“In what particular, sir?”
“Oh, you know very well what I mean. I mean—well—well—do you feel you are the equal of a White man?”
—J. A. Rogers, From Superman to Man (1917).
For one month, courtesy the FIFA World Cup, the world’s eyes and ears are turned the way of Africa; and for this, many can already smell a new era for that most exploited of continents. After all, as Africa’s own chosen spokesman, U2 leader Bono, declared two days into the new year, “The World Cup Kicks Off the African Decade”—a decade long-awaited since some fair-skinned explorers began hopping out of bushes, net in hand, and leading tens of millions of Africans into ships that would remove them from their native lands forever.
Hear Bono out: “This time round, for the 2010 World Cup, naysayers thought South Africa could not build the stadiums in time. Those critics should be red-faced now. South Africa’s impressive preparations underline the changes on the continent, where over the last few years, 5 percent economic growth was the average.” Yes! red-faced at assuming a country plunged $74 billion in external debt, ravaged by civil unrest from all ends, could stake out a $6 billion bundle to erect elephant facilities which after a month would inevitably fade into virtual obsolesce. Yes! red-faced for thinking this country’s leaders couldn’t clang together the heads of tens of thousands of shack dwellers and school children who whined about their precious homes and schools being torn down to furnish Durban’s Moses Mabhida Stadium—a 70,000-seater, $380 million outfit.
All naysayers: step forward! that the Irishman may screech down your throats, while the hundreds of millions of dollars (180) in security apparatuses obtained are put to good use on your bodies, after which Somali’s breakout artist, K’naan, shall croon “Wavin’ Flag”; but not the original version railing against emperors and charging oppressed peoples to hold forth, rather the FIFA remix—a celebration of graft, violence, and fanaticism.
So, the World Cup is underway, and thus far the early wins of a couple African countries have already been heralded as emotional boosters for this continent playing host to the fantasies of viewers worldwide. Much is being talked about a possible economic tourism boom, about the lure of wildlife this soccer tradition would yield the continent, once the stadium is emptied out after closing ceremony. And when you think of Africa you must think wildlife because ESPN’s prime promo features a little boy letting out a wolf cry—and ESPN, of course, is infallible scholarly syndicate on African heritage.
We have a great wave a-blowing, with pride beating in the hearts of dark people, with nervous thrill overtaking White people, with smiles on the lips of leaders whose fortunes triple each passing day. Curiosity about Africa is coming through! People of the West have lots of questions: want to know about “culture” and “lifestyle.”
* * *
“… Okay, we know you don’t swing from trees anymore, and have long put cannibalism to rest, and your women have lately learned the use of tops, and your young men no longer carry around spears, but how does it feel to finally learn how to read and write—and use condoms?”
“I mean, after the outreach of Bill and George, what with all those CNN cuts where they’re snatching up babies to smother and smear, marching through desolate huts and shanties; after those midnight televangelists who asked for mere $10 to finish up the new dams and schools 2/3rds under construction; after the music stars and movie actors who all came through empty-handed and left with arm-full of infants: What more can you ask for?”
“Well, ma’am, actually those bits and infomercials and fifth-rate gossip zines you feast on—which, by your imagination, I can tell have only offered solace to self-assuring delusions of bloated baby bellies and half-naked women—really tell a remarkably ignorant tale of life down here. If you think all Africans walk around clicking their tongues like Miriam Makeba, that all we do is sit around camp fires telling thousand-years-old tales, drinking pap from gourds, and belting out cries to countless gods, you got another thing coming. But even if we did all those, for a people whose twice-elected leader seemed ever on the losing side of the battle to literacy, for whom a complex sentence produced panic, how dare you flap—”
“Listen, Otombo! 50 years ago, we’d have you hanging upside down with a fucking fork up your ass; 100 years ago, we’d have you plucking cotton 3:00 in the morning; 200 years ago, we’d have you on the high sea, in some feces- and urine-stained lower deck, chained with cousins from distant clans, pleading for death above all else. Now with fancy degrees and titles, you think you can wink at a Secretary of State the wrong way? You wait till Barry hears this one! Ha! Smelly, disease-spreading African thinks he’s arrived! He’s got a Ph.D in Philosophy, so he wants to think for himself.”
