Sunday, October 10, 2021 8:00 am
By Chris Anyokwu
The “Black Lives Matter” movement might have brought to the fore the extremely offensive and controversial issue of discrimination in contemporary society, the fact still remains that discrimination is not new in human society. It is as old as creation itself. People have always discriminated against one another based on usually non-axial, artificially generated culturally-driven variables such as gender, race, sexual orientation, eating habits, religion, class or language. To be certain, such is the encyclopaedic multifarity of discrimination that, writing about it will take several tomes to adequately and sufficiently address the matter. It is thus reasonable to segment the vastly divergent field and zero in on one tiny aspect of discrimination in relation to the so-called “mind war”.
In the event, therefore, we shall focus on racial discrimination or, in a word, racism and explore how it has shaped the contours of human relations on a global scale.
Anthropologists, cultural historians, philosophers of ideas, theologians and intellectuals of differing ideological stripes have tended to ruminate over the whys and the wherefores of the reality of the different skin colours of peoples of the world; they have wondered no end why some people are fair-skinned or “white”, while some are dark-skinned or “Black”. Religionists among these scholars cite the Hebrew myth as recorded in Genesis chapter 9 verses 20 – 29 where the Bible writers tell us that Ham saw his father, Noah’s nakedness and thus was cursed for his irreverence by Noah. People regard all peoples of colour, notably Black people, as the progeny of Ham, and, as such, consider them inheritors of an undying transgenerational imprecation. Herein lies the provenance of the so-called Hamite Hypothesis as far as the Black Man’s Burden is concerned.
Furthermore, in the hugely popular best-seller The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray argue that human intelligence is influenced by both inherited and environmental factors. In other words, they posit that there is a link between race and the intelligence quotient of the individual. The two American scholars give us to believe that intelligence quotient is hierarchically arranged in the following perking order, namely: (1) Jews (2) Caucasians (3) Hispanics (4) Asians and lastly, Blacks. Besides, from Hegel’s perspective, Africa is said to be unhistorical; undeveloped spirit-still involved in the conditions of mere nature; completely and utterly devoid of morality, religion and political constitution. Hegel, therefore, contends quite spectacularly that Africans are perpetual infants of nature and, hence, are outside the historical process, outside the pan-human, global weitgeist(see Google.com).
The foregoing Black dilemma had, therefore, compelled the Christian West to embark on its famous civilising mission to Africa, first by transporting Blacks in their millions via the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and Europe as beasts of burden, as slaves, and, upon the official abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade after over 400 years of the ungodly practice, they had colonised Africa.
And after several years of fighting and agitating for political independence, former colonisation ended in Africa, yielding the way to post- (or neo-) colonisation, an economic and political system whereby former colonial masters retain their vice-like stranglehold on their erstwhile colonial holdings. This is what obtains in post-colonial Africa at present in which Africa’s affairs are superintended from London, Paris and Lisbon, and, to a lesser (or even greater degree) from Washington DC.
However, the thingificationor the commodification of the person of colour, was informed in the main by European notions of racial superiority over the so-called non-Western subject races, the “Other”. This self-perception of supremacy and superiority on the part of white people is couched in the famous Rene Descartes syllogism, to wit: cogito ergo sum/ “I think therefore, I am”. The late Senegalese poet-president, one of the founders of the Negritude movement in Paris, France during the 1930s, had famously countered this Western arrogation of gnosis thus “I feel, therefore, I am”. Senghor concedes that “Reason is Greek, Emotion Negro”.
Unbeknownst to this muse of forgiveness, as Soyinka describes Senghor, the anti-racist racism of Negritude only serves to reinforce the racist stereotypes and cognate denigratory western myths about Blacks. It further underpins Western notions of universalism and, at the same time, supports notions of Black inferiority. Small wonder, Soyinka makes short walk of Senghorean Negritude by delivering his justly famous quip that: “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, it pounces”.
Thus, Negritudist over-romanticisation of the African past has been punctured and pooh-pooched by Yambo Ouologuem’s Bound to Violence and Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests. In a simplified binary opposition, the polar opposites between the West and the rest (read: Blacks) go thus:
West (White) Africa (Black)
History, etc. Myth, etc.
It is this Manichaeism, this racial/racist binarism that Edward Said goes out of his way to investigate in his 1975 study,Orientalism. According to Said: “Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”. Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East [also Africa] and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient [and the Africans], its people, customs, “mind”, destiny, and so on”.
Succinctly reconceptualised, Orientalism designates the Western mind’s projection of everything negative onto the “other”, in our case, peoples of colour, whilst, at the same time, ascribing positivity to itself. African(ist) scholarship has been able to plumb the depths of the incredibly astounding mountain of debt owed Africa by the Western imaginary. For good measure, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Hesiod, and others who constitute the primal savants of the Western tradition in philosophy and the arts, all derived their inchoate and nascent afflatus from the Kemetic fount of autochthonous gnosis. Africa, indeed, is the cradle of the human race and its civilisation. (see Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us, Martin Bernal’s Black Athena Writes Back, Richard Poe’s Black Spark, White Fire:Did AfricanExplorers Civilise Ancient Europe? and Chancellor Williams’ The Destruction of Black Civilisation: Great Issues of a Race From 4500B.C. To 2000 A.D.).
