Category Archives: ethics

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?

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Gender Equality, Ubuntu, and Critical Thinking

March is women’s history month. But women make history all year, year after year. Women’s history is no joke. Women are no joke. Women are the harder-working half of humanity, hands down. They do the reproductive labor of our species, as well as productive labor. And because of patriarchal accounting systems, economies and cultures the world over, a woman’s reproductive labor is not fully accounted for; sometimes it is called leisure. But the very reproduction of the species is a far more significant task than leisure. We cannot monetize it. We cannot, or refuse to, dignify it the way our acquisitive culture dignifies the whole predominantly white male lot of Wall Street bankers who helped dramatically deepen the long crisis that capitalism is. The World Bank and IMF will not categorize and catalogue the full worth of women’s labor. But our patriarchal, consumer society has been far more successful at monetizing women’s bodies, at the gross objectification of sisters, daughters, and mothers for their body parts. In this way women are reduced to mannequins and sex dolls, display pieces in downtown boutiques, or rated, graded, and sold as if on the meat market of human flesh, as when dowries are paid. So any thoughtful vegan should be quick to recognize that the liberation of women furthers the cause. More monumental is the task of having men recognize that when women are liberated from gendercide, subordination, and second-class status as humans and as male property, we men will be liberated to become more fully human ourselves. Women’s liberation is its own worthy and urgent cause, but it is also to our own immediate advantage to participate in and share solidarity with full gender equality in our planetary civilization. For us to become more prosperous, more intelligent, and wiser, uniting with feminism is in the selfish interest of men – keeping it real. Reject male privilege. For women are no joke.

This is because an honest appraisal of who we are as individuals suggests the basic logic of the African philosophy of Ubuntu – that “I am because we are,” that we are fundamentally and immutably interdependent beings. It is informed by a basic ecological principle that whatever our material embodiment consists of, it automatically invokes and forms from the contributions of our parents, their parents, the food they ate, the sunshine that shone on it, the minerals/stardust that fed it, and ultimately, the entire universe itself. By this understanding, the American notion of “rugged individualism” is illogical and misleading, perhaps deliberately so as it aims to divide us, isolate us and atomize us. All of us constitute the community, and the full participation of each of us, realizing our full potential, permits collective prosperity. If women are denied an education, the community suffers the loss of her more fully realized participation and contribution to the intellectual and material well-being of the group. The direct consequence of the unjust enforcement of ignorance upon females is collective poverty. This can be proven by looking at any society that has strong evidence of ongoing work toward equalizing the statuses, opportunities and life chances of men and women, and then looking at a society that treats women like livestock, like household appliances. The more just society is always more prosperous, healthy, educated, safe, clean, and so on, by many multiples across any human development measure.

Active critical thinking informs an honest assessment, for men, of the problem with oppressing women, or even passively acquiescing to their oppression. Think, for example, about how women in urban communities around the United States (really worldwide) must deal with street harassment, with the catcalling and worse, which exacerbate the oppression of black women. The street harassment paradigm posits the threat of violence over all of us. Street harassment is motivated by false and problematic beliefs in males of inherent domination, unearned privilege, the machismo quest for superficial and immediate validation, and the pursuit of easy sexual gratification. These are among the same exact prerequisites for deadly beefs on the street between us black men, the same ingredients for the horizontal violence perpetrated between us. While it is objectively true that the external factors of poverty and social debasement have often left us little option but to get over at the expense of one another, we destroy ourselves when we conform to the external anti-black expectation of our manifest, mass failure to thrive in any sustainable way. The motives of street harassment are one and the same as the motives for fatal internecine hostility. This in turn helps, in part, to enable mass incarceration of black men. Thus, the macho atmosphere of street harassment, which makes the lives of our sisters, mothers and daughters unbearable and dangerous, also makes our lives as men perilous. Street harassment is emblematic of a violent community towards all of its members. The streets with the most street harassment are also the streets where the most black brothers die at one another’s hands. Street harassment, rape and bloodshed all live on the same block.

Critical thinking, aggressively centered on a defense of the dignity and full value of human beings, should also inform how we draw conclusions about how we relate to one another and whether or not what we call “tradition” is worth any respect by any intelligent person in this day and age. If you value your own humanity, we can safely and logically assume that other humans value their own essence and identity as well, and consider themselves worth a fair chance in society. Grounded in this logic, a logic that is more immediate to us as humans than almost any other, we should be able to safely regard any tradition, religion, book, philosophy, politic, ethic, or other source of culture and thought that denies the humanity and dignity of people who are different from the majority, or from those with power, as highly suspect, at best. Thus, those who see difference in others and thus deny that others’ humanity, are behaving illogically, and hatefully besides.

