On Mysterious Niggers

“Well, if a lot of mysterious niggers armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to travelling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon. Only here the dwellings were gone too.” – Marlow, in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

To follow up on the conversation begun in the “Furtive Movements” post about the fear of black men in North American society, I wanted to bring in some literary critique and historical review to expand the thought across borders and into the Pan-African realm.

Joseph Conrad spoke of “mysterious niggers” in Heart of Darkness when describing the instrument of ultra-violence and extreme terror that was the Force Publique, the army of the Congo Free State under Leopold II, wretched king of the Belgians. In the name of maximizing rubber-tapping output by the enslaved population of Leopold’s now private property – a territory the size of the United States east of the Mississippi or almost as large as India – these minions worked hard at decimating villages, cutting off hands, raping women, children and men, and torturing, mutilating and murdering without rest. These ruthless rubber enforcers were instrumental in exterminating some 10 million Congolese between roughly 1890 and 1910, when the Belgian state took over the Congo following the exposure of Leopold’s genocidal crimes in Central Africa in the name of profit. But the Force Publique, still in existence today as the Congo National Army, was recruited from amongst the indigenes of the Congo, young African men convinced and/or coerced by the virtues of raping their own country, taking the most meager cut of the pillage and giving the lion’s share to the colonial masters. In the past fifteen years or so, the latest genocide in Congo, played out mostly in the country’s east, has ended the lives of some 7 million Congolese. The same old coercive and violent structures remain in place, with proxy armies of the states of Uganda and Rwanda, simply called rebels in the shallow Western media, helping to enforce slave labor in the mining of precious minerals that are whisked away to the West and to East Asia by small planes in unmarked airstrips in the jungle. The Congolese Army likewise imposes this same regime and rapes and enslaves the Congo and its people for riches, leaving the most well-endowed land on the planet in a state that is extremely inhospitable to human life. And it is young African men, just like me, taking marching orders from utterly morally bankrupt and corrupt governments, or from greed and lust themselves, who are the in situ instruments of this mayhem.

But no one gets left off the hook by getting put in the category of mysterious niggers. And Joseph Conrad will not get a pass for coining that denigrating phrase either. Because these men are not niggers, they are African human beings. And they are not mysterious. They’re purpose is very well understood, obvious, one-dimensional and brutally frank. The minions of the Force Publique, the Congolese Army, and most other private and state-controlled armies and police forces across Africa which typically enforce exploitation and oppression in pursuit of a neocolonial agenda – their work is blatantly political, studied, coherent. So we will neither call the Force Publiques of the black world mysterious (what’s so mysterious about a violent enforcer of hegemony, no matter his/her tactics?), nor will we call them niggers, since they are part of our family, and they are fully human (if dehumanized by their deeds).

Not all Africans are good guys. We have to confront the internal sources of oppression and failure within our family and correct them by any means necessary. That is indeed the biggest obstacle to Uhuru – not the external and foreign forces we often get carried away with placing blame on, but the internal forces that prevent forward motion, the ones who look like us but that work in cahoots with the neo-colonial tendency and outside exploiters, that are preoccupied with satisfying their own boundless greed and need for instant gratification, and that possess unquestioned inferiority complexes about our capacity and potential as a people and a civilization, as Africans. Black inferiority complexes within us are ten trillion times worse than white supremacy is. For when we have full belief in our own full humanity, our unimaginable human potential, our beauty, our importance and our place in history, whatever we think exists of global white supremacy will suddenly have magnitudes less power to actually keep us from achieving what we wish, except perhaps by brute force (i.e. Leopold II), which is unlikely in this era.

Having rejected and denounced the concept of mysterious niggers, I acknowledge that we’ve all internalized it to some extent, all over the world. As for me, I love the man in the mirror. I like seeing other brothers, particularly those doing positive things in the world. But I know that my own starting point when strangers see me walking around North America as I do, the blank canvas I should be before I am judged by a new encounter – that eye draws me first and immediately as a mysterious nigger. In other words, I always begin in society as a mysterious nigger, at a minimum. And sometimes this holds true even in the eyes of other black people. Until I prove otherwise by my character, in some cases how I dress and carry myself, and even by my “well-spokenness,” I’m a mysterious nigger, I’m a dark suspect of unknown intentions. If I were of European descent with milk-toned skin, I would perhaps present to others as familiar and unthreatening, especially given how I already tend to dress and move through the world, which is to say unassumingly and business-casual with a sporty twist. But I’m just about as black as we come, West African through and through from the Niger Delta.

