10.06.08

In the UN ad, a middle-aged white woman ventriloquises the world’s brown and black oppressed. Their voices pour from her throat, their entreaties re-shape her lips: en-tranced by their suffering, she acts as a medium.

The conceit is familiar, the plea for sympathy might even succeed. After all, we in Kenya have learned that the color of money is white, and white faces solicit much more successfully than brown or black ones, especially when they ventriloquise black and brown bodies.

I will return to this question: why is this ad playing on Kenyan television?
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To read this ad as a symptom regarding the lack of empathy across race seems too easy—my friends in advertising tell me black faces can’t sell to white. The irony being that black bodies can.
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I wonder why we in Kenya need a white woman’s face to speak to us about us.

This needs to be qualified. She does not ventriloquize or speak for the white faces and bodies in Kenya, in Africa. She speaks for the brown and black bodies. Do we need white faces to mediate for black and brown bodies, as the UN, defunct and new imperial states continually tell us?

This is also a question of how we value each other, how we understand that beautiful phrase “contributes to development.”
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I’ve been aware for some time that I have no desire to “contribute” to “Kenya’s development.” I have no wish to bring my gifts to someone else’s party. I have no desire to be absorbed into a collective pot that is not of my own making.

That Kenyans abroad are considered unofficial banks and necessary investors, but not necessary cultural, social, and political stakeholders (we can’t vote, can’t have dual citizenship), this tells a story of how we are valued, and exposes (to use a paranoid phrase) the limited role the government and nation envision for us.

Those who return seduced by the promises of the new Kenya find themselves creating new languages, producing reams of documentation, social glossaries that, with luck, find some purchase. The lucky few find like-minded people and must resist the seduction of believing their views are ordinary.

One seeks relief in an oasis.
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I have only seen this ad once. Perhaps the UN pulled it. Perhaps the UN decided that a white woman ventriloquising the black and brown people of the world in a majority black and brown country was in bad taste.

It is.
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At the stroke of midnight, ABC Family (channel 32 on insight communications in the Midwest) begins pleading for money. Khaki-wearing white men framed by black children with chapped lips tell stories of “Ibrahim” and “Musa” and “Sam” and “Ali,” children whom, without your 30cts a day, might not “make it.”

I’m not quite sure what “making it” entails. And the earnest white face and voice would be horrified were I to argue that the fact of living has no intrinsic value. One cannot let starving children die. To frame a rejoinder is already to be considered monstrous.

One cannot stage a moral debate here.

I am troubled by all foreclosed debates.
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What does the discourse of “contribution” foreclose? What does it allow to be said? What does it leave unsaid? What does it assume about plans and planning?

And must “we” forever be fulfilling other people’s visions?
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The link between the UN ad and Vision 2030 seems tenuous at best, disingenuous at worst. I am trying to suggest that we who are ventriloquised, planned for, visioned for, that we walk in others’ dreams. That the paternalistic U.N. ad shares much with the paternalism of Vision 2030, a document, I admit, that I have yet to study in detail.

This is also to ask what it means to plan for others to plan, to plan for others’ possibilities, the half-measures we-now can take for we-tomorrow, what we cannot anticipate but must imagine. Including, in some way, the failures of our imaginations, the loopholes of retreat we owe the future.

Readers of Valerie Smith will recognize the ambivalent meaning of “loopholes of retreat,” the little garret occupied by Harriet Jacobs for seven years, where she became semi-crippled, hiding from a cruel slave master.

To imagine the future for others means, somehow, imagining possibility as a hiding space.

This is difficult.

I continue to think about the possibilities envisioned by ventriloquists, how we will use these loopholes of retreat.