Choice of Straws by ER Braithwaite. London’s East End 1960. Twins Jack and Dave Bennett are a happy-go-lucky, rootless pair of Teddy boys. If they do occasionally rough-up a black guy it’s just a game to them. Until a victim in Whitechapel fights back and Dave pulls a knife. From the writer of To Sir With Love.
Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun
Dramatised by Roy Williams
Director Claire Grove
About the Play
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is best known as the author of To Sir, With Love, the 1959 novel that was adapted into the 1967 hit film To Sir, With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, and the hit song To Sir, With Love, sung by Sidney Poitier’s co-star Lulu. His lesser known novel, a Choice of Straws, was originally published in 1965.
Choice of Straws is told from the perspective of Jack, a White East Londoner, who usually follows along with his Twin Brother Dave, who, while being inadvertently stabbed while attacking and killing a Black man, ends up dying in a car crash in a car driven by another Black man, a Medical student named Bill Spencer. Jack tells the truth to his parents about what happened and tries to dodge police inquiries. He also begins to discover himself as an individual, no longer in his brother’s shadow. This involves getting a girlfriend (Ruth) and losing his virginity while pursuing a romantic relationship with Bill’s sister Michelle.
Through Jack’s relationship with Michelle, Braithwaite revisits the divisions that race and class construct in people’s lives that he explored in To Sir with Love. In To Sir, With Love, the educated and sophisticated Afro-Caribbean Teacher is a victim of racism, however his pupils are victims of classism, which has meant that they have received a completely inadequate education to prepare them for anything but work as common labourers. Jack is working-class while Michelle is middle class and has a university education. She ends up ending their relationship for fear that Jack is just using her in order to experience dating a Black girl. This has happened to her before. Even the issue of Jack and Dave attacking the Black man is complicated by the fact that late in the radio play we learn that their father was assaulted by Black men during the 1958 Notting Hill Riots.
Choice of Straws doesn’t provide any easy answers to the racial and class conflicts that still divide Britain into many small islands, but it is a great exploration of these divisions and is itself an action of walking in the “other’s” shoes.
About E. R. Braithwaite
E.R. Braithwaite was born in Guyana in 1920. He was raised in a relatively privileged Afro-Guyanese family, both his parents were graduates of Oxford University. He served in the Royal Air Force as a pilot during World War II. He attended the University of Cambridge where he earned a doctorate in Physics. Like many people of colour in Britain after World War II, despite his qualifications, he found it hard to find employment in his field so was forced to take a job as a teacher in East London. The book, To Sir, with Love, was based on these experiences. Braithwaite pursued a career in social work and ended up getting a job finding foster homes for non-White children for the London County Council. He based his second novel, Paid Servant, published in 1962.
Braithwaite’s books were banned in Apartheid-Era South Africa until 1973. At this time, Braithwaite applied for a visa to visit South Africa. His visa as granted and he was given the status of “Honorary White”, which gave him far more freedoms and privileges than the indigenous Black population. He wrote about his experiences traveling in South Africa in the memoir Honorary White, published in 1975.
Braithwaite has worked as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO, as the permanent representative for Guyana to the United Nations, as the Guyanese Ambassador to Venezuela, and as Writer in Residence at Howard University. Most recently, he has been a visiting professor at Manchester Community College. He now lives in Washington, D.C.
About the Notting Hill Race Riots
The 1958 Notting Hill Race Riots raged over the August Bank Holiday in Nottingham. Although dismissed by police at the time as just hooliganism perpetrated by White and people of colour alike, In 2002, theLondon Internal Metropolitan Police released documents related to the riots which told a different story:
The Met commissioner was told that of the 108 people who were charged with offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to affray and riot and possessing offensive weapons, 72 were white and 36 were “coloured”.
It is popularly believed that the riot began on the night of Saturday August 20 when a 400-strong crowd of white men, many of them “Teds”, attacked houses occupied by West Indians. Among the victims was Majbritt Morrison, a young white Swedish bride of a Jamaican. She was pelted with stones, glass and wood, and struck in the back with an iron bar as she tried to get home.
The internal police witness statements provide graphic evidence of the motives of the mobs – at one point crowds several thousand strong roamed the streets of Notting Hill, breaking into homes and attacking any West Indian they could find.
