Too African to be human?

Reggae_Jamaika8For a small city, Kingston is quite cosmopolitan. And this has nothing to do with our deceitful national motto. That’s a whole other story about large-scale self-deception. Out of which many? Jamaica is a nation of African people with a minority of other racial groups.

And as for those black Jamaicans who don’t want to be African, Peter Tosh sets them straight:

“Don’t care where you come from,

As long as you’re a black man

You’re an African.”

So what’s cosmopolitan about Kingston? It’s all those cultural events every single week. And many are free. Our colleges and universities offer so much: public forums, film screenings, book launches, concerts, theatrical productions. And foreign embassies provide regular opportunities to explore other cultures.

The Alliance Francaise recently screened a brilliant documentary, Trop Noir Pour Etre Francaise?/Too Black To Be French? It’s framed as a question. But the implied answer is definitely affirmative. The filmmaker, Isabelle Boni-Claverie, was at the screening and generously answered questions.

trop-noire.pngIsabelle was born in Ivory Coast and at four months went to live in France. She returned at eight and had a hard time fitting in. Her classmates mocked her accent and decided that she was stuck up. She was too French to be Ivorian and too black to be French.

Isabelle’s 2015 documentary starts with her privileged family. She’s the granddaughter of Alphonse Boni, a distinguished jurist from Ivory Coast who became the first French magistrate of African origin. When Ivory Coast became independent, Boni was appointed as minister of justice and then president of the Supreme Court.

Isabelle’s grandmother, Rose Marie Frederique Galou, was a white law student from rural France. Her grandparents’ marriage in 1931 took place at midnight in complete privacy. In racist societies like France, class privilege cannot protect black people (and their white companions) from constant abuse.

WORKING LIKE A NIGGER

Too Black To Be French? widens its perspective to include other voices reflecting on what it means to be black in France. The documentary was provoked by a rather stink remark made on national television in 2010 by the perfume maker Jean-Paul Guerlain. Talking about a new product, Guerlain casually said, “I worked like a nigger. I don’t know if niggers have always worked like that, but anyway.”

Demonstration-against-Jea-006Talk about adding insult to injury! Isabelle was enraged. She launched an Internet-based campaign against Guerlain and, along with other protestors, organised demonstrations outside Guerlain’s flagship store in Paris. But many nice and decent French people couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Working like a nigger was just a common expression. All the same, Guerlain was convicted in court for his racist insult and fined €6,000. Small change!

Two other films by Isabelle were screened in Kingston last weekend, thanks to David Morrison. Her 1998 short film, Le Genie d’Abou/Abu’s Genie, explores the issues of race and sexuality in a murderously disturbing way. Her 2004 film, Pour La Nuit /For The Night, beautifully shows how Muriel and Sam, total strangers, comfort each other the night before her mother’s funeral and his wedding.

Speaking of being cosmopolitan, for the last 15 years, David has been showcasing foreign films on Friday and Saturday nights, first at Redbones, then at the Liguanea Club. He’s now at an intimate venue, 3 Stanton Terrace. There’s no admission charge. David welcomes contributions to offset costs.

OTA BENGA

Last month, the Africa World Documentary Film Festival was held at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Twenty films were screened over three days. Admission was free. I was surprised that Ota Benga was not included. The curator of the festival, Professor Adeniyi Coker of the University of Missouri-St Louis, explained that since he co-directed the film with Jean Bodon, he didn’t think it appropriate to select his own work.

OtaBengaI understood his reservations, but I persuaded him that we needed to see the film. It was screened as a brawta to the festival. The film sensitively tells the traumatic story of Ota Benga, a man from the Congo, who was put on display at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. Things got rather worse for him.

On Sunday, September 9, 1906, The New York Times published a story with the headline, “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”. The article did admit that “some Laugh Over His Antics, but Many Are Not Pleased’. It added, “‘Something about it I don’t like,’ was the way one man put it.” We don’t know who this man was. But he did have a conscience.

The next day, black clergymen met at Harlem’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church to strategise. That afternoon, they went to the zoo to see for themselves. They confronted the zoo’s founding director and curator, William Hornaday, who insisted that the exhibition was all in the interest of science! By the end of September, more than 220,000 visitors had viewed Ota Benga. The zoo had never made so much money so quickly.

national-museum-african-artProvocatively billed as “From Ota Benga to President Obama”, the film had its world premiere on November 1 at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. How much has changed over the last century? Just think of those demeaning cartoons of Michelle and Barack Obama as apes. The White House is certainly not the preferred cage in which diehard racists would like to see them.

