotted throughout the book are recipes that capture pivotal moments in the formation of his identity. It is not a perfect book. For example, Onwuachi suggests his grandfather, former Howard University professor Patrick Chike Onwuachi, moved back to Nigeria in 1973 after his friend, and the author’s namesake, activist Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael), was assassinated (that didn’t happen). Nevertheless, Notes from a Young Black Chef is a compelling read as it captures the way Onwuachi uses his food, which defies dominant notions of African American cuisine, to tell his story under the premise that black lives matter.

Further Reading