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Posts Tagged ‘National Black History Month’

As we grow, we draw our own maps of the world as we imagine it, gathering cartographic “facts” wherever we can, from what we are told and from what we see for ourselves on the journey.  At the end of the middle decade of the twentieth century—just as you might turn a calendar page or flip over a map leaf to discover hidden notes scribbled underneath—I turned over too.  In 1960 I began to understand for the first time that most issues of life and history are more subtle than they would have you believe who perennially view the world only in black and white and explain it all by a simple and comfortable paradigm and in a rigid stereotype.   The world is not peopled by identical copies of even a few types that are easily characterized as “good” or “evil.”

As I turned the calendar page to 1960, I began to suspect, as well, that ignorance was never an impediment to opinion, and uninformed opinion—no matter how emphatically affirmed or taught, or perhaps especially when it is chanted—is ignorance most blatant, most diabolical.  Moreover, ignorance is often chained in the darkness of its own shadow out back while prejudice hawks out front with midway barker shouts of “Hey! Rube!” but it is actually counterfeited knowledge and bogus light within.  I ultimately concluded that we do well to stand in humility before continents of human experience that are dimly known to us and reserve our judgment of those we do not understand.

 

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A map of Africa ca. 1960 source: http://www.timemaps.com

 

The decade that began when I entered the second year of junior high school was one of world-wide political upheaval.  Colonialism and Imperialism, that had flourished for centuries, were rapidly dying in a convulsion of nationalism.  No object better represents that turmoil in my memory than a giant map of the continent of Africa that hung on the wall of my social studies and geography classroom.  I entered eighth grade with an eager expectation of exploring Africa, at least from an ancient wooden school desk, if not from an armchair.  I, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, had “a passion for maps . . . I would put my finger on [a place] and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”  In my imagination I already had been there.  I put out my finger and traced the boundaries of Africa, of its coastline, of its rivers, of its colorful countries.

 

In profile the continent reminded me of the brow ridge of a skull—somehow human—like that of a brooding silver back gorilla or of a millions-of-years-old Zinjanthropus, like that which Louis Leakey had just reported in National Geographic, the Atlas Mountains marking the hairline, the Gulf of Guinea the empty eye socket.  Or perhaps the shape was more like a Neolithic axe, a war club, wielded by a gigantic unseen hand submerged in the Indian Ocean.  “It looks like a question mark,” I decided at last, albeit a crudely drawn question mark, limned in blue by the Congo and the Nile, and punctuated by Madagascar.  Africa was a stage of eleven and a half million square miles, a macabre circus for a tragedy of European colonies to play that comprised a cast of hundreds of tongues and thousands of tribes and clans, millions of people and a drama of global exploitation.  It had been explored, “discovered” by Europeans of the last century.  I had heard of the great explorers:  David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, especially the latter who famously, nonchalantly posed the inane query after a grueling search for the famous physician, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  There was, of course, a contemporary adventurer-missionary, even if he were a bit elderly by then: Dr. Albert Schweitzer

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Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) source:wikipedia

—physician, theologian, virtuoso organist, Nobel laureate, and humanitarian.  We knew after his capturing the Nobel Peace Prize that this “Reverencer of Life” had returned from France to somewhere in the heart of equatorial Africa—we were not quite sure where—to serve the medical and spiritual needs of his black “junior brothers.”  He was universally lionized in Europe, the United States, and Africa for his unselfish service to—in the European mindset—the hopeless and childlike natives of the “Dark Continent.”  He was regarded as a champion of the “colored races” even though he publicly supported the oppressive French Colonial Government of Equatorial Africa and regarded the indigenous population as inferior to the civilized European “race.”

 

We thought we knew Africa because we visited its jungles for half an hour every Saturday morning in the adventures of “Ramar of the Jungle” and in the film adventures of Tarzan the Ape Man.  I presumed that the entire continent was a dense tangle of vegetation crawling with snakes and crocodiles, ringing with the howl of monkeys and pocked with treacherous pools of quicksand.  In many ways the images suggested to me that Africa was very much like my back yard, my woods, and my swamp. Yet the human inhabitants of this alien world were both like and unlike those I saw in my country.