With friends like David Cameron …

15808680-Smiley-Emoticons-Face-Vector-Cunning-Expression-Stock-Vector-emoticon“I do hope that, as friends who have gone through so much together since those darkest of times, we can move on from this painful legacy and continue to build for the future.” There’s an aspect of David Cameron’s cunning statement that nobody is talking about. It’s the arrogant presumption of friendship.

Unlike so many foreign words that have sneaked into the English language, the word ‘friend’ is hard-core Anglo-Saxon. That’s the name of both the language and the people who lived in Britain from about the 5th century. They migrated from continental Europe and their culture and language were adopted by the natives.

The word ‘friend’ is ‘heartical’. It’s not high-sounding. It’s neither Greek nor Latin. It comes directly from Old English ‘freond’ and goes all the way back to the German roots of the Anglo-Saxon language. According to the Online Eytmology Dictionary, it means “one attached to another by feelings of personal regard and preference”.

How the backside we get to be ‘friends’ with David Cameron? A man who has no regard for us, and whose preference is to disregard the prolonged consequences of our enforced attachment! Cameron’s deceptive use of ‘friends’ is a confidence trick. Like the MoBay scammers, the British prime minister is hoping to con us into dropping our guard.

BAIT AND SWITCH

All confidence tricks share the same basic elements. The trickster understands human nature. S/he knows many of us are gullible, believing we deserve to get something for nothing. The trickster pretends to give us something to win our confidence. We fall for it. When the bigger bait is set, we grab it – hook, line and sinker. And that’s when the switch is made and we lose everything.

free-cheeseSo here’s Cameron’s con. He shares our pain. It’s part of his legacy, too. All the same, he doesn’t need to acknowledge who caused that pain. And it all took place in the Dark Ages when, presumably, no one was keeping track of who caused how much pain. Nor who profited from that pain. This is the 21st century. We’re friends now. So let’s just move on. “Those darkest of times” are over. It’s a simple as that. As for reparation, forget it!

David Cameron would like us to believe we’re on the same team. And it’s a friendly match. We’re really Britons and, of course, Britons never, never, never shall be slaves. Again. The Queen of England is our head of state; we’re part of the British Commonwealth.

And our court of last resort is still the Privy Council. By the way, ‘privy’, as adjective, means ‘private’. But as noun, it means ‘latrine’. Since private business was done in the outhouse, it came to be known as a privy. And that’s where we’re outsourcing justice!

We used to play cricket but now cricket plays us. We speak English, sort of. But even the British are now learning Chinese, the language of the new global empire. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the UK last week to discuss multibillion-pound nuclear power deals. David Cameron took him to a pub for fish and chips. They should have had a curry. It’s the new national dish of England. That’s what happens when the British empire’s colonial subjects come ‘home’ to roost.

NOT A RED CENT!

At Emancipation, the principle of reparation was established. But here’s the scam. Reparation was paid to the plantation owners for the loss of their ‘property’. Human beings, who were reduced to ‘livestock’ in accounting ledgers, received not a red cent to make a new start as free citizens! The British Government paid a total of £20 million in compensation to plantation owners for the loss of enslaved labour. That sum was one quarter of the national Budget!

Scam-AlertApproximately half of the money stayed in Britain. Researchers at University College London are engaged in a project that has been tracking where this money went. They note, “Despite the popular enthusiasm for abolition, slave owners had no compunction in seeking compensation – apparently totally unembarrassed by this property that had been widely constructed by abolitionists as a ‘stain on the nation’.”

One of the most shameful aspects of the reparation enterprise was the requirement that emancipated Africans should pay compensation to plantation owners for their freedom. That’s what the ‘Apprenticeship Period’ was all about. It was just another scam to force black people to continue working for nothing. Why would you need to become a ‘prentice’ to keep on working for backra?

Our friend, David Cameron, wants to con us into forgetting all of this history. But the “painful legacy” of “those darkest of times” persists. The repercussions are long-lasting. In order for us to “build for the future”, the British government must make restitution for crimes against humanity. In his heart of hearts, Cameron must know that friends don’t enslave friends. Friends don’t colonise friends. Friends don’t scam friends.

In his satirical song, ‘Reparation’, Vybz Kartel declares, “Dem call it scam/ Mi call it reparation.” I think Adidja Palmer very well understands that reparation isn’t about fantasies of wealth and power: “Every ghetto yute fi a live like Tony Montana/ Presidential like Barack Obama.” Reparation for enslavement is a far grander enterprise than mere scamming. But it does demand the unmasking of those who feel entitled to scam us.

