Time For Africa To Reclaim The Black Body
Ahead of the AU’s 10th anniversary celebrations, one of Africa’s great literary icons, Ngugi wa Thiongo, in an address given on Africa Day, 25 May, urged the continent to review the roots of the current imbalance of power which started with the colonisation of the black body. “Africa has to reclaim the black body with all its blackness as the starting point in our plunge into and negotiations with the world. We have to rediscover and reclaim the sense of the sacred in the black body.” Below is an abridged version of Ngugi’s speech given at the University of the Free State, South Africa, on 25 May 2012.
NO MATTER HOW WE LOOK AT IT, AFRICA HAS COME a long way from the days of near continental bondage to Europe. If the independence of Ghana is the more memorable in terms of its impact, it was because, on the continent, it was the first identifiably, unmistakably, and unambiguously black nation to wrest independence from Europe.
In Nkrumah’s eyes, the continent could not live with one part free and the other enslaved. No leader of the already independent nation, including Liberia or the never-colonised Ethiopia, had ever linked the destiny of their country to that of the continent. Nyerere’s similar stand came later.
Nkrumah and Nyerere assumed the integrity of the continent and took responsibility for Africa as a whole, a vision already assumed in the ANC’s anthem, Nkosi Sikelele Africa, whose lyrics and melody became the nearest thing to an African anthem.
The vision rejects the European division of an Africa North and South of the Sahara, a fiction that has intellectual ancestry in Hegel, who in his 19th century lectures on the philosophy of history, assigned the Sahara as the dividing line between what he called Africa proper, that’s the South, and what he called European or Mediterranean Africa, the North, including Egypt. Skin colour had something to do with the Hegelian historical fiction, North Africans being lighter-skinned than the darker Southerners.
But Nkrumah had other concerns: the fate of people of African descent, the Diasporic Africa, in the tradition of Marcus Garvey, whose motto in organising the first truly Pan-African movement, was Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad. Africa’s drive for independence impacted the civil rights movement [in America], both culminating in the right to vote. So the position of the continent on the power map of the world does impact the people of African descent everywhere.
A comparison with China is apt: the West, Britain in particular, once fought opium wars to force China to become drunken with the drug. Who would dare do an equivalent today? The West has moved from anxiety over yellow menace to an anxiety from yellow envy: even Americans admit that their economy is indebted to China. Today, Mandarin is one of the languages most sought-after in American colleges, and the Chinese people everywhere are accorded respect. The root of this respect is China’s position as a world power. Can we say the same thing for Africa?
A quick inventory shows that Africa is the only continent outside Australia not represented in the UN Security Council. Africa is the only continent where two countries, South Africa and Libya, have given up a nuclear programme. Africa is thus the only continent that has earned the moral authority to call for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. Surely, not those with thousands of weapons of mass death!
You would think that this would win applause and respect. Instead uranium from Africa helps the West build nuclear weapons. Africa has been used twice for nuclear tests, once by France for sure, in the Algerian desert, and the other allegedly by Israel on Edward Island.
When the Nato powers recently attacked and bombed Libya into submission, they were completely oblivious of the feelings and opinions of the African Union. It is not a question of what one thinks of Gathafi: It’s the blatant, almost arrogant, disregard of the opinion of the AU that stood out, in the unfolding drama enacted under the fig leaf cover of a United Nations resolution, a situation not too dissimilar to the killing of Lumumba in the 1960s. Would this have happened if Africa had a united muscle to flex? Coincidence or not, the loudest drum beats for war came from France and Britain, both with a colonial and slave past, which means that their attitude to Africa is coloured by their experience of the past master-servant relationship to the continent.
Attitude towards blackness
True or not, there were allegations that black Libyans or demonstrably black Africans, were slaughtered with Nato looking the other way. A black skin was often mentioned as the identifying mark of a mercenary.
