index.html  A Barthesean Reading of Time Magazine's

"AIDS in Africa" Cover Story*

Scott M. Schönfeldt-Aultman
Saint Mary’s College of California

* The author wishes to thank Dean MacCannell and various reviewers for helpful comments. An earlier version of this study was written at an earlier date for a doctoral Cultural Studies seminar with Dean MacCannell at the University of California, Davis. An earlier version was also presented at the 88th Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association in New Orleans in 2002.


This study attempts to evaluate as a whole Time’s February 12, 2001 cover story on “AIDS in Africa,” using Roland Barthes’ (1957/1999) “Myth Today.” It seeks to provide a clear understanding of the operating semiological systems of myth that function in this text. Following Barthes’ diagram in his historic essay, this cover story is analyzed via reference to photos, standout text, and an advertisement existing within the cover story. Ultimately, the functioning myth appears to be one promoting black/African inferiority, helplessness, and dependence on supposed superior, capable, and caring whites/West/United States. The myth distorts that the West/whites/United States have intentionally neglected and disadvantaged blacks/Africa(ns), have stolen its resources/wealth, really do not care, and consequently, will not and thus, cannot help. Key terms: Barthes, myth, sign, signified, signifier, distortion, ideology, AIDS, whiteness, Africans, Time.

Myth does not deny things, on the contrary, its function is to talk about them; simply, it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. . . . In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences . . . (Barthes, 1957/1999, p. 143).

The question that keeps arising is, what interests of whites are being served by these representations? This refers not merely to measurable economic and political interests but also to relations of a subtler nature in cultural, emotional and psychological spheres, and to the various ways in which these relations figure in the phenomenon of subordination (Nederveen Pieterse, 1992, p. 10).

This is a story about AIDS in Africa. Look at the pictures. Read the words. And then try not to care (Time, February 12, 2001, cover page).

In this essay, I attempt to analyze and read as a totality Time’s February 12, 2001 cover story on AIDS in Africa, using Roland Barthes’ (1957/1999) “Myth Today.”1 This spread includes the cover, a table of contents page, three pre-article pages (one on the author/photojournalist facing another of a Dean Witter ad and one on assistance opportunities), a ten-page photo essay, a nine-page article with text boxes/photos/map of Africa, two advertisements embedded within the article (a one-page Palm ad and an eight-page ad for Audi’s new allroad Quattro, the latter of which I do not discuss), and a closing one-page article on paying for AIDS cocktails. So much to examine has the potential to detract from a written detailed description and observation. Nonetheless, I believe that at the conclusion of this essay, one will have a clear understanding of the operating semiological systems of myth that function in this “text.” I will walk through each step of Barthes’ (1957/1999) diagram of the two semiological systems of myth (p. 115) as it applies to this text, supporting my claims with reference to photos, standout text (see Appendix 1), and one ad in particular (Palm). One could, of course, analyze any one of these images or objects and potentially supply alternative readings and interworking myths. I, however, believe that treating the spread as a whole is a much more profitable exercise, especially given my sense that this cover story may be consumed by many, if not the majority of, people in settings that provide a perusal of the magazine, such as doctors’ offices, waiting rooms, bookstores, newsstands, etc. Thus, I concentrate on the most obvious and standout elements of the text. I do believe, as well, that my analysis is applicable to those individuals who conduct a more thorough reading of the cover story. The Barthesian analysis I make is, at root, a nuanced critique of whiteness and white discourse.2 In this case, I am critiquing, in part, Time’s seeming constructions and conflations of the West/whites/United States and of blacks/Africa(ns). Ultimately, I argue that the myth functioning here is one that suggests black/African inferiority, their helplessness, and their dependence on superior, capable, and caring whites/West/United States. What this myth distorts is that the West/whites/United States have intentionally neglected and disadvantaged blacks/Africa(ns), have stolen their/its resources and wealth, really do not care, and consequently, will not and thus, cannot help. Indeed, as the cover tells us, “This is a story about AIDS in Africa” (emphasis mine).

The pictures we see in this cover story of Time are, with few exceptions, those of black ailing bodies. The words, written by a white author (pictured on page 6), suggest how we should read these bodies and their situations (see Sturken & Cartwright, 2000). The cover page picture is a close-up of a somber-looking black “mother” and child, accompanied by the four sentences quoted before this essay. The next image-text pairing we see takes up the top half of the table of contents page. Next to a photo of a black arm/hand extended over the edge of a hospital bed rail, we read,

Special Report: The hand of death: Scenes from the AIDS front. No other place on earth has been as devastated by the virus as southern Africa. This is the story of what happens when a disease infects not just individuals but entire societies – swallowing families, communities and hopes, and raising the question of whether the rest of the world’s reluctance to do more against this modern curse amounts to an enormous crime against humanity. Page 26 (p. 5).

If we do not skip immediately to page 26 (where “crimes against humanity” and “modern curse” are repeated again) but first look at page 6, we read, above the pictures of the white article-author and photojournalist, the words, “Comforting the Afflicted.” The page immediately facing this page is an advertisement for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, the top half of the page bearing two blue ribbons. On the following page, page 8, underneath the small print at the top of the page, “Breaking the Silence,” we read the large-printed title, “You Can Help,” with text immediately below that begins, “We realize that after reading this week’s cover story, you may want to do something.” Three of the five images on this page providing assistance options for readers are of black children. The other two are of an Asian fishing town vulnerable to HIV and of the Palm OS Emulator with the homepage displayed. The text next to the Palm image tells us about the “pioneering” special wireless application developed by Time, Palm, and that “lets Palm VII users treat their handheld like a virtual UNICEF box.”