Getting ‘Bun’ In the Chinese Grocery

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Confucius Institute, UWI, Mona

The Confucius Institute at the University of the West Indies, Mona, hosted its first conference in June. The theme was ‘Dragons in the Archipelago – the Chinese-Caribbean Experience’. This ‘experience’ wasn’t just about the Chinese. It also included their encounters with other racial groups in the Caribbean.

The history of the relationship between Africans and Chinese in Jamaica is quite troubling. And it’s all the fault of the British. In those long ago days when Britannia ruled the waves, the British assumed the right to move people across the seas as they saw fit. Chinese were exported to the Caribbean as indentured workers in the 19th century.

Dr Victor Chang, a retired senior lecturer who taught literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona, gave an excellent talk on the Chinese riots that took place in Jamaica almost a century ago. Dr Chang quoted an excerpt from Colonial Office correspondence between Attorney General Gloster and Marryat, sent from Trinidad and dated April 3, 1807.

Writing about the immigration of Chinese workers into Trinidad, Gloster states: “For my part, I think it is one of the best schemes; and if followed up with larger importation, and with women, that it will give this colony a strength far beyond what the other colonies possess. It will be a barrier between us and the negroes, with whom they do not associate; and consequently to whom they will always offer a formidable opposition.”

CHINESE SEX DRIVE

imagesSo it was a set-up from the very beginning. The newly arrived Chinese were supposed to be permanently at war with black people. But what shortsighted cynics like Gloster did not anticipate is the fact that some barriers can be easily overturned, given the right motivation. The sex drive is a powerful social leveller.

The 1918 Chinese riots in Jamaica were a direct result of the lack of Chinese women. Dr Chang quotes the account of events given by the Jamaican historian Howard Johnson: “Fong Sue, the Chinese grocer, had left his shop on Sunday, 7 July, in charge of his paramour, a Creole woman, Caroline Lindo. He was not expected to return that night.

“Acting Corporal McDonald, who was in charge of the Ewarton Police Station, took advantage of Fong Sue’s absence to sleep with his paramour. Fong Sue returned that same night unexpectedly, at about 11 o’clock, to find McDonald in an intimate embrace with Lindo and, as one contemporary police report delicately noted, ‘in plain clothes’.

“McDonald was given a beating by Fong Sue, with the help of a few Chinese friends, and then made good his escape. He did not return to the police station but remained hidden in the bushes for two days. He eventually reappeared at the police station on the night of Tuesday, 9 July, to resume his duties.”

In less academic language: Fong Sue get bun inna im owna shop. And I wonder about Miss Lindo. Was she just using Fong Sue to get a regular supply of groceries? Trading salt fish for salt fish! And as for acting Corporal McDonald! He seemed to be doing a very good job of acting for Fong Sue. Until Fong Sue, acting like a real Jamaican, beat up his you know what.

I doubt very much that McDonald was wearing plain clothes when he was surprised by Fong Sue. Most likely, he wasn’t wearing any clothes at all. And he certainly wasn’t on official duty – unless Ms Lindo had summoned him to report a robbery in progress. Or to offer herself to be carried away!

VICTIMS AND VILLAINS

So how did this unfortunate episode of Fong Sue getting bun turn into a race riot? Both men and women get bun in Jamaica all the time. Yu either tek yu lickle bun and eat it quietly. Or yu mek up whole heap of noise an carry on bad. But it doesn’t become national news. Unless yu head tek yu an yu decide to act like a mad man or woman and commit murder.

HappySabbathFaceSo what made this particular bun so hot? Well, a rumour started that acting Corporal McDonald had actually been murdered by Fong Sue. And The Gleaner is partly to blame. Dr Chang reports that, “The Gleaner of July 8 provides a more sinister and innuendo-filled account which ignores the sexual aspect altogether.”

Chang elaborates: “It claims that McDonald, ‘on whom a savage act is alleged to have been committed by the Chinese, is now missing … a decent, intelligent young man, and a strict disciplinarian had spoken to the Chinese about violating the law of the land by selling on the Sabbath’.” So Fong Sue is now a villain, not a victim.

How does an allegedly ‘strict disciplinarian’ like acting Corporal McDonald end up in Fong Sue’s shop at 11 p.m. locked down with Ms Lindo? And what’s the mysterious ‘savage act’ that Fong Sue is supposed to have perpetrated? It was rumoured that he had pickled McDonald, possibly for sale as salt meat.

That’s the kind of idiocy that results from using people as barriers. Ignorance breeds distrust and starts riots. Even after McDonald turned up very much alive, if not well, the rioting continued and spread across four parishes! Chinese shops were burnt to the ground. A very high price to pay for one ‘bun’!