In the cinemagraphic jungle that I visited each Saturday, Jon Hal, also known by his other stage names of Charles Locher and Lloyd Crane, portrayed the intrepid Doctor Tom Reynolds in black and white reruns from the 1952 and ’53 seasons.  Ramar, whose name we understood to mean “Great White Medicine Man,” ever wearing a pith helmet, epaulet shirt, Bermuda shorts, and a stoic demeanor, weekly battled evil white poachers and thieves, as well as  black “jungle native” voodoo witch doctors.  He, like the real doctor Schweitzer, took care of his “child-like” patients with a benevolent patronage that demonstrated unequivocally the superiority of the European civilization to the savage “native” culture. Every show could be counted on for a leopard-skin-clad woman, some quicksand, or cuts of stock African wildlife photography—slithering snakes or snorting hippos.

The good doctor was assisted in his exploits in many episodes by his comical retainer and guide Willy-Willy played by Nick Stewart, a black actor who had given voice to the character “Lightnin’” on the Amos ‘n Andy radio show.  He was also the voice of B’rer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South.  It seems oddly ironic that Stewart would reach a measure of notoriety portraying such comically subservient and stereotyped roles, then spend the remainder of his career directing the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles where African-American actors performed serious drama and grand theater.  But much that I saw in popular culture regarding Africa, I now know, was a contradictory mixture of truth and fabrication, but that is the nature of entertainment.

Ramar and Willy-Willy did not actually move about the jungle, rather they performed their

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Left to Right: Nick Stewart (as Wiily-Willy), Juanita Moore , and Jon Hall (Ramar) in episode “Savage Challenge” source: it.wp.com/thebiggame hunter.com

exploits on a sound stage in downtown Hollywood, California.  Neither, to my knowledge, ever got within a thousand miles of the jungles.  The animal scenes were spliced in from “spec” shorts shot on location by freelance adventurers.  My more critical adult eye can discern today the different sources as obvious, but for us, the children, the television took us in reality to darkest Africa.  Every child was sure he knew the sounds of the jungle: “Bwana, listen to the drums.  I hear the drums . . .” and then a piercing “koo-koo-koo-kaw-kaw-kaw,” actually the song of the Kookaburra bird.  Unfortunately, the bird never existed in the wilds of the African bush, residing as it does in Australia.  Its sound was appropriated because it sounded “jungle-like” to an inventive sound engineer.  Curiously, truth and fiction melded everywhere.  Ramar, as well as Tarzan, was often called “Bwana,” a legitimate Swahili word meaning “Lord,” or “Sir” or just plain “Mister.”  Yet this appellation was often coupled to the interjection “Ungawa!”  The latter word is a fabrication reputed to have been the brainchild of screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was inspired by the sound of the answer to the question “Where is Paramount Studio?”  The answer: “On Gower”—Boulevard, that is.  Much of what I thought I knew of Africa was like that: a cauldron of dark ignorance containing much speculation, some fabrication, and a few craven lies, but with a pinch of truth just to make the brew palatable.

 

The map of Africa that hung on the classroom wall became an object of infinite irritation.   The multicolor rotogravure print of the “dark continent” was a continent of frustration to me and others who were trying to learn the political geography of the vast continent.  The inconsiderate Africans had begun, in earnest, the practice that they would continue for the rest of the century: continually changing the names; redrawing the boundaries of their countries; declaring their independence here; building a new nation there.  It was all too chaotic for a junior geographer to master.  Nothing seemed to be as tidy any more as the beautiful poster of colonial Africa would suggest.  If the nineteenth century had seemed a sweeping romantic symphony of discovery, then my century resounded with the melded syncopation of jungle drums and bar room jazz.  In a futile attempt at making sense of the splintering African political landscape, my teacher placed beside the brooding map a tack board headed: “Current Events.”   She awarded points for every relevant article we clipped from newspapers and magazines like the Mobile Press Register or Newsweek or Life.  As we entered the class room we would glance up to the board by the map.  “What is the name of the Congo, today?” I heard more than once.

