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Culture and North-South Narratives of Superiority/Inferiority Part 3


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Culture and North-South Narratives of Superiority/Inferiority – Part 3
Fourteenth Article in the Series
Mervyn Claxton
The current near-universal admiration of European peoples of the North by non-European peoples everywhere, which implicitly acknowledges the former's superiority, did not always exist. Following the crowning of a Frankish king, Charlemagne, as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 801, all Westerners were called "Franks" by the Byzantines who considered the event a challenge to Byzantium's claim to be the legatee of Rome. Because of the prominence of French or French-speaking Norman knights in the Crusades, Europe became "firangistan", or "Frank-Land" for the Arabs. Ferenj is an old Arabic word for European. To this day, "firangi" is a hostile term which Muslims as far off as Asia employ when they refer to Europeans. The practice of calling Westerners "Franks", an appellation that soon came to assume a negative connotation, subsequently spread to other non-European countries, with each country or regional culture adopting a local linguistic variant of the term. Thus, "Franks" became "folanghi" in China, "ferenji" in Ethiopia, firanga in India, and "feranga", "faragi", "firangi", and so on, elsewhere.
The very negative image of the Franks in the non-European world is illustrated by the reception which the people of Malia, an Island off the East African coast, prepared for Vasco da Gama. News had arrived from Mozambique of the imminent arrival of men from the land of the Franks. "[Some] thought that they were good and honest men. But those who knew the truth confirmed that they were corrupt and dishonest persons who had only come to spy out the land in order to seize it. And they determined to cut the anchors of their ships so that they should drift ashore and be wrecked by the Muslims. The Franks learnt of this and went on to Malindi." (G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville, The East African Coast, Selected Documents, p.47, 1962). The log-book of Vasco da Gama's flagship recorded that the Portugese found themselves repeatedly spurned as strange and uncouth and that the African burghers they met were very haughty, disdaining the gifts the Portugese gave them to earn their favour.
In the early period of the European Expansion, the generally negative opinion Europeans had come to have of Africans was fully reciprocated by West Africans who had encountered them. "Each race looked on the other as 'consummate villains', and a Negro taxed with dishonesty would sometimes retort: 'What! Do you think I am a White Man?' ". Baron Munchaussen, a noted 18th-century German aristocrat and adventurer, once met a party of West Africans who had seized European shipping and started a trade in white slaves to be sold for work on plantations in cold latitudes. Munchaussen declared, indignantly, that the Africans had contracted "a barbarous prejudice…..that the white people have no souls!" (E. A. Raspe, Baron Munchausen, 1782). Baron Munchaussen was shocked to see Europeans being paid back in their own coin. Presumably, he thought that Europeans held a monopoly on such attitudes and practices. Reciprocity was certainly not his forte.
The contempt, distrust, and disdain Medieval Arabs felt for Europeans were more pronounced, more open, and more scathing than those displayed by Africans towards them. The 11th century Arab geographer and philologist, al-Bakri, said of the Galatians (the Celtic inhabitants of Galatia, an ancient region of Asia Minor): "They are treacherous, dirty, and bathe once or twice a year, then with cold water. They never wash their clothes until they are worn out because they claim the dirt accumulated as the result of the sweat softens their body." (Anwar Chejne, Islam and the West: The Moriscos, 1983, p. 77). The 11th-century Arab Scholar, Sa'id Al-Andalusi, had a most unflattering opinion of Europeans: "Their temperaments are frigid, their humors raw. They lack keenness of understanding and clarity of intelligence, and are overcome by ignorance and dullness, lack of discernment and stupidity." (Richard Poe, Black Spark, White Fire: Did African Explorers Civilize Ancient Europe?, p.357, 1999).
The Arab historian, Usamah Ibn Munqidh, whose work is one of the most cited primary sources for the period of the Crusades, described the Crusaders in the Holy Land in the folllowing terms: "I saw Franks as like animals possessing courage and fighting prowess though their character is rude. Their medical knowledge is in a crude state for I saw a Frankish physician cut off a leg on which an abscess has grown, causing the man's death. A woman afflicted with imbecility was diagnosed as possessed by the devil, the physician recommended for her the shaving of her head, and as her case worsened, he made a deep cruciform incision on her head, to chase the devil away, but the woman died in the process." (Chejne, p.77).
Amerindian peoples, who had an egalitarian concept of society as well as an acute sense of social justice, generally showed concern for, and solidarity with, the less fortunate members of their community. The Cherokee, like the Incas and other Amerindian peoples, looked after their poor, fed them from community stores, and held dances to raise goods to relieve their situation. Consequently, they were not at all impressed by European society. In his essay On Cannibals, Monataigne related a conversation he had had with three Tupinamba Indians who had been brought to France from Brazil in 1562 and exhibited to the boy-King Charles IX who conversed with them for some time. Aware that the Indians had been shown the French way of life, the magnificence of France, and the fine sights of Paris, Montaigne sought their opinion on all they had seen and which they considered the most remarkable. "[They replied] that they had noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses."