* * *
Curiosity is coming—and with haste. Later this year in December, the Houston Zoo is all set to unveil a 6.5-acre, $50 million project, “African Forest.” Not to worry, the Houston Chronicle was allayed July last year, for 95% of the cash had already been raised. Jim Brighton, a landscape architect involved, promised to deliver what other zoo exhibits are missing—“conflict between man and the wild.” As plus, “human cultures” would also feature well: principally human habitat. “Houses fashioned from tree leaves—a form of temporary housing—will be constructed for children’s activities,” reported the Chronicle.
“It’s about people, and the wonderful, rich cultures that we all can share,” reveals the Forest’s website. “We are bringing the adventures of Africa to Houston, and we’re excited to share the journey with you.” Innocence certainly makes ubiquitous appearance, for there should be nothing wrong with taking wonderful, rich cultures from indigenous lands and “sharing” with foreigners. Zoo director Rick Barongi swears this project would “immerse people into an environment that they would very rarely ever see.” Living in suburbia these days can be uneducating, so step out and come down to “go through forests and see chimpanzees and gorillas.” But there’s more: “It’s also about the people and the culture—the wonderful rich culture of Central Africa.” So far, the colonial alert bleeds orange, so Barongi takes a swift shot for red. Visitors would see “how the people live over there, so we can appreciate, from their perspective, the challenges that they face, so that we can better understand them and better help them, so that we can preserve this world together and make it a better place for future generations.” And these, dear friends, mark “what good exhibits … are all about.”
Writer Shannon Joyce Prince, in an exceptional take down last month, detailed all that is rewarding for the curious visitor:
“African Marketplace Plaza,” selling gifts from “from all over the world” and offering dining with a “view of giraffes”; a “Pygmy Village and Campground,” showcasing “African art, history, and folklore,” where visitors can stay overnight; “Pygmy Huts,” where visitors will be educated about pygmies and “African culture,” hear stories, and be able to stay overnight; a “Storytelling Fire Pit”; an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges”; a “Communications Hut and Conservation Kiosk,” where “visitors will use a replicated shortwave radio and listen in on simulated conversations taking place throughout Africa”; a “Rustic Outdoor Shower,” representing the fact that the fictional “Pygmy Village” “recently got running water,” where children can “cool off”; a section of the “Pygmy Village” where children can handle “African musical instruments and artifacts”; and “Tree House Specimen Cabinets.” which showcase “objects, artifacts, and artwork.”*
To expect candid report of exploitation of natural resources, to anticipate some critical insight into pollution from annual drilling “accidents” ten times worse BP’s Gulf spill, would surrender great disappointment because the board of directors for this prestigious rag is stocked full with no less Friends-of-Africa than Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil heavy hitters. And holding part of the purse strings is Chevron.
You can kiss goodbye any representations of literature wizards, ivory towers, skyscrapers, deluxe apartments, five-star hotels, or any other symbols westerners equate with civilization. You can kiss goodbye all thoughts of complex representations of African life, political reality, social customs, cultural practices: all representations that the Wall Street media have for centuries refused to take up—for fear of retribution from those whose stock options and political clout and financial incentives rely on the various myths and lies driven to shelter the masses during hard times because, at least, they know the difference between a chocolate cake and a mud cake.
Two things are clear here: human and animal life would feature prominently; and both would be savagely misrepresented and exploited. But you might get chance to fondle a couple body parts, examine the exotic, estimate human worth—like those on auction blocks two centuries back. (Maybe Saartjie Baartman and Ota Benga would sleep soundly now.)
Nothing here, it should be understood, rubs new. Building exhibits to display the curiosity-commanding cultures of dark peoples is as ancient as human beings strung up half-burnt on trees, missing private parts; as ancient as chained human beings rushed to their feet in town halls, to be examined by fellow human beings wielding magnifying glasses. And the Houston Zoo is certainly no trail-blazer.
