Shining a Light on Old Ideas

A display of old maps and books shows the root of outdated stereotypes.

Feb. 15, 2013

Display of old books and maps show the inaccurate roots of old stereotypes.

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Stereotypical views of Africa and its inhabitants as mysterious, dangerous and conquerable are currently on display at the Pacific University Library in Forest Grove as part of Black History Month.

Titled The Dark Continent: Western Images and Maps of Africa, the display is on the main floor of the library and is open to the public.

Books in the exhibit date from 1542 to 1909 and display images — shocking to those of us in the 21st century — that portray Africans, in the words of the books, as “devilish, bloodthirsty natives” who are considered “idolaters or pagans and show little signs of intelligence.”

“I hope it might prompt people to think about how their ideas of Africa and Africans are connected to very old stereotypes that we may not even be consciously aware of,” said Eva Guggemos, university archivist.

Included in the exhibit is an original 1542 map of Africa. Though the coastlines are fairly accurate, the interior is not. The map draws from noted ancient Greek-Roman mapmaker and geographer Ptolemy’s 2nd century Geographia Universalis, noted Guggemos. The mapmaker showed “Man-eaters” and “Cave-Dwellers” living in central Africa, leaving everything south of the Sahara blank.

A later map from 1802 in the exhibit shows that knowledge of Sub-Saharan Africa was not much better by then — as a note explains: “Westerners were scarcely more familiar with the center of the content than Ptolemy had been in 150 A.D.”

Famous explorer Henry M. Stanley also has a part in the exhibit. His two-volume book of 1890, “In Darkest Africa: or, the quest, rescue, and retreat of Emin, Governor of Equatoria”is displayed with two maps that were originally hidden in the back of the books. Both maps have been mounted and displayed with the other items.

All of the display is of items from the library. Guggemos said she is happy to answer questions or give a mini-tour of the display. She can be reached at the University Archives,