The black-and-white photo essay begins on pages 26-27 with a two-page image of a pain-stricken young mother being helped out of a wheelchair by her children, bound for “a home for dying AIDS patients.” Curiously, the photo essay ends on pages 34-35 with a two-page image of a young woman’s dead wrapped body. The pages between include photos of suffering patients, a mother and daughter embracing, a prostitute in a brothel, HIV-positive children, boys living on the street who lost parent to AIDS and/or were abandoned, and Zulu virgins at a testing ceremony. Captions accompanying each photo tell us what we are seeing and suggest the pain, tragedy, loneliness, despair, rejection and death faced by blacks with HIV or AIDS (see Appendix 1).

The written essay begins on page 36, titled “Death Stalks A Continent.” In perusing the article those things seemingly designed to catch our attention, by being placed in large and/or colored type and/or lining the top of a page, are the following. We are asked to “Imagine your life this way . . .” (p. 36). We are told that “Half a million African children were infected with HIV last year” (p. 37), that a pictured mother with AIDS is “ostracized by the community” (p. 37), that “In some African countries, the infection rate of teen girls is four times that of boys” (p. 41), that “79% of those who died of AIDS last year were African” (p. 42), that “Virginity testing is back” (accompanied with a photo of Zulu daughters who passed this test, p. 44), and that “1 in 4 South African Women ages 20 to 29 is infected with HIV” (p. 53). We are shown a large, one-and-one-half page map of Africa detailing the number of people with AIDS in African countries, juxtaposed to a one-sixth-of-a-page world map with similar statistics (pp. 37-38). We are shown pictures of two black Africans (pp. 40-41, 53) who are making efforts to raise consciousness of AIDS, apparently with limited success. Incidentally, all the photos in this article are in color and are smaller than the black-and-white photo essay pictures (perhaps suggesting that the problem and pain are much larger and debilitating than the solutions and treatment are effective). The one-page article concluding the cover story (p. 54) is titled, “Paying for AIDS cocktails: Who should pick up the tab for the Third World?” The color photo on this same page (about a sixth-of-a-page in size) is of a white caretaker’s hand administering an IV to a white patient’s hand, contrasting the solitary black hand of death we see on the table of contents page.

A Brief Palm Reading

Another striking image, embedded in the article, on page 43, is the Palm advertisement for handhelds. The full-page photo is of a lone, white, woman doctor, gazing out of a window (towards Africa?) and even out of the magazine and away from the prior facing page that is telling “a story about AIDS in Africa” (the same page that tells us that most of those who died last year were “African”). While this image shows white technological power and superiority (it is, arguably, the largest image of a person in the cover spread, thus emphasizing the importance/superiority of technology and whiteness), it also may function to hint at not only the past and present of white/Western/United States response/complicity regarding AIDS in Africa, but also their future participation and lack thereof (she is without patients, only staring, and not helping). Moreover, the ad fuels future capital for Palm, perhaps more capital than does the Time story for Africans with AIDS.

Re-stor(y)ing AIDS in Africa

With this orientation to this cover story/spread, one can now examine the semiological systems working within the myth that sustain it. One can now walk through Barthes’ diagram in “Myth Today” (p. 115).

First there is a signifier (1. Signifier in Barthes’ diagram) or more accurately, signifiers working as a whole toward a signified (2. Signified). The signifier(s) are the photos and words showing and telling us Black people/Africans are in pain, are suffering and are afflicted. Recall my descriptions of these pictures and words in the sections above and in Appendix 1. Another signifier, which I do not treat extensively, is that of Time as the reporter of this African situation.

Next, one can see what is being signified (2. Signified) by these words and pictures. The words one reads, often superimposed over the photos, work in some sense to suggest what is signified. These words alone, however, do not offer all of what is signified, for several things are signified by what one sees and reads. Simply put, AIDS is a killer. It is killing blacks/Africans, especially mothers, women, and children (note the continued pathos appeals to these images throughout the spread). It is splitting communities. The photos and words signify something about blacks and Africa(ns) as they confront AIDS – namely, suffering, pain, loneliness, sorrow, sadness, death, peril, hopelessness, loss of friends and family. This is evident in the photos of painful faces, the woman being helped out of the wheelchair, a wide-eyed man having his “lesions gently medicated,” the embracing mother/daughter, the white nun massaging a dying man’s foot (the only white person in the photo essay), the man with TB being aided in receiving medicine into his open mouth, the solitary man in a shower room, the prostitute, the “HIV-positive children playing,” the homeless boys, the Zulu virgins, the wrapped dead body of a young woman, the “ostracized” mother, the “red” alert African map, and the faces of those failing in their fight against silence, ignorance and AIDS.

It is also important to think for a minute about what the advertisements signify. It appears that the Witter and Palm ads work to construct meaning about whites. The Witter ad, in its placement (immediately facing the photos of the white author and photojournalist), suggests/signifies that blue ribbons ought to be awarded to the author and photojournalist of this cover story, for the comfort and care they have offered to afflicted Africans (and similar reward to us if we assist Africans with AIDS?).3 The Palm ad with the white, Western, woman doctor, as I suggested above, signifies that the West/whites (white women?) have the technology, intelligence, and ability to help Africa(ns). These ads collude with other significations of “caring.” The closing article/photo of a white patient (the only white patient in the cover spread) getting care by a white care-giver suggests/signifies that whites help whites and that whites can afford AIDS medicines that blacks/Africans cannot. Also, signified about Time, in that it reports on and makes this a cover story, is that the magazine cares about AIDS in Africa.

According to Barthes, these signifier(s) and signified(s) function to form a sign (3. Sign), which we are already seeing above. They also work together and serve as the SIGNIFIER (I. SIGNIFIER) of the second semiological system of myth. In the Time text, this SIGNIFIER suggests the form of relations among blacks, AIDS, and whites, which I mentioned above.

