The essay was donated to Rasta Ites by bredren Kamil Lausch-Jeannet for publication online. Give thanks.
“Whappen To Da Blak Star Line?”: Issues of Culture and Representations of the African Diaspora
through the lenses of African and African-American Cinema.
– For those who give themselves to the cause
This dissertation does not pretend to be in any way an analysis of actual films which exist. This task has already been masterfully handled by much more able scholars and for a just analysis of some of the films mentioned here please consult the works mentioned in my Bibliography. Rather this piece is an examination of the culture that films are responsible for creating. I have taken as my focus the realm of the much maligned (in Caucasian criticism) African and African-American film and hope to explore some of the reasons for the general lack of information surrounding critical material and the disproportionate size of the actual canon of the primary art form itself. I wish to state here that I do not like to use the words ‘white’ or ‘black’ except when they are used in their appropriate descriptive context or when I am forced to quote from an external source. For reasons which I make clear later in this work I prefer the use of the word ‘African’ or ‘African-American’ to ‘black’ and the term ‘Caucasian’ to refer to people with a mainly (purity is a nonsense) geographically European – up to the Caucas Mountains – background. I have also substituted the term ‘wombman’ for ‘human’ for I believe it is much more appropriate to the way our species functions and leaves both genders with a mention.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, –
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.”
We wear the mask, 1895 – Paul Laurence Dunbar
Taking the history of Afro-Americans in the U.S as an example it is shameful and outrageous that over a hundred and fifty years after emancipation discriminations are still propagated and encouraged in legislature springing from the indoctrinated hatred of individuals. People are exploited and scapegoats created. Divide and rule is successful. Sides have been created, sides of opposition based upon an illusion of contrasting difference. The battle sides are set as black and white. The metaphor is unfortunate. The metaphor is wrong. These ‘whites’ aren’t white at all but rather shades of pink and the ‘blacks’, why the I can see only tones of brown. It is our duty to banish the ‘blacks’ to the mists of time, and to execute the ‘whites’. Those terms must be forgotten and the universal human must be born. The language I use here, in this case English, conspires against me to foil the comfortable and dignified establishment of a truly free egalitarian word to define our common form. Wombman (“he’s clearly mad!” I hear them say, “How unwieldy a word to use, why the very idea is preposterous, just imagine the inconveniences with the spellchecker!”) is a far better term for a collective description of our species but I somehow have little faith in its success against the overwhelming setup of institutionalised patriarchy. F***-em-all, I will be difficult.
It is truly tragic that all the slaughter, misery, bondage, distrust and crippling fear implicit in the interrelations of the children of today’s world cultures is due to only one main over-riding factor; the amount of an innocuous pigment contained within the skin. The result of this visual difference becomes the ridiculous synonymous cultural projections that then sickeningly manifest to conspire and weigh down entire foreign cultures with a deluded symbolism for what each particular amount of melanin represents. All sides are guilty. All sides have also had physical manifestations to justify their hatreds and this only adds brambles to the blaze of the conflict of forced difference. It is not surprising therefore that these historical conditions would have affected the whole of the development of the Hollywood film industry. This retarded and complex development of United States culture perhaps is the reason why the films are so irrepresentative of the culture of that nation as a whole. A cinema of attractions is an easy one to formulate and continue. With the financial weight at its disposal Hollywood effortlessly churns out picture after picture full of exploitative, non-narrative, shots of women, massive explosions and special effects. Woven into this poor fabric are the usual ‘all-American’ good values which are not ‘all-American’ at all but decidedly Caucasian and more specifically Judeo-Christian in origin. It is tragic that in this year of 2003 the inclusion of ‘ethnic’ minority actors in progressively more and more U.S films seems more a conscious policy of political correctness on behalf of the producers than a current natural selection trend based on acting merit. This of course is the whole quota issue of employment and though it seems beneficial and might ultimately prove necessary for a real change in contemporary social values it does presently seem arrogant and is insulting to those it is supposedly meant to benefit.
In returning to the subject of the production of Hollywood’s cinema of attractions it becomes clear that a readily adjustable format and the universal appeal of the spectacular does succeed in terms of popularity. It has to be remembered that this type of picture is a certain style which is aggressively marketed on all of the world’s fronts where Hollywood gets a look in. People brought up on these films are fooled into thinking that this is the standard language of the medium. This type of film, in order to maintain its success, has sacrificed the other benefits it could possibly project in favour of mass popularity. Lost unto the void is the possibility of cultural expression of feeling and the sense of art that even early Hollywood cinema once held. That art that sprung from the narratives of diverse folk traditions and was encapsulated first within projected light and then enriched with the addition of the soothing waves of sound.
The history of ethnic prejudice in cinema is obviously then a result of the attitudes of the societies within which those films have been created. This is one of the determinative factors but perhaps more important still is the attitude of the authors towards their works themselves and how those authors got to arrive at that position of power to enable the construction of those narratives. The relevant question here becomes that regarding employment, namely who gets what job and then what they do with it. I know not of a grand conspiracy woven into a fabric of design but I will stand testimony to my belief that ethnic prejudice and hatred exists on a level pertaining specifically to the individual. Here it is important to mention that individuals sometimes get organised with other like-minded creatures. How else can a company be described? In all areas of the world the same species of animal is killing other members of its being on a daily basis. In places this animal organises itself into ‘hate groups’ and takes direct action against what it believes to be the source of its frustration. Where such unjustified prejudice and hatred exists many sympathisers can be found whose number could lead to a surge of popularity for such a movement. This is dangerous in its own right as people of position might share the same ignorant opinion. This is not as dangerous however as if this ideology was represented in the grass-roots massive. Events of an eye for an eye philosophy can only compound suffering and represssion is the tool used by those in power for fear of losing control of the populace. It must be recognised that ‘race’ is a falacy, we are all wombmen here, what this ‘ethnic’ prejudice is really about is culture prejudice and ‘race’ is a shallow way of being able to point a finger at a culture and demonise it through stereotypes. It is too similar in ‘science’ and method to the early Italian army doctor come sociologist’s (Cesare Lombroso) notorious “Theory of criminal types”.
Film is a medium born of the age of industrial modernity. In its application to art a variety of interesting facts emerge. Studying the industry that has arisen to surround world film it is North America that economically dominates the market. When we are to look at the reasons why we find ourselves confronted with a film-making methodology decidedly capitalist in existence, it becomes apparent that ‘Will it sell?’ is undoubtedly the most commonly asked question. To conceptualize a film with this very concept in mind will surely result in some sort of lack of quality or artistic commitment. In this real world film industry it is still European and North American transnational companies which control most world freight shipping and thus the prices for distribution. By looking at the industry from this perspective it is possible to see that the market is about a battle to control profits. With pre-established corporations and companies in existence already fiscally entrenched in their economic war of attrition new enemies are not eagerly sought.
“A second shaping influence is the economic context in which African filmmakers are forced to operate. The Marxist theorization of capitalism – stemming from Baran and Sweezy, and taking in such economists as Andre Gunder Frank, Immanuel Wallerstein and Samir Amin – may or may not have general viability. However, its conceptualisation in terms of metropolis and satellite (or core and periphery), and its view of capitalism as a single, interlocked economic system, in which the development of the West can only occur at the expense of a parallel underdevelopment of the Third World, is certainly a very precise definition of how world cinema operates.3 There is a single world market, dominated by Hollywood, which regulates the flow of films throughout the world. About half of Hollywood’s gross receipts derive from its 70% share of gross world film rentals, and the Hollywood companies have shown themselves ruthless in their defence of their market share, as shown in the recent negotiations between the United States and the European Community over the GATT agreements.
Given this US dominance, the so-called film “industries” of the Third World – with the exception of the Indian film industry, which does dominate its own domestic market – are fragmented and distorted. Everywhere, including Africa, more profit can be derived from distribution and exhibition linked to Western companies than from production. Operating in collaboration with Western companies, local distributors and exhibitors have no need of local production. Imported films, which have already covered their costs elsewhere, will cost only a fraction of what is needed to produce an equivalent product locally. Indeed, distributors and exhibitors may well consider the very existence of locally-produced films (even if unsupported by them) as a threat to the profitability of their own operations, since – if successful – locally-produced films might change audience tastes. Imported films, on the other hand, build an appetite for more imported films, to the extent that the “natural” language of film comes to be perceived by audiences as a foreign film language: that of Hollywood. The implications for African filmmakers are severe: everywhere they are confronted with colonized screens, showing only imported films (often of appallingly low quality), with indifferent distributors, who scorn their work, and with an alienated audience, not in search of an expression of national culture, but eager for the cheap thrills to which they have become accustomed.
Various individual states – Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Algeria – attempted boycotts in the 1970s, but the results show that no African state on its own is sufficiently powerful to confront the might of Hollywood. Even for state-backed film production, there is no viable national market which can support the cost of even a modestly budgeted film (except in the case of the Yoruba Folk Opera in Nigeria, which is discussed below). Export is needed for economic viability, but the inhabitants of neighbouring states are equally addicted to Hollywood style films, and the European markets are closed unless a European company has invested in the film.”
From – The Context of the African Filmmaker, Armes, Roy (pg 12) in A Call To Action: The Films of Ousemane Sembene, edited by Petty, Sheila. Flicks Books, Bath, 1996.