Indeed, the names of the countries began to change that year, as did the geopolitical realities within the former colonies.  In particular, the Belgian Congo disappeared from the map and was replaced by the Republic of the Congo, or was it called the Congo-Brazzaville?  No, wait.  What about Katanga?  Was it a separate nation?  Was Kenya still a British colony or did it go independent over the weekend?   What about Nigeria?

“At least, they haven’t changed the rivers,” I whispered to myself and to anyone standing nearby as I ran my finger up the Nile from Lake Victoria.  Then I followed the blue, tortured track of the Congo west from the savannah near Lake Tanganyika below the heights of the Mitumba Mountains, crossing the equator twice before disgorging into the Atlantic Ocean.  This was then and is today Africa’s most powerful river and, only after the Amazon, the second most voluminous cataract in the world.

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River Congo, Africa source:africa-facts.org

If I had picked up a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would have agreed with Marlowe, “There was in it a mighty river that you could see on the map resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”  But Conrad’s masterpiece was not on our approved reading list, nor even in the school library.  Neither was Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy readily available.  We learned simply in our social studies text that King Leopold of Belgium had ruled the Free State of the Congo after the United States and thirteen European nations had met in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century and had agreed to permit him to become the protector and overseer of a territory larger than pre-world war Germany.  If we had read Twain’s scathing pamphlet as we can now via the Internet, we would have been scandalized at the atrocities perpetrated against the people of equatorial Africa—atrocities that rival in brutality those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Particularly savage was the practice of severing the right hand of Congolese men, women, and children as punishment for failing to meet the quota of the rubber tax.   They were required to feed the army that terrorized them.  If they failed to cooperate, they were slaughtered wholesale.  Twain’s final words on Leopold are a bitter epitaph that he hoped would soon be appropriated for use: “Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages and ages [hence].”  When I learned of the exploitation, murder, cannibalism, and abject slavery that Leopold’s agents practiced on the hapless inhabitants of the Congo basin, much of it brokered initially by Henry Stanley, I thought that, if I were Congolese, I would forever despise Europeans and hate the white race implicitly and always mistrust anyone not of my tribe.

I was told nothing about the “unpleasantries” of the genocide for which Leopold was culpable.  The similarities to the exploitation of Kenya by the British should have been plain, but we were preoccupied with news of other atrocities.  The seven-year-long state of emergency in Kenya ended that year.  To our great relief, the Mau Mau Uprising was over.  The Mau Mau or the Muingi were primarily of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya.  What made the Mau Mau seem so horrific and frightening was the “oath.”   It was a magic ritual in which the blood of an exsanguinated goat was blended with that of the adjurer who, standing before a fearsome idol of the old god Ngai, and the mingled flow was sprinkled over banana leaves and raw earth, recited a vow of obedience to the movement and an eternal, lethal hatred of the British.  Refusal to take the oath meant instant and fatal reprisal by the Mau Mau.  Consequently, it has been estimated that over half the indigenous population of Kenya had taken the oath by the end of the insurrection.  Oaths are not taken lightly in Kikuyu culture, and, despite the criminalization of the oath as a capital offense by the colonial government, the populace had little choice but to comply if forced to swear allegiance to the rebels.

Based on the lurid newspaper accounts, we imagined wild-eyed, dread-lock coiffed, machete-wielding butchers running amok from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi, slaughtering whites wherever they met them.  In actuality only thirty-two Europeans were killed by the insurrectionists in the seven year revolt, while 11,500 “Mau Maus” perished at the hands of the British often without trial; one thousand of them were hanged.  The colonial government’s practice of mutilation of the corpses by amputation of the right hand (“for finger print identification” was the official explanation) is bizarrely reminiscent of the Congo a half century before.

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.

(to be continued)

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