This SIGNIFIER (and the first semiological system/sign) further signifies in the SIGNIFIED (II. SIGNIFIED) several things. Because AIDS is a killer and is devastating Africa, help, that is Time readers’/white/Western/United States help, is needed. Africa needs help. Africans/black people need help. The continent and its people are in danger. Something must be done. But further signified, and more insidious is that Africa(ns)/blacks cannot seem to help and heal themselves. They are seemingly not really capable of helping themselves. They are too ignorant, too weak, too poor, too powerless, too disunified, too dispassionate, and too underdeveloped – all of this signified in the words and photos of blacks and of whites. BUT, we are told that readers of Time/whites/the West/United States/“You can help.” AND all of these people just mentioned must help because we/they are smart enough, strong enough, rich enough, powerful enough, unified enough, compassionate enough, technologically advanced enough to do so, all of which are also signified either directly or indirectly in the words and pictures.4 Further signified is that AIDS, clearly, is not as bad in the West/United States as it is in Africa, and not even apparently for white Africans. I am not suggesting that AIDS is not a serious issue in Africa needing attention, though Chirimuuta & Chirimuuta (1989) critiqued what they call “exaggerated claims of the extent of the AIDS problem in Africa” (p. 2). Rather I am arguing that Time has capitalized on its severity (sometimes sensationalizing it), with varying racial and colonialist implications, a not uncommon practice for mass media reporting on this issue and others (Chirimuuta & Chirimuuta, 1989; Spurr, 1993). Thus, it would seem that this “modern curse” is one on blacks/Africa,5 not on whites/the West, who are seemingly more deserving of blue ribbons and superior treatment, technology and medicine (perhaps rewarding as well their lack of caring in spite of these things?). Finally, what is further signified about Time is that the magazine can not only help “you” to do something to help Africa(ns), but can even make you care (“try not to care”). As such, Time is the hope for Africa(ns).

Already, we see in this SIGNIFIED, in the working of the SIGNIFIER/SIGNIFIED, the functioning of the myth (i.e., the final SIGN, III. SIGN). It is at this level that we can begin to rework the story (re-story) and restore language. It is here that we can reveal masked motives, politics, and distorted meanings and begin repoliticizing the myth/speech/language. What we find undergirding this myth is that whites/the West(erners)/the United States are assumed superior - in intellect, capital, compassion-extending, care-giving, technology, and ability to help and get help.6 Blacks/Africa(ns) are once again dependent on the whites/West, and in this sense are submissive and like helpless animals that must be taken care of by more civilized and capable beings. None of these things seem far from obvious in the text/myth. But what is distorted and not as evident is the role and complicity of whites and the West in the situation of (AIDS in) Africa(ns). While AIDS among Africans may not necessarily be directly linked to whites/the West, one could argue that the current epidemic is in part due to whites/the West. For, the latter have certainly neglected to treat or secure treatment for blacks/Africa(ns). Chirimuuta & Chirimuuta (1989) even suggest that racist preconceptions and ideology (asserting, among other things, that black people are linked to ignorance and disease) have shaped much of “the confused, contradictory and simply nonsensical conclusions reached by . . . scientists about AIDS in Africa” (p. 1). Without question, the West/whites have historically neglected black needs and created conditions and laws that have done little to help blacks/Africa socioeconomically, technologically, and educationally. Whites have, in fact, actively taken advantage of and reduced such opportunities and access for blacks/Africa(ns), South Africa in particular.7 Western pharmaceutical companies have refused to supply cheap drugs for treatment to African countries, even going as far as to sue South Africa in 1998 for fear of losing patent rights and capital, though they subsequently withdrew the case in 2001 (Swarns, 2001; Smith, 2001). Those whites that do get treatment often have the capital to do so because of white-advantaging political-economic systems (e.g. apartheid), past abuse of blacks, consolidation of capital into white hands, and power/dominance, particularly in Zimbabwe and South Africa (two of those countries referenced in the Time cover story). Instead of contributing to a more equal and accessible social structure, whites in Africa and the West have appropriated or stolen or exported African resources for the profit of the West and to the detriment/depravity of Africa. Development, of course, has also been slow.

All of these things I have mentioned suggest the contradiction of the myth, its distortion of the (supposed) compassion of, caring by and helping by the West/whites. Historically, that caring, compassion, and help have been extended less, if at all, to blacks/Africa than to whites/Westerners themselves. What is distorted is that whites/the West really do not care about the fate of blacks/Africa. They probably will not do much to help, but will keep up superficial facades (e.g., doing cover stories or providing minimal assistance like on p. 8) because ultimately it relieves conscience, looks good, and is politically and economically profitable (e.g., it probably brings more readers to Time and more purchase of Palm products). The myth is motivated by the very past, present, and future neglect of Africa(ns) by whites/the West that it distorts (i.e., covers), neglect that the cover story even mentions and makes obvious, neglect that critics certainly have noted before (e.g., Ismi, 2001, 2002; Project Censored, 2004). In supposedly admitting/distorting this neglect, the myth says, “we can help, we are good, we are not oppressors any longer, we are offering opportunities to help, and we ought to be praised because we care.”9 Myth distorts white/Western responsibility for blacks’ lack of education/technology/medicine. Also, it provides a discourse that may attempt to overpower other AIDS discourses prevalent in the West, such as those of the AIDS quilt, those of the gay community, those of HIV-positive teens in the United States. In so doing, it constructs AIDS primarily as a black/African problem, reinforcing the ideas of AIDS originating in Africa and that AIDS is about race and not sexuality, and placing blame of the black/African pain and suffering (curse and affliction) on Africa and on AIDS but not on whites and the West.10

Also circulating here is the myth that even if we as readers/whites/Westerners do help, the problem is so great now, that we/they will never be able to help or make much difference - because blacks/Africa(ns) will thwart white efforts.11 Besides, why would whites/Westerners want to help people who are cursed (by God?). Such helping efforts might be “crimes against [white] humanity” and even crimes against higher powers who have seen fit to curse, afflict, and even wage war against Africa(ns)/blacks (recall the table of contents page reference to the “AIDS front”). Better perhaps, says the myth, to let all of these things help us to realize the “real” story of AIDS in Africa and to lead us to do just what the cover tells us - “try not to care.” In so doing, Time (in collusion with the myth) tells us “You can help” keep up the facade with superficial assistance. You can also help to distort, naturalize, and fail to recognize that Time is manipulating you, that Time is big capital, as are Palm and netaid, and that all are profiting from this cover story/spread as they continue to perpetrate racist/mythic sentiments, depictions, and power/knowledge relations.

