I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.
Meanwhile, in English class, Mrs. Thelma Vanderweiss (not her real name) subjected us to a regimen of daily reading of verse in the sincere hope that “culture” would take root in our juvenile minds. We read and committed to memory sections of “Annabell Lee” by the tintinnabulating poet Edgar Allen Poe and other “classics” of nineteenth century American literature. She furthermore inflicted upon us one of her favorite “modern” compositions, Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.” Mrs. Vanderwiess , a tiny woman with a tyrannical air, was the whitest woman that I ever met. Her skin was pale, her pallor accentuated by her fashionably powdered cheeks. She was, indeed, fair skinned from her high forehead to her diminutive feet, but I intend more than that; her air epitomized to me the aristocratic pretension that I thought Mobile’s white society espoused. She always wore large diamond rings on her fingers, white pearls and a demur dress or business suit; and black pumps after Labor Day. She seemed perpetually offended that she must attempt to instruct such uncultivated pupils as we. She rarely smiled in my presence. I recall how she drilled the class daily in the recitation of “The Congo” for weeks. It was to be the centerpiece of a school-wide assembly. The sound of her more than her image haunts me still; it is her pointed-toe shoe stomping the rhythm on the worn pine floors of the now razed Robert E. Lee High School building where we were holding classes. “Stomp—THEN I SAW THE CONGO—stomp—CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK—stomp— . . . . Do you feel the beat? All together now! Stomp— CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST—stomp— WITH A GOLDEN TRACK—stomp. . . . That’s it! You’re getting it!”
The rhythm was exciting and, despite my aversion to the manner of Mrs. Vanderweiss, I fell in love with the power and music of the poetry. Lindsay’s rhythms were intoxicating. There was jazz in the meter. I suspect that the poet was sympathetic to the plight of the inhabitants of the Congo, but his voice was not the voice of a black man even though it had the power of the beat of the human heart. His verse was a minstrel voice dressed up in black-face chanting a white man’s song. It was only pretending to be in the Style Africaine. Even a young teen such as I could discern the patronizing and denigrating tone of the poem entitled “The Congo, A Study of the Negro Race” with stanzas named “Their Basic Savagery,” and “Their Irrepressible High Spirits,” and “The Hope of their Religion.” I was embarrassed but could not explain why when we chanted lines like, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” and “A good old negro in the slums of the town/ Preached at a sister for her velvet gown….” I did not know any Africans nor did I really know any “colored people” in my town, and thus, I had no way to test my misgivings. But something seemed odd to me about the characterizations and words I was chanting.
I might have marveled then, as I do now, if I had known of the African community around the corner. In a curious and ignored twist of history a transplanted African village existed for a century less than ten miles from where our map hung in my school room. I might have felt more connected to Africa and to history if I had known of Africatown. As it happened, in 1860, in the year before Alabama’s secession from the union and the subsequent “War between the States,” a swaggering Mobile ship builder, Captain Timothy Meaker, bragged that, although the importation of slaves had been illegal in the United States since 1808 and had been declared a capital offense equivalent to piracy in 1820, he had built a sloop fast enough to out run any Yankee gunboat. He could defy the jack-leg Feds and meddling abolitionists. He made good on his boast when he handed the Clotilde over to a Captain William Foster of Maine for the purpose of acquiring a cargo of humans.
Foster had no difficulty in securing the “merchandize.” The Dahomey tribesmen who resided in what is present day Benin happily sold their Tarkbar captives to the captain for $100 per head. Unfortunately for Meaker, when the Clotilde reached Mobile, the Federal troops were waiting. He sailed the sloop up the Mobile River, herded most of his human cargo onto a barge, and shipped them to Montgomery. Then he ran the ship aground and burned it. Later the thirty-two Africans that he had reserved for his own use were cut loose and settled on his property, freed presumably to avoid his being caught red-handed. When the war broke out, the displaced African nucleus was joined by others who had escaped their captivity up state. Together, they established a discrete community with a distinctly African culture just three miles from downtown Mobile. Known locally as
“Africatown,” it persisted until World War II as an identifiable community. This was the last instance in US history of the importation of slaves into North America. It seemed so long ago, but the last survivor of the Clotilde “passed” only thirteen years before I was born. Meaker was apprehended but was never convicted, the Civil War intervening. African history happened next door and I never knew it. Perhaps those who taught me did not know it either, or perhaps they ignored it since they thought it irrelevant. I realize now that I really knew nothing about Africa or Africans until I met Duke Badejogbin in college.
Duke was a Nigerian. He was a Yoruba. He was my brother in Christ. When we met in my second year of college, I began to learn something of what was Africa. He was one of the first missionaries from the Nigerian Baptist Convention to the country of Sierra Leon, more than a thousand miles up the coast of West Africa.