Unfortunately, the three Indians were not around to witness the French people doing, two centuries later, exactly what they had suggested. The "child-like", "ignorant" Indian "savages" showed a greater, a more mature, and a more precocious perspicacity than the "civilized" French people. Perhaps it was the latter's "civilized" status which made them blind to their own situation. It took a further century and a half after the belated French revolution of 1789 against the flagrant social injustices in their society to establish a welfare state - a modern development which the Amerindian "welfare state" predated by more than four centuries.
A seventy-member Japanese diplomatic mission visited the United States in 1860, visiting several cities including San Francisco, Washington, Philadelphia and New York, in each of which they were welcomed and fêted. Norimasa Muragaki, the deputy leader of the mission, jotted down his impressions of America in a diary which was subsequently published. Expressing disapproval in his diary of the American way of life, Muragaki concluded: "we were not altogether wrong in calling them western barbarians." (Kokai Nikki: The Diary of the First Japanese Embassy to the United States of America, Compiled and translated by Helen Uno, 1958).
Different Attitudes, Different Responses
The colonial period gave rise to different attitudes and reactions, on the part of peoples of the South, to European peoples in the North. The different attitudes of peoples in the South (or of non-European minorities or majorities to those who dominated them in their own countries) towards individual nations in the North were largely influenced by the manner in which they were treated and the attitudes adopted towards them. In respect of the indigenous peoples in Latin America, it is the thesis of Octavio Paz that Spanish colonial policy towards the Indians (which was greatly influenced by the powerful Catholic church) permitted them, through baptism, to become a part of one social order and religion. Claiming that to belong to the Catholic faith meant, for the Indians, finding a place in the cosmos and the possibility of belonging to a living order, even if it was at the bottom of the social pyramid, Paz argued that such a possibility was cruelly denied to the Ameirndian population by the Protestants of New England.
It was for that very reason that Octavio Paz perceived an immense difference between colonial Mexico and the English North American colonies. In his opinion, the Spanish colonial régimes had committed many horrors, but, “it did not commit the greatest of all: that of denying a place, even at the foot of the social scale, to the people who composed it. There were classes, castes and slaves, but there were no pariahs, no persons lacking a fixed social condition and a legal, moral and religious status.” (The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, pp.93-94, 1967). However, the fact of having been accepted, albeit in an inferior capacity, in a colonial, cultural cocoon has turned out to be a decided disadvantage for Latin America’s present Indian population.
Octavio Paz may well vaunt the merits of a colonial policy which, unlike that of other European countries, might not have been overtly racist, but one that was magnanimous enough to accord a place to Indians “at the foot of the social scale”. That policy has, in the long run, ensured that the Indian populations have permanently remained there, even after five centuries of Spanish-colonial and Spanish-creole rule. The fact of having been excluded, in the North American Protestant societies, from even that lowly position has perhaps served the Indians and the former black slaves in better stead. Like their ethnic cousins in Spanish colonial America, the Indians in the U.S. did not escape genocide but because of their need to fight for even a place at the bottom of the social scale, both the Indian and black populations in North America now have arguably a greater chance to climb that scale than the present Indian populations of Latin America.
The British and the French had contrasting attitudes towards their colonized subjects. An English 19th-century traveller, E. J. Trelawney, praised the "urbanity and equality" of the French colonial official, contrasting it with the "dog-like surliness of the rude and stiff-backed Englsihman." (The Adventures of a Younger Son, p.243, 1831). V.G. Kiernan perceptively described and compared the different attitudes of European countries towards their colonized peoples. "Frenchmen hugged the idea of civilising colonial peoples so completely that they would be 'assimilated' to European standards. This was an idea that marked them off from both British and Dutch. Britain was prepared to give some of its subjects Western knowledge, Holland to give them Western husbands. France proposed to give them in addition Western souls, to translate them into Frenchmen." (The Lords of Humankind: European Attitudes towards the Outside World in the Imperial Age, p.93, 1969).
No dogs or Chinese were allowed in the Public Garden (now Huangpu Park) in Shanghai's International Settlement, which first opened in 1868. That racist policy, which was more or less strictly applied until the Second World War, was an unsolicited "gift" by the British to other Europeans in the Settlement, who were less racist than the British. The Chinese were also barred from admission to the all-male Shanghai Club which the club-loving, misogynous British had established for their own use. The "Shanghai mind" was the term Arthur Ransom coined for that local version of the Empire-wide British cultural phenomenon of racial snobbery and ethnic parochialism, in an article he wrote for the Manchester Guardian on 2 May 1927. The French did things rather differently in their small concession adjacent to the International Settlement. The French Consul-General spurned what he called "Anglo-Saxon superciliousness and its contempt for the Chinese". In contrast to the exclusionary ethnic, sexist policy of the British, the Cercle français sportif, the French equivalent of the Shanghai Club, admitted both Chinese and women as members.