Visually, a films’ images convey interpretative meaning in themselves as well as in the way in which they are structured within a ‘mise-en-scene’. This too has a powerful effect upon the audience. Film has a profound impact upon human consciousness perhaps a core factor of its effectiveness being the sheer spectacle of the light projected images. For humans on a subconscious level at least seeing is believing and witnessing a member of their species performing on the silver screen seems to be encourage some degree of conferred status towards the acting personality. This is all very well but as Armes (in; A Call To Action: The Films of Ousemane Sembene, edited by Petty, Sheila. Flicks Books, Bath, 1996.) carries on to point out the actual immediate utility of this medium is something which is at odds with Africa’s present situation. Capitalism is a system which claims to make any hard-working individual rich but its structure means that this dream is only attainable to the privileged few. Profits from films would therefore also benefit only a select few. A monopoly of this sort does little to materially benefit the mass of people within the countries of the continent and this being the situation there exists little enthusiasm for industrialisation of the medium in most African countries along the Egyptian or Hollywood model. When this fact is taken into account with the political systems in place within the young independent states of Africa we find that they are most commonly socialist regimes or illusory democracies with a ‘nouveaux-riche’ insistent upon creaming what they can off of the profits of the economy after the foreign traders leaving much of the rest of the country to suffer. Within many of the films of Ousemane Sembene it is possible to see that he portrays characters of the African bourgeois in a negative light. At a conference in Amherst, Massachusetts in the US in April 1990 he spoke of the class such:
“In the whole of Africa since independence, some thirty years ago, the new African bourgeoisie has killed more African intellectuals than did one hundred years of colonialism, or else they have driven them into exile until, intellectually, they are destroyed.” [from – pg 61 Ousemane Sembene: Dialogues with Critics and writers; edited by Gadjigo, Samba. Faulkingham, Ralph H. Cassirer, Thomas. And Sander, Reinhard; University of Massachusetts Press, Amhurst. 1993]
His 1974 film Xala (translated from Wolof as ‘the curse’ or ‘impotence’) used its antagonist and lead character (El Hadji – here note the use of a title and not specific name) to skilfully hammer this opinion home. Portraying the extent of the character’s ignorance and pretend sophistication the film contains an amusing (but in the real world tragic) scene where the patriarch fills his luxury car’s radiator with ‘Evian’, the local water being not good enough for his cultured sophistications. Sembene speaks of this scene thus:
“When Abdou Kader Beye, in “Xala,” gets people to push his Mercedes, or when he takes Evian water and puts it in the radiator, that makes the audience laugh. But perhaps there I made a mistake because a Mercedes Benz is too expensive. And this comprador bourgeoisie, those travelling salesmen of neo-colonialism, believe the water they drink is too hard for the radiator. That is why they use Evian. They would rather keep up this appearance of wealth, this aping of the Western lifestyle. So, what we are looking for, what I am looking for, is a transition from the classical griot to my era.” [from – pg 70, Ousemane Sembene: Dialogues with Critics and writers; edited by Gadjigo, Samba. Faulkingham, Ralph H. Cassirer, Thomas. And Sander, Reinhard; University of Massachusetts Press, Amhurst. 1993]
It is in Xala that the audience get the opportunity to witness and in a sense pass judgement upon the actions of the lead character who symbolises the African nouveaux-riche. El Hadji does not represent a blanket stereotype of the whole class however and it is with his female characters that Sembene further divides up and enriches the personalities of his characters. They come to represent different facets of opinion and are indicative of separate ideological standpoints. Sembene is acutely aware of the reality of Senegal’s position in the world and of the struggle between traditional and industrial forces. It is in the character of Rama that he addresses a possible path of compromise for the future:
“Rama is a positive and refreshing counter-part to her father, who represents the corrupted bourgeoisie that robs the masses and perpetuates the French neo-colonial presence in Africa. She confronts her father and, contrary to her bitterly resigned mother, she vehemently protests, against El Hadji’s new marriage and polygamy in general. Unattached and single, she is the only woman in Xala who does not have to grant sexual favors for economic support from a man. Although she depends financially on her father, this confers a certain degree of autonomy to Rama as a character and accounts for her outspokenness. The divorce she advocates works on two levels: it is her mother’s as well as Senegal’s divorce from a paternalistic neo-colonial rule. Rama is hope, hope for the future when Senegal will be ruled by leaders able to keep the positive aspects of traditional Africa while making good use of Western technology. She is the only character in Xala who has succeeded in assimilating both traditional African and European cultures into a coherent symbiosis. She embodies Sembene’s wishes for a modern and truly independent Africa. According to him, “this young girl is like a step forward in a society which must find a synthesis. It must do so, but how? One can no longer be traditional but neither can one completely resign oneself to European ways.11 ”
As well as being a hope for the future she is symbolic of the part that African womanhood played in the past and can be described as the character that best epitomizes the compromise that will have to be made in order for Africa to have a stable and healthy future. Rama is a link to the old roots of Africa and the world by echoing a very much matriarchal ideology. The closeness she has to her mother is symbolic of this. Francoise Pfaff provides us with a good quote on this topic in the 1984 book The cinema of Ousmane Sembene: A Pioneer of African Film:
“Sembene emphasises Awa’s characteristics by contrasting them to those of Rama, who is very attached to her mother. By assigning Rama this trait, Sembene refers to the traditional “cult of the mother,” which goes back to matriarchal pre-Islamic African societies. Rama wishes to liberate her mother from her polygamous bonds and suggests that Awa divorces, an act which still brands women as outcasts in modern-day Senegal, where a woman is socially defined by her husband. Rama is close to her mother who appears as a custodian of traditional African values. Yet Rama is ready to reject traditional values which she thinks will hamper the development of Senegal as a modern nation. Her use of Wolof seems a way to recover African identity, as does her refusal to drink the mineral water imported from France, thus showing her opposition to Senegal’s economic and cultural dependence on France. One thinks about Fanon, who saw in the establishment of the French language a means used by France to ensure its influence in its former empire. Rama rejects a world expressed and interpreted through the use of French. She refuses, as Sartre would say, “the alienation which a foreign intellect imposes . . . under the name of assimilation.” 8 She could also serve as an illustration of another quotation from Sartre: “It is thus for the black to die of the white world to be reborn of the black soul, as the platonic philosopher dies of the body to be reborn of the truth.9 ”
In Africa the financial stranglehold of the IMF and World Bank and their refusal to drop the debts that continue to hold back local commercial development is a main factor for beginning utilitarian projects rather than ambitious cultural ones. There are simply more pressing social matters at hand. The opposite seems to be the case in the UK whereby millions of Pounds (sterling) can be spent on questionable ‘cultural’ projects such as the temporary millenial London dome. But this is because of the UK’s privileged position in the World economy due to its cloak and dagger imperialist past and its cloak and dagger capitalist present. It could be argued that the imperialism has only changed in name and surface presentation. Capitalism in modern terms is almost an identical, if theoretically a little more liberal, system of amassing wealth as the gunboat Imperialism that preceded it. People who fundamentally disagree with the ideology or principles have no representation in the legislature other than being labelled deviant or criminal and this subjugates them to social derision or proceedings to ultimately deny them of their liberty for their refusal to adhere to someone-else’s small-print.
An example of this injustice in the flow of trade is made evident by consulting the figures for the ownership, and henceforth profit control, of the world’s principal merchant fleets. These reveal that out of the planet’s approximate 231 countries, dependant territories and independent states only 43 directly own and profit from such a fleet. A ‘merchant fleet’ is made up of general cargo and container vessels, bulk carriers and tankers. Not all of the countries own all of the various types of ships listed above, Romania for example has only a fleet of general cargo vessels and Algeria for instance dabbles only in Tankers. The administrations that have this control of the world’s shipping are those of: (alphabetically listed) Algeria, Argentina, Bahamas, Bermuda, Brazil, China, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Italy, Israel, Iran. Japan, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Philipines, Poland, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, St Vincent, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, UK, Ukraine, USA and (the countries that make up the former – exact divisions unavailable in source consulted) Yugoslavia.
[Information from HMSO(Her Majesty’s Statistical Office), Department of Transport – Transport Statistics report from the Government Statistical Service published in May 1995, London.]
The effect that this control of the means of distribution has on the world’s economies is illustrated by the following table:
“(Table V.1 – Share of World Merchandise exports by region for the years, 1948, 1973 and 2000)”
This document continues to state the following regarding the status of the world economy:
“Granted that trade has been booming in the post Second World War period, a second issue is the universality of this trend…” [i.e Asia up, the Americas down and Africa down]
“…The fact remains, however, that Africa’s share has declined most drastically. Indeed, in the past 25 years, only two regions have registered significant declines in their trade shares: the transition economies (which are still recovering from the changes of the early 1990’s) and Africa. Indeed Africa’s share has declined steadily since 1948. It is thus clear why so much attention is now focused on Africa as regards trade marginalization. Over the past decade, Africa has lagged well behind the world average on the export front, with annual percentage change of only 3.4 percent between 1990 and 2000, compared with a global average of 6 percent. As a result, outside of the oil exporters, there was not a single African country among the set of the leading exporters in world merchandise trade in 2000, this despite the fact that there were several other developing countries belonging to the set –including, for example, China in seventh place as well as the Republic of Korea, Taiwan Province of China, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Brazil.” From; Trends and Policies in the World Economy United Nations, 2001 New York.
The last regions that make up the above list can be seen clearly as being among those countries complicit in the ownership of the world’s merchant fleet. This it can be argued would have facilitated their trading relations with the rest of the world and aided their economic ‘growth’. After all if you own your own ship you don’t have to rent somebody else’s. These countries would largely in this way have accounted for the increase of Asia’s export trend in the above UN document. This also serves to illustrate how dependency on foreign transport has brought about the continuing stranglehold that the rich countries of the world exert on most countries of the African continent. On top of this already large barrier to truly free and fair world trade are the issues surrounding market access for the so named ‘developing economies’ (note the intrinsic prejudice in the actual title itself; the global Capitalist culture believing itself and the way its society is organised to be correct and demanding that everyone work to assume their format for living to achieve righteousness and well-being). The same UN document continues to discuss these issues in its “Trade and Vulnerability” section. This section is regarding the policy of ‘Openness’ in enabling easy market access for these regions:
“…exports of least developed countries into developed markets are also aided by a variety of preference schemes, although a number of studies that have measured statistically the trade effects of such European Union (EU) schemes as the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) suggest that they have had only limited success in generating significant export growth or improving the trade shares of beneficiaries.“…
…”EU took a further step to provide special trade treatment for the poorest developing countries when on 28 February 2001, it rescinded quotas and duties on all products except military weapons from least developed countries – termed the “Everything but Arms” initiative. However, full liberalisation of sugar, rice and bananas is subject to a transition period*.[Duties on fresh bananas will be reduced by 20 percent annually commencing 1 January 2002 and eliminated at the latest at the beginning of 2006. Duties on rice will be reduced by 20 percent on 1 September 2006 and by 50 percent on 1 September 2008 and totally eliminated a year later. Duties on sugar will be reduced by 20 percent on 1 July 2006 and by 50 percent on 1 July 2007 and by 80 percent on 1 September 2008 and totally eliminated at the latest a year later]
To compensate for the delay in full liberalization, EU has offered immediate market access to the least developed through duty-free quotas for sugar and rice, based initially on previous shipments from these countries during the 1990’s, plus 15 percent. EU intends to monitor imports of the three commodities and apply safeguard measures, if necessary, to prevent surges. There will also be strict monitoring to verify rules of origin as well as potential circumvention…
…The impact of this initiative, according to other recent estimates, however, will be only a small increase in exports from least developed countries. The benefits to least developed countries would be far greater if Canada, Japan and the United States followed the lead of the EU…
…Overall, however, barriers to export growth currently hinge to a very great extent on the policies and supply capabilities of the least developed countries and not just on market access problems. For example, it has been maintained that, in the sub-saharan African countries, too high a proportion of foreign exchange earnings – earnings that should be invested in building productive capacity and transportation and infrastructure – pays for Africa’s high export transport costs. Such high costs, especially for processed products, often place African exporters at a competitive disadvantage. Not only do African countries use a far larger share of their foreign exchange earning to pay for international transport services compared with other developing countries, but the relative importance of these payments has been increasing. In 1970, for example net freight payments to foreign nationals absorbed 11 percent of Africa’s export earnings. By 1990 that ratio had increased to 15 percent, compared with about 6 percent for developing countries as a whole. For ten landlocked African countries (Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, the Niger, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) the 1990 figure averaged 42 percent. These high transport costs are at least partially attributable to ill-advised Government policies. Evidence suggests that anti-competitive cargo reservation policies adopted by most African Governments have had an important adverse influence on freight costs, producing high “rents” for lines that have been shielded from the effects of competition. Similarly, the failure to maintain or improve transport infrastructure has also played a role. It has been argued that these policy concerns far outweigh the role of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) tariff and non-tariff barriers in accounting for Africa’s poor trade performance”. From World Economic and Social Survey, 2001; Trends and Policies in the World Economy United Nations, 2001, London.