PC Richard Bedford said he had seen a mob of 300 to 400 white people in Bramley Road shouting: “We will kill all black bastards. Why don’t you send them home?” PC Ian McQueen on the same night said he was told: “Mind your own business, coppers. Keep out of it. We will settle these niggers our way. We’ll murder the bastards.”
The fact it is believed one of the first people attacked by Whites was a White woman in a romantic relationship with a Black man just demonstrates how subversive such unions were perceived as at the time. My own mother used to be called a “Nigger Lover” and “Race Traitor” jokingly by her family members when she married my father. The level of contempt that White women who agreed to be in romantic relationships with men of colour at this time, and in some places even now, is a phenomenon which I feel has not been explored well enough in anti-racism circles’ discussions around White Privilege.
The Notting Hill Carnival, an annual street festival led mainly by Britain’s Trinidadian and Tobagonian community, began in 1959 as a community response to the Notting Hill Race Riots. The first festival was organized by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian American Communist and journalist who had been granted asylum in Britain in the late 195os after having been imprisoned and eventually deported from the United States due to her communist activities. In 1958, she founded the West Indian Gazette, the first newspaper printed in London for the Black community. She is considered “The Mother of the Notting Hill Carnival”. Black Academic Carole Boyce Davies has written her biography, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. The title of the book refers to the fact that Jones, who died in 1964 due to heart disease and tuberculosis, is buried in London’s Highgate cemetary to the left of Karl Marx.
About Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Mixed Race British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw has recently gained recognition in the United States as the star of the cancelled J.J. Abrams’ TV Series Undercovers. I can’t help but suspect that Undercovers partly failed because it had two Black leads playing “non-traditional Black roles”. Of the top of my head, I can’t think of any American TV Series with Black Leads, other than comedy series, that have survived very long. Despite this, Gugu’s beauty and talent has been “discovered” and we will be seeing more of her on the American screen. Gugu was born in 1973 in Oxford, England to South African doctor Patrick Mbatha and English nurse Anne Raw, who met while working together at a hospital . Her full name, Gugulethu, means “Our Pride” in Zulu. She is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. I first saw her in the British Sci-Fi TV Series Doctor Who, portraying Tish Jones, the sister of Doctor Who’s First Black Companion, Martha Jones. In 2009, Gugu played Ophelia opposite Jude Law in Donmar West End and Broadway Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We will be seeing her on the big screen soon in the comedy drama Larry Crowne starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts and in the American Supernatural Thriller “Odd Thomas“.
To Ricky with Love by Caryl Phillips (2005 Guardian article available online)
Notting Hill Race Riots
After 44 years secret papers reveal truth about five nights of violence in Notting Hill by Alan Travis (2002 Guardian article available online)
The Forgotten Race Riot (2007 BBC article available online)
Long History of Race Rioting (2001 BBC article available online)
Profile of Claudia Jones available online
Interview (2009) in The Guardian available
Interview (2009) in The Telegraph available online
Video Interview (2010) available online
Black British Literature
Black British Literature since Windrush by Onyekachi Wambu (BBC History article available online)
Irish Actor Christopher Simpson has made a name for himself staring a disaffected South Asian (Desi) young men in such British films as White Teeth (the adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel) and most recently Brick Lane (the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel). But he isn’t South Asian. He’s actually Black, and not in the British sense where Black means everyone who isn’t White, but Black in the sense of being of Sub-Saharan African descent.
Christopher Simpson was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1975. His full name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. For someone who lives in Ottawa’s African community and so has grown familiar with various African last names Gatsinzi sets off alarm bells. Gatsinzi is a Rwandan name. The most internationally well-known Gatsinzi is Marcel Gatsinzi, an ethnic Hutu who is currently Rwanda’s Minister of Defense. Simpson is actually the son of an Irish father and a Rwandan-Greek mother.
When White Teeth was aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre, a viewer inquired about Christopher’s name as follows:
Dear Masterpiece Theatre,
Why does Christopher Simpson, who played the roles of both Millat and Magid, have a white name?
New York, NY
According to actor Christopher Simpson:
“My name is Christopher Crawford Gatsinzi Simpson. I was born in Dublin to a Rwandan Greek mother and an Irish father. I lived in Dublin until I was six when I moved to London, where I have been ever since. Imagine, if you will, the difficulty I have responding to the question ‘Where are you from?'”
What is a White name anyway?
