In a recent article for the Mail and Guardian, Brendan O'Neill suggests that adoptions of African children by the likes of Madonna and Brangelina may show us that "having a black baby is the new black." O'Neill calls this phenomenon the "White Madonna's Burden" (in not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, "The White Man's Burden"). In his 2006 criticism of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's decision to effectively shut down the entire country of Namibia so that the birth of their baby could be a "special experience," O'Neill coined the term "celebrity colonialism" to describe it. And it only takes a cursury scan of Madonna's interview with Vanity Fair to see that the colonialist undertones that O'Neill emphasizes are not entirely invented by him. (The Vanity Fair article compares David, Madonna's Namibian son, to Pocahantas, who represents "a kind of purity and righteous connection to the land.") Even still, are adoptions something that we really want to criticize?
Consider this a reprise of some of the issues in the last post, where we investigated the manner in which the link between the what (human rights) and the why (humanism) can be very, very complicated. I will assume that very few of us oppose in principle the adoption of children who need homes, even children from Africa, perhaps even and especially when these children are being adopted by very wealthy people with the means to give them very comfortable lives. But reading the Vanity Fair article about Madonna shows that there is a fine line between philanthropy and paternalism, one that we ought to make bolder and more obvious when the opportunity arises to do so.
I don't think I want to go completely Kantian on this issue, since I do believe that certain acts have moral worth even if they aren't necessarily grounded in a good will. But I also don't want to take the other (reductively consequentialist) extreme, because I know that the "goodness" of an act can be undermined by the dubiousness of its motivation. So, the problem with this so-called "celebrity colonialism", I think, is not so much the adoptions themselves, but the larger discourse about Africa and Africans to which the celebrities seem to be (consciously or not) contributing. If people like Madonna et al really want to help bring relief to some of the pain and suffering of the peoples of Africa, they must begin first with some recognition that the entire continent is not a place without history and without its own very complicated politics. (For an excellent analysis of the way that the crisis in Dafur has been "depoliticized" in the mainstream American press, partly as a result of sloppy celebrity interventions, see Mahmood Mamdani's "The Politics of Naming.") Or, as Wandia Njoya noted recently (and I said a while ago on this blog), they/we must stop believing that Hollywood films--like Hotel Rwanda, Last King of Scotland, To Catch A Fire, or Blood Diamond-- give us an accurate or comprehensive understanding of what's really going on--and why--in Africa.
To borrow Dr. Trott's formulation of the human rights question, I guess the question here is: "African adoptions even when they're wrong?" And I suppose I would answer that question in the same way that I answered the previous one, though perhaps a bit more reservedly this time. Of course adoptions themselves are not wrong... but they can be, and often are, framed in a discourse that poisons the well, so to speak.
ADDENDUM (5/31): Fellow blogger Booga Face posted his poem on this same topic on his blog., which interestingly questions why American "cosmopolitan consumption" is o.k. when it comes to "wine, cheese and hip-hop" but not when it comes to adoptions. Very provocative, Booga Face!