Unlike the French, the English have always had a deep cultural fear of racial "pollution". The phrase, "to turn Turk", entered the English language in Elizabethan times. Among the Europeans who were captured and enslaved by the Turks during the early centuries of the Ottoman Empire, many voluntarily "turned Turk". Later on, during the colonial period, it was the distasteful idea of certain Englishmen "going native" (the colonial equivalent of "turning Turk") that was to exercise much influence on British relations with, and attitudes, towards "inferior" subject peoples, who had to be kept at a distance to prevent any possibility of racial or cultural pollution. In justification of that racially snobbish policy, C.W. Dilke, a former English cabinet minister declared in 1892: "For a century, the Englishman has behaved in India as a demi-god…..Any weakening of this confidence in the minds of the English or of the indians would be dangerous." (Sir C.W. Dilke & S. Wikkinson, Imperial Defense, p.80, 1897). Since the British considered all non-European peoples to be inferior by definition, social rank in indigenous society, no matter how elevated that rank might be, counted for absolutely nothing in their eyes. An Indian aristocrat, the Prince of Bear, who was the son and heir of His Exalted Highness, the Nizam of Hyderabad, once complained to Somerset Maugham of not being able to set foot in the fashionable Yacht clubs of Bombay and Calcutta, because he was a "native".
Somerset Maugham travelled to the Pacific In 1916 to research his novel The Moon And Sixpence, which was based on the life of Paul Gaugin. It was the first of the many journeys he undertook through the late-Imperial world of the 1920s and 1930s that established him in the popular imagination as the chronicler of the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China, and the Pacific. Maugham's privileged view of how his countrymen conducted themselves in the colonies, must have influenced his nephew, the novelist and playwright Robin Maugham. The latter's novel, The Barrier (1973) is set in the 1890’s, the heyday of the British Raj, in a military hill-station. A young innocent English girl goes out to India to join her new husband who is stationed with his regiment in a hill station. She becomes disillusioned with her life and falls in love with one of the servants of her husband who served as her groom when she went riding. It was a love that broke all taboos, defying both Indian restrictions of caste and British restrictions of race. A pithy sentence in Maugham's novel conveyed a damning judgement of British colonial behaviour: "On the tombstone of the British Empire, will be written the words: 'Lost by Snobbery'."
It was, perhaps, towards Africans and Blacks that the racially snobbish British reserved their worst behaviour and displayed their greatest contempt. "Educated" opinion in Victorian England considered that Blacks were more like animals than human beings, whose lower level of consciousness rendered them incapable of controlling their response to environmental stimuli. According to Victorian racial theorists, Blacks belonged to "the age of awakening consciousness, or nascent intelligence, a state of incipiency to moral and mental development." (John Haller, Outcasts from Evolution, p.51, 1971). Richard Burton jeered at the Anti-Slavery Committee's emblem of the kneeling black man, "who, properly speaking, should have been on all fours." (A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahomey, vol.2, p.198, 1864). Victorian Britain's ready association of blacks with animals is well illustrated by Walter Rodney who relates that, when Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the London Times, the English Establishment's favourite newspaper, suggested that Durham should affiliate with London Zoo next. (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972).
Likening Blacks to animals is no longer publicly done by Whites, but generations of making such comparisons appear to have left a deep imprint on their collective unconscious. Exceptionally, I shall illustrate that point by a personal anecdote. I was reading the Johannesburg Star, South Africa's major English-language daily, on a morning flight from Johannesburg to Maputo (Mozambique) one day during the first week of January 2000, when a news item caught my eye. It was a report on a high court case which had concluded the day before. It concerned an accusation of racism that a Black female game park warden had made against her White supervisor whom, she alleged, had called her "a chimpanzee" in the presence of other members of the staff. With searing memories of the apartheid regime, South Africa's black government made sure to pass stiff anti-racist laws immediately after assuming power in 1994, laws that would have made the charge against the White supervisor a very serious one - sufficiently serious to destroy his career, and possibly send him to prison, if he had been found guilty. The judge, whose picture in the Star revealed that he was White, made a most astonishing ruling in the case. Acquitting the supervisor of the charge of racism, the judge explained that a chimpanzee was so genetically close to man that calling the game warden a chimpanzee was not racist. He added that if the game warden had been called "a gorilla" instead, that would have been racist, because a gorilla was not as genetically close to man. That a high court judge, in a country where the rule of law does exist in fact as well as in theory, could seriously put forward such an absurd, comic argument in open court, in the year 2000, suggested that he genuinely saw nothing unreasonable in likening Blacks to animals. If that judgement was not subsequently overtuned on appeal, it would have become a legal precedent. It is a very chilling thought, indeed.
In the early 19th century, the widow of an English evangelical clergyman wrote praising her servant, John Hacket, very highly. He was a Jamaican free-born negro who had attended her daughters on a hazardous journey from Italy, during which he constantly demonstrated his devotion and presence of mind. Hacket had taught himself to read the Bible but, notwithstanding, he was "one of that cruelly treated, and unjustly despised race, of whom it has been disputed, whether they should be reckoned as beings of the same species." Memoirs of the Life of the Late Mrs. Catherine Cappe, p.333; 1823). E. M Forster, author of the roman-fleuve, A Passage to India, echoing the sentiments of Robin Maugham, wrote home from India where he was temporarily resident to lament that England was now having to pay for "the insolence of Englishmen and Englishwomen out here in the past…..English manners out here have improved wonderfully in the last eight years. Some people are frightened, others seem really to have undergone a change of heart. But it's too late." (The Hill of Devi, p.153, a collection of Forster's letters from India, published in 1953).