It’s been impossible to find interviews where Simpson discusses his ethno-cultural background and how this relates to the fact that he has made a career portraying members of an ethno-cultural community he doesn’t belong to (If you know of any interviews like this, please let me know). However, in a 2006 interview with the Irish newspaper The Independent, I was able to learn more about Simpson’s parents. The following are excerpts from this rather amusingly frustrating interview with journalist Donal Lynch :
An innocuous question about what his father was doing in Rwanda when he met his mother is greeted with a theatrical look of horror. “I’m not that comfortable talking about all of that. You want my dad’s CV? You’ll have to ask him yourself. Does that make sense?”
I’m in the middle of trying to explain that it might be interesting for people to also learn a little bit about his background, but he’s still not sure. I don’t really care what his father does but, by now, I am truly intrigued.
I’ve hit upon something interesting. Was his father a gun-smuggler? An arms dealer? A millionaire playboy? Surely this veil of secrecy must be concealing something very exciting indeed.
“OK, he was training to be a teacher,” Chris, sorry Christopher, tells me with a withering look. I try to conceal my disappointment that his father is not James Bond. I can tell this is going to be like pulling teeth.
When I ask him whether he encountered racism while at school in England, he says: “I don’t think any country has a monopoly on racism. My recollection of school is lots of things and for sure, people will look to what is different,” and leaves it at that. I nearly leap for joy when he speaks about visiting Rwanda with his mother as a child, as this represents a quantum leap of frankness compared to the generalities he has been using up to now.
“It is a beautiful country,” he says. “Our mum gave us phrases in Rwandan so we could order things. We were on the hillside, by a brook. It was the first time I had avocado cut from a tree.”
He tells me he was “touched and saddened” by the massacres there.
Did he have relatives who died in the war?
“Inevitably if you have any relatives in Rwanda, you know of people who died.”
What age was his mother when he left Rwanda? He doesn’t know. It must have been difficult for her to cope, knowing the situation in her homeland?
“One has to live one’s life no matter how tragic the circumstances of it are.”
He tells me his mother has since died but doesn’t feel he wants to say how she died. He tosses his hair and stares out the window. More silence.
He has gleefully bored me back into talking about his career and waits out the final few minutes of the interview with a monologue on “the travesty of the colonial and imperial imperative to divide and rule”.
I personally would like to know how Simpson’s mother’s parents met. How many Rwandan Greek mixes could there possibly be?
That said, it doesn’t really surprise me that there were Greeks in Rwanda, there definitely were many in Burundi. I learned this while reading model Esther Kamatari’s memoir. Kamatari is a member of the Burundi Royal Family and Burundi’s Prince Louis Rwagasore was assassinated by a Greek National living in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, in 1961. But why were there Greeks in Burundi? Here is blogger Douglas Muir historically-based explanation from the blog A Fistful of Euros:
History: the Greeks had been in Alexandria since forever. So, when the British came to build the Suez Canal and politely detach Egypt from the decaying Ottoman Empire, the Greeks were there to ease into place as translators, merchants, vendors and general facilitators to the new colonial overlords. And in the late 19th century, some of them followed the expanding British Empire across East Africa, down the Nile to Sudan and around the Horn of Africa to Kenya.
Now the 19th century British, being British, were of two minds about these Greeks. They were useful, but they were… well… Greek. Not quite the thing, you know.
But the Belgians — who ran the Congo and, after World War One, Rwanda and Burundi as well — were different. They were lazier than the British, and more corrupt, but they were less arrogant and much more willing to allow a hard-working Greek to make an honest franc as a factor, tax farmer, or overseer.
So in Rwanda and Burundi, the Greeks became junior partners to the Belgian colonial masters. In the interwar years, hundreds of them came from all over the Greek diaspora to settle here, trading in coffee and ivory and palm oil, taking jobs in the civil service. By World War Two there were a couple of thousand of them, and they were raising a second generation. They had their own district of the town. They built the big church, right in the middle of Bujumbura, just a little bit smaller than the Catholic cathedral that housed the Belgian bishop. They had settled down in a distant, quiet corner of the world and built a prosperous community. Things looked good.
Then: the long slow colonial withdrawal. Independence. Ethnic tension. A young government playing with the economy, experimenting with socialism, import substitution, export controls. Europeans pushed out of power, not only in politics, but in trade and business. A civil war in the 1970s; economic collapse. Dictatorship. The economy contracted to subsistence agriculture, coffee and tea exports. Another civil war in the 1990s; another collapse.