The year 2005 was hot: Germany and England were waging war on the souls of African peoples. The zoo of Augsburg, Germany, was incorporating an “African Village,” to feature “Artisans, silversmiths, basket makers and traditional hairdressers … situated in a unique African steppe landscape.” The London Zoo in Regents Park, London NW1, had in mind “African Nights”—a “unique twilight experience” replete with “live African beats from Nzinga Dance by the penguin pool.” Elsewhere at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, promised was “a variety of African entertainment throughout the evening, including dancing and drumming performances, story telling and mask making for the children.”
With each blow dealt in succession, many questioned why the western world was so suddenly growing concerned about African peoples. Writer and secretary of the PEN Nigeria Centre, Dr. Remi Raji, had an answer, fearing “there’s a new wave of such exhibitionist disguise of hate, and condescension, and such ‘harmless’ experiment with the soul of a ‘race’ in the West.”**
It would be much bloodier if society was structured any different. Maybe, then, outrage would build. But this market society has so craftily reduced life to transactions, thus eliminating the soft consciences of those who see something wrong with pricing the humanities of people—in the Houston experiment, $50 million for 1 billion people: roughly $.05 a head. And on the boundless auction block, anything stands. So, it’s much easier to reduce complex societies to one or two witless myths, and thereby establish good rapport and support for imperialist dictates like AFRICOM, than to come through, sword-wielding, gun-toting, and expect after two or three years those on the home front to settle themselves with the latest pop star drugged out and dragged out of some seedy hotel in Hollywood, Florida. The Houston Zoo guarantees: “Travel to Africa—No Passport Needed.” Why, yes! Those 1 billion people and 54 countries can be surveyed within three hours of a family visit or field trip.
Children 0-1: FREE
Children 2-11: $7.00
Adults 12-64: $11.00
Senior 65+: $6.00
“I will buy, buy, buy!” Mark Twain’s protagonist informs the gift-bringing fairy; “deference, respect, esteem, worship—every pinchbeck grace of life the market of a trivial world can furnish forth.” Now, to that list can be added delusion—the soothing warmth of delusion.
If everyone has a price, every product has a patron. Here, the Houston Zoo is counting on thousands content with made-up sensibilities about Africa and its peoples—those gullible enough to accept hyenas, giraffes, and tigers as emblematic of the whole of Africa. Another group, I fear, is sought after. For them, all Black people can be traced to one primate or the other. We saw a sharp rise out of them once Barack Obama stormed ahead of John McCain and Sarah Palin 3/4ths into the presidential race two years ago.
No way can a Black man clinch the presidency, they assured each other. Before long, they began bandying about representations of what their imaginations could best depict him as. On October 11, 2008, an elderly White fellow showed up to a Palin rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with a Curious George monkey doll whose head had wrapped around it, turban style, an Obama bumper sticker. “This is Little Hussein,” he announced into a camera, holding up his companion. “Little Hussein wanted to see truth and good Americans.”
Four months later, the New York Post anted up with a cartoon featuring a chimpanzee plastered to the wall, splattering blood from an officer’s bullets, with a second officer musing, “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill”—one day after President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
About the same time, CEOs and politicians, one after the next, were being thrust under the light of public reprimand for circulated e-mails comparing First Lady Michelle Obama to everything from chimpanzees to monkeys to spiders. Many of the e-mails contained juxtaposed images of the first lady and primates, to corroborate perceived physical resemblance.
And July last year, when Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. was roused to reality by a White Cambridge cop who handed him the Nigger Treatment, a fellow officer laced up an internal e-mail to confirm his rage against the “Banana-Eating Jungle Monkey” who failed to stay in his place.
But while it’s easy to prepare the gallows for those bold enough to exhibit their convictions of the close ties between blackness and barbarism—and give society chance to comfort itself the bad have once again been purged—little mention is ever raised of the greater threat: a shocking tally of White people with social vocabularies so impoverished that prominent Black people can only collapse, in their racial imaginations, some column between primates and witch doctors.
Nothing comforts greater than delusion. It staves off the heavy responsibilities of Truth. And for some, freedom is no option. A cage would do.
TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.
* Read Prince’s essay here: http://www.antropologi.info/blog/anthropology/pdf/african_forest-short.pdf
** A 2005 newspaper report on the Germany and England shenanigans: http://www.antropologi.info/blog/Arkiv/En-2005/AfricanVillageGuardianNigeria