In Everlasting Memory
Of the anguish of our ancestors
May those who died rest in peace
May those who return find their roots
May humanity never again perpetrate
Such injustice against humanity
We the living vow to uphold this
Plaque at Elimina, Ghana
And yet, we have to ask ourselves, Has the lesson been learned? How are we to honor the ancestors?
=When I was a child, reading transported me to other geographical locations, where I could reside among another people. Whenever I read a Dickens novel, I wanted to share my food with the hungry children. As a child, I recognized scrooges from kindhearted people.
=My high school English teacher for my junior and senior years was a middle-aged Black woman who showed her love for reading by introducing us to the English Renaissance writers and poets, Jonson, Donne, Milton, Marvell. Shakespeare’s tyrants of the 16th Century resonated with those of us envisioning a Nixon presidency in the 20th Century. We learned to think critically about these eras and the offerings of their literary response to the world around them. How does Keats's inquiry on the beauty of figures on a Grecian urn compared to the flow of a 20th Century poet’s blood among ancient rivers? “Ancient, dusty rivers…”?
=Most young Blacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s continued to read Black literature because, despite the demand for Black studies, I, for one, never had a Black studies course in college. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ann Petry, Nikki Giovanni, and Le Roy Jones (Baraka) were read at home while, in the official classroom, the reading was general written by white men. In college classrooms, I watched as how white classmates’ and white professors responded to the thinkers, writers, and poets on the syllabus as if each were precious. Sacred. It was as if a wall surrounded me, keeping me within it, but I was able to hear and watch without the ability to interject a question or two.
The white students read without questioning the possibility that something might be missing in their understanding of the historical background of these texts. My very presence in the classroom attested something being amiss. Unbothered by Kipling’s reference to the white man’s burden or James Fenimore Cooper’s description of Indigenous Americans as savages wouldn’t seem natural! The “darkness” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness offered referenced Africans and the continent of Africa itself as a location just south of reason. And deliberate misdirection on the part of white professors protected my classmates sense of privilege, encouraging, in turn, a universal or natural gravitation to familiar characters. Just overlook the “creatures” in the text just as I was overlooked in the classroom.
Whenever a white male professor spoke of Western culture, Western values, Western history, it was understood that he was referring to white culture, white values, white history. Universal. Natural. Black people were an anomaly.
By the second week of class, my presence in the classroom no longer made any one of them glance my way. I didn’t exist. I wasn’t even an intruder. I wasn’t. As I wasn’t in the works of the syllabuses. The white students could be made to believe that Black life was outside of the works of the British, American—Western canon. And whenever a white male professor spoke of Western culture, Western values, Western history, it was understood that he was referring to white culture, white values, white history. Universal. Natural. Black people were an anomaly.
Hegel declared as much in The Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) when he wrote that the Western states needn’t worry about Africa. Africa was without history! If anything, his words justified among Western thinkers (academics) the continuing dismissal of African people and their descendants. Let the wealth from the global plantation system continue flowing! In Hegel's words is the echo of a papal bull, granting Portugal the right to control and enslave Africans in the Sub-Sahara while granting Spain the right to control enslaved Blacks on Canary Island (Born into Blackness, Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War). So began modern history, writes Howard French.
But what did my white classmates know of this history? Where would they have encountered a teacher honest enough to teach this history?
In American universities settings even today, there are still professors touting the greatness of the Western tradition; and for these educators, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color aren’t included.
In my time, classroom discussions didn’t include a recognition of all the wealth amassed by the West by extracting free labor from enslavement Black people. “With its rank and centuries-long exploitation of Africans,” writes French,“the plantation-complex was the most important driver of wealth in the New World, and indeed in driving the ascension of the West.” Agriculture more than gold and silver, he continues, “lifted the North Atlantic onto an entirely new trajectory… allowing it to dominate the new modern age.” This wealth and cultural “greatness” is produced at the expense of “Black suffering.”
Depressing topic! Better to open up a discussion on Camus, for example, and never ask why the Arab “stranger” feels so numb. So disconnected from his humanity.
The “well-read” promoters of Western greatness in academia, as a matter of life or death, routinely exclude those who could attest to how this “greatness” came about. So much defended on the production of sugar and cotton, as French discusses.
Sameness saves the astute mind of the “well read” while, to consider the inclusion of the literary works of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the canon would be to acknowledge the inferior and cancel the idea of whiteness as the greatness the inferior will never achieve. It’s no wonder that in the 21st Century, white America’s shock at discovering the existence of Black and Indigenous literary works has school boards across the country rushing to ban these works.
