Perverse

I wish I was in monkeyland
The place that I was born
A monkey came and kissed my cheek
And said goodbye to all

When I was in lower-primary, pre-primary to std. 4, this used to be my favorite song. I would sing it with relish at school assemblies.

2.

In recent years, I have wondered at the perverse genius of colonial teachers who, no doubt, left us this song. How they must have laughed at little black children who enthusiastically belted out tales about bestial origins.

How they must have smirked as they sipped tea and packed to return to their countries. Let the monkeys have the school.

3.

How did our black teachers not realize what we were singing? How did they not recognize the connection between blackness and animality? But what, also, is the pleasure I took in singing this? How does the moment of pleasure seemingly ignore history?

In recent weeks, we have asked this question about several terms.

What does it mean to dance to music laden with racist, sexist, and homophobic terms? What does it mean to use such terms?

4.

No doubt, a more subtle reading of the song would say, that Monkeyland simply names a place. Monkeyland could be inhabited by humans and lions and elephants. Being a citizen of Monkeyland does not necessarily make me a monkey.

But this reading is too clever for my taste.

5.

I spent my formative years singing this song:

I wish I was in monkeyland
The place that I was born
A monkey came and kissed my cheek
And said goodbye to all

6.

If we want to examine the persistence of colonial thinking, we need look no further than our schools.

8 thoughts on “Perverse

  1. This is the same comment i left on Larry Lyons (bar the spelling errors which I have corrected here)

    “I dont understand half of the comments here but I do find this intellectualising of the use of the word cunt an indulgence – a bit like intellectual masturbation.

    My question is: What does it feel like for a woman to walk past a group of young men who shout out the word “cunt” as you pass? Answer: It feels like being violated. It is an act of male violence. It is horrible. Something akin to a black man walking past a group of white boys and being subjected to the word “nigga” except if it was a black woman it would be “nigga cunt”! great expression eh?”

    Did I miss something?

  2. Jomo Kenyatta has this great description in Facing Mount Kenya:

    Before initiation it is considered right and proper for boys to practice masturbation as a preparation for their future sexual activities. Sometimes two or more boys compete in this, to see which can show himself more active than the rest. (155)

    Many of the exchanges you point to felt much the same way to me. It was clear that some sense of violence and violation was at play (I use play advisedly). It was also clear that we, mostly young gay male academics, were struggling with something that, perhaps, we didn’t quite understand.

    Put another way: it’s the moment when feminism and queer studies become antagonists. Mostly, but not exclusively, over women’s bodies.

  3. Hmmmmmmm – the masturbation point is understood – in the example you give it is something i imagine to be a collective experience / experiment in pleasure – i can visualise it as a joyful experience.

    i have no problem with masturbation – it is an essential part of sexual pleasure whether solo or with one’s partner of the moment. but i think you understand the meaning i was trying to convey in the term “intellectual masturbation”.

    I appreciate your acknowledgement that there is a tension here between the differing meanings assigned to the female body but it is interesting because I dont recall conversations with lesbians about the male body! I wonder if such a conversation would take place around the use of the word “dick” or “cock” – personally I cant imagine it unless in the context of sex toys and then not using those words.

  4. It’s ironic this should be said under the heading “perverse.”

    Over the past year, I’ve been thinking about a notion of the sacred, attached to words or symbols, with the power to cause profound, shattering pain to one group, but seemingly with no effect on another (a failure of empathy).

    To give some context, my university, after many years of activism, retired its Indian American mascot, Chief Illiniwek. For many years, Native American students, scholars, and activists, and allies, had been claiming the chief was a racist mascot. The chief’s supporters, most of whom were white, defended the chief on the basis of tradition. I kept thinking that at stake, beyond racism, was a certain failure to appreciate what might be sacred in another culture and, correspondingly , the way dominant cultures often place themselves beyond the reach of the sacred in the same way. No word I know quite approximates the violence of the racist word I shall not name. That is telling.

    Less academically, the only lesbian discussion I can think of about penises, dicks, cocks, what will you, is by Valerie Solanus, who advocates castration. Oh yes, and the ever lovely Patrick Califia.

  5. The true colonial legacy was to “bad mouth” our closest relatives in the animal Kingdom – the apes.

    What is so wrong about an innocent child singing of wanting to be a monkey?