The debate around homosexuality in Africa is centered, for the homophobes, in strange defenses of “tradition” or “religion” that claim the alienness of homosexuality to Africa, the “unnaturalness” of gay sex, and so on. These conclusions are fundamentally antihuman, and thus are to be fundamentally rejected; they are unscientific, dishonest and illogical besides. The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community is no joke. They are human beings. They are part of the community. They are worthy of respect and of every opportunity to fully contribute to and participate in the growth and empowerment in community; this is no less true in Africa or in black communities anywhere than it is in the West or any other part of the planet. The homophobes in power in Nigeria, in Uganda and elsewhere are using politics to disenfranchise, terrorize, scapegoat and dehumanize a part of the community that should be given every right to enjoy their human lives and be the sisters and brothers to our family that they truly are. By thinking critically and imagining ourselves the target of these laws and antihuman paradigms, we cannot but help draw conclusions that lead us to recognize the inhumanity and fundamental stupidity of homophobia and patriarchy. In this vein, heterosexual people should stand in full solidarity and advocate for the full inclusion and enfranchisement of our homosexual kin. This is the mature stance which will allow all of us to contribute our utmost to grow as a collective. Reject your heterosexual privilege and arrogance. Lives are at stake – and by the logic, critical thinking and Ubuntu understanding we have applied here thus far, it is unacceptable to deny the humanity of anyone in our community, no matter what gender or sexual identities they are born with or adopt. When we begin to take what private parts people have, or what they do with them in private, as justification for branding certain people unworthy of human dignity, we are being utterly childish, and any religion, tradition, or person that has that tendency is also ignorant, childish, dangerous and stuck in the stone-ages.

As a heterosexual male, I hope I have made a reasonable case that we, over-privileged straight men, will be far better off when we reject the convenient privileges of our status which permit us to dominate women and dehumanize gays. Equality of opportunity, for women to be born, to be educated, to enjoy equal participation in the maintenance of a family and household, and to be able to contribute their fullest potential to our collective excellence, will always lead to a superior quality of life for our community. The same equality of opportunity and recognition of humanity for non-heterosexual members of our community will also enable everyone to contribute fully and without fear of denigration.

Machismo is deadly to women and to men. Patriarchy and male supremacy are harming the planet and keeping millions of women from even being born, let alone contributing their full worth to the excellence of humanity. Only equality – an equality that enables us, especially as men, to see women as at our level in all productive, cognitive and creative capacities – can move us forward.

Gender inequality is a hallmark of underdevelopment, a cornerstone of neocolonialism and a function of ignorance. All sorts of indicators of social well-being in different societies show this. And when men, straight men at that, reject the insults of patriarchy, chauvinism, and homophobia, we truly begin to become revolutionary. For we begin to honor the basic nature of human beings that the Ubuntu principle reminds us of – that I am because we are, that all of us deserve to participate to the fullest might we can muster as free people towards our collective greatness.

African “Causes” and the Tragic White Liberal

Today’s broadcast of Al Jazeera’s The Stream was pretty insightful on a number of fronts. The Congolese journalist and analyst Mvemba Dizolele was brilliantly on point each time he spoke – his point being that a law against conflict minerals passed in Washington won’t do jack for the Congo and its ongoing conflict, rooted in vicious neocolonialism which impact the whole of the Congo (and all of Africa), and not just Eastern Congo and its militia-controlled mines and mass rapes. The broad and insidious roots must be addressed primarily, he asserted. He kept it so real and talked about actual Congolese, the actual experience around the Congo, and the kind of ironic attention and money a Western-led cause brings to certain of these conflicts of Africa. But I really love how he remarks repeatedly that you can’t pretend to solve the problems of all of Congo, or of even Eastern Congo, by having Western activists press for narrowly defined laws and responsibility among Western corporations as if that will save the Congo. But so much of this goes without considering the input, experiences, priorities and insights of the people of the Congo. This Western liberal style wants to deal with gory or salacious particulars and symptoms of the problem upon which to build glamorous and grossly simplified campaigns, such as around the widely known war on women and blood mining in the Kivus. This shows that many of these Western activists are not listening, are paternalistic, and are too timid to address systemic issues which are the cause of much ongoing conflict, exploitation and progresslessness in Africa.