If we want to know the standing of Africa in the world today, we don’t even have to go to the question of a seat in the Security Council or the more dramatic acts of military intervention or corporate vulturism, what in my novel, Wizard of the Crow, I have described as “Corpolonialism”. We just have to look at the attitudes towards blackness in Africa and the world today. But while others may bear the blame for this, Africa is also culpable in the negative standing of blackness in the world.
The colour black has had different symbolic significance for different cultures; the revered Hindu god Krishna is black; and the black Madonna is equally revered in Catholic worship.
Black may symbolise academic success and scholarship for black-gowned students and clergy; potency for some sports groups; evil for some others; and darkness for the explorers and missionaries of the European Enlightenment. Black in Britain is used to refer to immigrants from the Commonwealth positively, as a political strategy. Black as a reference to the body is often used interchangeably with African, but various shades of colour from very light to very dark characterise the continent. But in the universality of its presence and its unequal power relations with the white, the black body cuts across continents. The three Abrahamite religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have singled out as cursed by God, the black body, not the colour black.
I want to talk about blackness from my perspective and experience as a writer. I am aware that no writer sits down to see whether every word, sentence or image they put down is black enough; or to consciously erase the memory of experience that shaped the writer so that he or she can write like a writer.
But there are moments when I want to stand on rooftops, tear off my clothes, and proclaim that I am a black writer, holding a banner with the words. I write primarily in an African language, Gikuyu; what of my fiction you now read in English is largely a translation from the Gikuyu original.
There are other moments when, even if I wanted to be just a writer, no drama of tearing off clothes and holding a banner aloft, I am reminded of the fact of blackness: my blackness as a black writer.
For me, the two moments came together in 2006 when Pantheon released the American edition of my novel, Wizard of the Crow. Some critics have called it a global epic. It was my book of exile, migration, for one cannot write about global capital without also exploring its essential feature: its mobility across national boundaries, smashing state barriers, demanding of its own democratic right to go in and out of any country, consume the resources therein at the expense of the environment and social stability, but demanding that labour not move unless capital needs or forces it to move.
Don’t call; we shall call. If labour, on its own terms, tries to follow capital, it finds barriers erected, walls that are guarded by armed might. Stay in your allotted national enclave. We shall come to you or you come to us when we need you here rather than there.
I was very proud of the release of Wizard of the Crow. I had spent almost 10 years writing it in Gikuyu and eventually translating it into English. On a book tour that Random House arranged for me, I would always point to the fact of translation. It was, if you like, my way of refusing to shout from a rooftop that I was an African writer, because what else could I be if I was writing in an African language?
Ordeal in San Francisco
On 10 November 2006, the book tour took me to San Francisco, as a penthouse guest, courtesy of Random House, at Vitale Hotel. It was the hour between breakfast and lunch when I took a newspaper at the reception and sat at the terrace of the hotel’s restaurant enjoying the view of Embarcadero, the harbour-front.
I raised my head to find a suited gentleman who I assumed to be the manager addressing me. “This is for hotel guests.” I was about to explain that I was a guest when it crossed my mind to ask: “How do you know that I am not a guest?” As if to say it was not necessary to prove the obvious, he did not respond to the question, but continued reiterating the same fact, but with an increasingly peremptory tone.
The tension rose. Curious, I asked him: “You have not even sought to know if I am staying at the hotel?” This seemed to rile him even more: it was not necessary. The place was for the guests of the hotel. I had to leave.
By now, I was determined not to offer any proof or explain that I was a guest, occupant of one of the most expensive suites in the hotel. Not that he was asking for proof or explanation. “Let’s go to the reception,” was all I said. He strode ahead of me, furious, determined, I following, curious. When he saw the horror on the face of the hotel manager, he was all abject and sorry.
Let me say for the record that the CEO of the Joie de Vivre Hospitality, the parent company/owner of the hotel, published a public apology, [occupying] $450 worth of space, and in negotiations with Priority Africa Network, agreed to conduct a diversity re-education of his employees.
He called me at my place in Irvine, South California, to apologise. In addition, he paid $5,000 to a grassroots organisation for anti-racist activism in the Bay area. Why then am I telling this story on the occasion of the celebration of Africa Day? A time which seems a far cry from the colonial days of my birth and upbringing?
