Sunday, May 27, 2007

A Good Man In Africa, Part One

Any discussion that puts Africa and money in the same sentence must eventually lead to white people. A couple days ago an African friend and I were talking about Jay Z’s recent trip to Angola. I still cannot pinpoint when it happened, but the discussion led to white people in Africa. Put an occasionally angry black man from the Diaspora in the same room as an occasionally angry black man from the continent and something is bound to explode. And exploded it did, an argument whose increasing viciousness stunned me even as I spoke. I railed on against the insult of Europeans who dismiss reparation (and I don’t mean money— England couldn’t afford it anyway), he cursed that for all their supposed humanity, DeBeers still doesn’t care about where a diamond comes from once the blood is washed off. I mentioned that I’m still waiting for DeBeers’ black board member and an African nation on UN’s Security Council. He mentioned the Belgians in the Congo and made a furious moment even more furious. I riffed on about the ludicrous comparison of Romans enslaving Britain a thousand years ago— the last time I checked, Luigi wasn’t getting any money from a Roman settlement in Sheffield, but Liverpudlians were still working in buildings built from the death and dislocation of millions of Africans. I told him how incensed I get when white and black people tell me to get over slavery even though people are still benefiting from it, 174 years later.

This led to the white man in Africa. There’s a philosophy that if you’ve lived somewhere long enough eventually it won’t matter how you got there in the first place. Funnily enough no Native American or Aborigine I know shares that universal logic. After the discussion with my African friend, which ended right before we got into the incendiary (but not very well written) Confessions of an Economic Hitman, I went home surprised and a little ashamed of myself. Maybe I should get a black hood and call myself a reverse Klansman. Then I remembered Peter Godwin’s When the Crocodile Eats The Sun and how much I did not want to buy it. Godwin is of course a fine writer and journalist, whose work I have read before. It’s a perilous task for a white man to write about Africa and writing non-fiction or even the expectedly biased memoir is still a dangerous move, fraught with causing offence at the slightest insensitivity. As a recent review in the New York Times pointed out, the age of Graham Greene may be over now that we have Zakes Mda and Moses Iwegawa, to point out his bullshit. But that’s not why I hesitated buying Peter’s book.

It’s not that I didn’t want to know him. I didn’t want to like him. We love to demonize our humans but are not too keen on humanizing our demons. Hating white people comes easy when you pull a page from their forefathers’ books. Reduce them to an archetype or caricature, Joseph Conradize them if you will and then your stereotypes can remain intact. This is not far removed from the early days of my friendship with Bill where I often dismissed him as an American®, worse a white, redneck, meathead American who simply did not get world politics. But that all changed when I got to know him or rather when he challenged me in a series of not quite civil arguments. The fact is Bill demanded and deserved to be considered a person, praised and damned on his own merits. I’m just not sure if I wanted to extend the same privilege to Peter Godwin.

I still have mixed feelings about the white man in Africa. My African friend asked me what I thought about Mugabe and even on this topic I was ambivalent. On one hand the man is clearly insane and even Bob Marley on his tour to celebrate their independence knew (long before everybody else) that something was not quite right. But on the other hand, even as Mugabe plunders white owned farms, seizes the land and drives them into disuse so that he can fatten his corrupt soldiers and civil servants and starve his own people I still find myself asking what were white people doing on the land in the first place. Where’s the deed that says they bought it? Haven’t they taken enough from Africa and aren’t they taking still? When Afrikaaners, Brits and Belgians build monsters like Mugabe, Amin, Mobutu and a couple million hutus what should they expect but the monstrous? After all these years are they white Africans or merely white people in Africa?

That depends on whom you ask. Slavery and Colonialism are incendiary topics that have not and will not lose steam because at the heart of both, whites and blacks have a profoundly different sense of time and space. White people in Africa probably consider themselves citizens of the countries of the continent; Africans of the present who should not be held to the sins of the past. Men like Godwin were born in Africa, which gives him an immediate right to call himself African, but more than that he did not commit the atrocities in the past and should not be held accountable. This is a common argument, held not only in the continent but also throughout the Diaspora. But blacks, some of us anyway see things a little differently.

The Go Between’s sensational opening sentence, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” is nevertheless the kind of sentence that could have only come from a certain kind of white man. In several African and Native American languages, there are no words for past or future. Time is liberated from its linear construct. So any point made to me by my white friend about forgetting the past is lost when he does so in the large, slavery built house that he still lives in. Where some may see past, present and future, others see continuum, where something done in 1806 has as much resonance as something done in 2007. I cannot separate myself from the past because I’m still living in it. I see it all around me. Less then twenty years ago a prominent high school in uptown Kingston had an organization called Delta that only white kids could join. The country is swarming with British, American a lately Irish people some of whom move in to jobs that seem to spring up hundredfold every week. In the Irish case, they have (allegedly) been hiring themselves, promoting themselves, and giving themselves better cars than the senior Jamaican managers working in the same company. And with these new Massas have come new house niggers, professional Jamaicans with little experience that they have hired and inculcated into their office culture before they could learn any other. And then there are the not so professional house niggers, women mostly who pretend they always loved U2 as they are getting fucked, pun intended by Irish men. Jamaican frogs swimming in a tub put to boil, with no idea that they are being cooked to death.

I find the idea of Godwin’s memoir strange because I have always thought the most convenient trait of the white man in Africa and the Diaspora is his short memory. We however, cannot forget: slavery, Liverpool, the Gold Coast, how the Maroons betrayed us, Toussaint, colonialism, blood diamonds, Sharpeville, the Congo Free State, King Leopold, King Solomon’s Mines, Sam Sharpe, Tacky and Boukman, Tarzan, Heart of Darkness, Mau Mau, Kwame Nkruma, Patrice Lumumba, the Mississippi three, the Little Rock nine, the four little black girls of Birmingham, Caribbean immigrants and black Americans who fought for the allies in two world wars only to be treated worse than people that lost, Percy Julian in heaven waiting on his Nobel Prize, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis and CIA station chief Larry Devlin. All these events have all happened, are happening and will happen again. They are like dead parents and unborn children, as real to us as the living.

I thought that maybe my anger would blind me to Peter’s humanity. The Godwins may have been after all, good people trying to live, making a home where they had hung their hat. But a part of me will always see them as interlopers and if they did not risk anything to make Africans’ lives better then they were silent participants in making it worse. Why should I care about another story that tries to make the white experience in Africa compelling? What kind of sons of bitches simply take over a country and then renames it Rhodesia? The idea of asking blacks to simply forget the past is as ludicrous as buying a Native American a beer, slapping him on the back and saying ‘no hard feelings, buddy.’

But that doesn’t make him racist of course. After all, back in Jamaica many of these newly arrived whites have black friends. It’s hard not to notice these Negroes at their parties and weddings, since there are only four of them. Well, two— the other two are merely dustbins for expatriate cock, whether that be the new commissioner of police or the latest dispatch to Digicel. I gaze out my window and my window to Africa and though I’m looking at 2007 I’m seeing 1807. So you can imagine the anger I carried with me when I bought Peter Godwin’s When A Crocodile Eats the Sun.

But then I read the book.