The above extract serves to demonstrate how these sorts of trade restrictions on basic goods disable Africa due to the largely foreign control of the world mercantile fleet (backed up of course by the control of the physical means of violence on the high seas – the foreign military fleets) so it follows that film and its distribution will not be high priorities with African governments or indeed people. In light of this it gives credence to a line of inquiry where we ask what really befell Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. If allowed to be properly successful the fleet would have been the first African oriented shipping line which undoubtedly would have contributed to the support of African culture through the propagation of trade without Europe’s financial restrictions. With the particular details complicated and murky and the subject of this work being Film I must break from this stem and return to the trunk.
Capitalism also has much to answer for in the way in which it has hi-jacked the system of education in the countries in which it is dominant. Even the universities are complicit as a tool in the capitalist hierarchy of society. Those that educate in the English speaking world should be a door to greater understanding through constant questioning of all principles, established or not and inconsistencies must be hammered at to cause the walls of division to fall. Their current setup is disgraceful. Students are fooled into thinking that only certain texts are authoritative, or form part of a particular subject’s canon. In this case of course the tutors know best when in reality they most probably do not. A writer at the 1990, Amherst writer’s forum, John Wideman had this to say on the subject of University shortcomings:
“The intellectual bankruptcy of the university is well documented, if any one cares to examine this on most issues important to us – sex, race, gender – we’ll find that intellectual bankruptcy is not an accident, it’s a tradition and, in fact, what else would we expect, given the fact that universities have this sort of top-down notion of expertise and control. The people who go through them are “clients,” what is taught there are not necessities, but something to get you through a certain kind of very predictable bourgeois existence, and they’re not the places where change, social change, has ever come from except when that change has been one way or another forced out into the street, into the peoples hearts.”
Toni Cade Bambara continues at the same forum to also stress the deep need for the education system to reform itself in order to get it to a point where it will be a help rather than a hindrance to the schooling of modern wombmans. The capitalist structure must be challenged in a holistic approach which takes the battle to all arenas worldwide:
“So we’re in a process, we’re in a moment now, it seems to me, where there needs to be a constant attention to the whole structure and where there need to be tremendous kinds of dialogues going on in terms of coalitions which have never been forged before. This is it. The University may not continue in this bogus way recruiting people trained in the delusional systems, to bolster a totally fraudulent version of reality, of human beings, of what human nature is; the war is fought here too.”
This fight to bring down the oppressive capitalist patriarchal hierarchy is a war on many fronts that needs to be united in order to be truly successful. One aspect of this struggle is that of education. Especially issues of education concerning the African film itself. It is not solely a question of distribution that affects the audience which finally views the indigenous pictures. Through false and misleading education students assume that African film is less valuable. This is largely due to the emphasis placed upon African culture within the world’s education systems. The main problem is that people believe that the canon of films is small both in Africa and abroad but specifically in the USA. Toni Cade Bambara again phrases this argument excellently:
“I think that while we’re at it we might also talk about film – the teaching of African film or Third World film in the film schools around the country. It’s curious that at this point in time, if you were abroad most anywhere and took a degree in American studies, the literature you would be reading for American literature would be black literature. And that’s true at the University of Tokyo, University of Havana – you bet, University of Peking, Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, a whole lot of universities. It is assumed that you cannot be conversant in American studies, not be grounded in American reality, without a thoroughgoing knowledge of African-American literature. That of course is not true here. [Speaking of the USA]
This parallels or echoes the same situation with music: that in most parts of the world there was a recognition of black improvisational music or what some people call jazz as the great art form of this country, certainly the authentic music of this place. It was a good thirty-two years or one and a half generations before this country caught up with that knowledge, but then began to use black improvisational music to make propaganda more palatable, that is to say the USIA began to send jazz combos around the world, began to use music as part of its “Voice of America” barrage, and of course what with the Motown sound corporate pop, we now know why Coca Cola would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
This next wave has been the film. The filmmakers in my neighborhood are better known in Peking than they are in my neighborhood, and that’s an aspect of USA-style apartheid. They’re better known in Paris, in Holland, in Britain, in Canada than they are in the major film schools in this country, even those filmmakers who have caused a great deal of articles to be written in fairly prestigious journals, who have stopped the show at Cannes Film Festival, who have garnered all kinds of medals at the Berlin Film Festival et cetera, are still not taught here. So as you say, Ngugi, it’s not just the African languages [which need to be used in order to offer effective resistance], it’s not just the particular situation of African people, it is the nature of that same war.”
It is equally interesting yet also tragically sad that an artist who has created and devoted so much time and effort into his work should yet be defined as an amateur rather than a professional. I regard Sembene with this statement. I wish no comment upon the issue of the art for profit / art for soul debate as that is another issue too large for I to deal with here. Suffice to say I believe Sembene lives for his art and is a wisdom elder. His art, as that is something that he has sacrificed his life time for, must surely be central to his axis of priorities yet he cannot be a ‘professional’ in the true sense of the word as he cannot afford to support himself through his art. Individual artists are forced to fight an uphill struggle against the zombie of colonialism. As Francoise Pfaff states in the 1984 book; The Cinema of Ousemane Sembene, A Pioneer of African Film:
“In creating films which would reveal the authenticity of Africa, Francophone filmmakers were investigating a virgin realm. The existing cinema, as a means of expression and communication, was an art that existed outside their culture and concerns, an imported art in which Africans had participated as objects and not as subjects. They had to decolonize the cinema and adapt it to the reality and needs of Africa. More often than not this reality,meant the mere availability of a single 16mm camera, left-over black-and-white film footage from Western movie crews working in Africa, and their own meager resources.”
Sembene was forced to mortgage his house in order to complete one of his films entitled Ceddo. This means that these artists cannot make a living through the role that they are best at:
“As a result, no independent filmmaker has been solely sustained by film profits because they are generally reinvested in subsequent works. Sembene has to rely on his book royalties, lecture fees and other personal means; Vieyra is employed by the Senegalese Ministry of Information; Mahama Johnson Traore operates a photo shop in Dakar; and Med Hondo dubs films in France.”
Financial difficulties alone are not the only problems affecting the most energetic of Africa’s fimmakers. There is also the serious lack of film laboratories and local technicians which results in the film rushes having to be sent abroad, often to Europe. This of course increases cost and has a knock on affect upon the product’s quality. Pfaff continues to state that:
“A further obstacle to the development of the indigenous cinema industry is the monopolistic structure of the distribution network. Apart from commercial successes like Xala, independently produced and distributed films generally reach a limited number of African viewers. Yet film audiences are large in Africa, especially in urban areas whose populations have increased with migration and where cinema and soccer have now become people’s main collective source of entertainment. Contrary to what has happened to many western countries, television watching in Africa is still far from competing with movie going, due both to the high price of TV sets and the low quality of programming. However, this urban market is not readily opened to films made by Africans because of the stronghold of expatriate distribution companies with a financial interest in promoting foreign films. In the early 1970s, Pierre Pommier noted that among the films shown in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa, 50 to 55 percent were American and mostly Westerns, 30 to 35 percent were French and largely detective films or war movies, and 15 percent were Indian, Egyptian, or Italian.13 …
…More interested in profit than culture, SECMA and COMACICO [see section below], through their various distribution strategies, have orientated the African public’s tastes towards action films (westerns, European historical romances, detective films and, more recently, Kung-fu movies), melodramas (Indian and Egyptian sagas), or inept comedies (mostly European), imposing on audiences Western patterns inherently alien to Africa. These films are dubbed in French rather than sub-titled because of the generally high rate of illiteracy in Francophone Africa. French being understood and spoken and spoken by less than a third of the population in those regions, most viewers have a predilection for films emphasizing actions rather than character analysis.”
With the situation being such that even Africa’s most widely known artists have to supplement their own incomes (as it is impossible for them to survive and continue working on projects) by just selling their art alone the question must be asked as to where the profits must go. There are a number of answers to this question and I shall attempt to illustrate just two of the main points. Firstly, there is a definite lack of infrastructure that is necessary to create an industry along the Caucasian example. This however is not necessarily for the creation of good films and Africa can lead the world by example away from this production line mentality which results in style-over-substance, low-quality films. More equipment, local studios and trained crew are definitely needed within Africa’s film producing regions in order for the technical situation to improve. A number of specialist African film schools would also benefit the world. With the world bogged down in its current political system this costs money. Secondly, the aforementioned foreign monopolies at the financial reigns of the African film problem are the ‘Compaigne Africaine Cinematographique Industrielle’ (COMACICO), the ‘Societe d’Exploitation Cinematographique Africaine’ (SECMA) and Afro-American Films (which was set up in 1969 by the US’s weighty Motion Picture Export Association of America [MPEAA]). These corporations are no longer as powerful as they used to be thanks to the introduction of various organizations that have successfully challenged their exclusive distribution networks. Examples of these can now be found in Burkina Faso and Senegal amongst other places.