By the early 21st century most of the Greeks were gone. The community had shrunk from a couple of thousand to perhaps a hundred. Those who remained were second and third generation, and some of them were very prominent in the country’s business community — they owned export businesses, farms, urban land — and they’d managed, one way or another, to come to terms with successive Burundian governments. There aren’t enough to keep the community going much longer; their children are mostly going away to school, and not coming back. Another twenty or thirty years, and they’ll probably be just a memory, a very small footnote to colonial history.
But meanwhile there’s the Greek consulate. And the big Orthodox church, where the few remaining faithful can gather every Sunday morning. It’s closed the other six and a half days a week, but is still kept very clean.
So, most likely, one of Simpson’s grandparents was from Rwanda’s Greek communities.
Homing in on Simpson no job for amateurs by Donal Lynch (2006 interview available online)
The Greeks of Burundi by Douglas Muir (2008 blog post available online)
While scouring the cheap DVD bin at my local Giant Tiger, I struck gold. I found one of my all-time favourite films, Flirting (1991). It was only $2! Flirting is definitely one of my “Top 5 Desert Island Films”. I’ve loved it since the first time it played on Canadian Cable when I was about twelve or thirteen.
So, why did an Australian Film set in 1965 at a Boarding School speak to me so deeply as a tween?
Starring: Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts
Written and Directed by John Duigan
Flirting is the sequel to Australian writer and director John Duigan’s 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke (a film I also adore). It is narrated by the central character of both films Danny Embling (Noah Taylor). Danny has been sent away to boarding school in New South Wales by his parents in the hopes he won’t become a delinquent after the events that occurred in The Year My Voice Broke. At boarding school, 17 year old Danny is the butt of jokes because of his stutter and long nose (for which he is nicknamed “Bird”). He describes life in Boarding School as follows:
One thing about boarding school, 24 hours a day you’re surrounded. Either you abandoned yourself and became a herd animal or you dug a cave deep into your head and skulked inside, peering through your eye sockets.
His only friend is Gilbert, who likes to smoke a pipe and is hardly any more popular than Danny himself. Danny looks down on his fellow classmates as imbeciles and oafs and prefers to read Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. But, as he is a teenage boy, he does long for female companionship and takes as much pleasure as the other boys at any opportunity given to see the girls from Cirencester Ladies’ College, the girls’ boarding school on the opposite side of the lake.
At a rugby match, Danny’s clever remark that he is only interested in rugby from an anthropological viewpoint because it’s a mating ritual catches the attention of Thandiwe Adjewa, played by the amazing Black British actress Thandie Newton, who has just arrived from school in England. Her father, a Ugandan, is lecturing at university in Canberra. Thandiwe has befriended Melissa and Janet (played by Naomi Watts) but she also sees herself as “above” her fellow students and has to put up with their racism which includes taunts about bananas and Ugandans being only able to compete in the Zoo Olympics. At a debate between the two schools in which Danny, despite his stutter, is able to deliver an eloquent speech on how rugby exemplifies the epitome of human endeavour and Thandiwe throws the debate by quoting the song Tutti Fruitti Au Rutti, the two finally get a chance to speak and Thandiwe invites Danny to the Boarders’ Dance.
Danny ends up not being able to attend the dance because his headmaster thinks his hair is too long. Thandiwe breaks the rules by going to look for him and the two sneak away to his dormitory. Thandiwe explains that although her father is Ugandan, her mother, who is deceased, was Kenyan and had an English mother. After finding a copy of an English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Intimacy and Other Stories on his bed, Thandiwe tells Danny that she met Sartre in Paris.
Danny: What did you say to Sartre?
Thandiwe: I suggested marriage was a doomed institution.
Danny: What did he say?
Thandiwe: He agreed most people marry to please their parents or society.
Danny: Not keen on marriage yourself?
Thandiwe: I see so many terrible ones. People just stop communicating. My father and stepmother are brilliant communicators. They hardly ever talk to each other these days, except in public. Anyway, I doubt I’ll ever find anyone complex enough to keep me interested. I lose interest in people. I imagine they’re far more fascinating than they are. So I’m always disappointed.
Danny: Hard Life.