The High Cost Of Development

casaamI recently visited Grand Cayman for the first time. I was on my way to Havana for a conference on cultural diversity in the Caribbean, hosted by that distinguished Cuban institution, Casa de las Américas.

One of the highlights was a symposium titled ‘Bob Marley, Time Will Tell’. Professor Horace Campbell, author of the classic, Rasta and Resistance, gave the opening lecture on ‘Bob Marley and the Resistance to War’. All the speakers acknowledged the power of Marley’s music as a political force, urging the oppressed across the globe to rebel against systems of injustice.

The struggle against colonialism is a recurring theme in Marley’s lyrics. But, from what I could see of Cayman, colonialism didn’t look like such a bad thing. Cayman is still a colony of Britain. And Grand Cayman does seem to be rather grand. First World. I kept wondering what was hidden beneath the surface. Offshore banking has been a source of great wealth. But the obvious material prosperity of the Cayman Islands wasn’t the whole story.

My sister, Donnette, noticed that there didn’t seem to be too many ‘local’ people around. At the hotel on the island’s famous seven-mile beach where we overnighted, most of the employees were not Caymanian. The majority of the waiters in the main dining-room appeared to be Filipino or South Asian. The housekeeping staff on our floor were Jamaican. We went into town for dinner and the waiter who served us was from Santo Domingo.

Where were the Caymanians? The female taxi driver who took us back to the airport on Sunday gave us the answer. She described herself as one of a dying breed. Soon, Cayman will be almost completely overrun by foreigners. They will be the primary beneficiaries of development. For Caymanians, the price of ‘development’ will be loss. Loss of land, loss of social place, loss of identity.

BRAND-NEW SECOND-HAND

In Cuba, I was immediately struck by the ‘retro’ development of the communist state. Even on the website where we booked our boutique hotel, Terral, we were warned that the neighbourhood wasn’t so hot. So we were prepared for the crumbling buildings. Very few seemed as if they could be salvaged. But Terral was a bright spot. And the building next door was being renovated.

The decades of embargo imposed by the US, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, have forced the Cuban people to be extremely creative. Recycling is both an art and a science. The antique American automobiles are legendary. They are more than mere cars. They are symbols of the resilience of the Cuban people who take pride in craftsmanship, demonstrating their capacity to transform ‘old bruck’ into ‘brand-new second-hand’. I hope that with the lifting of the embargo, these glorious antique cars will not be sold for a song to greedy collectors. Surely, the owners must know their worth.

MacklinCreativity takes many forms. At the main craft market in Central Havana, I met Arturo Macklin, an elderly gentleman who was born in Cuba of Jamaican parents. He approached my sister, asking if she was Jamaican. He’s 86 years old and his walking stick was a marvel. It was made from empty deodorant containers, placed over a stick and joined, like sausages, by being heated! At the top was an umbrella handle. Mr Macklin stylishly twirled his home-made walking stick as if it were pure ebony from the finest of gentleman outfitters. And he posed for the camera with an athletic ‘to the world’ gesture, worthy of Usain Bolt.

LOOKING FOR JAMAICAN FAMILY

At the conference, a Cuban woman with Jamaican roots gave me a list of names and asked me to help her find her family. Her name is Belkis O’Connor Jones. At the top of the list was Archibald Edinazer O’Connor, who was born in Westmoreland in the 1870s. Belkis didn’t know the district. Next was Anna Gardener. But there was no information about her birth. Then there was Albertha Adeline Gregory, who was born in Port Antonio in May 1895. And Lois Alexander Jones, who was born in St Ann in the 1890s. I promised to try my best to see if I could find any record of these births and, if possible, any descendants. But I wasn’t hopeful.

G-best-genealogy-sitesSo many Jamaicans went to Cuba to work on the sugar estates and did not return. They made life in their adopted homeland. But their grandchildren now want to reclaim their Jamaican culture. Mr Macklin spoke longingly about wanting to eat ackee and salt fish. His ackee tree in the country was blown down in Hurricane Flora! I promised to check with the Cuban embassy to see if I could send him some canned ackee. Not the same as fresh from the tree. But better than nothing.

There is so much that we share across the Caribbean. A common history of ‘discovery’, genocide, squatting, enforced mass migration, enslavement, resistance, emancipation, colonisation, flag independence and economic colonisation all over again. But there are still cultural differences that make us claim particular places as home. Even when we don’t always feel at home. Like that woman in Cayman who sees herself as an endangered species. And Belkis, who is not completely at home in Cuba, wanting to find her distant relatives in Jamaica.

