Category Archives: police state

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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Furtive Movements

The Precision Afrikan, very dark and furtive, doing furtive movements like squatting in an empty room and chewing, indeed chomping, into the innocent white flesh of an apple. Filthy delinquent.

I have wondered about the criteria for NYC’s (and other cities’) stop and frisk policies for some time now, namely that of “furtive movements.” I have been a black man in NJ and NYC for 28 years now. I have been stopped and questioned in NJ once, stopped and frisked there once, and stopped, frisked and arrested in NYC once, that one for riding a bike in the street, all charges dropped of course. All of this happened in the period from my mid-teens to my very early twenties, the early 2000s, and none recently. All of it happened while just walking or standing around somewhere, or in the Manhattan case, bike riding, not on the sidewalk or anything, nor in the opposite direction of traffic. 100% law-abiding casual activities. But I know very few young or older black men in my circle who haven’t had such an experience, as law-abiding, peaceful citizens doing ordinary things in their everyday travels. Neither I nor any of these men have ever been engaged in Uncle Sam’s work of poisoning our community with narcotics, have never engaged in highway robbery nor attempted knocking over a bank, have never abused women nor anyone else sexually, nor perpetrated any other proper statutory crime. Yet we all walk around as suspects automatically as a result of our existential condition as black men inhabiting North America.

The wiktionary defines “furtive” as stealthy or exhibiting guilty or evasive secrecy. The NYPD will initiate a stop and frisk on the basis of, among other justifications, “furtive movements,” which is my favorite. The NYPD has stopped and frisked 4 million New Yorkers since 2004, and about 690,000 in 2011 alone, 85 percent of those stopped and frisked black or latino, the vast majority young men. Only 9 percent of these stops yield arrests, those often for past warrants for minor crimes, along with a very modest number of discoveries of narcotics and even less weapons (read a good Village Voice article on the matter here). So stop and frisk evidently has nothing to do with crime, and everything to do with intimidation of an entire population which the city, the Bloomberg administration anyway, does not want around – young black and brown men like myself.

We can also safely draw the conclusion from the evidence presented that all movements by black men are furtive. Notice the picture above, wherein the Precision Afrikan chews an apple. How furtive! How dare he! What is he hiding? Why is he being so sneaky, squatting in the corner, darkly and rudely, slinking around with mysterious and ominous intentions? He must be about to sell crack cocaine while raping a baby. The image says it all.

If you’re young, black and male and you’re brushing your teeth, you’re guilty. If you’re young, black and male and you’re scratching your nose while reading a newspaper on a bench in Prospect Park, you obviously just flooded the hood with heroin laced with gun powder. If you’re black, young and male and you’re taking a walk, we all know you just molested a toddler before mugging a tourist. And if you’re black, young and male and you’re taking a jog around the neighborhood, you definitely just killed five white people.

Everything we do, by the mysterious, snaky gesticulations of our lanky black limbs, by the odious shifting of our dark eyes, is obviously suggestive of evil intent. Yes, this must be why this happens to us. Existentially, black youth is elementally married to the characteristic of furtiveness. Even the most mundane thing we could possibly do has the flavor of villainy. At least to cops.

That’s why they’re also very quick to kill young black men, even in their own homes, like the teenager Ramarley Graham earlier this month in the Bronx, who was unarmed and assassinated by the cops in his own bathroom in front of his little brother and grandmother. This sort of police terrorism happens ever so frequently and consistently. With us, any commitment to apply constitutional considerations or restraint of force flies out of the window. The “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” policies are primarily about containing and terrorizing youth of color and ruining our lives, not crime prevention or improving our quality of life, not in the least. The police truly work us and our communities like an occupying army.

I go to school at Columbia University Medical Center in Washington Heights; most afternoons during lunch break I take a walk around the hood, around the Heights and Harlem. And whenever I see the cops, I admit, I hate them. I often feel like wearing this black skin and being a young man is something akin to wearing a yellow star of david in Hitler’s Europe – not precisely like that, but not too far either. The prison-industrial complex, a beneficiary of society’s willful failure to provide a future for youth of color, a beneficiary of the insane war on drugs, and a beneficiary of the criminalization of people who look like me, is literally eating black men alive by the hundreds of thousands in this country. This is how a vile colonial relationship with imperial power works, with mass incarceration of subject populations. This is how a caste system works, where it is assumed that a young black or brown man is a lesser being and a morally depraved being, a convenient conclusion to those who profit from our oppression and destruction.

So is it so far fetched to assume, based on how society shallowly and dishonestly draws its racist conclusions, that when they see me eating that apple, they see rage and dark intentions, solely because I’m a black man?

Naked villainy.

How many other brothers out there, particularly up here in NYC, or in Newark, Philly, DC or wherever, feel me on this? That we are almost made to internalize our own supposed guilt about something, so that we learn somehow to move in “less threatening” ways? I just move however I want, personally, and stare down the cops, cursing under my breath, and watching them close, the same way they do me.

Discuss. More importantly, organize and resist. As Dead Prez said, it’s war.