By Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
I always knew that, as a people, regardless of our ethnic or national identities, we have a capacity for self-hatred. It is almost as if we relish having pain inflicted on us. Unfortunately, just as we are convinced that any idea, any object of foreign, especially non-African, specifically Euro-American provenance must command our acceptance, so do we think that when white people insult us, we must somehow see in their insults some “truth” that we need to take seriously.
On Thursday, January 12, instant, news broke that Donald Trump, the United States president, had used swear words to describe African countries, Haiti, and El Salvador. Anyone can call you anything they like; what matters is what you answer to, according to my wise Ghanaian-American writer friend.
Ever since the news broke, our newspapers, online networks, personal communication, and so on, have been abuzz with opinions from columnists, op-ed contributors, ordinary people trying in all kinds of ways to tie ourselves in knots to see some kernel of truth in the racist, school yard drivel served up by Trump. I am sad beyond belief that anyone who knows this man would see any sense whatsoever in his insult.
But, not us. I have read people trying to rationalize the insult as directed at African leaders and not at ordinary Africans. It takes abysmal, criminal maybe, ignorance to attribute this level of sophistication to Trump. By far the most common rationalization has been that we, Africans, should be less concerned about the crudity of the messenger and embrace, or at least acknowledge, the message. Then follows the litany of the elements of the so-called truth in Trump’s insult. This is beyond sad.
There is absolutely no kernel of anything in Trump’s insult. This is one of those rare situations where there is no message at all, just rank insult. Worse still, the so-called messenger has absolutely no redeeming qualities that should make any self-respecting person pay any heed to what he has to say. Unfortunately, many of our compatriots living away from the scene of the crime may think, naively, that Trump has any redeeming dimension to him. He does not.
What this means is that Trump, as president and as a person, does not qualify to talk down at many of us in Africa and elsewhere who are his betters. Many of us do not need the unthinking promptings of an airhead to come to grips with our situation in Nigeria, nay, Africa. But I will limit myself to Nigeria for now.
All you need is to investigate who Trump is before you start clothing him in borrowed robes. As Americans would say: he is a flunkie! The only reason he is president is a combination of white privilege and the abiding racism of American society. [See http://thephilosophicalsalon.c om/on-white-privilege-again/]
What makes it even more galling is that all the shortcomings that people are using to dress up Trump’s vile racist nonsense as some “home truth” are not even things that if you asked him, he would be able to reel off with any level of accuracy. Think back, those of us who follow such things, to his account of African American lives during the electioneering campaign.
What do our commentators on various, especially virtual, platforms do? We fill in the blank spaces to make the insult look like a content-filled message. We say that he must have in mind all the ills that we have and try, retroactively, to provide grounds for the frustrations of a racist airhead who happens to be president. Again, I marvel at our capacity for self-hatred.
Meanwhile, when Barack Obama went to Ghana and delivered an actual message that was respectful and called on us to take responsibility for our lives, how did we react to him? I do not recall all the hyperventilating about “the truth” in what he said. Worse, many Africans said they loved George W. Bush more because he gave the continent money for AIDS relief.
Talking about truth, some of us are not amused at being told to take a flunkie as our teacher, especially given the labours of our own commentators, writers, thinkers, journalists, and the like who not only know what they are talking about but also have a skin in the game. Obafemi Awolowo called Africa “a beggar continent” back in 1967 and throughout his life articulated all of the shortcomings that some want to use to fill Trump’s blank spaces.
All of us writing now cannot be innocent of the labours of our Soyinkas, Achebes, Osundares, Adesanmis, and Adelakuns—four generations of Nigerian commentators for you—when it comes to calling us on our prostrate state in our contemporary world.
Please hate yourself as much as you want. But, do not ask me to take my cue from a know-nothing racist conman, even if he is president.
• Olúfe´mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A. He was recently a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.