Re-visiting Barthes: Myth and AIDS in Africa

In order to see further how myth manifests and works in this text, it is helpful to revisit some of Barthes’ claims about myth. Barthes (1957/1999) writes that myth has a “double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us” (p. 117). Myth in Time’s cover story certainly points out things about blacks, Africa, whites, the West, the United States and AIDS, as well as notifies us that while blacks cannot do anything, we (i.e., Time readers) can do something about their condition. The myth even imposes on us our need and the urgency to do something, and in the process signifies and confirms that we/whites/the West are superior and most capable of doing charitable and altruistic things.

Barthes also tells us, as I have suggested above, that “myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear” (p. 121). Myth is “neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflexion” (p. 129). Myth here blocks our understanding and seemingly makes everything (i.e., “reality”) clear. It gives white/Western readers permission to acknowledge their superiority and ability and the call to help, but does not let them understand (i.e., it distorts) that the reason for superiority and the need for such help is their own/Western/white oppression of blacks/Africa(ns), their stealing of black/African resources, etc. It distorts white/Western responsibility/response-ability to help as unrequested kindness, compassion, charity, and altruistic nature. It even gives the West/whites credit for seeing this epidemic and making a call to do something (e.g., Time reports and provides assistance options, Palm/netaid efforts, blue ribbons), thus minimizing, silencing or appropriating black/Africa(n) voices (such as those pictured in pain and those pictured who are trying to speak out about AIDS).12

As should already be apparent, the relations between whites/the West and blacks/Africa are hierarchical. Myth of course, as “depoliticized speech” (Barthes, p. 142) constructs hierarchy as the natural order of things, evokes the naturalness of social relations/arrangement (i.e., naturalizes social relations). It makes it seem natural that wealthy whites help poor blacks, do not ignore them. It places the West over Africa, Palm over other technology companies/technologies, as the primary helping organization, Time as the most caring and ultimate altruistic magazine, rich over poor, women rather than men as caretakers (e.g., woman massaging man’s foot, daughters comforting/caring for mothers, woman doctor in Palm ad), heterosexual sufferers over homosexual ones (implying more compassion is due to heterosexuals?), and black sufferers over white ones because whites are already being taken care of by their own (something blacks do not do well, apparently). The myth assumes whites will naturally want to be charitable and will naturally have the money to help – why else appeal to them as Time does. It assumes whites are inherently one way while blacks are naturally another way. Moreover, Time, as a perpetuator of this myth, practices self-mythologizing, as may many of its readers. Time can help us to care and to do something that we inherently want to. After all it is seemingly suggested on the cover that we will naturally be unable to care after reading and looking at this cover story – as is indicated in the “challenging” phrase “And try not to care.”

Obviously, all of these things are reflective of myth’s naturalizing of social relations, of its portrayal of the way things are inherently. What is not recognized is the construction and creation of them by the parties in the highest position of the hierarchy (e.g., white men who can give and take in capital, but who let women do the physical care-taking and care-giving). One sees here that history is distorted, that whites/the West are absolved of contributing to black/African conditions. This distortion is possible because as I just mentioned and as Barthes notes,

the world supplies to myth . . . an historical reality, defined, even if this goes back quite a while, by the way in which men have produced or used it; and what myth gives in return is a natural image of this reality. And just as bourgeois ideology is defined by the abandonment of the name ‘bourgeois’, myth is constituted by the loss of the historical quality of things: in it, things lose the memory that they once were made. [Thus, lost is] the memory that [these things or the historical quality of things] once were made (p. 142).

And instead of unveiling what undergirds myth, the final SIGN, or revealing it, myth naturalizes it. It makes the history of oppression, abuse, theft, appropriation, etc. seem a natural occurrence, not one actively instigated and perpetuated by the West/whites upon black Africa. It “transforms history into nature” and freezes “mythical speech . . . into something natural . . . [so that] it is not read as a motive, but as a reason.” (p. 129). In other words, the reason for AIDS in Africa and for Time readers’/white/Western ability to help is not because of their oppression and intent to secure/securing wealth and health for themselves, but because of inherent or natural black/African ignorance, nature, etc. and white/Western natural superiority, wealth, etc.

Thus, myth works here as an apparatus of (this) ideology.13 It grabs hold of history and of language and uses it for itself. In the Time cover story everything works ideologically to perpetrate mythic ideas, to keep the myth alive and active, to distort history in order to maintain hierarchies. As should already be apparent, these hierarchies and the myth draw on and construct essentialized identities and “essences” of whites, blacks, the West and Africa (e.g., not articulating different circumstances in African countries). One sees in this Time text myth’s “button holing” (p. 124) of the people in the photos and of the people interpolated by the photos/words/myth. One sees myth’s preference to “work with poor, incomplete images” (p. 127). We are, then, drawn into myth and summoned to act/not-act, to not recognize the motive of the myth, to deny the distortion and to “receive [myth’s] expansive ambiguity,” (p. 124) depoliticization, and naturalization.

One sees here that myth’s intention is “frozen” in pictures, “purified” or made to seem of essences, eternal and fixed in image and words (Cf. Barthes, p. 124). Again, myth “has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal” (p. 142). In this case, one might argue that the historical intention of white dominance by whites is naturally justified as being caused by inherent black ignorance, inability, etc., both of which are supposed as permanent and everlasting – thus fixing the myth and grounding and perpetuating ideology.

