Sep 1 2003

Inventing Africa

New York Times archives reveal a history of racist fabrication

When New York Times reporters such as Lloyd Garrison in the 1960s and Joseph Lelyveld in the 1980s filed news stories from Africa, editors at the Times routinely fabricated scenes and manufactured quotes for their articles. In some instances, the foreign editor colluded with the reporter to manufacture scenes that they believed would conform to the racist stereotypical biases that U.S. readers had come to expect in reports from Africa.

When I brought these examples of racist journalistic concoctions to the attention of New York Times editors more than 10 years ago, I was virtually ignored. That’s why recent assertions by Times editors that reporter Jayson Blair’s concoctions and fabrications reflected a “low point” in the newspaper’s 152-year history (5/11/03) were disingenuous. A much lower point had been reached in the 1960s, when the newspaper began covering Africa consistently, as I discovered when I dug up documents from the Times‘ archives in 1992.

At the time, I was a Columbia journalism grad student researching the evolution of the paper’s African coverage. As nationalism swept across Africa in the early ’60s, the New York Times sent Homer Bigart, the famous two-time Pulitzer-winning reporter, to cover the transition. In Ghana, Bigart wasn’t impressed by independence hero Kwame Nkrumah, as a letter he sent to foreign editor Emanuel Freedman in January 1960 reveals:

“I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr. Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cork. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about.”

When I first discovered Bigart’s letter, I assumed that–even with the prevalent racism of the time–it reflected the ranting of one racist reporter. Then as I read the reports that Bigart filed from Africa that purported to be straight news reporting, I found a near-perfect correlation between the language he used in his letters and the feelings he expressed in the purported “news” reports. Bigart’s favorite terms in reference to Africans included “barbaric,” “macabre,” “grotesque” and “savage.”

Typical of his prose was an article published in the Times on January 31, 1960, under the headline “Barbarian Cult Feared in Nigeria.” Focusing on a reported incident of communal violence, Bigart assumed a jaunty and derogative tone, writing: “A pocket of barbarism still exists in eastern Nigeria despite some success by the regional government in extending a crust of civilization over the tribe of the pagan Izi.” He went on:

“A momentary lapse into cannibalism marked the closing days of 1959, when two men killed in a tribal clash were partly consumed by enemies in the Cross River country below Obubra. Garroting was the society’s favored method of execution. None of the victims was eaten, at least not by society members. Less lurid but equally effective ways were found to dispose of them. According to the police, about 26 were weighed with stones and timber and thrown into flooded rivers. No trace has been found of these bodies. A few were buried in ant heaps. But most became human fertilizer for the yam crops.”

“Where else but the Times?”

Foreign editor Freedman shared Bigart’s contempt for Africans and the assignment. In a letter to his African explorer, dated March 4, 1960, Freedman wrote:

“This is just a note to say hello and to tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa. All this and nationalism too! Where else but in the New York Times can you get all this for a nickel?”

When the savages were nowhere to be found, Bigart and Freedman took matters into their own hands. As independence neared for what was then Belgian Congo, Bigart complained to Freedman in a May 29, 1960 letter from Leopoldville, which is now Kinshasa: “I had hoped to find pygmies voting and interview them on the meaning of independence but they were all in the woods. I did see several lions, however, and from Usumbura I sent a long mailer about the Watutsi giants.” (Usumbura is a Burundi city now known as Bujumbura.)

The Belgian Congo had experienced the most bloody and brutal history of European colonial rule and exploitation in Africa. During the rule of King Leopold II, an estimated 10 million or more Africans were exterminated and countless more permanently maimed or disfigured, all in the quest for wealth. African slave laborers who did not deliver their designated quota of ivory and rubber had their hands severed, to motivate other slackers. Yet Bigart and Freedman’s utmost concern was to find pygmies to malign.

When he failed to find pygmies, Bigart did the next best thing: He concocted them, as indicated by his article published in the Times on June 5, 1960 under the derisive headline, “Magic of Freedom Enchants Congolese.” The article began: “As the hour of freedom from Belgian rule nears, ‘In-de-pen-dence’ is being chanted by Congolese all over this immense land, even by pygmies in the forest.”

“Independence is an abstraction not easily grasped by Congolese and they are seeking concrete interpretations,” Bigart added, before continuing to denigrate the pygmies. “To the forest pygmy independence means a little more salt, a little more beer.”

Continued concoctions

Was this some aberrant episode between Bigart and Freedman? Hardly. The Times tolerated concoctions so long as the newspaper could get away with it. Even when Times reporters complained, editors continued to insert concocted scenes and quotes into their articles.