I do not know but I feel that in London in 2003 this capitalist system in itself is not culturally prejudiced but that many people who hold the keys in their hands still are and that these and other prejudices still cling to large sections of the population on all social levels.
By now film is recognised as a powerful medium for social upheaval and if manipulated in the proper way great physical results can be directly observed. It is precisely because of this that certain films are suppressed. Propaganda issues are very much so recognised by the powers that be and this testifies to the difficulties that pre-complete films have in gaining an audience. The UK documentary film Injustice, (2001, Migrant Media – www.injusticefilm.co.uk ) has been banned from television screenings by both the BBC and Channel Four due to threats of libel action from both the Police Federation and the individual Officers which the film concerns. As a result it is forced to pursue a policy of screenings with organizations sympathetic to its cause and within the ‘underground’ community. The film came about to publicise an issue, specifically that of the deaths of members of non-Caucasian communities in Police custody where it would be expected that they were ‘safe’. The film is controversial as it openly defines the actions of the Police as murdering those who are otherwise in their ‘protective custody’. Since the first case in 1969, that of David Oluwale; and there have been a multitude of killings since, no Police Officer has been charged with Murder and subsequently gaoled. The fight for justice for those killed, fought so long and hard by the victims’ families through the standard institutions of the courts of law and order of the United Kingdom, has proved nothing but the inability of those institutions to deal with the injustice of this situation. If anything it has exemplified this helplessness of the system to help those to whom it claims to be of aid and displays the hypocrisy of the whole system underlining at the same time the ramifications of the moneyed Caucasian class’s prejudice towards other peoples and indeed its own majority population of impoverished individuals. It is hoped to make October 22nd an annual International day of protest against deaths in Police custody. There are plans for a National British protest on the 25th of October 2003 in order to raise awareness of the issue.
What is worst is the fact that it is upon this Capitalist system that the world’s biased business legislature is based (so called ‘Free Trade’ for example) and it is this which regulates the way business is conducted the world over. Many people are corrupted by the “Golden Apples” [The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois] that are strewn along life’s path rather than doing something positive to instigate a fair change. This idea is made to seem too daunting even to the point that some people seem to be sold to the belief that change in this direction (true global democracy) is impossible so it is worthless to even attempt to try. Recently thinking over this issue I began to think it most unfair that only certain US citizens are entitled to vote in US elections. Seeing as the world is a globe and all of the peoples are on one planet what one country does inevitably affects another. If we want world peace (and some of us do) then essentially all planetary citizens should be given the power to vote for the representative of each nation state. This right should especially regard a country which affects the affairs of the whole planet to the degree that the US does. Failing this perhaps all borders could be liquidated and the nation states be dissolved into community-based co-operative administrative regions based upon the natural boundaries of coastlines, mountains, watersheds and rivers. This is currently an unrealistic egalitarian proposal but can be chewed upon as food for thought.
Strangled by the merciless push of modernity and the devil in wombmanity that hides under the sinister word of ‘progress’ a symbiosis with nature is the only true path of survival. We cannot deny our humble organic place in the universe and the time has come to decide upon our conduct for the future. Technological change is inevitable and the ramifications will be surprising for many of us but technological improvement need not lead to a complete divorce from nature. The tool of technology will either kill us or maintain us. It is up to us to learn to handle life on this planet in the proper way by understanding the natural balance of cycles and adhering to them. Our tools should be used to complement life rather than destroy it. If the desire to survive is a mutual one then surely respect for life can become a universal doctrine also. So many people in the world today live by the ancient ‘eye-for-an-eye’ principle and if not prepared to change (and why should they for where lies right and wrong?) then surely on their sole, just, acceptance of that above principle they could also accept the tolerance of life respect. With no ideological aggressors there could be no ideological killings. With the medium of film as being the next tool of communication surely artists who should not be held merely as such (but more as prophets) with a positive message of change should be allowed to distribute the word freely. The medium is powerful and propaganda it is but with the loss of the extremes that the soviet bloc provided (for example) we could only expect waves of formulaic mundaneness tailored to specific market audiences that would threaten to sweep the world. If there is no money in adventurous, unusual or even so called ‘arty’ films then we know it is those who cannot profit from them who are complaining. The contemporary Hollywood film is production line entertainment. Capitalism is the problem and the obstructor in the creation of true art.
With African artists like Sembene they feel they are using their word to communicate their message to truly fight the struggle for world equal rights which is only really achievable through communicable forms of appropriate representation. For Sembene those forms are the cinema and his writings. He phrases the issue thus:
“I come from Senegal where there is more tolerance. This I owe not to my government, but to my people. I owe it also to all of you throughout the world. I remember the day when some academics came to see me at my house, and said: “Your friend and brother Ngugi has been arrested in Kenya, what shall we do?” That night we drew up telegrams and sent them off. All the telegrams were sent in duplicate, one copy to the addressee, and the other to the Senegalese Government. Some time after that I had the opportunity to meet Senghor who was then the president of Senegal. He told me: “Why is it that you spend all your time protesting, why don’t you just mind your own business?” I answered him through the media, that by myself I do not represent anything at all and am of no use whatsoever. When something happens in the Antilles and we are called upon, we try to take action and make people understand what is going on. When something is happening in the United States we try to do the same. We are opinion leaders with limited capacity for immediate action. But in the long run, we see results. I am giving this explanation only to let you see that the work we do should not be belittled.
I always ask my people, the African people: “Why do you need artists? I’m not talking about builders, but creative individuals, musicians, writers, and painters.” You in the audience might also think about what you expect of us.
As for us, we can tell you what we expect from you: a sense of justice and fairness. You take on responsibility for yourselves when you say that all human beings are equal and have their own culture. There is no culture that is great or insignificant. As with the fingers of the hand, all five are useful. It’s not the length of a finger that makes the hand a hand.” [From pg 61 of Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with critics and writers, 1993]
To continue along the lines of the definition of African cultures the method of Storytelling in the African Tradition has to be described. This is the continuance of the oral tradition. In terms of the majority of African tribal traditions it is the worth and value of the oral tradition which is most respected over the skill of writing. Writing, like civilization, was born of Africa and was early used as a tool of exclusivity to exercise control of the populace. The example of the Ancient Egyptians and their educated scribes serves the purpose of showing us that encrypting an oral language provides much mystery and indeed romance for an illiterate population. This would help in the formulation of an ideology and then culture and lastly of course tradition which would be passed down the subsequent generations. The real power in this type of society would have been in possession of those in command of the creation, change and continuance of the cultural tradition. Text, or in this case hieroglyphics, becomes a way of recording information within those people educated by the system and for the system. For Sembene, language is a mirror of the dominant culture which is in itself a reflection of the wombman condition. Language needs to be structured in order to convey the correct meaning and different cultures have different examples of this – communication without words; one of the powers of film – conveys a universal meaning also as we are all wombmen. Below is a lengthy quote from Sembene from the 1990 Amherst conference:
“What is culture? It is what we need from the day of our birth to the day of our death. In the four African languages I speak there is no word for culture, because culture consists of a succession of situations. Take the way people sit down to a meal, which for me means sitting on a mat. The way in which the wife puts down the dish is enough to make you either lose or get an appetite. You come home and your wife just says: “Here is your food.” That already makes you lose your appetite. And in your case, since you use the language of flowers, the husband who comes home, just drops the flowers in front of his wife and says: “This is for you.”These are examples of a language of gestures that do not require speech but are understood. Back home we like to be well dressed, but we do not do it for ourselves, we do it for other people. That is another expression of my culture, as is the way I greet a woman or a man, the way I behave with someone who is younger or older than I. This is true in all languages. Words are loaded with a potential for violence, and also for poetic gentleness. It depends on how we use them. In all languages we can say, “I love you,” but not with aggressive gestures. So I believe that those who teach African literature or African civilization have to make an effort to understand all this.
I would ask academics to write a thesis on the following question: How do whites perceive and teach African culture when they do not speak African languages? I would also ask them to know African-American culture. That is a culture that has made the most beautiful contribution in the world to this century, one which has been made by no other culture. I am talking about jazz, which originated in the cultural world of black America. For years no one was interested. Jazz was merely a kind of song and Blues in the cotton fields. Now there is Chinese jazz, Japanese jazz and jazz is played at the court of the Queen of England at the Elysee Palace, and at the White House. This is how culture relates to civilization.
When they wanted to understand jazz, many European musicians came to the United States to be among black people. They learned both the language and the music, and they learned the right intonation. It is a heritage shared by all of humanity. This is what we are called upon to do for the world of the future. Recently we saw the great singer Jessye Norman sing the Marseillaise – I was with her in Paris. Where were the forebears of this woman two thousand years ago? Now here she is being welcomed by everyone, and that is a gain for all mankind. This is all we have to do. To get along together in harmony is the sole purpose of culture.”
With the painful extraction of indigenous African culture to the Caribbean and Americas came also the oral tradition. Memory is invisible and impossible to suppress. This and what it contained plus the politics of the gaze became the core of resistance of the slave to the owner/overseer. Much was done to confuse and suppress by the slave-owners; from mixing of tribes and African ethnic groups which would lead to the loss of original culture through the loss of the original tongue and the forced adoption of the language of the oppressor. The will and resistance of people is strong however and subversion took the form of remembered cultural forms not so obviously rebellious to the eye of the coloniser who was generally more interested in the state of their own lives than that of their slaves. Only the overseers might have had an inkling at what really was going on and this was to result in the general harshness of slave treatment and the due paranoia felt by the overseer. These forms of cultural rebellion, due to the harsh punishments metred out for deviance, were subtle and took the form of self-appropriation and adjustment of the master’s language for their own ends. Patois, Pidgins and Creoles were created and the master was just as much responsible for this as the slave. For this end the question of who invented language and who invented the illusion of movement camera is equally irrelevant. What is relevant to now is that the language of those who hold society’s reigns is also adjusted so that the camera can more properly see that which it was before denied; for it never really saw the truth at all. The camera, like writing was invented by a civilised society and designed to lie.