Myth, then, functions to “empty reality” (143). As Barthes notes, myth “does not deny things,” but

purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact. . . . In passing from history to nature, myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts (p. 143).

It distorts the historic relations of whites and blacks. It essentializes these actors/non-actors and “organizes a world which is without contradictions,” a world where whites can help because they actually inflict hurt, because they created the conditions of need among blacks/Africa and then provided the opportunities for assistance which results in their seeming deserving reward and appreciation for doing something about the pain and suffering that they are actually neglecting and prolonging. Moreover, so that it can continue to exist and function, myth insists that people (that whites and blacks, Westerners and Africans, men and women) see themselves according to these images that it constructs. It hails them into fixed and particular identities (Cf. Althusser, 1971/1998). It asks readers to not recognize the complexities and fluidity of identity and power and offers them a restrictive choice of identifying (with) essentialized, static identities. In Barthes’ words, the myth is “nothing but this ceaseless, untiring solicitation, this insidious and inflexible demand that all [people] recognize themselves in this image, eternal yet bearing a date, which was built of them one day as if for all time” (p. 155). Moreover, it must be remembered that the myth operating here “does not want to die” (p. 133). It distorts the final SIGN for its own “reprieve” and turns the meanings on which it is grounded into “speaking corpses” (p. 133). This is not insignificant when we look at these photos and the words topping pages – dying people which Time has portrayed as calling out for help and has spoken for, “death stalks a continent,” the “hand of death,” and so on.

“And try not to care” - Concluding Comments

Certainly, many readers of Time do “consume [this] myth innocently” because they do not “see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one” (p. 131). They see a “causal process”: a “natural relationship” between the signifier and the signified, facts instead of constructions. Barthes suggests that such “confusion can be expressed otherwise: any semiological system is a system of values; now the myth-consumer takes the signification for a system of facts: myth is read as a factual system, whereas it is but a semiological system” (131). Even with such an innocent reading, however, myth reveals what it does not intend to. One of the clearest examples of this misreading, in light of nothing being hidden, is the Palm ad, which ultimately reveals whites’/the West’s irresponse-able relationship with blacks/Africa.

But even such blatancy and obviousness in this Time cover spread is not viewed by myth as problematic, for as Barthes notes,

myth essentially aims at causing an immediate impression – it does not matter if one is later allowed to see through the myth, its action is assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it. This means that the reading of a myth is exhausted at one stroke. . . .A more attentive reading of the myth will in no way increase its power or its ineffectiveness: a myth is at the same time imperfectible and unquestionable; time or knowledge will not make it better or worse (p. 130).

Of course, the immediate impression in this text is the overwhelming pain of blacks and white/Western ability to help. One could ask with Barthes if it would matter if one later sees through this myth, if one recognized their complicity in creating this overwhelming pain and one’s own privilege. Some may argue that it would matter. Barthes, however, seems to claim otherwise when he points out that myth’s action is “assumed to be stronger than the rational explanations which may later belie it” (p. 130). Perhaps what will change if one later sees the operating myth is that help will be given with the recognition of one’s own complicity and out of responsibility, not because of pity or sympathy for “those poor black, African folks” – and given ultimately in a way that allows less and eventually no detrimental dependence on whites/the West. Perhaps . . ., but perhaps not, for we are dealing with myth.

What we have seen in this Time text is myth operating on a number of levels. On the level of continent/nation, Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe) is portrayed as deprived and in despair while the West/United States is advanced and altruistic. On the level of race, blacks/Africans are suffering and afflicted while whites/Europeans/Westerners are healthy and rewarded. On the level of class, Africa(ns)/blacks are poor and West(earners)/whites are wealthy. On the level of gender, men are often those giving and taking capital (unless black where they give and take care/death) and women are those giving and taking care (and many black women are also dying). On the level of sexuality, one can argue that heterosexuality (even “deviant” types such as illegal prostitution and rape) is privileged over homosexuality (which is practically absent, due to higher rates of heterosexual transmission).

After examining this text thoroughly we can easily make the claim that this Time spread (and the myth operating within it) functions as what it obviously is – a “cover” story. Indeed, “This is a [cover] story about AIDS in Africa,” one that covers the history of the West (in Africa) with a layer of mythic distortion. This coverage occurs, as we have seen, with a myth that urges us, ultimately, to answer “NO!” on the “question of whether the rest of the world’s reluctance to do more against this modern curse amounts to an enormous crime against humanity” (Time, p. 5). There is no crime against humanity here it tells us, for those poor black folks on the continent of Africa are uncivilized, cursed sub-humans. Thus, as we are told before ever opening the magazine, in spite of and because of all the rhetoric and pictures we are presented with, it really is best to literally “try not to care.”


  1. All citations from Barthes in this paper are from “Myth today” (1957/1999).

  2. Chéla Sandoval (1997), in fact, argues that Barthes is “one of the first white Western critical theorists to develop an analytical apparatus for theorizing white consciousness in a postempire world” (p. 88). She also asks why “his work on the rhetoric of white consciousness [has] been elided in contemporary cultural, critical, and literary theory, even by those scholars who are also concerned with identifying such ‘poses’ for consciousness” (p. 88). This essay, then, potentially serves as one step toward making use of Barthes to analyze and critique whiteness.