I was born and came of age in colonial Kenya where everything was contested in terms of black and white. Even the memory of place was a battlefield. To the English settlers, Kenya was white highlands: to Africans, it was a black people’s country. I have been hit, humiliated, sneered at, denied service.
My experience growing up in a colonial settler society had taught me to sense the racist type by their gait, their gesture, their word, their sneer or tone of voice. The San Franciscan gentleman never came across as an obvious racist, the fire-breathing nigger-calling type, seeking any opportunity to hurl an insult, the kind that assumes that every back person collects food at dumpsites, or foodstamps in the case of the USA.
He was totally different from a white guy in New Jersey who once found my wife and I waiting in line to use an ATM cash machine, and who demanded he go ahead of us because we were cashing a welfare cheque. Mind you, my wife was then a senior social worker in the New Jersey state administration and I was Eric Maria Remarque Professor of Languages and Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University. We were Kenyans anyway but our blackness made him assume we were recipients of monetary handouts from the government. An undercover police officer happened to be there and stopped what was turning out to be an ugly confrontation.
Unlike the New Jersian, the Franciscan gentleman did not once utter a word or make a gesture that was overtly racist. But he had something far deeper and more frightening than overt racism: certainty, a certainty arising from a profile of blackness embedded somewhere in his mental makeup, an absolute certainty that in no way, shape or form could I have been a guest.
Even when I gave him an opening to re-examine his assumption, he would not go there. He would not entertain any doubt, the little voice of maybe, that often cautions humans from acting with the uncritical instinct of a beast of prey.
Later that evening, in another hotel into which I had moved, I thought more about the absolute certainty: I found myself trembling. It dawned on me that if the man had a gun, he probably would have shot me with the same certainty and would no doubt have proclaimed to the world afterwards, that he was not a racist, even citing, as evidence, a couple of black friends.
Now, the man didn’t say “you’re black”. He didn’t say, “black people don’t belong here”. He was just certain the he could look at this man and tell that this man didn’t belong there. Just like the cops who shot Sean Bell could look at this young brother and his friends in the club and could tell that they dealt in drugs, they were criminals, that they deserved to be shot.
The Sean Bell shooting incident took place in New York, on 25 November 2006. A joint team of plainclothes and undercover NYPD officers shot a total of 50 times at three men as they came from a bachelor party at a nightclub, on the eve of Bell tying the knot. Sean Bell died on the morning of his wedding day.
On 5 February 1999, a team of New York cops gunned down Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old, from Guinea, a few yards from his apartment. He was coming home and by all accounts, there was not even a confrontation. But the accused were certain that the victim had a gun. He didn’t. The cops saw a gun where one did not exist.
The other incident involved the Harvard don, Professor Louis Gates. On 16 July 2009, he was trying to get into his house, when somebody called the cops on him. The officers arrested him inside his own house.
The officer in charge was certain that he was confronting a burglar. His certainty made him see a burglar where there was none. We can assume that if Louis Gates had resisted arrest, he might have been shot dead inside his own house, the officer, certain that he was gunning down a burglar.
The pattern in the three cases is incredibly similar. Each of the victims was returning home: none was armed. And yet the cases elicited an excess of violence, the kind unleashed by someone who thinks he is in imminent danger.
In all the cases, the officer swore that they were not driven by racism and yet all of them seemed so certain of what they thought they saw that they rained bullets on the suspect, and in the case of Louis Gates, arrested him inside his own house, even after he had identified himself as the world-renowned Harvard professor. And in all the cases, the question of dress and gait arose and, except in the case of Gates, there were attempts to link the victims to some sort of drugs.
And lastly, the case of Zimmermann and Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was captain of a neighbourhood watch in Florida. On 26 February this year, Zimmerman saw an African-American youth, Trayvon, walking in the street and shot him dead. As it turned out, Martin was returning home, in the area.