The denial of education and particularly literacy was considered by the slave-owners to be an important aspect of keeping the slave population as chattel. Literacy is irrelevant to life and survival and even to civilisation as native African tradition for the most part relied on the oral tradition for tens of thousands of civilised years (It is my view that writing and the wheel do not define civilisation). It is again the oral tradition that is the key to cultural resistance versus assimilation unto the conqueror. Language is the key and weapon of victory and none more so powerfully than when wielded with the blows of musical sound. It is the work song of the slave sung in the fields and hills of their labour that is pregnant with meaning and culture. Even when words were lost or misunderstood certain melodies remained which retained a thin ethereal connection to the land of the ancestors. The ingenuity of the new generations born estranged from their parent’s home continued this tradition of resistance. In many cases steamrollered Caucasian values would win and psalms would be sung over African rhythms but survival is about adaptation to circumstance and even with that, like the adoption of the foreign tongue, the Christian church became a focus for the spiritual path that every human seeks to come to turns with (birth, death, the universe and their place within it) and eventually was adapted to serve the needs of the people of the diaspora by the creation of the diverse African Churches. They mastered the religion themselves and then used it to justify the inconsistencies in their treatment by their owners and overseers. In so doing a great part of their victory was the embarrassment caused to the owners by pointing out their own hypocrisy in relation to how they ordered society and what was set forth in their own sacred texts. To be embarrassed is the shame resultant from being caught doing something wrong. Here was the slave’s righteous moral position. Those slave-owners even lightly touched by the embarrassment inherent in their situation could not deny the righteous path and the fact that they were miles from it in some squalid back-alley of their own endeavour. Organised religion is an important social institution that in itself is impossible to reason with as each of its various divisions all claim the righteous support of the divine on their side. With regards to cultural rebellion however the formation of these churches led to a respectable platform (in the eye of the peoples of the oppressor) with which to claim a voice and lead to a change in the reality of Africans in the Caribbean and Americas in the nineteenth century. Song was the perfect way of achieving a vocalisation of the problem facing the oppressed. Simultaneously it enabled the continuance of African traditions and hence culture and also provided the means with which to physically manifest discontent. In North America this oral tradition, with the loss of ancestral identity and the necessity of forming a new native one, resulted in the formation of blues as the cultural canon of this Afro-American population. Literature is the art form of the oppressor and blues is the art form of the oppressed. Film is the next generation tool of communication on from the pen. It can, and has, been used for operations foul and good. All three of the previous art forms are as valid as each other in terms of cultural value but unfortunately this is recognised only by a few. There is no real hierarchy in art and ranking one above the other is an impossible and stupid task. The important point to note here is the difference in culture between the oppressors and oppressed. With a Caucasian mentality and contemporary cultural approach (that of linear chronological evolution with a self-righteously defined idea of progress at the fore) it is the film (now available on DVD at your local supermarket by the way, don’t miss it) that is the youngest form of cultural representation/repression (for it is both things at once). With the world distribution of films dominated by Caucasian-owned corporations, it is not surprising to discover that these films base their narratives around Caucasian issues or the massive literary canon of European based literature which it has at its disposal. All of this has to operate in the real world and for the survival of the art it has had to become ‘economically viable’ to secure its continued propagation and therefore existence. The cinema in US terms has followed an unwritten policy of flexible screen apartheid with its methods of feature production. It is common for ethnic minorities to be seen on the screen but it is crucial to understand that in order for them to be there in the first place they have to be essentially approved by others to gain this status. This means that the power of their employ lies outside of themselves; a clear case of exploitation. This is reflective of the social situation in the country as a whole however and is sad but only to be expected given the country’s history.
A traditional African approach to the continuance and delivery of narrative, however, has no need of the issues surrounding the material and needs only an orator to be successful in the survival of culture. There is no need for equipment, which is always never good enough and needs constantly to be ‘upgraded’ in this vain capitalist rat race, no need for the harsh and competitive issues that Capitalism deems so necessary only because those who write the rules are those who profit from them. Yes, the griot does profit from the role but it is the contemporary world which is evermore forcing the storyteller to consider their art and culture as a trade with which they must ply themselves in order to earn the paper which represents the value of their life.
Storytelling, through vocalisation or music was the standard of tradition of the African Continent. It came to the Caribbean and Americas and became the culture there also. It was the primary interest of the youths of the transposed culture to connect with their roots in the only ways that they could. They relished their opportunity and through their desire and emotion gave birth to many styles of song and dance appropriated also by their fellow oppressors. This culture of word, power and sound was the main interest of the youth, not least because so many other obstacles blocked the way of true social assimilation. Houston A. Baker Jr. in his book of blues criticism most excellent [Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature; A Vernacular Theory, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1984] weaves a tapestry of argument highly insightful into the burden of life as the oppressed human animal. In it he outlines from the study of language (and its branches of literature and song) how the creation of culture is dependent on the social and material environment. The book addresses the significance of blues as culture and its place within the capitalist system of (unfair) exchange that is dominated very much by a Caucasian ideology:
“Africans became slaves through a “commercial deportation” overseen by the white West94. In America, Africans were classified as “chattel personal” and turned into commodities. To forestall the moral guilt associated with this aberrant, mercantile transformation, white Americans conceptualized a degraded, subhuman animal as a substitute for the actual African. This categorical parody found its public, physical embodiment in the mask of the minstrel theatrical. As [Ralph] Ellison writes in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” the African in America was thus reduced to a “negative sign” : “the [minstrel] mask was the thing (the ‘thing’ in more ways than one) and its function was to veil the humanity of Negroes thus reduced to a sign, and to repress the white audience’s awareness of its moral identification with its own acts and with the human ambiguities pushed behind the mask” (p.64). Following the lead of Constance Rourke, Ellison asserts that the minstrel show is, in fact, a “ritual of exorcism.” But what of the minstrel performance given by the Afro-American who dons the mask? In such performances, writes Ellison,
Motives of race, status, economics and guilt are always clustered…. The comic point is inseparable from the racial identity of the performer… who by assuming the group -debasing role for gain not only substantiates the audience’s belief in the “blackness” of things black, but relieves it, with dreamlike efficiency, of its guilt by accepting the very profit motive that was involved in the designation of the Negro as national scapegoat in the first place. There are all kinds of comedy; here one is reminded of the tribesman in Green Hills of Africa who hid his laughing face in shame at the sight of a gut-shot hyena jerking out its own intestines and eating them, in Hemmingway’s words, “with relish.” [Pp. 64-65]
Trueblood [A character in Ellison’s book, The Invisible Man,], who assumes the minstrel mask [as a storytelling orator to a Caucasian audience] to the utter chagrin of the invisible man (“How can he tell this to white men, I thought, when he knows they’ll say that all Negroes do such things?”), has indeed accepted the profit motive that gave birth to that mask in the first place. He tells his tale with relish: “He talked willingly now, with a kind of satisfaction and no trace of hesitancy or shame” (p.53). The firm lines of capitalist economics are, therefore, not the only ideological inscriptions in the sharecropper’s [Trueblood’s] narrative. The story also contains the distorting contours of that mask constructed by the directors of the economic system to subsume their guilt. The rambunctiously sexual, lyrical, and sin-adoring “darky” is an image dear to the hearts of white America.”
The point of the inclusion of the above heavy quote is to illustrate Baker’s idea that for (honest) survival within such a capitalist system, and within the US especially, as an artist one must sell one’s art as commodity in order to survive. The African folk tradition of oral narration as culture transmission (which evolved into blues, reggae, soul, and contemporary hip-hop) therefore faced a battle betwixt its body and soul. Body being the art as performed for capitalist entertainment as a result of a need to satisfy biological survival and soul as being the art as having intrinsic priceless worth. However, songs alone mean flesh and bone and it is only until they are commodified that an individual is ‘welcomed’ into the capitalist world and therein receives its material rewards. Later in his book Baker returns to his analysis of Ralph Ellison’s ‘Trueblood’ character to illustrate that compromising the integrity of their expression is the only way in which the oppressed can secure power in such a system:
“In the Trueblood episode, blacks who inhabit the southern college’s terrain assume that they have transcended the peasant rank of sharecroppers and their cohorts. In fact, both the college’s inhabitants and Trueblood’s agrarian fellows are but constituencies of a single underclass. When the college authorities threaten the farmer [Trueblood] with exile or arrest, he has only to turn to the white Mr. Buchanan, “the boss man,” to secure immunity and a favorable audience before Sheriff Barbour, “the white law” (p. 52). The imperious fiats of whites relegate all blacks to an underclass. In Trueblood’s words, “no matter how biggity a nigguh gits, the white folks can always cut him down” (p. 53). The only means of negotiating a passage beyond this underclass, Ellison’s episode implies, is expressive representation.”
This then implies that instead of waiting around and letting an ‘other’ come and exploit the talent of an oppressed individual (should a singer be overheard by a corporate talent scout for instance), the individual should take the initiative and promote their own talent in an entrepreneurial fashion. This is of course very much in the style of the Booker T. Washington school of business enterprise and although realistic with regards to capitalist priorities in the world of today, it is not necessarily the path to nirvana. W. E. B. Du Bois, in contrast, strove much to grapple with the humanity of the situation for in his eyes life was not about the “golden apples” strewn along life’s path but the attainment of something far healthier in physical and spiritual terms.
A final quote from Baker’s book is one made by David Levering Lewis writing of Charles Johnson and it excellently encapsulates the dilemma of the African diaspora:
“[Johnson] gauged more accurately than perhaps any other Afro-American intellectual the scope and depth of the national drive to “put the nigger in his place” after the war, to keep him out of the officer corps, out of labor unions and skilled jobs, out of the North and quaking for his very existence in the South – and out of politics everywhere. Johnson found that one area alone – probably because of its very implausibility – had not been proscribed. No exclusionary rules had been laid down regarding a place in the arts. Here was a small crack in the wall of racism, a fissure that was worth trying to widen.” [P.48]
One man who indeed tried to widen that gap in the wall was born in 1884 under the name of Oscar Micheaux. He set himself to writing and from that he embarked upon adapting a number of his novels into films. He was to produce around forty in the years between 1918 and 1948 and was a prolific figure in US film production. His style however was not to be appreciated by the Caucasian hegemony and due to his essentially underclass status was popular only with those who understood. It was in 1918 that he founded the ‘Micheaux Film and Book Company’ with his brother, Swan, as Secretary-Treasurer and General Booking Manager. This was not the first nor second, however, but probably third African-American film company to be set up in the United States after Bill Foster’s (aka Juli Jones’) Chicago, ‘Foster Photoplay Company’ (1910) and ‘The Lincoln Motion Picture Company’ (1916) of Los Angeles. There was a much greater amount of work produced by Micheaux’s company than by the aforementioned two but many critics and indeed audiences have been quick to deride the quality of Micheaux’s work, citing much as being hurried and of a poor standard due to budgetary constraints. I do not believe that this judgement is entirely fair. As Mark A. Reid writes in his 1993 book; Redefining Black Film:
“To gain a popular black audience, Micheaux’s action films presented the twenties from a black perspective. Whereas Lincoln Motion Picture productions were serious melodramas that espoused conventional middle-class puritanical ethics, Micheaux productions attracted audiences by dramatizing subjects that Lincoln films avoided. His films introduced black-oriented themes like interracial intimacy, lynching, passing, and other controversial subjects such as urban graft, wife-beating, gambling, rape and prostitution to their audience. For example, Micheaux’s The Homesteader focuses on a black man who falls in love with a white woman. Perhaps for the first time in an American film, a sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman was not portrayed as the rape of the white woman.”
