Defining communication in Africa as well as the African diaspora is a complex task involving both cultural commonalities and differences. African communication itself reflects a complex mix of cultural values from the cultures and traditions spread across the vast continent. While some traditional values have been fervently preserved throughout the continent, the myriad of outside influences, including European colonizers and religious crusaders, cannot be ignored. Similarly, Hecht et al. (2003, 9) explain that African-American communication builds from a “cultural amalgam of the cultural traditions, values, and norms of the indigenous African slaves as well as the European settlers who laid claim to what we know now as the United States.” Understanding African and African-American communication involves a thorough analysis of this cultural amalgam, understanding the worldviews through cultural codes (e.g., values and norms), processes (e.g., communication patterns and practices), and sense of community. We begin with a discussion of African-American communication.
Pioneers in research on African-American communication such as Asante, Blake, Cummings, and DuBois worked to establish it as a salient area of inquiry (Jackson & Givens 2006). Western thought had long neglected African influences and these scholars advocated the need to include African-Americans in communication research and theorizing. For example, Asante (1993, 2) explained that Afrocentricity is “a perspective which allows Africans to be subjects of historical experiences rather than objects on the fringes of Europe. This means that the Afrocentrist is concerned with discovering in every case the centered place of the African” as a fundamental concept derived from African values rather than merely in comparison or contrast to European styles.
One of the key issues is identifying these common cultural codes of meaning. Hecht et al. (2003) identify five core symbols in African-American communication systems: (1) sharing or endorsing the group (including rituals and communication styles), (2) uniqueness of or homage to the individual, (3) positivity and emotionality (based on spirituality and expressed through art and everyday life), (4) realism (both a style that is genuine and a practicality about the world), and (5) assertiveness (standing up for self ).
Building on these common themes, the research on African-American communication is also concerned with exploring communication styles. For example, Hecht et al. (2003) noted the centrality of oral tradition and performance. This is illustrated in the preaching styles of the traditional black church. The preacher’s sermon goes beyond a mere speech, becoming a performance complete with “tonal semantics” (long pauses, rhythm, etc.). Call-and-response is an important aspect of the sermon as audience members are encouraged to participate by speaking up (e.g., yelling “preach on” or “yes”). These styles transcend the church, permeating both public and private discourse in the community.
This research is also concerned with the impact of various identity factors on AfricanAmerican communication including issues of gender (masculinity, women’s experiences, etc.), context (i.e., communication environment of first-generation African-American students), and pedagogy (i.e., experiences of African-American in academia), etc. For example, Jackson (2006) describes how the media “scripts” black masculinity in essentializing and stereotypic ways (i.e., exotic/strange, sexual, violent, and incompetent/ uneducated). At the same time, Jackson (2006) holds out the hope that artists can embrace multiple black masculinities, describing them in healthy, nonhegemonic terms.
Building on the efforts of its pioneers, African-American communication is a thriving discipline which addresses a complexity of standpoints and the diverse experiences of people of African descent in the United States.
Communication In Africa
Unfortunately, communication research on the African continent lacks such breadth. African communication research has been, for the most part, development-oriented, emphasizing the move toward modernization. While definitions of development communication differ, they share the underlying concern about change for the social, economic benefit of populations (Okigbo 1996). During the African nations’ independence era (1950s to 1960s), communication research was mainly limited to mass communication, and in particular radio, which was used to diffuse messages about modernization. Mirroring earlier studies of African-American communication which had imposed mainstream models of communication, the ideas disseminated were “pre-packaged” (Rogers 197), and since, in the main, they had been designed by experts in the west, there was hardly any attempt to conceptualize or adapt communication to the African context. The use of mass media may have led to better family planning or higher health awareness, in some cases and for some people, but ultimately it did not insure that the poorest, those who needed assistance the most, benefited. More importantly, this change was not embedded in emic or indigenous cultural systems. Mass media dissemination could not insure that the needs of those who required assistance were met; all it could do was to share a standardized message.