Sasha Lezhnev of the Enough Project insists that to go into the broader reasons for the conflict won’t work. Won’t work for whom? For the mostly privileged white activists in Manhattan or on K Street who need to dumb down their agenda as much as possible so the mindless, wholly bought politicians in Congress or at the UN can understand them? Neither DC nor the UN can legislate any viable solutions for Africa. Africa and Africans are the only people who can push the African revolution forward and save and develop Africa. Africans have fates bound to what actually happens in Africa, in conflict areas or elsewhere. Africans are the ones to be heard for and to enact solutions. We Africans definitely know what’s going on and have thought about and struggled around these contradictions for a long-ass time.

It seems throughout this debate that Mr. Lezhnev is barely listening to Mr. Dizolele and his impassioned articulations of how a conflict minerals embargo is both ultimately useless and reflective of somewhat misplaced energies. What makes this clear is that Mr. Lezhnev frequently refers to vague statements from UN reports about some sort of progress for the new legislation that have moved former miners to other economic sectors. A lot of this evidence seems weak and contrived given the realities Mr. Dizolele refers to about what’s going on at the ground level with people he is connected to as a Congolese.

It is the system that is not working! The system of global parasitic capitalism, neocolonialism, patriarchy, and vicious historical exploitation which have built mayhem and corruption into the DNA of post-colonial societies the world over! The system of deep regional disintegration and woeful underdevelopment toward the benefit of multinational access to cheap minerals, timber, and even arable land that should benefit the Congolese but does not! So-called legit minerals, with the current system left in tact, would hardly lead to much better outcomes for Congolese than whatever prevails today.

It’s not about a single issue! To focus on it as a single issue, I feel, and seems to be true for Mr. Lezhnev and a lot of people like him, is to both attempt at very simplistic, aloof feel-good do-gooding, and to also be engaging in an ignorance of the fundamental histories and challenges of peoples of the third world and people of color while trying to solve their problems as a white liberal. I think this is symptomatic of the tragic white liberal syndrome. Not listening, not having genuine relationships, assuming leadership when it wasn’t asked and isn’t effective, assuming strange powers to solve fundamental problems without even questioning the fundaments of a problem. Especially when you yourself are part of the fundaments of a problem.

It makes no sense to me to assert that it’s more effective to address one single symptom of a failed system (i.e. conflict minerals, blood diamonds, etc.), than to address the political root causes of the system and its failings. It seems to be that you are a much more effective critical thinker when you are able to interrogate and articulate the roots of a systemic problem that manifests in various bloody ways. The disintegration of Congolese society is rooted most deeply in Leopold’s brutal occupation of the country, followed by formal Belgian colonization, the defeat of African liberation represented by the assassination of Lumumba, and war after war in which the West by their African proxies in Rwanda and Uganda greatly benefitted from access to minerals and other commodities amidst the mayhem, not to mention countless oppressive and greedy Africans. Congolese know this. It’s not very different in Nigeria or Haiti. You have to be cognizant of the legacies of domination and their justifications to contemplate why and how they cause symptoms of chaos.

It can only be dishonest to do otherwise, to focus on a single issue. Of course we might struggle in particular against something, but we must acknowledge as dishonest and ignorant any attempt to assert that to struggle against the systemic historical and socio-political roots of the problem is too difficult or counterproductive. In fact, to dismiss the primacy of struggling against whole systems of oppression is downright counterrevolutionary. Hanging on to symptoms only is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy and even collusion with the corrupt system.

I detest conflict minerals and the war on women in the Congo. But the answer to those things is not a law in DC or white liberals campaigning about one single issue as if in a vacuum. That’s the problem – posing the entire challenge as “rape in the Congo” or “conflict minerals in the Congo.” It causes some to ignore the roots and broader manifestations of the crisis. People are dying in the Congo, across the whole of the territory, and while it is crucial to highlight some of these glaring symptoms, ignoring the neocolonial system and its super-exploitation and underdevelopment is ridiculous. A Western law against conflict minerals, as Mr. Dizolele notes, only leads to more smuggling, different but equally brutal manifestations of exploitation and war, and so on.

