Clara screened “Moi un Noir” a few weeks ago to her film workshop. It’s a documentary by Jean Rouch from 1958. She told an anecdote about the naming of the film. The film follows several young men in Nigeria on their quest to make lives for themselves in a suburb of Abidjan called Treichville. They had agreed — Rouch and the men — to call the film “Treichville.” Later, Rouch decided to call it “Moi un Noir” and the men were pissed. It isn’t what they had agreed. And it changes the story from one about people trying to make it in life to a story about black Africans. It shifted from a story about ‘us’ to a story about ‘them.’ This launched a discussion about objectification. The discussion travelled about, and eventually a Burundian woman made this statement: “we thought we were going to get something out of colonialism, but in the end we didn’t get anything.”
(A still from another Rouch film, “Chronique d’un Ete”)
This comment was striking to Clara and me because we never thought that colonialism was ever good for anyone. But as we talked about it we realized that this is a very colonialist view of colonization. Even in our retelling of a guilty tale, we don’t credit the colonized people with any agency. You had no choice, no view in the matter. It is interesting that at least one person in Burundi feels differently. Is this just how history is taught here? Maybe. And why not? If we’re going to write our history, why not accentuate our agency? Or is that in fact the way that it happened? How large and influential was the elite of the societies being colonized that were convinced by the rhetoric of progress and civilization?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I can say that my presumption against those possibilities seem to make me leap too quickly to narratives of domination, one where I am conveniently the inheritor of the domination. At moments like these I am grateful to the Savage Death Islanders:
“patriarchy isn’t an imaginary Mean Man Guild, but a global social order based on the fetishization of domination and submission, to which he himself is unwittingly subject.”
In other words, that’s exactly how a colonialist would talk about colonization.
This angle came up again this morning. Clara is reading “Blood River”, a travelogue about a recent journey through eastern DRC. It gives the impression that life in that area has been miserable for a long time, what with the slave-trade, then the private ownership by Leopold, then the conflict over resources. I wonder how much of that narrative is, again, a colonizers view of history: our effect on your life was bad, and we must have dominated your life in every way, so your lives must have been entirely miserable. Did slave-trading in the pre-colonial era effect enough communities often enough to mark entire populations? Or was it a very bad thing that happened once in a while? This question does not diminish the evil of slavery; it simply asks whether people’s lives were full and complex in ways that slave-taker did not have power over. I don’t know the answer to that question, either, but it seems to be worth asking.
The idea that anti-colonizers might see the world in a very colonial way also came up yesterday while reading an Al Jazeera opinion piece on Wikileaks. The cables say two things about America, according to the writer: that America is doing a lot of things, and that mostly it is pursuing Americans’ interests. In other words, the cables just aren’t very interesting as a lens on American foreign policy. In contrast, the cables say plenty about the comportment of the governments of states in the Middle East. Some of it might be troubling for those concerned:
‘Cable-Gate’ will gradually engulf Lebanon. US cables have Elias El-Murr, Lebanon’s Defence Minister, advising Israel on how to re-invade and clean out Hezbollah successfully! With a Defence Minister like Mr El-Murr, who needs enemies!
What was interesting about this piece was that it placed American imperialism in a merely supporting role. Yes, Julian, American power is a many-tentacled beast. Yawn, says Al-Jazeera. Only an imperialist would think that an imperialist is the most important show in town. It turns out that all these minor actors have agency, and they’re using it. But it takes an anti-imperialist anti-imperialist to see that.
A final notes on this. Cuba has launched an “anti-colonialist” Wikipedia called EcuRed. I looked up MLK. A while ago Clara and I were at a football match and this moderately nutsy guy befriended us. (Just nutsy enough to tell the policemen to stand down so that the rest of us could see the match.) At some point in our conversation he said that he likes America, likes Omaba (of course!) and that he likes MLK “the anti-colonialist.” We had never thought of MLK as an anti-colonialist, and it was interesting to think about how history is taught in Burundi — and how it is taught in America — such that we would think of MLK and think of colonialism is such different ways. Does the Burundian syllabus misunderstand MLK, or do we misunderstand the nature colonialism? So I was wondering how the Cuban Wikipedia presented MLK. Don’t you?