Here is the recording to the song “I Am Africa,” performed in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.
I have recently finished reading Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s The Book of Mormon. This play is about the work of two young Mormon missionaries, Elders Price and Cunningham, in Africa. Their goal is to convert the entire village to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. However, an evil warlord who is hellbent on performing female circumcisions and more important representatives from the Church complicate this mission. Price experiences a crisis of faith, and Cunningham has to improvise, comparing the Book of Mormon to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Ultimately, the two elders succeed by converting the village and stopping the warlord. The musical itself is meant to be read as a satire on organized religion.
Criticism of the musical has focused on its messages about religion, faith, and spirituality, as well as the development of the young missionaries. However, I am intrigued by the text as an example of the ways that American writers in the twenty first century continue to lend to colonial ideologies and colonist identities.
Let’s begin by drawing to attention some of the concerns inherent in the plot.
First, the plot itself essentially centers on the development of white men’s spirituality. In order for them to develop their sense of spirituality, they venture into Africa, the “inpenetrable,” dark continent. Missionaries, by the nature of their job title are committed to “saving.” However, they do not address the material needs of a village, such as clean, running water. Instead missionaries address spiritual needs which implies they believe they can concretely know what the villagers’ spiritual needs are.
Second, the representation of the villagers is exactly what an American audience expects to see. They are ragged, starving, diseased, and war-torn. One way that this representation can be read is as a joke on the American audience. However, another reading, and I suggest the more reasonable one, the villagers are presented as stereotypical to function as blanc canvasses against which white identities can be projected, developed, and exercised.
Third, the information presented to the audience about the Book of Mormon and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints seems to have been very well research and entirely accurate. However, it does not appear that as much research was done to accurately represent African villagers. For example, the warlord who is so hellbent on having the female circumcisions performed, based on what I know about female genital mutilation, is a representation of incorrect information. (Again, this is what I know about the subject) Female genital mutilation is a cultural practice in different areas in Africa, usually performed by local women on girls in infancy or as they reach puberty. The tradition is very old, and as Christianity and Islam were brough to Africa, rationale for the mutilation based on the religions arose.
In fact, postcolonial feminists would respond by saying that (especially white) Americans need to mind their own business and stop preoccupying themselves with black women’s genitals. The preoccupation perpetuates the fetishization, exoticization, and eroticization of black, sexualized bodies.
The fact that the missionaries work so hard to prevent the mutilations from taking place shows their concern over black bodies, and their intention to control cultural practices, and ultimately the bodies themselves in a different way. The missionaries, become colonizers of the mind, spirit, and body.