Integration unto the newly peopled continent was obviously necessary but there was still room to choose the methodology that would apply. Why should Caucasian values be accepted over anything else. The victims of the diaspora were still reeling from the blow, their identities torn asunder. Art is a crucial factor in the growth of culture and the language of film allowed those who wanted to create themselves a celluloid identity to do so. Some, like those at the Lincoln Motion Picture Company wanted that identity to be that of a capitalist middle-class. Micheaux was a melodramatic realist with a more thoughtful message to the African-American working class; his ideology resting seemingly in the Booker T. Washington encampment.
At a time when society meant Hollywood was at the height of its prejudice do-it-yourself filmmaking was the only way to go in order to be successful in the creation of a free medium. In order for a film to tackle the issues that where blazing in the hearts of the oppressed world-wide it was a burden which could only be placed upon the shoulders of those who were willing to fight to see their dreams achieved. Hollywood, in its twisted genius of oppression through concession, made films that cast African-Americans, of course they did, there was money to be made. Segregation was the sign of the times (one of the ironic results of emancipation) and Georgia like other similar States in the US was by population majority African-American. Here they needed to put bums on seats and so a ‘specialist’ ethnic cinema was devised. These films were later to be termed ‘exploitation’ films as they were constructed to be commercially successful by specifically appealing to certain traits that those audiences would find interesting. It would be common to find African-Americans on the cast, as well as in a number of technical positions but with the studio releases it is vital to know that production control was still firmly in the hands of Caucasians. Studio releases of the 1970’s are no exception, Shaft, being one famous example where the producers were Caucasian-Americans. This was an MGM release and the profits predictably went to the Caucasian cause. See Mark A. Reid’s interesting chapter on the ‘Studio-Produced Black Action Film’ in his Redefining Black Film (pg. 83-91) book for more captivating insights on this subject. In its favour, however, especially for a film scripted by Caucasian writers it is memorable for the scene where a Caucasian Police Officer holds up a black pen to John Shaft’s face and remarks:
“…What’s with all this black shit anyhow, you ain’t so black!” to which Shaft retorts, holding up his polystyrene coffee cup “And you ain’t so white, buddy!”
Before the seventies however there was a whole period of so called ‘race movies’ which catered visually for America’s immigrant majority but importantly made sure that the value system it purported was that of the dominant patriarchal hierarchy. Film was and still is a medium of exclusivity and only a few of the most determined are successful in the realisation of their projects. Between the reality of the social fabric of the US and the reality of life in Africa film would understandably take a back seat amongst life’s other priorities.
At a basic level it can also be argued that the novel is also an elitist art form, especially with regards to publishing and distribution. For a novel or story to make a suitable impact on a culture it must be greatly propagated through a suitable communicative medium be it document or oral based. It is known that literacy has often been historically used as a means of control through its awe-inspiring officiality. In cultures where there is a dominant written language this coded form seems to become morally synonymous with truth. The conception of a visual code to transfer the ethereality of the oral into the reality of the visual could logically have begun as a means to record information for posterity. If this is the original purpose of text, then why would information be recorded incorrectly? When power and control is added to the equation the answer becomes obvious. Manipulative control over records is attained as the scribe becomes the creator of a text. Whether what is next written is true or false is irrelevant as the scribe has the initial power to choose which should form the basis of the information. Let us put this in perspective and remember that the scribe is just a powerful link in the chain of command. I would like to again use the ancient Egyptian culture as an example of how subtly commanding their symbols are and enter into a brief discussion of the importance of writing to that society. As the Ancient Egyptian civilisation lasted over four thousand years during that time there were many cultural changes which had many various effects on the civilisation as a whole. There were periods during social upheaval when gods and symbols were changed or altered and the pharaoh, by the old ‘divine right of kings’ philosophy, could alter the mythologies if so desired. There were many contradicting creation myths uncovered by contemporary scholars but there must have been a general consensus of belief. There were over 2000 deities and their influence waxed and waned throughout the different periods of the kingdoms and indeed in different areas. I wish to specifically recall the feathered, Ibis headed god, Thoth, generally accepted to represent wisdom and advice.
“He was described as the heart, mind, and reason of Ra. Although it was Ra who created the world, it was the function of Thoth to speak the words of Ra’s will so that it would be carried out. He was credited with creating hieroglyphic characters and the art of writing. When a soul was judged, it was Thoth who recorded the testimony of the deceased’s deeds and the verdict of the scales. In modern terms, he was the keeper of karma and the akashic records. He was the god of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. All these sciences were closely connected with power and magic. Therefore, Thoth was known as the Lord of Magic.”
To the Egyptians of this ancient time the sciences of mathematics, astronomy and medicine would have been worshipped as a magic rather than understood as a physic. The practical understanding of these schools of thought was left for the priests of the various cults and the pharaoh. The privilege of an education in these ‘arts’ was exclusively the legacy of the higher strata of the society. The Astronomer-priests of this society would therefore have had much power over people ignorant in the methodological workings of the planet. The religion did much to explain the world of the Egyptians in a metaphorical way through the use of a fusion of divine and natural imagery. Characteristically it was the use of these symbols, which then led on to script, as a means of recording items or events that resulted in the current conception of what defines civilisation. This is an approach which needs to be challenged in order to correct historical injustices. It is the ‘winners’ who get to write history and those that develop a written language were not always truthful to reality, although that is the established perception. It is this written tradition that tends to regard itself as ‘better’ or more advanced than the societies of the oral transference of tradition. This is simply not the case. It is simply easier to control the direction of a society from a centralized position if the language is encoded. The ancient Egyptians realised this and codified their language as a result. They masterfully wove their mythology together with their art, sculptures and wall engravings to create and legitimise their religion and position of power over their subjects. What better symbol to represent law, truth and order than the feather, which according to myth, was weighed up against the heart of the newly-deceased to judge whether the individual was fit to enter the Underworld of Osiris. This was one of the rituals described in the ancient Egyptian text The Book of the Dead. The burden of guilt weighs heavy upon the heart, or so the logic goes. This Ostrich plume was also the symbol of the Goddess Maat who was the personification of justice and “represented the absolute principle of law, both in the sense of ethical judgement and social order, and in the broader sense of the harmonious balance of the universe as a whole.” [from The Egyptian Oracle pg. 67] This ancient Egyptian transferral of the linguistic word into the visual sign made physical and therefore ‘real’ all of the oral traditions. Through the crafts and arts of the society, its scripts, paintings and sculptures, myths were given credence and visual tradition established. The physical manifestation of an image representing an event or recording the existence of produce gave even more psychological power to the arrangements of the lines. This power was from early on regarded as synonymous with truth for if the signs are only decipherable by the constructee and those specifically trained in its reading, why deceive yourself as to how much grain you have in your storeroom and why (unless for propaganda purposes) go through so much effort in the creation of a system of signs and symbols where the understood recorded result is a falsehood. The meanings of these symbols therefore come to represent truths; in the way that a specific symbol has a specific meaning, its synonymous connotations (which are altered over time) and no other attached meanings are allowed otherwise understanding is not achieved. That is in many cultures, if a statement is written down, unless specifically stated to be untrue it is generally believed to be correct. The popular Russian broadsheet newspaper “Pravda” for example means “Truth” when much of the contents were very far removed from fitting that particular linguistic description. This is an example of just how much control the authorities had. This is where writing and text acquires psychological power. Consequently, it is presumably because of this lineage of cultural descent the Caucasians dismiss oral cultures as closer to ‘rumour’ or ‘falsehood’ and place little credence in their value, automatically assuming them to be of less value.
Modernity signals the death of the griot (storyteller/historian) as it heralded the end of the traditional Caucasian storyteller. In the rich countries of the world there has been a long literal tradition of fiction. This has acted as a rich and varied source of inspiration for the modern medium of storytelling; that of film. But as this canon of literature (my personal experience lies within the Anglophone) has throughout its history lain within the Caucasian experience and done scant honour to other worldly issues, save to refer to them as ‘exotica,’ the result being that many books which are made into films are based around a Caucasian bias. The most financially successful film industry in the world is also the most irrepresentative of the people in its own country. Generally speaking, Hollywood in its historical total gross film output has not done justice to its people. The major studios have consciously purported the value systems of the Patriarchal, Capitalist, Anglo-Saxon Protestant of the North American Elite for their entire history. It has been the smaller studios and especially the so-called ‘poverty-row’ studios which have been instrumental in being humane in their employment policies at least. It must be remembered that the nineteen-thirties were not a good time for the USA economically. At a time when fewer films were being made and harsh ‘Jim Crow’ laws operated in the ex-confederate South it must be looked upon as semi-admirable that Warner Brothers, at that time one of the small but significant studios, released films with at least casts of ethnically diverse actors. The lead role is given to a Caucasian of Italian descent. This small factor is still relevant as it is the Catholic Church which is still to this day encumbered with difficult diplomatic relations with its general ally in ideology; the Protestant faith. The film I refer to is the 1932, Mervyn LeRoy production of I Am A Fugitive From A Chain-Gang. This film is still Caucasio-centric in its general presentation and assumption of a capitalist value system. Ethnic segregation is presented as a fact and left unchallenged. Perhaps the best way to summarise the film’s attitude is to quote a line by the lead actor, Paul Muni, ironically spoken before his character’s incarceration; “…no musts in my life, I’m free, white and twenty-one.” The key word here, and the ultimate reason for the all the liberties he enjoys, despite his non-‘WASP’ [traditional expression; ‘White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant’] status is the fact that he is ‘white’. I acknowledge that the film is about the injustice of the US penal system in the 1930’s but if the film was opinionated enough to challenge chain-gang philosophy [at the time a touchy subject in the US] then what about addressing the issues of the rights of wombman?