Death By Satire In Paris

I happened to be in Paris last Wednesday when freedom of the press was murderously assaulted at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. For most of the day, I was playing tourist at the Louvre museum. I visited the Egyptian Antiquities galleries.  I also viewed some of the lavishly displayed paintings of Europe, including the Mona Lisa, which has become a fetish, cordoned off behind three layers of barriers and further protected by what I presume to be bullet-proof glass. Miss Mona seemed rather pleased with herself and all the attention.

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Ancient Egyptian headrest

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Headrest from Tanzania

I ended my tour with the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas – all squashed into one collection. At the Louvre, Europe is clearly the centre of the world. This is understandable. What is less acceptable is the way the rest of the world is represented. In the Egyptian collection, I was struck by the following text which I’ve translated: “The Egyptian slept on a low bed, even on the floor, the head resting on a wooden support, as is still done in some countries of Africa.”

The peculiar phrase, “in some countries of Africa”, seems to imply that Egypt is not in Africa. If it were, ‘other’ would have been used instead of ‘some’. Ironically, even when a shared cultural practice across the African continent is highlighted, Egypt is sealed off. Indeed, in many museums of the Western world, Egypt is methodically cut off from the rest of Africa. Why?

The Louvre is relatively close to the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But it wasn’t until very late in the day that I heard of the attack. Insulated in the artfully constructed fictions of the museum, I had no access to ‘real’ life. At a restaurant that evening, I saw on TV the unsettling news of the carnage at Charlie Hebdo. From the safety of my hotel room, I continued to watch the drama on the BBC.

FLAWLESS FRENCH

Colonisation is a france of a thing. The brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, the perpetrators of the murderous attack, who were killed by police on Friday, were of Algerian heritage. Algeria was once a colony of France. There’s a famous Black British slogan that lucidly expresses the complex relationship between coloniser and colonised: “We are here because you were there”. The Algerian presence in France is a direct consequence of French colonisation of Algeria.

The Battle of Algiers trailer

One of the BBC reporters commented on the “flawless French” of the Kouachi brothers. In other words, they didn’t sound like foreigners. Language continues to be seen as a marker of identity. But it is sometimes quite unreliable. Despite the flawless French of the Kouachi brothers, they were unquestionably alienated from mainstream French culture. Though born in France, they had a fatal flaw. Their home culture was not French. Their religion was not Catholicism; it was Islam. And they were radical Islamists at that.

On Wednesday evening, militant mourners gathered across France to protest against the murders. The slogan that captured the national mood was this: ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie). In this formula, the collective ‘I’ is the French nation united against an unstated, but clearly implied, “you”: those outsiders who do not share the normative values of French culture.

Furthermore, to assert that “I am Charlie” is to claim freedom of expression, particularly the cutting art of satire, as an essential constituent of French national identity. The capacity to laugh at one’s own weaknesses and that of others is at the heart of satire. Nothing – no one and no god – is sacred. In effect, failure to pass the satire test means failure to become French.

ANTIQUATED IDEOLOGIES

Devout Muslims who insist that Allah must not be mocked alienate themselves from their adopted homeland. They fight their god’s battles and they take no prisoners. One of the most insightful condemnations of the murders came from a representative of the Muslim community in London who was interviewed by the BBC. I’m so sorry I didn’t catch his name. He asserted that it is antiquated ideologies that need to be murdered, not journalists.

On Thursday at noon, a minute’s silence was observed in France in honour of the dead. As the bells tolled at Notre Dame cathedral, Parisiens gathered in the rain to demonstrate solidarity with the victims of the attack. The BBC interviewed some of the mourners. Chris, a perceptive young man, lamented: “The sky is falling on our heads”. This vivid image evokes the terrifying collapse of the natural order of things.

ahmadBut the fall of the sky can also be seen more positively as an opportunity to rethink what we consider to be natural and normative. Can France begin to conceive the nation as fundamentally multicultural, making space for marginalised communities?  By Friday, at least 19 persons in total lost their lives before the three-day terror in France came to an end.

In response to the “I am Charlie” slogan, a new perspective emerged: “I am Ahmed”. That’s the name of one of the policemen who was murdered outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo.Yes, Ahmed was Muslim. And he upheld the laws that protect freedom of speech. Even the licence of cartoonists to make a mockery of his religion! The French Enlightenment writer Voltaire famously declared, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. That is exactly what Ahmed Merabet did. And his heroic act cannot possibly be satirised.