Blacks and other non-European peoples, who were colonized by the French, reacted very favourably to the only European people who were not only prepared to recognize their humanity but also willing to accept them into the French cultural community, even if such acceptance depended on their assimilation of French culture. Since the French conceived their nation and their national identity essentially in terms of culture rather than defined by a shared ethnicity or history, the peoples colonized by the French considered it most natural that they would have to acquire French culture to be accepted into the French community. Consequently, Blacks and other French-colonized peoples enthusiastically adopted French culture, of which they became, and remain to a large extent, some of its most ardent admirers and promoters. Colin Cross has put his finger on one of the essential differences between France and Britain (the latter's attitude being generally shared by all the Anglo-Saxon peoples); "Few Frenchmen shared the characteristically British preoccupation with skin colour and there was a good deal of [interracial] sexual mixing". (The Fall of the British Empire, p.97, 1968).
The peculiar love affair which peoples colonized by the French established with France and French culture did not go unnoticed. It was remarked upon by individuals from other countries in the North. Hesketh Pritchard, an American geographer who spent some time in Haiti at the end of the 19th century, bore witness to the great spell which French culture and way of life still exercised over Haitians, despite the fact that they had suffered enormously from France's persistent attempts to roll back the Haitian revolution and from the heavy burden of reparations with which that country had saddled Haiti as the price of ending its belligerence. Referring to a Haitian, with a local title of nobility, whom he had met, Pritchard commented: "With his whole heart and soul, he admires France……Moreover, he regards the rest of the world through French eyes." (Where Black Rules White p.327, 1910).
The curious fact that the Latins of South America do not even identify with the Latins of North America, reminded Darcy Ribeiro of Martinique students in Paris who, in their alienation, "took on the French ethnos". They became exasperated when they were taken for Latin Americans: "The poor things were 'French'. They neither knew nor felt themselves to be Americans. Their self-image was that of the old Gallic colonists deported to the islands, always yearning for the mother country." (The Americas and Civilization, p.388, 1971).
Josephine Baker, like generations of American blacks - jazz players, performing artists, writers, and intellectuals - were easily seduced by France, its culture, and its refreshingly different attitude to race and colour. Having suffered from Jim Crow in the U.S. all their lives and from the stubborn refusal of White America to grant them their rightful place in American society, American blacks discovered that France was not only prepared to do so but also, for the more gifted among them, they found themselves lionized by the French. The French experience was a heady cocktail for black Americans. Josephine Baker went to France in 1925 with a black American dance troupe which performed as la Revue nègre at the Theatre of the Champs Elysées, the best known theatre in Paris. She took France by storm, stimulating as a consequence a great enthusiasm among Parisians for jazz and black music. Two years later, she became the star performer at the Folies Bergères, the most prestigious showplace in Paris, which was at the apogee of its reputation at the time. Josephine Baker returned to the United States for a tour in 1936 but, quite predictably, was most disappointed in the welcome she received. After having been treated as a star in France, it was not easy to return to being a second class citizen, despised by White America purely because of her colour. She returned to France, took out French nationality in 1937 and virtually became a national institution, adored by Parisians and chosen as their Muse by French Cubist artists.
James Baldwin has very perceptively described the great feeling of liberation which Black Americans immediately felt on visiting, or going to live, in France, in the period before the Civil Rights movement had helped to translate the lofty ideals of equality, so prominently proclaimed in the American Constitution, into some degree of lived reality. Recalling that he had often heard the advice "Ignore race", Baldwin said that it took him a long time to be able to do that, adding that perhaps he would never have been able to do so if he hadn't gone to live in France, which was a revelation for him. One day in Paris, it suddenly dawned on him that he had achieved that impossible goal when someone asked him about a friend of his and he could not remember whether the friend was white or black. "It simply had never occurred to me. The question had never entered my mind. I really had a terrible time. I suddenly felt lost. My whole frame of reference all the years I was growing up had been black and white. But suddenly I didn't have it; suddenly that frame of reference had gone. And in a funny way – and I don't know how to make sense of this – as far as I could tell, as far as I can tell till this hour, once that has happened to you, it never comes back." (A Rap on Race, pp.9-10, 1971).

In that last sentence of Baldwin's, lies the key to the conundrum Pritchard evoked – namely, why, after a century had elapsed since French rule and despite France's great hostility towards Haiti after the Haitian revolution, Haitians continued to think so highly of France and to admire it to such a great extent. It also explains the similar admiration Francophone Africans and French West Indians have for France and French culture, despite the discrimination almost all of them, except their elites and the most intellectual and cultivated, experience in metropolitan France. The latter are treated purely on their merits, with no distinction made at all for skin colour. Léopold Senghor was widely admired in France, not for the successful political leader he was, but as a great poet and intellectual whose profound knowledge of the French language was acknowledged by leading French intellectuals, themselves, to be unrivalled. Senghor became an "immortel", a member of the Académie Française which is the highest, and most sought after, of all French honours. He was not cold-shouldered by the old French aristocracy when he married his second wife, the daughter of a marquis, in 1957.