The words that stood out in Zimmerman’s call to the police prior to the killing, at least the ones I heard on television, were that Martin was walking. And now he is looking at me. Three sentences. He is walking. He is looking. He is wearing a hoodie. A prominent TV show host was later to attribute the killing to the hoodie Martin was wearing and advised black and Latino youths not to wear them.
Among other interesting tidbits was the fact that the dead was tested for drugs on the spot; the perpetrator was not tested for any drugs. I could not help asking myself: was it the same self-certainty that made George Zimmerman pull the trigger on Trayvon Martin?
The question was rooted in my own experience with the Vitale Hotel incident. Except for the tragedy, the blame-it-on-the-victim explanation was eerily the same. Despite the apology from the owner of Hotel Vitale, a person purporting to work for the restaurant, posted a defence of the Franciscan gentleman on the internet, alleging that I had not been denied service on account of race but rather because crack addicts and prostitutes had the habit of disturbing people who were paying good money. I was reeking of odour, adorned with dreadlocks, and wore filthy clothes.
Familiar? Dress. Walking or sitting. Looking. Any of this to justify an act prompted by a profile firmly set in one’s mind. I don’t wear dreadlocks, was not even seeking service, wore reasonably decent dashiki, so somebody saw dreadlocks and what images they conjured up in the head, where there were none.
The fact is Martin could have been any black person anywhere. It does not matter if fresh from the continent or having an ancestry that goes back to the experience of slave and colonial plantation, or from Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in literature or a visiting African head of state taking a stroll in a quiet neighbourhood.
That self-certainty can condemn anyone to early death. In that sense, race would seem to trump class. The certainty is based on a negative profile of blackness, taken so much for granted as normal that it no longer creates a doubt.
Blacks do it too
But the self-certainty that black is negative is not confined to white’s perception of black. I once took a Japanese lady, a family friend, to an ATM machine to get some money in Newark. I was standing right behind her when a black lady walked past me and nudged the Japanese lady to be mindful about me. It could have been an act of female solidarity but I often wondered if she could have been so sure about my evil intentions had I been another colour.
The perception and self-perception of blackness as negative is spread and intensified in the images of the everyday: in the West, TV clips to illustrate famine, violent crimes, and ethnic warfare, tend to draw from dark faces. In commercials, TV dramas, in the cinema, one hardly ever sees a really dark person portraying beauty and positivity. A concession to blackness stops at various shades of light skin. No wonder this results in a knee-jerk rejection of the African body. The Afro-American comedian, Chris Rock, made a documentary, Hair, in which he goes about trying to sell various types of hair. It is very telling. Whereas European and Asian-type hair has numerous black clients, African hair does not attract a single buyer.
In Africa, Europe and America, skin lightening technology and services is a huge industry. In short, a multi-billion industry in the world is built around the erasure of blackness; and its biggest clients are the affluent black middle class in Africa and the world. But the negativity manifests itself in other ways. It’s a national day. An African leader addresses the nation. For the sake of the British and American ambassadors on the dais, he makes the entire speech in English or French.
After the formal delivery, he will then address wananchi in Kiswahili or any other lingua franca. He thinks it funny when he now resorts to verbal abuse. In other words, he associates European languages with formality, dignity, serious discourse on the state of the nation, and African languages with coarse speech, abuse and ridicule.
In Kenya recently, parliament voted to ban the use of African languages in all public offices. Those seeking services from their state, even the rural farmer, were supposed to bring along interpreters. It’s not yet the law, only because the president has not signed it.
This negative perception and self-perception has roots in the history of enslavement and colonisation. The real battleground of the colonial process was the body. The body, black, white, brown, is the site of production and knowledge. So the first enslavement and colonisation is of the body, as that which acts on the natural environment to produce usables for human needs, or wealth.
In the auction block, the prime health of the black body was advertised to emphasise that the merchandise was ready to be put on the production line. Africa as a whole has gone through three major stages of the enslaved body as producer: the plantation, colonial, and today, debt slavery. They are separate but also part of each other.
The Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery ran from the 16th to the 19th century: so we are talking about 300 years of free labour. The colonial, a period during which the body and the land were cheap resources, ended in the 1960s and 70s.
Today, Africa gives to the West more money in interest and debt servicing than it actually receives in loans. Africa has always been and continues to be the main donor to the West. Africa is the creditor continent: Europe, the debtor continent. But why is this reality obscured by the fiction of the opposite? Because of the colonisation of the body as a field of knowledge.
The black body
The colonisation of the body as the site of production was integral to its colonisation as a site of knowledge and vice versa. As a source of knowledge, it was ridiculed, starved, brutalised. The colonised body was alienated from itself as a source and producer of knowledge.
I have written elsewhere how the European domination of the globe went hand in hand with renaming the social and physical geography of the places and peoples it dominated. The landscape became dotted with European names, replacing the previous memory of place where it did not erase it altogether.
The same was true of the body: the European naming system replaced the African. The very body of the African was defined by the European identity of being: Beatrice, Desmond, James.
In plantation slavery, they did not even bother with individual naming: every slave in a plantation carried the name of the owner.
Of course, it is not any one thing but it is out of all those aspects taken together that a pattern of negativity towards Africa and the people associated with Africa, emerges. Europe and the European image of the world is normalised as the standard, and the others deviations from the standard. That’s bad enough.
But Africa and African peoples do not have the luxury of complaining and appealing to the moral conscience of those that gain from them. By claiming that God is on their side, the slave master is able to still his conscience: he does not lose sleep thinking about the cries of those that work for him.
In fact, armed with this self-proclaimed special relationship with God, he is more likely than not, to accuse those who try to get out of the slave condition, of sinning against God and civilisation. In history, running away from slavery was regarded as a crime punishable even with death. Or else a mental illness that often called for surgical operation.
The biggest sin, then, is not that certain groups of white people, and even the West as a whole, may have a negative view of blackness embedded in their pysche, the real sin is that the black bourgeoisie in Africa and the world should contribute to the negativity and even embrace it by becoming participants or shareholders in a multi-billion industry built on black negativity.
If it was the case of a few social foibles here and there, it would not matter, but in a post-colonial situation, the internalised negative view of the black body can have fatal consequences.
In Africa today, 60 years after independence, there still persists a systematic disregard of African lives by their own state, a continuity of the colonial. Thus colonial regimes mowed down thousands and the perpetrators went to cocktail parties afterwards; but the same continues today.
By and large, the foundation of the military and police force in Africa was a complete disregard of the African body. This force that also fought against African people’s struggles, was inherited from the colonial era intact.
The coloniser engineered ethnic division. Today the bourgeoisie does the same, to the level of violence even. And quite frankly, the viciousness with which some black people treat their fallen black “enemies” is nothing short of self-hatred.
The sole and essential function of the colonial state was to facilitate the flow of wealth from Africa (the colonised) to Europe (the coloniser). Today, quite a number of African states play the same role; steal money away from Africa to European banks.
It is said that Mobutu of Zaire had more money in Swiss banks than the Zairean treasury; that if he had lent the money to Zaire, the country would not have had to borrow. But since the money in Swiss banks was not kept idle in a vault, it is likely that Europe lent Zaire the same money that he had stolen from his nation. His actions arose out of a deep-seated distrust of his own people and nation, and Congo-Kinshasa is still paying for the man’s kleptomania.
Reclaiming the black body
Africa has to review the roots of the current imbalance of power: it started in the colonisation of the body. Africa has to reclaim the black body with all its blackness as the starting point in our plunge into and negotiations with the world. We have to rediscover and reclaim the sense of the sacred in the black body.
Most important, Africa must rediscover and reconnect with Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of a politically and economically united Africa, rooted in the working people of Africa.
If we brought together the might of our African and global presence, there is nothing that could stop Africa from being an equal player in the globe. It’s only such an Africa that can contribute to the world and receive from the world on terms of equal exchange and mutual respect. The world begins at home. And home begins inside the castle of one’s skin.