In response to the use of western models of development communication, some African scholars propose a culturalist approach. West & Fair (1993) noted the work of Boafo and Ugboajah who proposed the term Oramedia to account for oral forms of media including dance, drumming, storytelling, etc. They pointed out, appropriately, that culturalists proposed different channels of communication, but did not challenge the basic top-down communicative approach. Additionally, the basic assumption of communication as being solely the mass media was not contested.
The prominence of mass media can also be explained by the postindependence political contexts of the 1960s. New African leaders considered mass media as a central mean of promulgating a nationalist ideology. Ngwainmbi (1995) quoted former Kenyan president Kenyatta (in 1968): “the press in Africa can have a tremendous influence in nation building . . . It may constantly inspire the spirit of Harambee or National Unity which every young country needs as the fundament of its progress.”
The dominance of mass media is still apparent in more contemporary efforts to conceptualize communication in Africa. Obijiofor (1998) identified two forms of communication in Africa which he labeled “urban” and “rural” based on the location and culture of the audience. He explains that the urban form of communication included western communication media (i.e., radio, television, magazines, telephones, and limited electronic mail, etc.). On the other hand, rural forms of communication include traditional channels (i.e., “Gongman,” community leaders, marketplace, friends/neighbors). Obijiofor (1998, 165) notes: “Simply defined, the gongman is a man appointed by community leaders to disseminate information to members of a community. In many parts of rural Africa and Nigeria in particular, the gongman uses a wooden or metal gong to disseminate official information.”
Some scholars, however, have promoted a more elaborate study of communication in Africa. Advocating a philosophy of African communication (analogous to the Afrocentricity movement in the US), Okigbo (1987) observed the need to establish a communication philosophy based on African thought. Such a philosophy would demonstrate the limitations of western-based communication for exploring African thought. Okigbo (1987, 21) explained that without theorizing about communication phenomena in Africa, communication research throughout the continent would continue to be “shots in the dark.” Today, in-depth discussion of communication in Africa remains rare. Efforts to study and research what communication (especially mass media) can do for Africa have surpassed and even eclipsed the fundamental discussion of what communication in Africa is. However, there do exist promising efforts to advance the latter.
For example, Opubor (2004) builds on conversations with his grandmother to advance an African conceptualization of terms such as “truth.” He (2004, 56) argues for an ethnographic approach to studying communication in Africa and poses crucial questions: “Are there African theories of communication? Are there African theories of behaviour and social change? What would these theories consist of ? What would they focus on? Would they stress: individuals or social groups or the individual-in-the-group? What communication strategies would be applicable for creating change from an Afrocentric perspective? What are the meta-languages of African communication? Should we study them language by language and culture by culture, or their generalised communication framework related to ‘Africanity’?”
Questions To Answer
For the reasons outlined above, the discussion of communication in Africa ends with questions rather than answers. Themes or fundamental principles of African communication can be adequately advanced only once these questions have been answered. This discussion illustrates the complexity of African and African-American communication. It is irrelevant to discuss similarities between African and African-American communication. After all, the two groups share strong ancestral experiences. For example, oral tradition is an important unifying feature in both African and African-American communication and the research traditions for both are centered on describing an endogenous rather than a Eurocentric perspective. However, social and political contexts have led to different communication research agendas. The African-American research tradition is, perhaps, further developed, with recognition of diversity within the group (e.g., identities), and has moved from description of communication patterns to attempts to address health and economic disparities. In the African setting broader communication research (beyond mass media) is necessary to understand the range of cultures and identities, address language diversity, and apply findings to health, relationships, and civic life as well as economic development. Of course, the pressure of economic development will continue to attract primary attention and communication that recognizes endogenous voices is likely to be more powerful than that which is externally imposed, particularly given the history of colonialism. From what we know about the commonalities, these cultures share an oral tradition that values expressiveness and community. This would suggest the importance of interpersonal channels, which are particularly understudied in the African context, as well as of a narrative style of message construction.
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- Hecht, M. L., Jackson, R. L., & Ribeau, S. A. (2003). African-American communication: Exploring identity and culture, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Jackson, R. L. (2006). Scripting the Black masculine body: Identity, discourse, and racial politics in popular media. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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