Consider the case of Lloyd M. Garrison, a descendant of the great American abolitionist, who was the Times‘ first West African correspondent during the 1960s. Garrison covered the Nigerian civil war, but was expelled by the military regime for alleged bias in favor of the Biafran secessionists.

In a letter from Nigeria dated June 5, 1967, Garrison complained bitterly that “tribal” scenarios had been inserted into the edited version of his story, which had been published on May 31, 1967 in the newspaper: “The reference to ‘small pagan tribes dressed in leaves’ is slightly misleading and could, because of its startling quality, give the reader the impression there are a lot of tribes running around half naked,” Garrison wrote to the foreign desk. He protested the numerous uses of the derogative term “tribes” in his story, and added: “Tribesmen connote the grass-leaves image. Plus tribes equals primitive, which in a country like Nigeria just doesn’t fit, and is offensive to African readers who know damn well what unwashed American and European readers think when they stumble on the word.” Garrison noted that the insertion “invites the image of savages dancing around the fire.”

Editorial insertions of stereotypes and fabrications into a Times reporter’s copy extended at least into the 1980s. Consider the case of Lelyveld, who completed two tours as a correspondent in South Africa. In the ’60s he was expelled by Pretoria for suspected socialist leanings; he returned as the Times‘ correspondent during the 1980s.

In December 1982 (12/19/82, 12/26/82), Lelyveld wrote a pair of articles about South Africa’s segregated education system and its denial of adequate funding to black schools. Editors watered down his reporting, prompting Lelyveld to fire off an angry complaint to foreign editor Craig Whitney. In one letter, dated January 6, 1983, Lelyveld complained that “virtually all the original reporting” conducted over a one-month period had been omitted. In one story, the subject of white control and racial hierarchy in the education system was completely deleted, he complained. The printed version of the article was like “a salami sandwich without the salami, just slabs of stale bread”–or, “if you prefer a baseball image, the wind up without the pitch, in other words a balk.”

When fictitious “officials” were inserted into another one of his stories, Lelyveld was livid, as indicated in a letter dated April 18, 1983, which he sent to Whitney:

“I wrote the following sentence: ‘The idea of a referendum among blacks was never considered for the obvious reason that it would be overwhelmingly defeated.’ That became: ‘Officials made it clear that the idea of a referendum among blacks . . . etc.’ To what officials did the rewrite person talk? How does he or she know they made it clear? This exact phrase has been written in my copy before. Officials make damn little clear here.”

Lelyveld later wrote Move Your Shadow, a sensitive book outlining the corrosiveness of apartheid, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He later became managing editor and retired as executive editor in 2001, before coming back to serve as a transitional editor in the wake of the Blair fiasco.

“Occasionally distinguished”

While one can understand why Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. and the newspaper’s top editors would prefer the public to believe that Blair’s transgressions are uniquely aberrant, the evidence indicates otherwise. Moreover, Sulzberger and Lelyveld certainly can’t pretend they are unaware of this research.

In January 1992, the Columbia Journalism Review agreed to publish excerpts of my master’s paper about the Times‘ African coverage. After CJR backed out, I obtained a copy of the edited version of my paper. To my astonishment, this is what CJR editors had inserted on my behalf before rejecting the article:

“Recently, the Times granted me access to its archives, including correspondences from the 1950s, when the paper sent Bigart to Africa on a temporary assignment. After studying the archival material, I interviewed several present and former Times reporters. The following excerpts from that material and from lengthy interviews are not intended as an indictment of the Times–whose African coverage has occasionally been distinguished-but as a means of highlighting a problem that all news organizations need to address.”

Presumably some CJR editors feared how the Times would react; after all, CJR was a possible beneficiary of largesse from the Times‘ foundation, and many editors and reporters hope to end up at the Times. So I did the CJR editors a favor and sent a copy of my paper to Sulzberger. Eventually I received a letter from Joseph Lelyveld, then the managing editor, on behalf of Sulzberger. He conceded that my research had unearthed articles with “crude and ugly” language. Yet there was no offer to publish corrections. Later, when I proposed to publish an op-ed article in the Times to shed light on its ugly past with respect to Africa coverage, the op-ed editor–Howell Raines–didn’t respond.

This February, I published The Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa, a book that details Western newspapers’ history of demonizing Africans, including the Times‘ racist fabrications. I sent copies to Sulzberger and to other Times editors before Jayson Blair’s lies burst into the limelight. I still await a response from the Times and an offer to acknowledge the wrongs perpetrated against Africa.


Milton Allimadi, a former New York Times stringer, publishes The Black Star News, a weekly newspaper in New York City. The author of The Hearts of Darkness: How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa (Black Star Books, 2003), his email address is A version of this article appeared in Black Commentator (7/3/03).