It is equally generally assumed that a lot of scientific and technological discoveries and inventions were made by Blacks but these rare finds and inventions were “appropriated” by their white conquistadors and seigniorial overlords under plantocracy (cf: Olaudah Equiano’s Equiano’s Travel, Alex Haley’s Roots, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa). Europe and the United States of America were built by slaves. For instance, the Statue of Liberty exemplifies this: a broken shackle and chain lie at the Statue’s right foot, indicating an end to all types of servitude and oppression in USA.
The basis of identity is difference: “I” versus “You”, “We” versus “They”; self-versus other. Thus, identity formation processes are based on a dialectical interaction between the races, notably White versus Black. Science itself has not been able to help dispel all the obfuscatory myths of racial differentiation, since science itself is conducted by humans who themselves are fallible, partial, and subjective. It does appear a project designed to fail when you expect scientists to vouchsafe incontrovertible and definitive evidence of the truth about the human personality as a species. Are we, human beings, different at root, beyond our skin pigmentation? Are these observable differences a result of our respective locations on the map? Can we ascertain and measure the shaping influence of our environments, on the one hand, the Northern Hemisphere and, on the other, the Global South? In her most oft-anthologised poem captioned “On Being Brought from Africa to America”(written 1768) Phillis Wheatley, a former slave, in the poem gives a mild rebuke towards some white readers, but remarkably praises God for instigating slavery in the first place and ascribing her renovated humanity through Christianity, to the yoke of slavery, her thingification notwithstanding.
Wheatley’s curious sense of gratitude to her slavers accords with the Hegelian imperial historiography of Africa as “Dark Continent”. Achebe, however, reminds us that, before the coming of the white locusts (Europeans), Africans had had art of great depth and beauty; they had had philosophy and poetry. And their culture was not a long night of savagery from which the white man came to deliver them, on God’s behalf. The notion that a Black person is naturally incapable of original ideas and concepts and that anything or everything s/he does or says is derivative and reactive should be dismissed as white bulls ….t! Every society can reach deep into its mythic memory to ferret out its own Prometheus, bringer of Light and knowledge.
Thus reason and emotion are both African, since every human entity comprises of the head and the heart. The greatest tragedy of Western colonisation of Africa is the destruction of our collective self-esteem. Since colonialism ended, Africans have been struggling to restore their dignity, their self-respect. Hence, some Blacks have succumbed to the idea that Black is dirt/death. Rather than proclaim, or act in a manner that tells the world that “Black is Beautiful” or “I’m Black and proud”, they tend to resort tragically to bleaching their skin, wearing “alien” hair (see Adichie’s Americanah), speaking affected English, like most female On-Air-Personalities in Nigeria do, mimicking TV/radio/film stars and fashionistas, undergoing gender reassignment procedures in order to “clone” their white idols. The list of absurdities goes on and on, adnauseam.
As far as ideological interpellation goes, it is now a case of a plague on all the gods and goddesses in the African pantheon. It’s either Christianity or Islam for most culturally-rootless Westernised Blacks. Like their Western puppeteers, these quislings look askance at AfricanTraditional Religion such as the orisha worships among the Yoruba. To be fair, the Black mind has been messed up and it is forever condemned to the unenviable situation memorably captured by Frantz Fanon as Black Skin, White Masks, or what post-colonial theorists call “double consciousness”, hybridity, mimicry and unbelongingness and migrancy. W.E. DuBois in “Strivings of the Negro People”, an article published in TheAtlantic of1897 notes: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, – a world which yields him no self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others- one feels his two-ness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”.
We know that the mind is the man-and, since the Reformation, the world has been put on notice that the human mind is the veritable battle-field of ideas, views, opinions, thoughts, world views and values. Thus in the global power-relations between the West and the rest, especially the Global South, Africans, sadly, hold the short end of the stick. Shakespeare in The Tempest dramatizes this scenario using the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, his slave, who says to his white master: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse”. Again: Caliban tells Prospero: “The red plague rid you/for learning me your language”. Language, here, is used as an index of rationality, or civilisation, or of being human. Since language is a dress of thought, does it mean that Caliban was “thoughtless”, non-human and animalistic before he learnt English? In what language was he raised as a child before he encountered Prospero? The whole theory of the Caliban complex derives from the Hegelian denigration of the swarthy creature from the sable race. It is the same scenario that plays out in Joyce Cary’s Mr Johnson and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which Blacks are denied agency or character. O.R. Darthorne once declared that Africans do not write the word; they draw it. He thus juxtaposes African phonocentrism against white logocentrism. Small wonder, any feat of the imagination, voice, strength, etc. displayed by a person of colour attracts undue adulation across the world. NiyiOsundare remarks that: “The world I see is bent, but not broken. I am mode and medium for its straightening (Midlife). Ours is a bent and nearly broken world, bent with prejudice, bigotry, discrimination.
We all, regardless of location, class, colour, race, etc. share a common sky, a common earth, a common fate as homo sapiens. Let’s close with the UN Secretary-General’s speech delivered at the UNGA (Sept. 2021) in New York City: “A surge of mistrust and misinformation is polarising and paralysing societies. Human rights are under fire and science is under assault”.
*Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.