The Art of Racism

In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s [Vachel Lindsay’s] work was widely anthologized and taught, until (perhaps) it became embarrassingly apparent that one of his foundational poems, “The Congo,” is undeniably racist (“Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,/ Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable”); interest began to cool, until he was evicted from The Norton Anthology, and from many, if not most, classrooms.

However, more than political correctness was at stake in Lindsay’s eclipse. The racism of “The Congo” is almost certainly unintentional, an epiphenomenon of a late Romantic valorizing of the “primitive”; even Yeats was heir to this problematic attitude.T.R. Hummer, my emphasis.

In my original conception of this talk, I had thought to conclude it nicely on an appropriately positive note in which I would suggest from my privileged position in African and Western culture some advantages the West might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people–not angels, but not rudimentary souls either–just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society. But as I thought more about the stereotype image, about its grip and pervasiveness, about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; when I thought of your television and the cinema and newspapers, about books read in school and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa, I realized that no easy optimism was possible. And there is something totally wrong in offering bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa. Ultimately, the abandonment of unwholesome thoughts must be its own and only reward. Although I have used the word willful . . . to characterize the West’s view of Africa it may well be that what is happening at this stage is more akin to reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more, but less, hopeful.–Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” my emphasis.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Racism

  1. Although I have used the word willful . . . to characterize the West’s view of Africa it may well be that what is happening at this stage is more akin to reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more, but less, hopeful.

    Foucault would agree—particularly because he scoffs and even laughs at those who think that you can undo ideologies simply because they are “social constructs” (picture how gullible undergrads, and I am one, declare race(ism) and other isms to be social constructs, as if just by realizing that the whole thing begins to unravel). The truth is that social constructs might be harder to unravel particularly because they are not based on any logic. Hence, the reflex racism Achebe rights about here might be even more insidious and harder to rid the West of than the more premeditated racism(?).

    Another comment in my long ongoing series of: I am *not* making sense.

    Onward!

    PS A friend warned me not to get into Foucault. She said, “Everyone I know who reads and loves and quotes Foucault is kind of a dickhead.” The sexual jokes aside, I see how the totality of Foucault’s work, particularly on power, can leave little to no breathing room sometimes for that overrated word I hate: agency.

    OK, now Onward!

  2. To your last paragraph: I was thinking of how it could be multiplied, and often is: Marxists, Freudians, Lacanians, Chomskians, Zizekians, all have the ability to be “dickheads.” I think it’s always good to read widely and deeply, if only to be able to engage in particular histories and practices of thinking and acting. Agency is an intriguing word–I can see how it can become suspect–and I try not to use it, but that’s because I overused it as an undergrad. That said, it’s really important to think deliberately about how and when we act–the circumstances that allow action, those that forbid it, and how we act in the absence of permission.

    I’m struck by what you write about Achebe–I’m wondering how socio-historical practices become reflexes. Fanon wrestles with this. I’m also thinking of the kinds of training we put ourselves through to turn actions and reactions into “reflexes.” What might it mean to understand racism precisely through the kind of training that produces reflexes?

Comments are closed.