Category Archives: slavery

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?

Poverty Contests

An article published in today’s New York Times reports on efforts in India to enshrine access to food as a constitutionally protected right, a law its proponents expect could enable the food-insecure to make their own market choices to purchase food with food coupons or cash, instead of waiting for monthly 77 pound bags of grain, sugar and kerosene under the current regime. The article also goes on to highlight statistics about how India’s poverty is more widespread and intense than Africa’s, despite the “Tiger” rebranding and annual economic growth rate. A report compiled in India Current Affairs in July also highlights these poverty rankings, comparing the one Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in the country’s center with the entire Democratic Republic of Congo, both of similar population (though the Congo’s size is more comparable to India in its entirety), and finding the same levels of deprivation, even with DRC’s wars (though Madhya Pradesh is not without Naxalites and other struggles for land and resources between communities and multi-national mining and other interests, not unlike DRC).

On the one hand, the expectation around the world seems to be of Africa as the world’s eternal poverty yardstick. This in spite of similar levels of conventionally measured economic growth in a number of Sub-Saharan countries that approach such activity as seen in India in recent years. By comparing favorably to Africa, a government should have license to claim progress in the war on poverty – that’s the ridiculous, racist assumption, an assumption of development stasis.

On the other more important hand, these rankings and contests, especially as presented in the links mentioned above, are patently absurd in themselves, ignoring the basic fact that most of the annual GDP growth measures the rise in income of mostly exclusive urban, male, elite high-end sectors which determine and direct mining, cash-crop, real estate (land displacement), and [cheapest] labor configurations which exclude vast rural populations, whether in India, Congo, or Colombia. Human beings are impoverishing other human beings – not continental geographies. And the story is similar in most geographies including those concerned in this essay – Adivasis in rural Chhattisgarh struggle to hold on to their land in the face of “Memoranda of Understanding” signed by illegitimate politicians to mining interests to violently displace the people from their land, similarly to how Niger Delta militants attack oil infrastructure and kidnap oil workers in response to land displacement and ecosystem destruction by a half century of oil exploitation by foreign corporations in happy concert with local state governments and the Federal Government of Nigeria.

Once you understand neo-colonialism and neoliberal market economics, these patterns can be easily understood as to how they determine poverty and struggle around the third world. Malnutrition and poverty propagate fastest and most consistently wherever governments fail to prioritize enabling peripheral population groups to exact their own capacity to cultivate, live and eat of the land. Changes in the environment, and dietary demands which may place undue stress on the ecosystem and reduce its carrying capacity, may further impede nutrition and food security, as predominates in Sahelian countries that currently suffer serious drought. But policy-makers in much of the third world more often than not do not care, since they do not share the same fate as those far beyond the capitals, the urban and privileged spaces where they bury their heads, forgetting what rural populations go through, forgetting they exist.

I think that in itself, that food security should become a constitutional and human right anywhere is excellent. But a shifting in societal priorities would be a more lasting solution, towards actually considering the plights of women, of agriculturalists, and enabling their self-determination while the wealth of the nation focuses first on human and ecological needs rather than profit for exploitative corporations and salaries for ministers and bureaucracies.

Why focus on these poverty contests, with Africa at level zero? These statistics only measure those who, already in positions of control over powerful economic interests, are getting richer as they exploit more underpaid, vulnerable workers, and the land those workers may have been displaced or evicted from. These statistics don’t measure women’s reproductive work, don’t measure broader levels of quality of life that get inflated by those at the very top, even while the masses at the bottom suffer more dispossession and malnutrition year after year.

Human solidarity is to be encouraged instead. The same problems in Nigeria or Congo are found in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Peru, the same exact identical types of fierce corruption, the same exact types of high-official sellouts, the same exact identical types of Western aspirationalism and mimicry, the same exact types of ideological and religious extremisms and hysterias which cripple the masses from thinking critically and boldly enough to challenge the regimes that cause their suffering, the same exact multinationals praying on their resources, human and natural, to be exploited to the lowest common denominator. The same exact types of ignorance forced upon the masses with the absence of schools and the tolerance of illiteracy, despite official claims to the contrary. The exact same types of oppression of labor activists and human-rights campaigners and journalists. The exact same types of classisms and casteisms that compel generations to accept their designated desperation. The same exact types of false democracies in which the people do not have choice or voice in the structural economic questions of society, only at best over the latest personality who says the prettiest things or just looks pretty, but in power does little to nothing of the good he or she promised.

Thus I reject poverty contests. Instead, I move towards human collaboration and solidarity in the third world in pursuit of revolution! Towards the African revolution, the South Asian revolution, the Latin American revolution, the world revolution! Towards human-based economics! Towards the end of rapacious capitalism, the end of the rush to privatize water, seeds and land! Towards human and community-level self-governance and self-determination! Towards the humanization of labor such that people are not reduced to pack mules to produce Wal-Mart products at competitively lower and lower wages in ever more dangerous workplaces!

Towards human development work which is interested in human development, not numbers nudging and statistics masturbating.