First Lady, Melania Trump, announced in August she’ll travel to Africa without her husband, the President of the United States. Her solo trip will be her first visit to the continent. She stated she was excited to educate herself on the issues African children faced, plus learn about Africa’s rich culture and history.
This sounds well-meaning and uncontroversial.
After she arrived the First Lady went on a Safari in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park, and photographs surfaced of the First Lady, traveling in a jeep, wearing a white pith helmet (a safari sun hat). Since the First Lady is a former model, some members of the press treat everything she wears as fashion statements to be read like one of President Donald Trump’s insulting tweets.
Headlines claimed: Melania Trump raised eyebrows by wearing a controversial white hat that evoked colonialist comparisons.
The Gentlemen’s Gazette informed its readership the white pith hat was widely used by European militaries in their colonies throughout Africa. The Guardian associated the hat with White colonialist rule and called the hat a symbol of status and oppression. The New York Times insisted that the sight of a First Lady wearing something so closely associated with the exploitation of Africa was a big error on the global stage.
And now, the academics.
Kim Yi Dionne, a political science professor who specializes in Africa at the University of California, Riverside, said, “Her attire is a signal of her understanding of what Africa is in 2018. It’s tired and it’s old and it’s inaccurate.” And Matt Carotenuto, historian and coordinator of African studies at St. Lawrence University, said, “It’s like showing up to a meeting of African American cotton farmers in a confederate uniform…historical context matters.”
Let’s look at other historical factors and see if the criticism was warranted.
Melania Trump is from Slovenia, which was part of Yugoslavia.
Now, from 1900 to the start of World War I there were 23 European countries, seven European powers colonized Africa. They were Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. One problem with the term European colonialism is that it indicts 16 other countries that weren’t involved, and Yugoslavia wasn’t formed until after World War I.
Yugoslavia never embarked on a colonial enterprise in Africa, besides between World War I and World War II anti-colonial movements rose and the imperial power of Europe declined. Decades following World War II independence finally came to fruition for many African countries.
Meanwhile, during World War II, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazis and occupied until the end of the war. After Nazi occupation Yugoslavia eventually reorganized into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Slovenia and five other territories formed this republic, which was governed by the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.
Melania Trump was born in 1970.
By 1970, 39 out of 53 African countries were independent, and Slovenia was still a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia run by the league of communists. Slovenia didn’t become an independent nation until 1991.
These historical factors do not connect the First Lady to colonialism.
The only things she has in common with the colonizers of Kenya is European ancestry and white skin, but I guess that’s enough to make her an accomplice to historical wrongs.
I agree, historical context matters, but intellectual honesty is also a requirement.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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