  3. Such self-congratulatory imagery and rhetoric is not an uncommon strategy of whiteness, which seeks to absolve white folks of racism, inaction, apathy, and responsibility, while simultaneously (and often unjustly and unfairly) rewarding them. This Witter ad and other Time imagery are akin to Western reviews of City of Joy discussed by Raka Shome (1996). She indicates that these reviews (and I would add, the film itself) celebrate and congratulate white humanitarianism, and are “symptomatic of a larger white paternalistic world view that regards the frequent presence of the white subject in ‘other worlds’ (usually under various missionary guises) as desirable and benevolent” (p. 505). Albert Memmi (2000) also comments on such “colonial” presence and attitude, when he writes,

Colonialists have always explained and justified their presence in the colony by the poverty and backwardness of the colonized. And they have been convinced that the colonized should thank them for having taken the trouble to devote themselves to the well-being of such poor inferior people! Indeed, had it not been for the stakes involved, would not colonization have truly been considered a philanthropic enterprise? But it was, above all, a system of rapacious depredation (p. 38).

Fanon (1963) noted in The wretched of the earth,

. . . colonial domination was indeed to convince the natives that colonialism came to lighten their darkness. The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the natives’ heads the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation and bestiality (p. 37).

  1. Time’s cover story, I argue, seeks to cultivate the notion that these capable whites/the West can and must help these blacks/Africa(ns) who cannot help themselves, and as such, is drawing on what Shome (1996) calls the “colonialist narrative of the ‘White Man’s Burden’” (p. 504). ” The cover spread reiterates the idea of the great white hope, the idea of whites/the West/US Americans as salvation for blacks/Africa(ns). It colludes with other discourses, and with media representations, to reiterate, reinforce, and reify the idea of “the white savior in distant lands, usually ‘third word’ countries” (Shome, 1996, p. 504). This “white savior idea,” asserts Shome, “perpetuates a timeless myth about the apparent superiority of whiteness” as well as “legitimizes a rhetoric of liberal white paternalism” (Shome, p. 504) She also references Patrick Dutcher’s (1976) discussion of white paternalism, writing that he “notes that although on the surface it may seem sincere, such paternalism is fundamentally racist because it is based on the belief that whites must control and direct the behavior of minorities and ‘third world’ people because they cannot take care of themselves” (p. 504). Another media scholar, Kelly Madison (1999), critiques “films about U.S. American white heroes of struggles for black peoples’ equality [which] invoke a contemporary version of the liberal form of paternalistic white supremacy” (p. 409). She notes that similar films on South Africa invoke “this paternalistic white supremacist discourse . . . more subtlely” (p. 409). George Fredrickson (1981) also comments on paternalism and the circulation of the “white man’s burden” ideology in the Northern United States and late-Victorian England, as well as their “respect for the rhetoric of racial benevolence” (p. 189). He adds that these ideas “retained some of the sense of paternal responsibility that had been an undeniable component of earlier humanitarian reformism,” noting that “its adherents became increasingly vague about whether the beneficiaries of benevolent trusteeship could ever be promoted to equality with the ‘superior’ race” (p. 189). More recently, Ayinde (2004) notes the kind of ironic paternalism Time appears to rationalize when stating, “When Whites want to demonstrate their paternalism over Africans, they organize these massive media charities to show that they are saving the suffering helpless Blacks – the same Blacks that . . . Whites exploit, and keep in a desperate situation so they can steal or cheaply acquire labour and resources.”

  2. That blacks/Africans are cursed is not a new idea. One need only think of how the “curse of Ham” has been employed to speculate about race, punishment, depravity, salvation, social relations, and the like (see Gossett, 1997; Goldenberg, 2003; Oliver, 2000; Fredrickson, 1981; Nederveen Pieterse, 1992; Jones, 1997). Time’s suggestion that AIDS is a “modern curse” on Africans (pp. 5, 26), arguably, encourages readers to recall the “ancient curse” on Africans, that is, the curse of Ham, and thus their being cursed by God. It also very likely calls forth and reiterates the colonialist notion, noted by Fanon (1963), that Africa “was the haunt of savages, a country riddled with superstitions and fanaticism, destined for contempt, weighed down by the curse of God, a country of cannibals – in short, the Negro’s country” (p. 211).

  3. The assumption of white superiority has a long history, and is ever-present in colonial, neo-colonial, imperialist, and racist discourses (see, for instance, Gossett, 1997; Fredrickson, 1981; Back & Solomos, 2000; Delgado & Stefancic; Steyn, 2001; de Gobineau, 1967).

  4. South Africa’s apartheid and homeland system and the United States’ Jim Crow laws are classic cases of this intentional and brutal neglect, disadvantaging, and reduction of opportunity and access. One also observes some of these issues in South Africa’s past institution of pass laws, as well as within the mining industry (see, for instance, Wilson, 2001; Cf. Nattrass & Seekings, 2001). Also, the white South African government did little to address AIDS, and when in the late 1980s AIDS centers were set up, they were in white populated areas (Iliffe, 2006). As Iliffe (2006) notes,

Only in 1989 did officials begin to take seriously the danger of a large-scale heterosexual epidemic among the black population. Even then action was inhibited by a health system divided between 17 autonomous regional bodies, the indifferent of political leaders preoccupied with preserving white supremacy, and a conservative prudery that vetoed an Aids education programme in schools” (pp. 72-73).

Such neglect is also echoed in what Iliffe (2006) argues was the slow response of the World Health Organization to the HIV epidemic and in the Global Programme on AIDS’ Jonathan Mann’s approach to the epidemic - sometimes viewed as “an example of intellectual imperialism, of globalisation at its most arrogant” (p. 70). A more contemporary example of neglect and abandonment of Africans by whites is represented in the film Hotel Rwanda (George, 2004), when UN forces not only leave, but ensure that whites and foreign nationals get out of the country, as well, while Rwandans are left without this (white) military support. Cèsaire (1972), moreover, noted over half a century ago that when “indigenous peoples of Africa” were “demanding” and “asking” to “move forward,” Europe/the colonizer refused to help and “holds things back” (p. 25). As Chirimuuta & Chirimuuta (1989) suggest, many of the conditions in African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) are not helped by “the unchecked exploitation by multinational companies of the human and material resources” of these countries (p. 93). They (1989, p. 131) also cite the 1983 book, How Europe underdeveloped Africa, by Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, who wrote (p. 224),

For the first three decades of colonialism, hardly anything was done that could remotely be termed a service to the African people. It was in fact only after the last war that social services were built as a matter of policy. How little they amounted to does not really need illustrating. After all, the statistics which show that Africa today is underdeveloped are the statistics representing the state of affairs at the end of colonialism.

