Category Archives: rape

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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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!