Back home, it would be different only in the sense that I won’t be such a threat to anyone, and there’s no racial, cultural and historical ice of ignominy to bust through, at least in getting to know someone who looks like family already and comes from the same universe. But colonialism has left so many vestiges of its culture of violence between Africans, played out by young African men as cheap pawns, that in many cases we are still mysterious niggers to one another.

I remember back in 2003 when I was 19 and really started to take a deep interest in African affairs. Back in that summer the civil war in Liberia was really heating up before it’s end very shortly thereafter. On the cover of the New York Times, some time in June or so, don’t remember, there was a picture of a young combatant in Monrovia roaring with the look of venom in his face, standing in the rain with a rocket launcher over his shoulder. That was one of the first times I really saw myself in another African man like that. I could have been that unnamed guy somehow, if circumstances were different. I mean I looked like that fellow, very likely an age-mate. And the New York Times, in not naming him, in showing this random African with a machine gun destroying things and killing his brothers, was depicting a textbook example of a mysterious nigger.

I want to humanize the black man. And in doing so I will never absolve African men of any crimes they’ve done, including against African women and children, and other African men, and anybody else for that matter. I will never absolve us from complicity in our own oppression, or unwillingness to challenge it. But I’m done thinking in the context of mysterious niggers.

How can you honestly prosecute a mysterious nigger? How can you judge a mysterious nigger who is in the wrong? By initiating a thought about that person wherein he is already in the “mysterious nigger” category from the start, one already has a negative and dehumanizing image and concept of this man.

I think it is almost revolutionary to start to think about young black men, even those who do wrong, as first fully human. Contemporary societies, whether in North America, the Caribbean, or Africa seem resistant to this. If I want to know the story of a young soldier who is now on trial for the crimes he committed in the early 2000s in Sierra Leone, I want to know him as the flawed, sick human being he is, and his history. I want no less knowledge about his victims. But when we pursue justice acknowledging one another’s humanity, including the potential psychoses, passions and prerogatives of all parties, I think we arrive inevitably at more fair results, and we do so in the light of better understanding.

Let us understand one another. No more mysterious niggers. Those gangbangers on the corner are not mysterious niggers – their sons, grandsons, cousins, fathers. Those rebels in the Congo, those Force Publique of old, those Tonton Macoute in Haiti, they are not black monsters. And black men individually are not monsters before we know who they are.

If we stop thinking numbly and dumbly about mysterious niggers with no known cause or cure, and start thinking about why violence happens, who funds it, who profits from it, and why men participate in it, we will go a lot further in preventing violence amongst young black men. We need the courage and the boldness to understand and humanize ourselves, and look one another in the eyes as humans, without prejudicial fear and loathing. We need to see one another, as young black men, with the eyes of understanding, at the very least. Our conditioning to hate one another is very difficult to act upon when we choose to understand each other, hear each other and listen carefully.

Let’s study ourselves, study the human mind, study these stereotypes that trap us, and break the chains of slavery and dehumanization, starting with the man (or woman) in the mirror. To defeat self-hate, revolutionary an act as it is, it starts with simply listening, understanding, and being patient enough to allow the sea of negativity within us to calm itself so we can see the beautiful, undeniable humanity that was within our black selves all along. Then we can share that insight and live that understanding. And ain’t understanding the kernel of love?

2 responses to “On Mysterious Niggers

  1. I had to read Joseph Conrad in an English class a while back, and I remember being really uncomfortable having to read him because of his depiction of Blackness. I was taking an African politics class at the same time, and I remember always cross-referencing the two classes. I particularly remember reading some material regarding international relations (IR) and a theorist saying that White IR scholars never really studied African political and economic systems because Africa was “beyond Western reason.” He also said that “Africa is the Other necessary for the construction of a mythical Western Self” as “Africa provides the mirror in which the West defines itself.” That made me think of Joseph Conrad and his setting up of Africa as undefined and inexplicable, which also got me thinking of Frantz Fanon and his theories about Africa being set up as a subordinated subject, gazed upon by Whiteness. If it is true that Africa is the mirror that the West gazes into for self-definition, then it becomes imperative for us to form a self-created (non-”mysterious”) image of ourselves–otherwise, we shatter underneath the mask, like Fanon said. Great post.

  2. Another impressive article, I think you are on point with everything argument you make here. One of the greatest errors we make as people is to dehumanize other individuals and groups. All people have an inherent value that trancends the sum total of their actions.

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