  1. Africa Action (2005) asserts that the illegitimate debt Africa owes to rich governments like the United States and Britain prevents Africa’s fight against AIDS. Jeffrey Sachs, Special Economic Adviser to the United Nations secretary general has also called for called for absolving African debt (BBC, 2004; Wikipedia, 2005). The contrast between Time’s plea to US Americans to financially aid Africa and Africa Action’s assertions that Africa pays more than it receives is intriguing and ironic.
    Asad Ismi (2002) writes of the “U.S. imperial strategy towards Africa . . . [that] aims at extracting the maximum amount of wealth from Africa for the West at the lowest cost through the perpetration of a holocaust created by eleven wars and structural adjustment programs imposed on 36 countries.” He also comments on “$229 billion in debt payments from Sub-Saharan Africa to the West since 1980,” the export of raw materials from Africa to the West, and the West’s economic benefit of African war. Ismi (Project Censored, 2004) contends that “Western prosperity is based on the destruction of Africa,” and that the “U.S. imperial design for Africa . . . involves fostering wars and destroying economies in order to plunder natural riches.” He maintains that the United States has “created a holocaust in Africa by backing wars and imposing structural adjustment programs, which have allowed it to loot hundreds of billions of dollars from the continent.” He also argues that the Congo War is “a war foisted on the Democratic Republic of the Congo . . . by the U.S. through its proxies Rwanda and Uganda, who have occupied the country, stolen its abundant natural wealth, and sent it to the West.”

  2. This myth colludes with and finds support from other popular white discourses. Ruth Frankenberg (2001), for instance, notes “a new set of false presumptions about whiteness and about race relations” in the United States, one of which is that white folks “were once the oppressors but are no longer because of the economic and cultural transformations brought about by the civil rights movement” (p. 85). Charles Gallagher (1994) also found that some white U.S. college students did not identify as oppressors and rejected the argument that they were oppressors, asserting rather that whiteness was a “liability.” Another false presumption Frankenberg (2001) mentions is that “white people are now an oppressed group,” and the “government is increasingly antiwhite” (p. 85). One also hears versions of all of these discourses in post-apartheid South Africa. A related rhetoric to those above was noted by James Baldwin in 1965, one that still underlies the claim that whites are no longer oppressors. Baldwin (1965/1998) writes,

people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world. . . . This is the place in which it seems to me most white Americans find themselves. . . . They are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence. This incoherence is heard nowhere more plainly than in those stammering, terrified dialogues which white Americans sometimes entertain with the black conscience, the black man [sic] in America. The nature of this stammering can be reduced to a plea. Do not blame me. I was not there. I did not do it. My history has nothing to do with Europe or the slave trade. Anyway it was your chiefs who sold you to me. . . . But on the same day, in another gathering and in the most private chamber of his [sic] heart always, the white American remains proud of that history for which he [sic] does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he [sic] has profited so much (pp. 321-322).

The relevance of Baldwin’s comments to what I argue about Time’s myth is obvious.

  1. This construction, of course, finds support elsewhere. Van der Vliet (2001), for instance, notes “The fact that it is sexually transmitted and that HIV is believed to have its origins in Africa have, on the one hand, fueled racist stereotypes, discrimination, and Afro-pessimism, and, on the other, prompted anger, denial, and genocidal conspiracy theories” (p. 153). She also notes that the decreased funding for AIDS under the apartheid government “stirred suspicions that the government was not taking the matter seriously, because it was now clear AIDS was going to affect blacks more than whites” (p. 153).

  2. The idea that blacks/Africans will thwart white efforts in or white “contributions” to African society is grounded in the notion of natural black ignorance, inability, and inferiority. Chinua Achebe (1995) alludes to such notions when writing of the colonialist’s development of the “‘man of two worlds’ theory to prove that no matter how much the native was exposed to European influences he could never truly absorb them; . . . he would always discard the mask of civilization when the crucial hour came and reveal his true face” (p. 58). Fredrickson (1981) comments on the “tentativeness” and “doubt” that early colonists and missionaries expressed about the possibility of salvation/Christianity for those “savages” they encountered and colonized, for instance at the Cape of Good Hope (pp. 12-13). Such historic beliefs/discourses underlie contemporary assumptions of black undermining of white efforts. Chirimuuta & Chirimuuta (1989), for instance, note reporting by The Times in 1986 that reiterated recognizable notions such as “African governments cannot be trusted” (p. 90), “the spectre of disease ridden, helpless populations” (p. 90), “African inefficiency and backwardness [as] . . . the real villains” (p. 91), “the spectre of inadequate African medical facilities” (p. 92), and the “overwhelming impression of incompetent bureaucracy whose only hope lies with” American, Belgian, and French experts/researchers (p. 93). Spurr (1993) also critiques the media, in particular a September 1982 article in the Atlantic Monthly, for implying that Africa’s failure is due to poor governing by Africans, to “inherent weaknesses in an abstracted African people and society” (p. 71) and to “the African’s moral and social inferiority” (p. 71). This article, among others, he argues, works to reinforce the “traditional mythologization of Africa as the locus classicus of disease, moral disorder, and spiritual darkness” (p. 89). Spurr also writes,

In this constellation of images [in colonial discourse], misery and abjection are presented as two faces of the same condition, each serving as the sign of the other, so that the physical suffering of indigenous peoples can be associated with their moral and intellectual degradation: disease, famine, superstition, and barbarous custom all have their origin in the dark precolonial chaos (pp. 77-78).