It’s clear that Thandiwe and Danny are well matched as they both think that are too smart for their surroundings. Thandiwe kisses Danny and demands that he write her. Thandiwe is punished by the headmistress for leaving the dance without permission and is given chores by the prefect, Nicola Radcliffe, played by Nicole Kidman. Soon after, Thandiwe’s letter to Danny is taken by Burke, one of Danny’s constant tormentors and the school’s boxing champion, and is read allowed to his classmates. In the letter, Thandiwe writes: “I’m told your nickname is Bird. Well I like long noses it means your well-endowed-with brains of course”. Word of the letter spreads and Thandiwe ends up getting teased about it. She doesn’t believe Danny when he calls her, pretending to be her father and putting on an “African” accent, and tells her that the letter was stolen. She refuses to partner with him when the two schools work together to put on a school musical. Danny is determined to win Thandiwe back and fains illness in order to take a boat across the lake and find Thandiwe at her school. While at dance class, Nicola Radcliffe explains to Thandiwe that the letter really was stolen. Thandiwe regrets not trusting Danny. By this time, Danny has gotten into the school by climbing into the dormintory window of some of the College’s younger students. They help him find Thandiwe and the two are reunited.
In a fascinating scene which is accompanied by a montage of “African” images from the 40s, 50s and 60s in print and on film, Danny reflects about his knowledge of where Thandiwe comes from:
When I started thinking about Africa I realized that the only images I knew were from old annuals, Tarzan comics and Hollywood movies. Cannibals with bones through their noses, lions tearing the throats out of antelopes, and a lot of wondrous, moving words like Limpopo, Zambezi, Mombasa, Tanganyika.
As Danny and Thandiwe’s relationship grows, he gets to learn about Africa from Thandiwe’s perspective, although he doesn’t really take it all in. He reflects:
Thandiwe started telling me about Africa as she knew it. How her mother was killed during the Mau Mau period in Kenya. How her father wrote books about African nationalism and the problems created as the colonial government scrambled to get out. There had been terrible times for the last few years: The Belgian Congo, Zanzibar, Angola, Kenya, places I’d barely heard of. Often, I never really heard what she said. I’d be staring at her legs. They were very comforting ‘cause sometimes there would be little bruises or marks around her ankles from the elastics in her socks. That’s how come I knew she was real.
While getting ready to perform the musical, the boys discover that they can see the girls getting changed and Burke decides to take a picture. Danny attacks Burke and their fight is broken up by their prefect who proposes that they instead box each other later in the week. Danny and Burke end up boxing and of course Danny is beaten severely. At one point, after sustaining hard blows to the head by Burke, Danny hallucinates that he can see Jean-Paul Sartre in the crowd of students watching the fight. Gilbert and Thandiwe take Danny to the school’s infirmary.
After the performance of the musical, Danny introduces his parents to Thandiwe and her parents. Danny’s mother is obviously shocked and unsettled to be meeting Africans but his father is quite charmed by Milton Adjewa, Thandiwe’s father. Danny and Thandiwe meet later that night and make out in an amusing and awkward scene. Things seem to be going so well for the young couple but the political crisis building in Uganda leads Thandiwe’s parents to return to the country. Thandiwe fears that her father, who has written about government corruption in the country might be a target as he has many enemies. She is right and soon after her father’s return, he is arrested. Thandiwe feels he must return to the country in order to look after her younger brother and sister as her stepmother might also be arrested. Lying about her true departure date, Thandiwe leaves the school a day early in order to spend the night in a motel with Danny. The two get a chance to make love but soon after they are caught by school officials.
Because of his indiscretion, Danny is expelled from St. Albans and returns home to work in his father’s pub. Thandiwe regularly writes him letters from Uganda. In the letters, Danny learns about the deteriorating situation in Uganda, an army general named Idi Amin, and of Thandiwe’s father’s execution. Then the letters stop.
People have speculated that John Duigan’s Danny Embling films are autobiographical. This is not the case, as Duigan explained in a 1996 interview:
To some extent. I used that character to describe my evolving sensibilities on various things, but it’s not strictly speaking autobiographical, except in the most rudimentary way. His background is completely different from mine. The boarding school experience is very similar. I tend to give the characters certain experiences I had but I give them a lot I didn’t and a lot I would have liked to have had. Like meeting Thandie Newton at the sister school. It’s a liberating form of oblique autobiography because you can do anything.