Seventeen years previously, in 1940, General de Gaulle had elevated the then Governor of Chad, Felix Eboué, to the post of Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa (modern day Congo, Gabon, Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic). It was one of the two or three or top posts in France's colonial service. Felix Eboué was a Black French Guyanese who had joined the French colonial service in 1909, at the administrative level. Eboué has been credited for rallying French Africa to France Libre (General de Gaulle's Free French Forces), thus preventing the entire region from supporting Vichy France, the puppet government which ran France for the Germans. A city square and a subway station in Paris are named after him. At the time, Eboué was occupying one of the highest posts in the French colonial service, with hundreds of subordinate White officials assisting him in governing a territory several hundred times the size of the English-speaking Caribbean, no Black Caribbean could have hoped to be appointed even to the lowest administrative grade of Britain's colonial civil service. Similarly, in the decade preceding independence, no Black Caribbean could have hoped to become a cabinet minister in Britain. During the 1950's, both Senghor and Félix Houphouet-Boigny (Côte d'Ivoire) were cabinet ministers in France. As citizens of a French overseas territory, they both had French nationality and enjoyed all the rights of their metropolitan compatriots, including election to the French parliament and exercising a ministerial function.
Fast forward to 1957, the year Ghana won its independence from Britain. Sir James Robertson, the last Britsih Governor-General of Nigeria, was a member of the official British delegation to Ghana's Independence celebrations. In his book, Transition in Africa: From Direct Rule to Independence (1974), Robertson related a very telling scene to which he was a witness. At the official Independence Day reception, vice-president Richard Nixon, who was America's official representative to Ghana's Independence celebrations, noticing a tall, big Black man on the other side of the stateroom in which reception was held, strode across to greet him. Holding out his hand, Nixon asked him what it felt like to be free. The Black man replied: "I don't rightly know Mr Vice-President, you see, I am from Alabama." Robertson reports that Nixon, without saying another word, turned on his heels and walked away. In the previous year (1956), the First World Congress of Black Writers and Artists was held at the Sorbonne in Paris. Among those who participated were Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Richard Wright. W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson were deliberately prevented from attending the Congress by the State Department, which refused them a passport.
Across the Atlantic in that same year, Blacks in the American South could not sit at the front of the bus, or eat at the same lunch counter, or go to the same schools, or jointly worship the Christian God in the same church as Whites, or even be buried in the same cemetry. It was also a time when a young black man could be lynched for "eyeballing" a white woman in the street. During World war II, when a black Frenchman in Africa had numerous senior white officials serving under his command, black American soldiers could fight and die for their country but were legally forbidden to do so at the side of their white countrymen. The United States and France were certainly two very different worlds. Indeed, the two countries might have been on planets in different galaxies light years apart, so differently were Blacks treated in either country.
The healthy effect which the very different French attitude towards race had on Black pride and Black self-respect was recognized by people in the more race conscious Anglo-Saxon societies, who factored it into their own reactions towards those Blacks who had had the benefit of a French experience. Baldwin recalled the serious problem he had in Tallahasse, Florida, to cash a certified cheque for $250, which his lawyer in New York had sent him. Having been on the road for three months, he was broke and needed the cash very badly. On his way to the bank in a taxi, Baldwin anxiously asked the driver whether he thought he would have any trouble cashing the cheque, to which the taxi driver replied: "I don't think they believe that a nigger should have that much money…I bet you five dollars that you don't get no money." It was near closing time and the driver was right. Baldwin did not succeed in cashing the check, but the driver generously refused to accept the five dollars Baldwin offered him for the lost bet.
Baldwin returned to the bank the following day and, predictably, got the run around. He was determined, however, to cash the cheque that very day or be lynched in the attempt. He had to see everyone in the bank, including the president, before the bank would agree to cash the cheque. He ended up where he had started, with the same white teller he had first approached. Baldwin showed her his only identification, his passport, which had been issued by the American embassy in Paris. "She looked at the passport and looked at me with such wonder that I suddenly began to see what I had done wrong. What I had done wrong was look her in the eye. I looked everybody in the eye, and black people in the deep South just do not look white people in the eye. Then, when she looked at the passport, she looked at me with great relief. She said, 'Oh, you're from Paris!' And this explained everything. Otherwise, she was in great trouble, because none of our niggers would behave like this." (A Rap on Race, p.72).
The cultural cocoon in which France has wrapped Francophone Africans has become both a cultural trap and a major handicap for them. Their cultural emancipation (an inescapable prerequisite for real, political emancipation) has been retarded by just the sort of cultural cocoon in which Indians in colonial and post-colonial Spanish America found themselves. The paternalistic relationships engendered within that cultural cocoon, from which both Latin America’s Indians and Francophone Africans still suffer, would be inconceivable for American Blacks and Indians or for Anglophone Africans. Discussing the particular situation of French West Indians, Aimé Césaire once famously remarked: "Nous sommes des Français à part entière, mais entièrement à part." An accurate translation of that phrase, with its very clever play on words, is not possible but an approximate translation that attempts to maintain the play on words might read like this: "We are a part of France and that makes us completely French but, as a people, we feel entirely apart."
