I have a confession: I watch the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Religiously. Now, before you tune out, I watch and examine the show as a sociologist and scholar of the African Diaspora. These years of watching the shenanigans of RHOA have culminated in the glorious spectacle that was the cast visiting South Africa. When I heard about these infamous Atlanta socialites spending time on the continent I covered my eyes in fearful anticipation. Without fail, the last few episodes have delivered cringe worthy moments (like Marlo trying to buy children perm kits) but in the midst of my cringing, I realized that the cast’s (mis)conceptions of Africa were not much different than those shared by many folks in my life. If we uncover our eyes long enough to watch, we may see some all too common trends in the relationships between African-Americans and the continent of Africa. In watching RHOA, I was reminded that there is a lot of healing to be done between the Motherland and her Diasporic children.
In the episodes prior to their travel to South Africa, the women of RHOA visited the Apex Museum in Atlanta to explore the Transatlantic Slave Trade. While they should have been sobered by the 12 million people of African descent that were forcibly moved from the continent instead, they spent their time peeking under the loin clothes of mannequins dressed like enslaved Africans. I wasn’t surprised though; sometimes the harsh realities of our history are too much for us to stare directly in the face. In many classes that I’ve taught on the transatlantic slave trade when the classroom got tense a student would attempt to break the silence with a joke. Equally dismaying was Phaedra’s insistence in reaching out to the African “royalty” that she knew in Ghana, despite the group travelling to South Africa. As the housewives left Atlanta, the ideas and images that they carried about Africa were concern-worthy but not much different than the views that I heard growing up and in casual conversations about the continent.
Their visit to South Africa immediately challenged their ideas of modernity as Phaedra commented, “When people think of Africa, they think of heat and people with bare breasts doing a tribal dance, but Cape town reminds me a lot of San Francisco.” The South Africa they visited is developed, full of amenities, and even featured a club where cast members “made it rain.” Aside from a passing mention of Apartheid, a viewer could imagine that South Africa was a paradise vacation location for the Black Bourgeoisie. From multicultural dinner parties to spa facilities at a game reserve, RHOA showed idyllic vacation destinations but missed all the urban poverty and racial inequality which still divides communities and opportunity.
In subsequent episodes, the cast took a closer look at “the other side of Africa” as Phaedra put it as they visited an orphanage. They passed shantytowns and were serenaded by a set of local school children. As the children sang and Cynthia danced she commented, “… mingling with the people here, for the first time it just really felt like, oh my God, we’re in South Africa.” This moment of connection wouldn’t last long as the housewives, equipped with their own Flip cameras, taped the children, as if there wasn’t a full camera crew in tow. Seemingly amazed that some of the children had cell phones they danced, filmed, and laughed. Their exotification of the children quickly spiraled into concern for their well-being. They rushed to an adjacent market and purchased nearly 600 dollars of goods for the children. As they checked out, the shop keeper thanked them for their purchases and said, “I think it’s good that you’re going to take it to the orphanage but the thing is that there are so many other people who desperately need this stuff.” While the RHOA were lured in the appeal of singing children and orphanages, the shopkeepers comments raise concerns about inequities in giving. For the RHOA, the trips to the school and orphanage were the most authentic moments of the trip but sometimes giving, when not done properly, can be detrimental. The rise of orphanage tourism and volunteering may be harming the emotional development of children in orphanages. Sometimes what makes the tourist feel good may not be good for the lives of local people.
While I’m sure many will continue to watch the Real Housewives of Atlanta and judge their antics from afar, I think what we have seen in their trip to South Africa should remind us of the need for education on history and the contemporary. Africa is a tremendously diverse continent with complex history. A history that as African-Americans we are a part of and apart from. In the United States, we are inundated with so many false images of Africa, by the time we get there we only look for those false images to be reflected in what we see. In the few episodes that the RHOA have spent in South Africa, some of the layers of false image are beginning to melt but there is much more to be learned and bridges to be crossed. For centuries now, African-Americans have been be actively renegotiating their relationship to Africa and finding the cultural connections and disconnections. In a strange way, I wouldn’t mind the Real Housewives of Atlanta stayed in South Africa for a whole season, maybe they would too see the beauty, diversity, and originality of the continent through new eyes.