    Absolutely nothing, that is unless one buys into the theory that monkeys are stupid, that monkeys are bad, that monkeys are inferior.

    If that is the case then i will reserve my sympathies for the monkey.

    Perhaps the reason this song was so popular is that in many cultures (Little Red Riddig hood?), there is a belief in transformation. That people can transform themselves into animals and vice versa.
    Therefore the song itslef is not not colonial after all.

  6. You have an interesting argument. It makes me uneasy. In part, because it revises the historical way in which colonial and racist thinkers connected blacks and monkeys. By your logic, comparisons made between blacks and animals (choose your species) over the last 400 years need not be offensive, as we now recognize the worth of animals. It’s a dangerous argument.

    No doubt, they might have been denigrating apes. More often, they were using an evolutionary scale that privileged humans over apes. In the African context, the monkey comparison was often used to suggest blacks could imitate without knowledge: they had ability without cognition.

    You are right about the powers of transformation. In my particular case, my school used to be a European school and had, by the time I attended, been replaced by black students and teachers. The song, in my reading, marks the legacy of transition, in which animality was used in a specific ideological way.

    Can we critique the human/ape hierarchy? Absolutely. Can we highlight the joys of childhood fantasy and transformation? Of course. Should we sacrifice historical context in the process? Absolutely not.

  7. @ Keguro,

    “Should we sacrifice historical context in the process? Absolutely not.”

    But when does this history begin? Does it begin when these same “colonial and racist thinkers” have told us?

    Not so.
    Nearly all the labels/names the English used on africans, were first used on them by the Roman empire or earlier.

    “By your logic, comparisons made between blacks and animals (choose your species) over the last 400 years need not be offensive, as we now recognize the worth of animals.”

    Of course it is STILL offensive—to the animal. Why?
    Because there has not been a civil rights movement for the animal. They continue to suffer at the hands of man(africans included)

    There is no need for me to wallow in self pity about these event of 400 years ago. If i was i would tell myself to get over it.

    Even today fellow africans call each other bad words, kill each other, sell each other into slavery, loveless marriages etc.
    I do not go around feeling personally offended by that!

  8. I suspect we will not agree. But disagreement can be productive. At least, this is a version of intellectual exchange I cherish.

    1. I agree with you on the rights of animals. I would disagree on the absence of animal rights activists and organizations; they exist but are not as respected as “traditional” civil rights organizations. Asked to choose and rank between humans and other animals, I would choose humans. I am mostly ambivalent about good-natured intentions toward non-human animals that, at the same time, seem to ignore human rights issues. Let me repeat, I suspect we will not agree on this.

    2. I use a vulgar notion of history, that which is most proximate and, hence, most applicable. Within the very specific context of this post, I mentioned a song I grew up singing, one that I linked to my formerly European school, one that I then suggested was a particular colonial legacy. The general claim would be that colonial institutions left an ongoing legacy. As you will recall, this issue has been central to demands that we change the constitution.

    3. Given the very specific historical parameters I’ve outlined, I’m a little baffled by the 400 year reference. Surely, we need not look that far to see evidence of racist and colonial thinking. I suspect, we need not even look as far as 2 years ago. Does the persistence of labels, their inheritance, from the Romans to the Anglos to the Irish to the Turks to the Indians . . . in any way diminish their specific usage in specific contexts? I would say not. It is, in fact, this very persistence we should and do question.

    4. Historical injury is a vexed topic. It is a fad, and I tend to think a very neoliberal fad, to champion a certain amnesia over the past. Paradoxically, it is also a very neoliberal fad to equate all forms of injury–my stubbed toe equals your dead child. I am not faddish. Less dismissively, I don’t have a grasp on where I stand concerning historical injury and its persistence in contemporary society. I do know that we have a crisis of empathy, “I do not go around feeling personally offended,” might be taken as one example of this crisis. The sense that we are not or might not be offended should not give us license to then dismiss other’s sense of injury. Especially we who are privileged must exercise caution.

    5. One more little quibble: “historical context” is not quite the same thing as “history.” Context situates something quite specific, at least within the intellectual traditions I work (a vulgar Marxist -historicism, vulgar only because I abuse it as much as I use it).

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