Robert Scalapino has, very perceptively, described the different effect British and French attitudes had on their respective subject peoples: "The British managed to transmit their political values without transmitting their culture in its more extended dimensions, except to a handful of individuals, principally in the upper strata. British aloofness combined with a strong sense of class and ethnic distinction to keep the colonies separate from the ruling nation, socially as well as economically. Integration was never remotely considered, though all colonies were in a special sense wards of the Crown, and this relationship formed a basis for the subsequent British Commonwealth. In distinction, the French managed to transmit much of their culture without implanting their political values…Ambivalent about politics but secure in their way of life, French colonies dispensed language, cuisine, art, and literature. Uninhibited by the taboos that accompany a strong sense of hierarchy or ethnicity, the French left behind them a significant number of individuals torn between the politics of estrangement and the yearning for cultural compatibility." (The Politics of Development: Perspectives on Twentieth-Century Asia, pp.32-33, 1989).
Commenting on France's culturally pioneering action, taken as early as 1848, to grant those Senegalese capable of assimilating French culture, French citizenship and the right to send a deputy to the National Assembly in Paris, V. G. Kiernan observed "For this small minority the price of initiation into French culture might well be the loss of any real contact with their own people." (Kiernan, p.208, 1969). The accuracy of that observation is most evident in the attitudes and actions of Francophone African leaders and elites today, who are torn between their sense of estrangement from the "uncultivated" peasant masses who constitute the majority of their country's population and their yearning to remain culturally French. France is their spiritual home and also, for many of them, their retirement home. To all intents and purposes, they are French in everything but name. When an incredulous Pritchard remarked, more than a century ago, that the Haitian regarded the rest of the world through French eyes, he was stating what was a fact of life for all Francophone elites, although he did not realize it at the time.
When the United States vetoed the renewal of Boutros Boutros-Ghali's appointment as U.N. Secretary General after he had served only one term, all the Permanent members of the Security Council agreed that his successor must be an African, in order not to deny that region its full quota of two terms. Kofi Annan soon emerged as the front runner but he was opposed by France for a suspiciously long time. France proposed the Foreign Minister of Senegal instead, knowing that if a Senegalese were elected it would be almost as good as electing a Frenchman. The other permanent members saw through the ploy immediately. They definitely did not want to see a "Frenchman" in the post. The Senegalese Foreign Minister would have spontaneously, and perhaps even unconsciously, supported French interests because he "saw the rest of the world through French eyes."
The French are a febrile people who have found it difficult to adjust to the fact that they are no longer a nation of the first rank and that France, with its attractive culture, is no longer the reference for the rest of the world – one by which all other countries used to measure themselves. Frederick the Great (Prussia) and Catherine the Great (Russia) spoke French in their respective courts, for it was the language spoken by all cultivated Europeans. That is no longer so. French was dethroned by English as the language of diplomacy at the end of the First World War and, although, the menu at Buckingham palace banquets is still written in French, in terms of literary production or the number of educated people who choose it as their first foreign language, English is undeniably the language of world culture. Like the medieval English monarch, King Canute, the French try desperately to stem the incoming tide of English which steadily erodes its linguistic shores. It is a losing battle, which they well know, and that knowledge causes periodic bouts of insecurity among the French who, as a nation, worry incessantly about France's place and role in a rapidly changing world.
France is currently undergoing one of the periodic crises of confidence, which have regularly punctuated its history since the French Revolution, during which France appears to temporarily abandon some of the fundamental values that have historically distinguished it from other countries. The last such major crisis occurred after France was humiliatingly defeated by Germany at the very beginning of the Second World War. During the occupation, French police, acting on the orders of the puppet Vichy regime which had thrown in its lot with the Germans, rounded up tens of thousands of Jewish citizens – men, women, and children – to be put on trains headed for the Nazi death camps. Very few survived. "Aryan" French citizens denounced their Jewish neighbours who tried to hide in their appartments in a desperate effort to escape being sent to the death camps - to the tune of no less than 1,500 anonymous letters addressed to the Gestapo every day. Even the German occupants were surprised by such French denunciatory zeal.
The present crisis of confidence is caused by the long-term economic decline that begun in the 1980s and the realization that the French social model, with its excellent health care and social security system, cannot be economically sustained much longer. One of the peculiar cultural traits of the French is an utter incapacity to admit being wrong about anything. While that character defect is to be found in a certain number of individuals in every society, in France it is so widespread and generalized that it can only be considered a national character trait. Accordingly, any misfortune that befalls an individual French person or the French nation as a whole is the fault of someone else, who must be identified, and denounced if necessary, to save personal "face" or national honour. The Jews were made the scapegoats for French woes during France's last crisis of confidence. In the current crisis, the chosen scapegoats are Muslim North Africans and Black Africans in general, although that fact is disguised by public figures who are very careful to denounce only those Black Africans and Muslim North Africans who are illegal immigrants.