A system in itself cannot be ‘anti-cultural’ unless it has specific prejudiced laws. The anti-culturalism which seems dominant in the countries of the Industrialised nations is an attitude of social manifestation of that particular culture. As the pass into the twenty-first century is made it seems in England (In the English and the US Medias) that ‘anti-culturalism’ is morally despicable and is easily and ‘righteously’ derided. These rich countries lay claim to the philosophical ideas of egalitarianism and their legislations, with such fine and flowing language, proclaim proudly the freedom and intrinsic worth of every human being. When we look at the realities of the situation in life around us however we begin to discover that it is these very social representations of ‘other’ social groups which form the linchpin of these relationships that these communities experience [have]. In effect this means that fabricated ideas such as ‘race supremacy’ (which has infected communities or societies throughout human history and forms the basis of numerous questionable ideologies today) have managed to get a strong grip onto the concepts of a society’s value consensus. The question is the illusion of supremacy between so called ‘white’ and ‘black’. I once used to think that once science proved that wombmans originated in Africa this ridiculous monkey business would be solved and put behind us but it seems to have made matters worse. The Nazi Party in the 1930’s loved to justify the fact that the (Aryan-Nordic) Caucasian was superior scientifically to other so called ‘races’ This they did by measurements of bones and skulls. The closer these proportions were to earlier species of wombmans (homo erectus, homo neanderthalus, homo habilis,) the more they were rated as being less ‘evolved’. It is this very definition of evolution that I wish to challenge. The wombman animal is a species successful in survival (its current problem with the environment is due to its over-successfulness in this department.) due to the fact that it is very good at adapting to suit its environment and ultimately suiting elements of its environment for itself. I believe that this adaptive ability of wombmans is the key to the misunderstanding of superiority. Many people are still convinced by a linear historical theorum on the evolution of wombmans and their civilizations. According to this model civilizations are the peak of evolution because they exemplify extremely complex systems of social interactions and organisations. The state of materiality within that culture is then perceived as an indicator of each particular civilization’s level of ‘advancement’. I wish to propose an alternative to this hierarchical and stratified model of evolution. I wish to propose that perhaps life within a village system formulated upon a needs based culture is the ultimate form of civilisation from the point of view that this lifestyle would be based on the symbiosis of land and wombman. Subsistence agriculture would be the method of maintaining this system. Materialism (in the way it is effected by the rich countries) and the pursuance of pink elephants (activities aggressively marketed by advertising and its propagandist tendencies) is not actually elementally beneficial to the physical nor spiritual requirements of ourselves as the current but temporary administrative children of this planet. We must always remember that we are not the most populous animal, [ants as one example put our worldly population to shame] nor are we actually in charge to the degree that we like to think we are. Our possible extinction, be it self-inflicted or astronomical, will most probably see us being replaced by another life-form to fill the negligible and tiny niche we used to occupy in the universe.
The majority of African filmmakers have taken up the theme of modernity versus traditionalism. This issue seems very often central to the concerns of their socio-realist productions. New technologies cannot be unmade but the question is can traditional ways of existence be preserved without negative technological infringements upon their prosperity. These are issues that have been explored in the films of Ousemane Sembene, Soulemane Cisse, Haile Gerima, Gaston Kabore, Kwaw Ansah, Brian St Juste, Adama Drabo, Med Hondo and others. This issue is one of the fundamental issues of our time that the Earth’s global societies are being forced to grapple with. It is not merely an issue of debate between those who wish to revert to ecologically sustainable ways of living and those who continually desire new technologies for inspiration and ever greater degrees of control. If anything, we are currently on the brink of a technological revolution. This should be the change from energy wasteful and polluting incendiary technologies to the harnessing of existing energy systems such as the sun, moon and winds. The rich capitalist economies would have us believe that the only way to achieve equality of rights is to work hard through the strife to achieve material success. However there can only be a winner if there is a loser so in order for everyone to benefit compromise and fair distribution of produce is a must.
In terms of the old adage of variety being the spice of life I believe it is important also that a global monoculture never develops. Looking at the current ideological make up of the world’s population it is the christian religion in its various guises which is most propagated throughout the planet. Having around 1667 million followers (1992 figures) its main rival in spiritual ideology is Islam which has 881 million, roughly half of the above.
The above ideological paths however are not really part of the problem facing Africa and the representation of its people on film. Both however place great emphasis upon the skill of literacy. Africa has done without and can continue to do without for as long as it deems necessary. I do not see literacy as an aspect necessary to civilization; the word itself leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The tradition of the griot is a tradition native to that great continent and one which can and should continue, unchanged, into the future. After so many years of foreign repression it is only right that Africa regains her voice and speaks defiantly and aloud once more. It is important to note that this tradition of the oral, storytelling historian, important enough to be spared in times of war, is not universal in Africa. As testified to by Ngugi wa Thiong’o at the 1990 Amherst conference of writers and critics in Massachussetts, USA:
“The tradition of the griot is not there in all communities. I suspect that it is part of those societies which had a more or less centralized state. What we have among the Gikuyu is another kind of poetic tradition, which fosters competition among various poets. Instead of having wrestling matches, you’d have – as it were – poetic wrestling matches between various regions. In fact this art was so highly respected and it was taken so seriously that it was only practiced among the group who had really developed the art of writing. They kept it as part of the guild so that it never spread to the community as a whole.”
The above quote from the Kenyan writer is a demonstration of how strong this African tradition is. It can be found today worldwide, albeit in an altered form, at warehouse parties with amplified sound-systems where ‘MCs’ pit their wits against each other to rap and outclass or shame their opponent whilst representing their area of origin. The later point of the above quote serves to illustrate that once codified into writing the art is easier to control and direct. Immediately after the above quote Sembene goes on to say that:
“I think we can learn from this that there are ethnic groups on the continent that do not have griots, in the true sense of the word. Those on my mother’s side, that is the Diola, have no griots, but they have blacksmiths. In the case of the Peul, to whom Samba Gadjigo belongs, the blacksmith is an inferior person. So you can see the wide diversity that exists when you want to apply a concept throughout a whole continent. Within Wolof society we have griots. There are very many different social groups that have the power of the spoken word, depending on different moments and different circumstances. There are those, to whom Ngugi just referred, who also have the power to engage in oratorical contests, and the Wolof have champion wrestlers, who must be poets. Before fighting his adversary such a wrestler has to compose his own songs.”
Through this Sembene wishes his audience to understand that generalisations can seldom be made but through his use of the griot as both a character and a metaphor he expressly wants us to understand that Africa can stand on its own two feet without any Caucasian interference. The role of the griot is an ancient tradition which has its roots in the oldest of oral cultures. Anthropologically, it was on the great plains of ‘Gondwanaland’ that the earliest wombmans had to find their own footing independent of the trees that had previously supported them and it could be argued that it is symbolically to trees that Sembene is harking the role of his celluloid griots. The Caucasian self-imposed curfew culture, to watch something designed by an other in silence and not respond to it during its performance, cannot be responded to other than with ‘voiceless’ after-screening polite criticism; an act which effectively castrates and disempowers the audience. In the African tradition of ‘call and response’ the audience is welcome and indeed needed in the participation of the actual performance. It is precisely this tradition which Sembene attempts to convert to his films and the structure of his pictures testifies to this. They are structured to stimulate discussion amongst the audience. The lack of an emphasis on audience participation is evidence of the steamroller of ‘Western’ culture which attempts to dictate worldly procedures. Ousemane Sembene is a man who is trying to make his cinema achieve that modern griot status through his creation of discussable works that arouses audience participation.
Another burning issue that needs attention if cinema is ever to achieve any sort of egalitarian principles is that of dramatic licence versus realism. The question to ask here is how relevant is the practice of casting really, and what are its most important facets. Identity is in effect one of the key issues of the raging global ethnic war and within the medium of film nowhere is that more apparent. The United States of America is happy to accept the shedded blood, sweat and tears of its culturally diverse populace, yet seems unwilling to reward these people as cinematic role models in a manner that is appropriately dignified to their intrinsic culture. The US through its cultural imperialism, of which Hollywood is an effective executive branch, is designed to create characters that are ‘American’. These characters, then, represent the desired ‘American’ identity and their value consensus is unsurprisingly wholeheartedly capitalist. This is where the gauntlet lies. In a democracy each individual should be party to the representation of their national identity. A character is a symbol upon which meanings are designated. Symbols are the building blocks of language and language is a defining aspect of culture. Film in its role as a language has a responsibility therefore to define the culture from which it has sprung. The fact is that fiction is fiction but that inspiration for its creation came from the realm of the real. Those who have the power to control how the fiction is made are thus accountable for the final result. Film could learn a lot from theatre with regards to so called ‘dramatic licence’, the concept that the players act their roles in simple garb and all visualisation is done in the imagination of the audience. This may throw up an immediate cry of protest, film is meant to be a realistic media surely! My answer to that is that no matter how good the costumes, the set-pieces, the make-up or all the other so called aspects of realism are there is still one unsurpassable problem. That is the fact that a person selected to play the role of a character due to perceived similarities in appearance still leaves other aspects of appearance or personality to dramatic licence so therefore how zealously is the ‘image’ to be pursued? This question must be addressed by film producers. Surely any actress or actor good enough to play the character should be welcome to the role. Visual casting is irrelevant. Only casting in light of character is necessary. It must be recognised that the control of casting is paramount to the control of the image and thus the position of the casting agent in the hegemony of the Caucasian patriarchy cannot be underestimated.
Regarding medias of creative fiction and the subsequent creation of identity that this process entails it is possible to state one concrete fact; that the author knows only the self. With this in mind on what basis do they create ‘other’ characters? The only possibility is that their inspiration comes from extensions of the self and the self-experience of other lifeforms. It is the business of the author to indulge in the creation of ‘other’ characters seen to be different from the self (perhaps in order to better explore the self?). With this being the case authors should be given creative licence to construct characters that are alien to their culture but to do so in a way that does not propagate the standard stereotyping. Without this freedom the art cannot manifest. These endeavours should be exploratory and ethically righteous studies of the wombman condition which is common to us all. All authors are capable of fiction and in the future it shall be proved on an individualistic level. Those works most empathetic shall be known from the soul of their very being.
