By Francis Kwarteng
I remember sharing a nostalgic conversation with a teacher of mine, a French teacher, now based in the United States, Maryland. Our conversation had many layers of topical sinews, one of which centered on the usual and obvious—the political economy of race relations and “universal” negative white perceptions about blackness. The second revolved around his new-found racial consciousness and his conceptual evaluation of the personal self. The rest we shall definitely talk about in installments in the coming days. Quite understandably, those two philosophical questions, the new definition of “personal self” and of “racial consciousness,” never constituted a definitional preoccupation in his psychological scaffolding as long as he lived in Ghana. Later, the problematic of race/racism would become something more than he could bear. Namely, the dynamics of his racial personality changed once he immigrated to America, a land Frederick Douglass described in sanctimonious oppositional dichotomies. Douglass said of the pre-racial white America of his day:
“I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-worshippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members…The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of the week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation… He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity. He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me…We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery…We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen…The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master…Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other…”
Of course, post-racial America (or world) hasn’t arrived yet. In the meantime, I quote Douglass to demonstrate three things: (1) the “holy” hypocrisy of white psychology and its influence on contemporary race relations, (2) the replication of this so-called “holy” hypocritical tendency in our Christological churches of today, and (3) the internal oppositional inconsistencies in our own institutions, public mostly. The second point underpins Culture’s “Jah Alone a Christian” titular track. Moreover, Max Romeo, too, says our churches have become a “den of thieves” in his “Stealing in the name of Jah” track. Having said that, let’s be clear about one thing: I am not invoking racial essentialism to critique white psychology and personality. Sometimes, even always, I believe, the focal critique of Africa must start from the individual “national” self, human agency, a question I have already raised and sufficiently addressed elsewhere. I shall return to this again in another—though different—explanatory variant.
What exactly did my former French teacher tell me? Well, this was what he said: “I quite remember a white expatriate mathematics teacher we received from Switzerland. When he arrived the headmaster relocated us, four of us, I believe, in a single flat, while he turned over our flat to the unmarried white man. At the time we did not complain or protest because we felt it was the nicest thing to do for a stranger. In retrospect, I believe that gesture of hospitality was misplaced, to say the least.” “Why?” I asked. “American White racism has taught me not to treat whites with singular deference,” he replied. “I think we must treat whites in the same way we treat blacks, ourselves—everyone else! Besides, the white man never taught any mathematics different from what other Ghanaian teachers taught!” he added. Obviously, that was a mouthful of emotional outpouring. Factually, the expenditure of African hospitability has contributed to the bane of her existence as well as of her global respectability, from colonialism, imperialism, and slavery to today’s neocolonialism, no doubt. Now, let’s see what the African American writer James Baldwin had to say about his own juxtapositional personal experiences in Switzerland, something he writes about so eloquently in his essay “Stranger in the Village”:
“I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first black to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even to be questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment, with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.”
Those two anecdotes, Baldwin’s and my ex-teacher’s, recall Oprah Winfrey’s chance encounter with racism on her most recent trip to Switzerland for Tina Turner’s wedding. Baldwin’s anecdotal assessment exemplifies what later came to be known as Ellisonian invisibility (of blackness in a sea of whiteness)! Centrally, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, made the “characterological personality,” not color, the essentialist basis of black humanity. But did the Mobuto Sese Sekos, the Omar Bashirs, the Duvaliers, the François Nguemas, and the Idi Amins learn anything useful from Dr. King’s racial essentialism? Even more pointedly, why am I raising these issues—Ali Marzrui’s so-called phraseology—“African Condition”? Remember, I have also said elsewhere that democracy is divisive and, therefore, its inimicality to Africa’s continued political existence must be seriously reevaluated within the sociology of contemporary realities. Why has democracy become so divisively ethnicized across the political complexion of Africa (as elsewhere)?
These are the questions for us to answer: Are we evaluating the social and political divisiveness of the “winner-takes-all” syndrome? If so, what are the constructive alternatives? Have we given ex-President Kuffour’s “second chamber to parliament” some thought? The idea may be “good” but why didn’t he implement it during his tenure? Then again, what about his suggestion that the Council of State should be that “second chamber to parliament”? Why do Africans experience “poverty” in a sea of wealth? Don’t forget: Africa is not technically “poor” by any “standards.” Are there universal “standards”? If so, whose “standards,” the West’s or Africa’s, do we use in the evaluation exercise? Clearly, Africa’s putative “poor” status is characterized by a “poverty” of progressively creative ideas of transformation on the part of African leadership. This is no mere arm-chair theorizing. In fact, our assertion is rooted in the logistics of commonsense and of academic research.