France's legendary colour-blind culture has been temporarily called into question. For the very first time, the phrase des Français de souche is regularly used by politicians of the Extreme Right to distinguish White Frenchmen from those who are non-White, a practice that is condemned by all mainstream French politicians. However, the true picture of France's current bout of racism cannot be painted in black and white. It is too complex a picture, with too many overlapping shades and hues, for that to be possible. After France won the (football) World Cup in 1998, the player whom all of France considered the architect of the counrtry's victory – Zinedine Zidane – became an instant national hero. A several storey-sized portrait of him was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs Elysées where a half-million French people gathered on the night of the victory to celebrate together and to pay homage to him.
Zidane happens to be of Algerian origin. Notwithstanding the current designation of North Africans and Black Africans as national scapegoats, both he and Yannick Noah (a Frenchman of Camerounian origin) are national icons who are annually voted among the top four or five French nationals most admired by the French people. Since the early 1970s, when the active participation of French state institutions in sending Jews to the death camps first became publicly known, to expiate their collective guilt, France and the French have gone overboard to make it up to the surviving Jewish population. Perhaps, when they recover from the present crisis of confidence, the French will undergo a similar catharsis in respect of the shameful way they now treat the current designated scapegoats.
Sex, Sin and Racism
One of the most important things that distinguish the British (and Anglo-Saxon societies in general) from other European colonizers was their absolute distaste for any sexual contact with the "natives" in their own colonies or in the countries where they had established a presence. The French, as we have seen, were not opposed to interracial marriage or sexual relationships. Neither were the Dutch or the Portugese. The Dutch "[did] not look down ostenstatiously on all "natives" as the British did in India. Intermarriage was not disreputable; a mixed population continued to grow, and Eurasians, if not on a par with Europeans, were not publicly rejected." (Kiernan, p.90). "They [the Portugese] had no colour consciouness at all and actual marriage between Portugese and Africans was not out of the way." (Colin Cross, The Fall of the British Empire, p.98, 1968). Gilberto Freyre, the Brazilian sociologist and writer, was an avid proponent of racial miscegenation. He was persuaded that, of all European peoples, only the Portugese had a "genius" for "civilising" the tropics, which was facilitated by the sexual preference of Portugese men for dark-skinned women. (The Masters and the Slaves, 1936). Portugese males must have been very content to promote interracial harmony in that horizontal manner, especially since they could tell themselves that it was all in a good cause, but even if some of their black female partners might have willingly subscribed to such a good cause, their black male compatriots would certainly not have shared that perspective.
Salvador de Madariaga, the Spanish writer and diplomat, once remarked that the Anglo-Saxon conscience did not prevent him from sinning, it merely prevented him from enjoying his sin. Madariaga knew what he was talking about because he was Spanish ambassador in Washington for a period of time, a post that gave him a ringside seat at the spectacle of a puritanical society in full hypocritical functioning. The Anglo-Saxon's fundamentally puritanical culture, greatly influenced as it was by Calvin's teachings and relayed by 16th-17tthcentury English pilgrims who transported them, with their Bibles, to America in the Mayflower, has had a determining impact on both British and American society. Anglo-Saxons tended to suppress their sexual impulses, which were seen as constituing a dangerous avenue for the devil to accomplish his evil work.
The Anglo-Saxon channelled his sexual drive into making money and achieving material success. But his sexual impulses were often expressed in more perverse ways, such as, for example, the abiding English predilection for voyeurism which has ensured the stunning commercial success of England's tabloids, a success that appears to be quite impervious to economic downturns. The latter serve up a daily mixture of young, scantily-clad women posing in a sexually provocatively manner, and "confessions", by their erstwhile female partners, of past illicit affairs conducted with prominent men in public life, which, to the great delight of the legion of English readers, spare them none of the salacious details. Human nature being what it is, the Anglo-Saxon could not always avoid physically yielding to his sexual impulses. However, when he did so he immediately felt very guilty, which made him all the more inclined to condemn such action on the part of others, possibly to avert attention from his own pecadillos.
Unable to enjoy his "sin" and feeling very guilty about it, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) feels that he can only expiate that guilt by denouncing similar behaviour in others who happen, like himself, to be also sinnning on the side. Thus, one of the Congressional leaders of the Republican party who organized Bill Clinton's impeachment for having sinned on the side in the Oval Office, was discovered to have been conducting his own sideshow at the time. Similarly, Republican Senator Larry Craig, who was caught in a police sting in a public restroom playing footsie with the undercover policeman in the cubicle next to his, and for making gestures to the officer which suggested he wanted to engage in "lewd conduct", has a long record of opposing gay-rights legislation, such as gay marriage and civil unions, and allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military. Interviewed by CNN, the arresting policeman claimed that both he and other colleagues had caught CEOs, bank presidents, and college professors, in similar sting operations, the majority of whom were men with wives and children at home.