“I realized that I needed more education if I were to minister to the people the way our Father wanted me to,” he said, pronouncing “education” with a precision that inspired in me a new appreciation for the word. “But when I wrote to the mission board to ask to return home, they cut us off completely. There was no more support. We were marooned without enough money to buy food or a ticket for the boat home. We sold everything we had, down to the pans as small as this,” he showed me the pink palm of his left hand as he made a slicing motion at his wrist with his right. “But God is good. He brought us home and now He has brought me here to study.”
I learned from Duke how he had reluctantly left his children and pregnant wife in the care of his family and ventured to the United States. I agonized with him and prayed with him when word came of the coup back home and how Elizabeth, his wife, had fled with their children to the bush. Then I rejoiced with him when he learned of the birth of his son Ayo and at the news of their safety. Soon Elizabeth and Ayo joined him while the older children remained with his parents.
He taught me rudimentary elements of his Yoruba culture, how his family name was a badge of honor signifying that his ancestor was the friend and advisor of the tribal ruler who danced the Jogbin dance with the chief, how his family did actually live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and no door. Thus, I learned of the custom of clapping your hands at the doorway instead of knocking on the nonexistent panel. He taught me that sanitized running water, air conditioning, electricity and automobiles that effortlessly rode on paved streets were luxuries that I took for granted without thinking. It was no stereotyped lie; many Nigerians did not enjoy these amenities. I found nothing to belittle him about. Instead, I admired this short wiry man, his courage and resilience.
From Duke, I heard of Schweitzer’s philosophy and ethic: that all life was sacred and we must exercise a grand reverence for life. When a visitor was about to swat a mosquito, the Nobel laureate is reported to have cautioned, “Take thought! Remember that you are a guest in this country.” One Sunday afternoon, my fiancé and I were visiting Duke and Elizabeth in their apartment on Second Street near the black church that was sponsoring their stay in Waco. Suddenly, Duke pulled off his slipper and flung it across the room. I turned just in time to see a cockroach skitter behind a bookcase. I asked him, “What would Dr. Schweitzer say?” He replied sheepishly, “That is philosophy. This is different. I must think about Ayo now.” Then he smiled. His look reminded me of what he had told me, “Ayo means ‘joy’. As Isaac means ‘laughter’ because Sarah and Abraham laughed when he was born, so we called our son ‘Ayo’ because he brought joy to Elizabeth’s and to my heart.” At that moment we were not Yoruba and Alabamian, Nigerian and American; we were brothers. I began better to understand Africa. The inhabitants of the continent were people as we are, grown from a different soil but of the same seed, cherishing a different history and culture but with the same needs and longings.
A curious word “stereotype.” We use a stereoscope to see things in the round. We listen to stereophonic music to be immersed in the sound. In stereo we better understand the reality of a thing and it seems more “solid.” But when we harbor a stereotype of a person or place, we substitute a counterfeit death-rigored lie for the living, breathing reality. I have grown to distrust statements like “All _____ are _____.”
I still despair sometimes. We cling so jealously to our tribalism and distrust of others not of our clan. “We belong to the European tribe, the Anglo-Irish clan, the Italian family, the French enclave, the Cherokee Nation,” I think I hear us mutter. “They” are the Africans or the Indians; they are the Whites or the Hispanics, the Asians or the Arabian; they are all a different tribe.
I hear African voices, “We are Tarkbar; they are Dahomey. They killed our ancestors; they sold us to Captain Foster of the tribe of Maine who was just the agent of Captain Timothy Meaker of the clan of Alabama. . . . We are ‘Kikuyu;’ we are Muingiki, the second Mau Mau; death to the European exploiters.”
I worry that the tyranny of the tribe survives too strong in our breast. Yet, opposing the rule of the clan, of the tribe, of the race, opposing “us or them” stands the Family of Man. It affirms that we are one species, one humanity. It is not “us or them,” rather, it is only “us,” or it is nothing.
The real shape of the Earth is a sphere, and its net of latitude and longitude begins in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Congo. This is an appropriate convention of geography. “Appropriate,” I call it because anthropologists tell us that humanity—Adam and his bride—began their pilgrimage somewhere in east Africa. Thus, there is ultimately “home.” Thus the proper map of Africa and of its place in the world would show it at the center of our view of a globe. On the other hand, anywhere could be the center, for this planet is round. In spherical geometry one place is as good as another. What is more, when we look at it aright, we see that the coast of Africa is the complement of North and South America; West Africa fits neatly into the Gulf of Mexico, while the Gulf of Guinea cups Brazil comfortably. This remarkable fact exists because once, as children are now taught, the whole of all the land was one great Pangean continent. Later the waters and our history came between us, but the Earth still has no edge, no real border—no border at all, except that which we have drawn between us and the others—except of course for the great oceans and the rivers, like the Congo that yet spills blue across the map and into the sea of our imaginations.