The vigor, boldness, and frequency of racist assaults on global African humanity are increasing at an alarming rate. Carina Ray takes a look back at the long history of African humanity under siege and examines how little the language of racism has changed over the last three hundred years.
|Prof. Carina Ray
By now it is old news that Africa’s supposed lack of civilization, history, and culture was conjured up to justify the enslavement, and later the colonization of millions of Africans. The venerable historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, summed it up best when he argued,
The racism that we know, was born in Europe and America from the cultural need to justify doing to black people, doing to Africans, what could not morally or legally be done to white people, least of all to Europeans. To justify the enslavement of Africans, in short, it was culturally necessary to believe…that Africans were inherently and naturally less than human… That was the cultural basis…of the slave trade and of the modern imperialism of Africa which followed the slave trade.
Prior to this, xenophobia and the association of blackness with evil were not unknown in the ancient world, but they did not constitute in the words of Davidson “a weapon of dispossession and exploitation.” In fact, there was a time when Europeans revered Africa. Building on the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, Martin Bernal’s path-breaking study Black Athena convincingly documents the great extent to which Greek thinkers of the Classical Age admired Egyptian civilization and drew upon its rich tradition of governance, and intellectual and artistic production. This history had to be done away with as Europe entered the age of new imperialism. Accordingly, Greece and by extension the rest of Europe, was severed from its African roots so that Africa and its people could be maligned and then plundered in the service of empire.
A cursory perusal of the racist ideologies espoused by some of Europe’s most famous thinkers clearly demonstrates how knowledge production about Africans during the era of the slave trade centered on the idea of African inferiority. In the eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire wrote, "If their [Africans] understanding is not of a different nature from ours, it is at least greatly inferior. They are not capable of any great application or association of ideas, and seem formed neither in the advantages nor the abuses of our philosophy." Writing in the second half of the eighteenth century, famed German philosopher Immanuel Kant contended, "The Negroes of Africa have received from nature no intelligence that rises above the foolish. The difference between the two races is thus a substantial one: it appears to be just as great in respect to the faculties of the mind as in color."
David Hume, the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and historian, similarly regarded Africans as an inferior race:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the Whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men.
Needless to say, neither Hume, Voltaire, nor Kant had any firsthand knowledge of Africa and its people. Clearly these so-called Enlightenment thinkers were wandering in their own heart of darkness as they pontificated about Africa.
Equally unfamiliar with Africa, the early nineteenth century German philosopher, Georg Hegel, was nonetheless confident in his pronouncement that Africa existed outside history. Referring to sub-Saharan Africa in his seminal philosophical work, “Geographical Basis of History,” Hegel wrote, “Africa proper, as far as History goes back, has remained - for all purposes of connection with the rest of the World - shut up; it is the Gold-land compressed within itself, - the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.” He also placed so-called upland (sub-Saharan) Africans outside of universal comprehension when he argued, "the peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas, - the category of Universality." Hegel’s most significant influence, however, on future schools of anti-African racism was his contention that upland Africans continued to exist in a state of consciousness that he called “the Infancy of Humanity.” Such claims, would of course, become the ideological justification for colonialism.
Over a century and a half later the well-known Oxford historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, declared in the 1960’s that Africa had no history outside of the history of Europeans in Africa, "the rest" he said was "darkness." In Trevor-Roper’s opinion history was defined as “purposive movement,” of which he could find no evidence in Africa prior to the advent of Europeans, whom he claimed had “shaken the non-European world out of its past – out of barbarism in Africa.” As such he saw no point in studying pre-colonial Africa, for in his own words “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe” did not constitute History.
Returning to Basil Davidson, he notes that the success of racism’s “dehumanizing project needs no demonstration…for it is obvious in our culture to this day.” Although he wrote two decades ago, his observation is truer than ever. Racist assaults on global African humanity have not diminished in the post-slavery, post-independence or post-civil rights eras. In fact their vigor, boldness, and frequency are increasing at an alarming rate. Over the last year, alone, a battery of high profile incidents occurred in rapid succession in which deeply racist remarks and verbal assaults were targeted at Africans and people of African descent.
In November 2006, Michael Richards, best known for his role as Kramer in the US hit sitcom Seinfeld, unleashed a vicious racist attack during a performance at a Los Angeles comedy club. I won’t violate our dignity by reprinting the text of his attack here; suffice it to say that Richards’s remarks are an extension of the same kind of hatred that led to the lynching-deaths of thousands of African-Americans over the last two centuries. In 2007 the controversial American talk show host, Don Imus, and Duane “Dog” Chapman, star of the US reality show “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” were both embroiled in highly publicized scandals involving their use of racist language. The most frightening aspect of these three incidents is that we only know about them because Richards, Imus and Chapman were all caught on tape and their celebrity status led the media to pick up the stories. Imagine how many similar incidents occur everyday that go unrecorded and unnoticed.
American celebrities have by no means monopolized the assault against global African humanity. The newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Nobel Prize winning geneticist, James Watson, have both made headlines recently with their racist assertions about Africa and its people. During his first post-election tour of Africa, at Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, of all places, Sarkozy proclaimed:
The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has not sufficiently become part of history…The African peasant, who has lived for thousands of years according to the seasons, whose idea of life is to be in harmony with nature, only is familiar with the eternal return of rhythmic time by the repetition without end of the same gestures and the same words. In this conception where everything always begins again there is neither a place for the human adventure nor for the idea of progress... The problem of Africa is that it lives too much in the present in the nostalgia of the lost paradise of childhood.
It would appear that Sarkozy’s speechwriters owe a debt to Hegel and Trevor-Roper. The eminent Cameroonian scholar, Achille Mbembe, best captures the dynamic at work in Sarkozy’s speech as “violence by language.” More specifically, Mbembe asserts that “in all relations in which one of the parties is not free nor equal enough, the act of violation often begins with language – a language which, on the pretext of simply expressing the speaker’s deepest convictions, excuses all, refuses to expose its reasons and declares itself immune whilst at the same time forcing the weakest to bear the full force of its violence.” Indeed this is precisely what happened, as Sarkozy brutalized his audience composed primarily of university students, who were unable to speak truth to power at that specific moment.
This same process of “violence by language” is at work in the recent remarks made by James Watson, who is best known for his role in discovering the structure of DNA. In November 2007 he claimed that people of African descent are not as intelligent as people of European descent. In an interview that appeared in London’s Sunday Times he said he’s "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Watson’s remarks shocked so many people, in part because they fly in the face of decades of genetic research, which has shown that race is a biological myth. Not surprisingly, he was unable to offer any empirical evidence to back up his spurious claims. He ended his remarks by saying that while he hoped all people were equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.” I wonder what kind of scientific methods of data collection he employed in order to make that deduction. Particularly alarming, given Watson’s tremendous influence on shaping the nature of genetic research over the last four decades, is that his latest remarks are only the most publicized in a much longer history of disturbing assertions about racial inequality.
I could go on to list numerous other examples of allegedly learned people who have espoused similar thoughts and theories, but I’ve already given them more attention than they deserve. In the wake of every new racist assault Black people worldwide, along with those who have joined our struggle in solidarity, spend countless hours responding to other people’s hate and ignorance. Yet, this continual drain on our time and intellectual energy is one of the least recognized casualties of the racism propagated against us. Imagine the myriad other intellectual odysseys we could embark on if we weren’t continually defending two basic facts: we are equally human and we have a history!
By Carina Ray, Assistant Professor History Department, Fordham University, USA. A version of this essay first appeared in the January 2008 edition of New African magazine.