Margaret Meade told James Baldwin that the Southern White male neutered both the Southern White woman and the Black man. He did so by putting the White woman, untouched and untouchable, out of reach on a high pedestal and by bedding the black man's woman at will. (Rap on Race). The slave owner was doubtlessy exercising what he considered to be his droit de Seigneur. White American males probably feel a mixture of guilt and fear for having psychologically emasculated the Black man or pehaps they dread that the latter would take revenge by paying him back in his own coin. Perhaps he fears that, having kept the White woman and the Black man apart for so long by making any relations between them a lynching offense, they might both have developed a strong mutual desire to taste the fruit which had been forbidden to them for so long. That last possibility would strike the White male where he felt most vulnerable – his sense of sexual insecurity – for he appears to have believed the myth of superhuman sexual virility which White America long ago attributed to the Black man, in its persistent attempts to dehumanize him by depicting him as no better than an animal who is unable to exercise any control over his sexual impulses.
The very idea of a Black man and a White woman having a romantic relationship is enough to drive White male America crazy. Here, sex, sin, guilt, and racism all come together to make, not a dangerously heady cocktail, but a very poisonous brew. Denzel Washington (Gray Grantham) and Julia Roberts (Darby Shaw) played the male and female leads in The Pelican Brief (1993), the film made from John Grisham's book of the same title. In American films where romantic possibilities exist, the male and female leads tend to jump into bed with indecent haste. Needless to say, Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts did not do so. In the two hours and twenty-one minute long film there was no flirtation at all, not even a delicate kiss on the lips nor any indication that such an anodyne act was in store for the viewer. Indeed, there was not even the slightest hint of possible romance between the two leading players although they were constantly in each other's company. It gave the film a rather stilted, dated, pre-1950's look – the type of film in which Grace Kelly, who never ever let the leading man kiss her, acted. But we were in 1993, long past the time when such sexless films would attract a viewing public, except of course where the male lead is a Black man and the female lead is a White woman, when the usual cinematic rules do not apply.
Reviewing The Pelican Brief, the New York Times film critic commented: "Mr. Grisham didn't actually write an ending, but he did close his book with a clinch and a promise of romance between Darby and Gray. The film, which thrives on the comfortable chemistry between its two stars, isn't quite gutsy or colorblind enough to do the same." That comment says it all. When, subsequently, Denzel Washington was asked by a black fan why he did not kiss Julia Roberts in the last sequence as they were parting at the airport, Washington replied that he did not want to incur the hostility of every White male in America. On the rare occasions where a sex scene is factored in to a film with similar male and female leads, the White woman is always played by a European. Apparently, White male America does not feel sexually threatened when an American Black beds a European.
Thus, in One night Stand (1997), where the script called for the Black male lead to bed the White female lead, Wesly Snipes plays the former and Nastassja Kinski plays the latter. The instant "chemistry" between the two characters took them them into bed on the very first night they met, in typical Hollywood style. We were back to the standard Hollywood formula where a bed scene takes place as early as possible in the film, before the viewer gets bored waiting for the "action" to take place. The New York Times film critic had the following the comment on the film: "The two attractive stars share sufficiently good chemistry, and Mr. Figgis directs their bedroom scene with such sleepy, jazzy sensuality that the film seems finally to have found its strength." Here at last, an American film director could feel free to portray an interracial couple with perfectly normal physical desires, which he could allow them to satisfy on screen without having to anxiously look over his shoulder at White male America's reactions.
However, such special rules do not apply when the roles are reversed because White American men have always bedded Black women, with or without the latter's permission, with full legal and social impunity. No White American male has ever been hanged for actually raping or allegedly "eyeballing" a black woman, nor has his professional career or social position suffered as a consequence. That story is as old as America itself and it is as American as apple pie. Thus, the coupling (in both senses of the term) of Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992) raised no hackles at all in America, either from White women or from Black men. For them, it was déjà vu - they had not only seen it before but they had also been subjected to it before – as real life victims. Nonetheless, the New York Times film critic's review of the film is quite revealing: "It [the film] also pauses, though only briefly, for a couple of perfunctory love scenes between Rachel [Houston] and Frank [Costner]. Unreal as these scenes seem anyhow, they are further undercut by the film's failure even to notice that this is an interracial romance."
In an age of political correctness and persistent feminist demands for gender equality, the director obviously felt uncomfortable portraying scenes which would inevitably recall the dishonourable, unequal, exploitative, historical relationship that had long existed between the White slave master and his Black female slaves. Consequently, the love scenes were untypically few (only "a couple"), "perfunctory" and "unreal". The film's failure to notice that it was an interracial romance was the director's way of backing away from the racial issue, by simply ignoring it altogether. In doing so, he deprived himself of the opportunity to exploit the immense dramatic possibilities of, perhaps, the most important social fault line in American life. The director probably also did not want to incur the wrath of the powerful feminist lobby, which might have taken such artistic exploitation literally.
The very strong, highly irrational, White male hostility to interracial relationships involving a Black man and a White woman is a fertile source of powerful political drama in American politics – drama which is often tragic, occasionally farcical, but never comic in a healthy kind of way. In real life, any hint of an association, however perfunctory or fictive it might be, between a Black public figure and a White woman is a death knell for the career of the former. White politicial opponents, who are not averse to taking the low road, constantly take advantage of it. In an article in the New York Times on 2nd August (2008), one of the paper's columnists, Bob Herbert, evoked a recent example of that peculiarly American practice. Here is an excerpt:
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