What would happen to the belief in white supremacy?
“The Americas and their long and deep connections to Africa,” writes French, needs to be understood. French asks, What would Europe have weighted in the historical balance if the last half of millennia was absent, for example, the sugar industry which amassed fortunes for individuals as well as for auxiliary industries, thus giving birth to the modernization of the Western world? Where would Europe be without the enterprising business, profitable business, of transporting Black human beings to plantation fields in Brazil, and Barbados and Jamaica and Haiti and, yes, on those plantations in the New England colonies?
I would add another question, How long will Black people be forced to endure the deliberate omission of the Western world’s contribution to the continuing suffering of Black people? For Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain, France, and the US benefited from the Trans-Atlantic trade market and Black suffering as a result, particularly of the production of sugar and cotton. These nations, writes French, if honest, and truly democratic, would need to “fundamentally reconsider Western identity itself.”
I’m reminded of the Zimbabwean writer, Tsitse Dangarembga, 1988 novel Nervous Condition. Nyasha, a cousin of the young narrator, Tambu, arrives back home after receiving an education in England. Tambu’s dream of a European education has been her young life’s goal. She’ll soon be on her way. In the meantime, Nyasha is home, and it’s only natural that Tambu focus her attention Nyasha, expecting to learn how to think and act among white society in England. For Tambu, the brilliant and sharp-minded Nyasha would be a perfect model of a “well-read” crowd, that is, among the “elite” class of Africans, distinguishable from the masses, at least, by what they’ve consumed through formal education.
Nyasha, however, has gained her greatest insight from within her home, particularly once she comes into contact with her father, a “Big Man” in the village, and “successful” product himself of a missionary education. Nyasha finds herself at odds with the ordering of life at home. Her father, Tambu observes, demands one thing and Nyasha, appearing combative, offers an alternative course of behavior that is anything but complicit.
He doesn’t recognize the daughter he expected to see, a woman/daughter yielding to her role as a dutiful daughter. Home, in fact, is where Nyasha has decided to trouble white identity disguised as “universal” and good for all. Her challenges rebuke her father’s rule since he is, on the one hand, a surrogate for regime of white rulers. Nyasha recognizes in him not father but something one in compliance with his role as “Big Man,” of worth to power only as an enforcer of white supremacy. It’s no surprise when Tambu informs us that the father thinks his daughter “mad.”
Colonialism is nothing if not the conquest of land to invade the mind and diminish the spirit of a people. To accept the rule of a system that operates to conceal truth is to inhale and exhale madness day and night. Father and daughter have been indoctrinated to insist that colonialism is natural. Universal. We are beyond the necessity for gunpowder now.
It’s the “‘Englishness,’” Tambu’s mother informs her. “Englishness”! It’s a killer of Black life. It’s killing Nyasha. “‘It’ll kill them all if they aren’t careful.’”
If only someone had warned Nyasha. If only she had been careful. But she knows the home has been contaminated by the effort to suppress and bury the “uncomfortable.” What Toni Morrison called the “unspeakable.”
At first, Nyasha establishes a reading regiment, including books her formal educators prohibited her to from reading while in England. In the process, she even discovers that there are English titles written by white English men considered unsuitable for the “peaceful” coexistence of the conquer and the conquered. As Tambu tells us, Lady Chatterley's Lover must have given her cousin insight on why an educated woman, such as Nyasha’s mother, would silence herself and commit to the rule of “Big Man” in her house.
In turn, Tambu witnesses Nyasha refusing to pretend helplessness, or behavior like an addle-brained woman, “educated” to obey the “proper” protocol of females in a patriarchal family. Understanding her mother’s situation is one thing. But, Nyasha rejects the idea of her mother as a model for how she is to adjust to living in a household or community under the protective eye of those patriarchs of white supremacy.
By the end of Nervous Condition, Nyasha, near death, refuses to eat. If the deliberate practice of “miseducation” caused her great suffering, Nyasha is determined to purge her body and she did her mind of the falsity of white supremacy. Hadn’t teachers served to maintain a practice of purging her culture, her history, her spirit? Hadn’t seen been taught the hate her own people? Hate herself?
As a human being born Black, Nyasha was to recognize herself as no more than a footnote in what counts as world history. If she hadn’t risked troubling the cover up!
Nyasha will survive, with intervention, but not before she troubles the history she’s been taught. Not before she begins to think critically, asking questions of herself and what she was made to swallow in those “approved” texts.