We must acknowledge that corruption and Political Machiavellianism in the West are unparalleled in the rest of the world contrary to what we are told: The separatist terrorism and creative violence of the Basque in Spain and France; the omnipresence of political bribery (“lobby”) in American politics; police brutalization against and mass incarceration of African Americans and Hispanics, as well racism (including the display of a Twa (originally derogatively called “pigmy”), Ota Benga, 1883-1916, in the Bronze Zoo’s Monkey House—with monkeys), political tribalism (or special-interest politics), racial profiling, the gradual erosion of minority voting rights, employment and housing discrimination, Wall Street insider trading, polarizing classism, homelessness and poverty in the midst of crushing wealth, the quarantine or immurement of Native Americans in their own land (reservations), political chicanery, to name a few, plague the American republic; the near-universal European discrimination against Romas (originally derogatively referred to as “Gypsies”) and against other ethnic minorities (e.g., Norway’s Sami people), the rising racism of Neo-Nazism across Europe, European xenophobia, etc., do not point to the exceptionalism of the West. Neither is Asia. In fact, Mazower’s “Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century,” says it all, that Europe’s, or the West’s, hymnal virginity of sociohistorical politics is not intact! So, Africa is not unique in that regard, if we care to carry out a little more juxtapositional investigation.
Let’s get back to one of my earlier concerns, two paragraphs above, which call for creative instantiation. The premier international African think tank—the Philadelphia-based Molefi Kete Asante Institute for Afrocentric Studies— and its “The Asante Fellow Report,” NYU-based Africa House, and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation have a lot to say about them. As well as I can add, Kofi Annan and The Elders, as well as the annually-released African Progress Reports also have more to add. According to these institutions, looting of national treasuries (kleptomania) with impunity, cronyism, signing ludicrously secret mining, oil and gas deals, multinational/corporate tax evasions, political authoritarianism, nepotism, official and bureaucratic mismanagement, are a few of the chronic problems plaguing—impoverishing—Africa today. The Afrocentric roots reggae musician Mutabaruka has this to say (“The People’s Court”):
“I am from Africa…I come to try all you politicians for selling out black people…You are brought here for tricking black people, by promising them good living every five years…You have been selling out black people to foreigners…You are also charged for charging the people too much taxes…Because of your mismanagement spending money…Then taxing the people for it. You keep borrowing money from the IMF and the World Bank in the people’s name…Continuing the oppression of black people by the same colonialist…Why you can’t learn…No so-called third world country has been able to break loose from these money hogs…You have black people in a vicious cycle…You have been dividing black people…Your promising the people right back into slavery…”
Interestingly, my decision to write this piece was informed by a constellation of progressive ideas, which, among others, included all of the afore-mentioned. And although the lyricism of Mutabaruka’s social and political consciousness indicts the foreign shylocks milking us from within the belly of black communities, his concept of social and political justice equally holds true for our own contemporary black political leadership. Yet, brothers and sisters, African democracy, for the most part, has resolved into the Orwellian histrionics of “1984” and of “Animal Farm.” Our democracy, like America’s and Europe’s, has become an article of commerce—subject to the dictates and vicissitudes of auctioneering politics—and our presidencies a cartel of clueless Afropean kleptomaniacs and of political slavocrats, still sycophantically serving their colonial masters via the diseased umbilical cord of neocolonialism. Of course, Africa has made some great strides in living standards, education, human rights, expansion of political freedoms, women/girl rights (statistical curtailment in “female genital circumcision” cases), disease prevention, infrastructural construction, race relations (South Africa), and the like. But the articulated train of change seems to move at a gradualist, or snail’s, pace.
Could parliamentary or representative democracy be the panacea for Africa’s chronic problems? Can populist political education of the masses be part of the equation of social, economic, and political success? Can Africa replicate the Chàvezian “grassroots democracy” of Venezuela? How about direct democracy? Alternatively, how about the inclusion of “traditional politics”—as called for by Kuffour’s “second chamber to parliament—in our largely Europeanized national politics? Don’t forget Kuffour’s suggestion harks back to President Obama’s call for stronger African institutions, even as his own administration erodes citizenship rights of Americans and the rights of (international) sovereign polities—via the NSA. Let’s put Bob Marley’s “Africa Unite” in perspective: “Unite for the benefit of your people…Unite for it’s later than you think…Unite for the benefit of our children…Africa awaits its creators…
But who are Africa’s creators, Marley asks? I refer readers to Kofi of Africa’s article “Build a ‘Kwame Nkrumah Library’ all over Ghana.” It’s a masterpiece!
In fine, let me say a word or two about us, you and I: My evaluative journey via our critical commentarial library indicates that a chunk of our critiques are trapped in the emotional cocoon of ethnicity or of ethnocentric vigilantism. Understandably, molting our ethnicities is not always an easy psycho-cultural exercise insofar as they represent the essentialist definition of our very African humanity. Certainly, that notwithstanding, we still can do better by dousing ourselves in psychosocial decorum and by couching our critiques in “ethnic-blind” scientific objectivity. I am no exception. I rest my case, thank you!
I shall come back with a sequel “The End of the Dilemma: The Tower of Babel—(ll)”