It’s better to study the ideas and examples of, and participate directly in the struggles of, the revolutionaries and activists in Congo and from Congo, who understand things systemically and whose fate depends directly on deeply understanding the problems rather than only attacking symptoms. Take the lead of Congolese and African strugglers. Listen to them and share their fate. This is more effective than peripheral laws somewhere far away that sidestep the issue and demonstrate paternalistic, ineffective and willful ignorance of failed social systems that some of these white liberals seem content only finding politically-palatable bandaids for.

Shout out to the awesome sista Latoya Peterson for helping host the show – excellent work!

Ode to Spinach (and to Better Ethical Judgment)

Spinach (raw) is easily my favorite leafy green, and I am not alone in this opinion. I’ve had conversations with friends about this, men who confirm how delicate the texture of spinach is, how rarified its flavor, how subtle its aroma, how nutritious to the human body. To those outside of the knowledge-base and experientially-received and confirmed wisdom of plant-based diets/ veganism/ fruitarianism/ etc., spinach can be declared a plentiful “obvious” or “overt” source of “protein” for when the question inevitably arises as to how certain of us thrive and excel on naught but fruits and vegetables. A casual look at its nutrition data here (check its glorious amino acid score), or a detailed discussion of its entire and excellent nutritional profile at whfoods, are offered to further bolster my claims.

But I need not only offer the substantive evidence of food analysts to extol the virtues of spinach. My practice of fruitarianism/ low fat raw veganism benefits from regular and plentiful sourcing of spinach in my palate, so I know my body is getting what it needs to build, show and prove. Wellness and vigor are my uninterrupted daily expressions and actualization in the world, not illness and torpor. Fruits and leafy greens in abundance let me express those characteristics so consistently and readily. They alone fuel the body seen here, the kettlebell tossing, martial arts doing, physical culture and active transportation loving author of this very blog. And they alone are sufficient.

And when I seek leafy greens, although there are many varieties, spinach is the one most likely to please. I chop it up into my raw okra stews – of whom the spinach-based type is always a favorite, both to myself and those I’ve shared it with. I cut it up and make it the plush green bed upon which a zucchini pasta dish lies. I make simple salads with it, mixed with cucumber, romaine lettuce hearts (my second favorite greens), and tomatoes (and sometimes carrot strips, red bell peppers, etc.).

Spinach is an excellent choice for those who recognize the brutality of any and all justifications for slaughtering animals for “nutritional” reasons, especially for “protein.” A high-volume balanced-variety whole-foods plant-based diet, primarily based on fresh fruits and supplemented by leafy greens, is all but incapable of causing “protein deficiency.” The nutrition links above demonstrate the high-density of “protein” in spinach, which has an exceptionally strong balance and concentration of the essential amino acids found in all edible plants (also read this). Trace amounts of essential fatty acids (and we don’t need more than daily “trace” intake of them) are also well-deployed in spinach. In a nutshell, spinach, and other whole plants and fruits, are all the “meat-replacer” you need. The spinach-based salads I mentioned above are an excellent replacement for the meat dish you want to now eliminate from your diet. You can get out of the blood and guts business and into the color and vibrancy of fruits and veggies with confidence. Your ethical consciousness will no longer trip over itself making rationalizations for murder, violence and pollution. Your body will thank the shining of your moral mind and logic, your palate will enjoy the flavor of freshness and life, and your body will provide the gift of wellness, lightness and stamina in the everyday world.

When I see clean, fresh loose spinach in the market, I recognize that the grocers selling it take their greens seriously. Too many supermarkets, especially in the ghetto, think they can get away with serving wrinkled, dehydrated, decomposing spinach and charge two bucks a pound for the compost-ready but unpalatable substance. This is highly problematic, because fresh spinach is both a delicacy and a potential staple in the plant-based, human performance-oriented kitchen.

For the perfect balance of subtle, smokey flavor and savory texture, I endorse spinach. For the male and female vegan body-builders and athletes, I endorse spinach. For the ethical people emerging from death-based murder diets and looking to get “protein” in the conventional sense, I endorse spinach (in balance with other fruits and veggies). For being a strong and thriving human with a robust immune system and fewer trips to the doctor, the beautiful leaf called spinach stands endorsed.

Go support your spinach growers (as opposed to butchers, soy processors, etc.). And it’s an easy enough to cultivate plant that you can grow some in your yard too, depending on where you live.

Eat some organic raw leafy spinach today – eat a pound of it.