Hollywood can be justifiably called ‘institutionally racist’ due to its methods of casting and the application of dramatic licence. As a weak example that serves simply to illustrate how this prejudice manifests I cite Clash of the Titans (US, 1981 directed by Desmond Davis). The film is a fantasy about ancient Greek Myth which is not historically accurate by any means but, and here is what is telling about its subject, it does keep up pretenses of being faithful to the myth. With its elaborate costumes, sets and special effects it resurrects many aspects of ancient Greek mythology. The film attempts to be faithful in aspects of visual style to the archeological reality of the old world that it purports to represent and in so doing commits its greatest and offensive misrepresentation. What occurs is a classic disempowerment of ‘other’ [non-Caucasian] cultures, a continued denial of voice to those who deserve access to the microphone most. The presence of this repressive power is illustrated by the non-presence of the righteous subject.
This injustice can only be really fairly termed the ‘Andromeda Affair’. Andromeda in Greek mythology was an Ethiopian Princess [aethiop – in Greek is a word composite meaning burnt-skin – this alone sounds like a prejudiced term, inferring that light skin is the standard when the reverse is true]. Her mother, Cassiopaeia, made the mistake of incurring the wrath of the Gods through the claim that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs of Poseidon. The point is that in the 1981 film Andromeda’s character was played by a blue-eyed female of distinctively Caucasian appearance. This is not necessarily solely Desmond Davis’ ignorance which is to blame. When we investigate deeper into renaissance art we find that every image (to be dug up at Roehampton University Library) is that of a Caucasian Andromeda. Her original Ethiopian lineage seems to be distinctly painted over. We find this strange and indeed inexplicable alteration in the paintings of Frederick Leighton (Perseus and Andromeda), Francesco Furini (Andromeda), Henry Fuseli (Perseus and Andromeda) and F. Le Moyne (Perseus and Andromeda) where we find our heroine to be daubed with blonde hair! The visual presentation of The Clash of the Titans is therefore a very romantic portrayal of the ancient with the fine details altered to accommodate a ‘white-supremacist’ view of ancient Greek mythology. Again looking at the archives of art history and this time specifically into religious iconography we find yet more evidence of cultural prejudice. Jesus was a semite. Dark skinned. Ethiopia was one of if not the first Christian country. Looking at a Byzantine Icon named the Black Madonna and Child (Matka Boska Jasno-Gorska), [click here] the original of which is in the Polish Monastery of Jasna Goraand is the Country’s patron Saint; it becomes apparent that Mary and Jesus were both Semitic and thus dark-skinned. Why did other Christian Caucasian nations so feel the burning desire to change the cultural identity of the miraculous ‘Virgin Mother’. The Italian ‘master’s have famously created images of this divine figure all featuring Caucasian women as the artistic result. Sometimes they have audaciously depicted the mother divine as a blonde with blue eyes. Why is this when everybody knows full well where the ‘Holy Land’ is and what its inhabitants look like. This is the reason why many people to this day believe that Jesus was light-skinned.
This issue of ‘black’ and ‘white’ must be challenged and the I wish to put forward the idea of ‘race’ as a social construct, an invention of society. There is an excellent book supporting this line of argument edited by the academic ‘double-act’ that publishes under the name of Werner Sollors. The book’s title is The Invention of Ethnicity and raises a number of fascinating issues. Of these it asks whether anyone other than an African give an accurate portrayal of African culture? They would, after all, lack the ‘key’ experience of being African. But what is it to be African? If science is correct in its theory of evolution every wombman is African in origin. Gondwanaland is the homeland of our ancestors and what with history’s migrations, population movements, wars and mixes surely few people alive today can be absolutely certain of their bloodline above a couple of generations. Racial purity is a myth. ‘Race’ is a myth – a social creation to enable easy classification based upon external appearance. Of course differences in genes exist between people of different continental bloodlines but this is due to the adaptation of the species to environmental and social factors over the time of their general separation from each other. Small communities and little social movement resulted in localised ‘gene pools’ enabling certain genes to be distributed throughout those areas. Over time communities separated from each other by geography evolved slightly differently both physically and culturally.
There is an excellent argument put forward in the book The Invention of Ethnicity by Ishmael Reed (pg. 227):
“Anyway, Chester Himes said that “to live in a racist society is to live in a situation of absurdity”, and this designation of “blacks” as America’s only ethnic group is an example of that, because what the media refer to as “blacks” are among the least ethnic of America’s ethnic groups. “Blacks” in the United States, have a multi-ethnic heritage. If Alex Haley had traced his father’s bloodline, he would have travelled twelve generations back to, not Gambia, but Ireland.
W. E. B. Du Bois said that the “pure” African disappeared after the first generation of Africans in America. So that’s how rampant cohabitation was. As a matter of fact, cohabitation was an election issue in one of Abraham Lincoln’s campaigns. All these mulattoes all over the South – they didn’t know what to do with them. I remember reading one of Andrew Johnson’s speeches, where he said he went through Tennessee and didn’t know what was what. He saw “black” women with “white” children and what appeared to be “white” women with “black” children. That’s how we got about five new races in the Americas. Five new races have originated in this country and in South America and in the Caribbean. You go down there and it’s the same situation. Blacks have difficulties claiming the multi-ethnicity of their heritage because such a claim renders millions of people less “white.” We threaten people. We can’t define ourselves fully because it threatens people. And it’s amazing how even Afro-American intellectuals define themselves according to how others see them. If “whites” don’t take note of their existence, then they consider themselves to be “invisible men.”
It is common knowledge that many southern families have both a “white” and a “black” branch. Toni Cade Bambara, one of our great writers in the United States, said that she was walking down the street in Atlanta, Georgia, with a black person who said, pointing to a person on the opposite side of the street, “Oh, there’s cousin Al,” or somebody; cousin Al was blond and blue-eyed. You go down South and all the people are like relatives. A dark-skinned person may have a blond blue-eyed cousin. This is America’s secret – the secret of miscegenation that is glossed over with terms like “whiteness” and “blackness.” Very few Americans are willing to cast aside these superstitions, are willing to admit that “white blood” and “black blood” have been intermingled over the centuries…
… So we permit millions of people to acquire what passes in the United States as prestige without their having to earn it. All one has to be is “white.” For them to be “white,” to permit them to be “white,” to liberate themselves from what they regard as the shackles of ethnicity, there has to be “blackness.” Ethnicity is treated like a kind of disease. We get such a violent response to our work in the United States not only because of racism but because we remind people who are “passing” for Anglo of their immigrant grandfathers. This is a good point that Bob Callahan brought up. We remind people – we’re like walking examples, or emblems of ethnicity. That makes people uncomfortable.”
The only real solution to this so called ‘problem’ of ‘race’ which in actual fact is only the enforced cultural difference between people of different geographical areas is to lose the labels by which they so define themselves. Kill the ‘black’ man. Kill the ‘white’ man and give birth to the wombman. Man as a word is inoffensive. Woman as a word is inoffensive (largely!). Human is a fiery word with the feminist camp so let’s do away with it all together and replace it with the beautiful, all-encompassing, wombman. The history of language is the history of change. So let us change.
I suspect that there is still a future for ‘black’ and ‘white’ in the 21st century. The diaspora has been hurt too much for forgiveness to be so sweet. There will come a time when the states of Caucasia will a bleed for the blood, sweat and tears that they have squeezed out of peoples enslaved, be it economically or directly. As far as this essay is concerned, it is those two very terms of tone that I believe are a part of the problem. No wombman’s skin is ‘black’ and nor can any be realistically described as ‘white’. It is in fact all sorts of different blotchy colours varying of course with the individual. It seems ridiculous therefore to sum up millions of individuals as being white or indeed black when this is blatantly not the case. The statement is a lie then. A falsehood. Colour is relative anyway, for it is only the hue or range of the light spectrum that reflects off of the wombman epidermal layer into the eye and is totally dependant upon the hue of the initial light radiation emanating from the nearest star. In our case that ‘main-sequence’ star (which is in the red range) in English is called the sun. Everything therefore is relative to the context in which a situation is viewed, and not all forms of life are blessed with eyes to see. I and I must remember to be strong in this time.
Three Negro Classics; Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington.
The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois.
The Autobiography Of An Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson. Introduction by John Hope Franklin. HarperCollins, New York, 1999.
A History Of West Africa: An introductory survey, J. D. Fage. Cambridge University Press, London, 1972.
The Black Columbiad: Defining moments in African American Literature and Culture, edited by Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich. Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1994.
Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, Houston A. Baker, Jr. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984.
Redefining Black Film, Mark A. Reid. University of California Press, Oxford UK, 1993.
The Invention of Ethnicity, edited by Werner Sollors. Oxford University Press, New York, 1991.
The Cinema of Ousmane Sembene, A Pioneer of African Film, Francoise Pfaff. Greenwood Press, Westport, 1984.
Ousmane Sembene: Dialogues with critics and writers, edited by Samba Gadjigo, Ralph Faulkingham, Thomas Cassirer and Reinhard Sander. University of Massachussetts Press, Amherst, 1993.
Black American Cinema, edited by Manthia Diawara. Routledge, New York, 1993.
A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembene, edited by Sheila Petty. Flicks Books, Trowbridge, 1996.
The Partition of Africa: 1880-1900 and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century, J. M. MacKenzie. Methuen, London, 1983.
The Egyptian Oracle, Maya Heath, Bear & Company, Inc. Santa Fe CA, 1995.
Poland: Proud History. Great Future, Tadeusz Jacewicz, Rosikon Press, Warszawa, 1996.
A Handbook of Greek Mythology, H. J. Rose, Methuen, London, 1965.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy, 1932. US.
Black Fury, Michael Curtiz, 1935. US.
Shaft, Gordon Parks Sr., 1971. US.
Borom Sarret, Ousmane Sembene, 1963. Senegal.
La Noire de… (Black Girl…?), Ousmane Sembene, 1966. Senegal.
Xala, Ousmane Sembene, 1974. Senegal.
Guelwaar, Ousmane Sembene, 1992. Senegal.
Ta Dona, Adama Drabo, 1991. Mali.
Zan Boko, Gaston Kabore, 1988. Burkina Faso.
Love Brewed In The African Pot, Kwaw Ansah, 1980. Ghana.
Mirt Sost Shi Amit, Haile Gerima, 1975, Ethiopia.
Children of Babylon, Brian St-Juste, Jamaica.
Smile Orange, Brian St-Juste, Jamaica.
Saraounia, Med Hondo, 1986, Burkina Faso.
The Harder They Come, Perry Henzell, 1972, Jamaica.
Tilai (the law), Idrissa Ouedrago, 1990, Burkina Faso.
Kamil Lausch-Jeannet – 989001082 Froebel College – Dissertation FTVH20 – Film and TV Studies