As Spurr notes, this discourse works both to justify European involvement and to establish difference between the colonized and the colonizer. Such colonial discourse is, asserts Spurr, an “evasive strategy” (p. 82).

  1. Toni Morrison (1992/1998) seems to speak to such a silencing of black/African voices when exploring why African presence is obscured in American literature, noting that discussions of such issues occurred “with a vocabulary designed to disguise the subject,” which resulted in a “master narrative that spoke for Africans and their descendants, or of them” (p. 159). Morrison also expresses her interest in “the strategies for maintaining the silence and the strategies for breaking it” (p. 159).

  2. I am invoking, ever so subtly, Althusser (1971/1998), who writes of “a small number of cynical men who base their domination and exploitation of the ‘people’ on a falsified representation of the world which they have imagined in order to enslave other minds by dominating their imaginations” (p. 295), as well as notes the “imaginary distortion of the ideological representation of the real world” (p. 295). I am, thus, alluding to his theses that “ideology is a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (294) and that “ideology interpellates individuals as subjects” (p. 299).


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Appendix 1: Standout Text from the Time Cover Story

Pages 26-27, picture of black woman being helped out of wheelchair; Top left corner in small type: “Last trip: A 28-year-old woman leaves her three children to enter a home for dying AIDS patients; Bottom left corner in larger type: “Crimes against humanity. Even as you read this, AIDS is taking lives in sub-Saharan Africa, swallowing families, communities, hopes. So far 17 million have died. At least 25 million may follow. An intimate look at a modern curse.”

Page 28: Top of page – “Trying To Help with little money or medicine, Africans can treat AIDS only with compassion”; Under first picture: “Helping hand: At this Zimbabwe hospice, all the caregivers are themselves HIV positive. Here, a patient has his lesions gently medicated”; Under second picture: “Family ties: A seventh-grade girl holds her 32-year old mother, who is infected with AIDS. The girl’s father died of AIDS in 1998 at age 34”

Page 29: Under first picture: “Small Gestures: Sister Francis Kay, a nun in Harare, giving a foot massage to a dying man. Isolated AIDS patients miss the human touch most”; Under second picture: “Agony: A man in a TB ward in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, receives some medicine to treat the infectious disease and relieve his pain”

Pages 30-31, bottom right corner of photo: “Long Walk: A sick man walks from the shower in a Harare hospital. Soon he will have to be cleaned by nurses. Dignity is one of AIDS’ first casualties”

Page 32: Top of page – “A Human Cost AIDS eats at the spirit. Demolished economies torture women and children”; Under first picture: “Working Girl: A prostitute in a Harare brothel. The sex trade is illegal in Zimbabwe, but a culture of paid sex thrives and spreads HIV”; Under second picture: “Respite: HIV-positive children playing together in a hospital in South Africa. Children get the disease during birth or from breast milk”

Page 33: Under first picture: “Certified: Supermarket stickers are used to mark the heads of authenticated Zulu virgins at a testing ceremony in rural South Africa”
Under second picture: “Street Life: Boys living on a Harare corner. Many lost both parents to AIDS; some have lost one and been rejected by a step-parent”

Page 34-35: In top right corner of photo: “Final Rest: A young woman is wrapped and awaiting burial at a Harare hospital. The funerals add a sad regular rhythm to African life”

Article starting on page 36: “Death Stalks A Continent” (in large letters) . . .
underneath title and in smaller letters, “In the dry timber of African societies, AIDS was a spark. The conflagration it set off continues to kill millions. Here’s why.”; In larger letters than sub-comment, but smaller than title letters: “Imagine your life this way. . . .”

Page 37, across top of page, with some letters in white, some in gray and some in red: “Half a million African children were infected with HIV last year”; In center of page at bottom with color photo: “Forced out of home A child has to care for her mother, paralyzed by the AIDS virus and ostracized by the community”; Middle of right side of page, “The TB Patient . . .”

Pages 38-39, Yellow, orange and red map of Africa, with numbers of infected people on map, accompanied by a smaller comparative world map below it. On top right corner of p. 39: “A continent in peril . . .”; Middle of page 38, “The Outcast . . .”

Pages 40-41: Middle of pages on bottom, with color photo and boxed text: “Unvanquished A fighter in a land of orphans . . .”; Across top of p. 41, in white, gray and red letters: “In some African countries, the infection rate of teen girls is four times that of boys”; Page 40, “The Truck Driver . . .”; Page 41, “The Prostitute . . .”

Page 42, across top of page, in red, gray and white letters: “79% of those who died of AIDS last year were African”; Middle of page in text box: “Financial Aid A lending tree . . .”

Page 43: Palm ad, to left of doctor is a superimposed palm screen: “With Palm Powered handhelds, we’ve helped put technology in the hands of those who can make a difference. By providing doctors with medical applications, we’re allowing them to not only improve patient care, but keep secure patient records, streamline operations, and reduce redundancy and errors. So while we’re not the ones looking after patients every day, we hope we’re making it a little easier for those who are. Simply Palm”

Page 44: Top of the page in the middle, color photo: “Virginity Testing is Back . . .”; Left side of page, near top: “The Child in No. 17”

Pages 45-52, Ad for Audi’s “new allroad quattro”: with road signs juxtaposed to cursive writing on a few pages – under the sign “Pavement Ends” is written “life begins”; under Yield sign is written “to the adventure”; under Exit sign is written “civilization” (curiously, the last sign before returning to the article)

Page 53: Across top of page in red, gray, white: “1 in 4 South African women ages 20 to 29 is infected with HIV”; Bottom of page text box: “A Ugandan Tale Not Afraid to speak out...”

Page 54, Within white patient-white caretaker photo: “Lifeblood: AIDS drugs are out of reach for most of the world’s infected.


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