I really love the main theme The Lark Ascending, a composition by English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams for violin and orchestra which Duigan uses in both Flirting and The Year My Voice Broke. According to John Duigan, he chose this theme because he thought it reflected Danny’s adolescent yearning.
I watched Flirting during a very dark and troubling time in my life. I had dropped out of junior high and was spending my days watching TV, listening to Ottawa’s Classic Rock Station Chez 106 (This is how I became a fan of Led Zeppelin) and wondering why I was such a freak. I would eventually return to high school but have to withdraw and receive visiting teachers because my social anxiety and depression made attending regular school unbearable. Ever since I can remember, I had felt like an outsider, a misfit and I couldn’t relate to children my age. At the beginning of the film, when Danny talks about digging a cave in his head and skulking inside, I felt that he was describing what I had been doing my whole life. I longed to find someone who would understand and appreciate me. I wanted to fall in love and do pretty much what other teenagers wanted to do when they were in love. But my prospects seemed so slim. The film Flirting gave me hope that I could find love with someone as awkward and intellectually precocious as myself.
Thandie Newton, who was only 16 when she starred in Flirting, began a romantic relationship with John Duigan, who was 39 at the time. She has described the relationship, which lasted for six years, as “traumatic”. In a 2006 interview she stated: “Sexual abuse is shaming. I was in a relationship with a much older person and in retrospect, although it was legal because I was 16, I was coerced.” In a 2009 interview she stated: “I was 16. I didn’t tell my parents about it (the relationship) but really young people who are vulnerable have to be looked out for. I’ve just been out to South Africa to Oprah’s Leadership Academy. I looked at the 16-year-old girls there. How can it possibly be right to start a serious relationship with someone that age when you are so much older? I’ve been through a lot of therapy so I sort of know why people do things now.” Despite this rather disturbing revelation, I still love Flirting, even if some parts of it now seem a bit pervy in light of Newton’s relationship with Duigan.
If my older wiser self could speak to my younger lonelier miserable self, I would tell her that “it gets better” and that friendship is really what you should be looking for. For lonely loners who are too smart for their own good, friendship can be far harder to find and maintain than romance. I was able to get into a romantic relationship at 17 with a 25 year old before I had any real friends. This was disastrous and pretty traumatic. But soon after, I made two of my dearest friends, who I’m proud to say are still in my life after all these years. So, for all you lovely lonely losers out there like I was, watch Flirting, it’s a film made for us, but make good friends before you go out trying to find love.
Interesting Trivia: Flirting won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Film. The film ranked #46 on Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies and The Guardian included Flirting in its list of the Five Best Boarding School Movies. John Duigan would go on to direct Thandie Newton in The Journey of August King (1995) and The Leading Man (1996) starring Jon Bon Jovi.
American Trailer for Flirting available online
Interview (1996) with John Duigan available online
Interview (2006) with Thandie Newton available online
Interview (2009) with Thandie Newton available online
Entertainment Weekly’s The Best 50 High School Movies gallery available online
Top of the Class: The Five Best Boarding School Movies 2009 article in The Guardian available online
A List of other great Australian Coming of Age Films courtesy of Queensland Gallery of Modern Art available online
Jean Ping, a Gabonese politician, is a well-known African diplomat who currently holds the position of Chairman of the Commission of the African Union. My interest in writing about him is because he is a person of mixed race; although his political career alongside Omar Bongo, the world’s longest serving non-Monarch ruler is also fascinating.
Jean Ping was born on November 24th 1942 in the village of Omboué, south of Port-Gentil , to a Gabonese mother, the daughter of a local leader, and a Chinese father, Cheng Zhiping. Cheng Zhiping was from the port city of Wenzhou, China. Wenzhou’s eastern coast looks out to the East China Sea and the city boasts successful emigrant communities which made their fortunes in business in Europe and the United States. Wenzhou was one of the few ports that remained under Chinese control during the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937.
The most I have been able to learn about Jean Ping’s Chinese father has been from a badly translated 2010 article originally written by Wang Qin, a Chinese diplomat in Africa, for the Chinese Online Magazine, Africa Magazine that states that its aim is to get its Chinese readers to know and love Africa. It is unclear when Cheng Zhiping settled in West Africa. According to Wang Qin, it was in the late 1930s but according to Wikipedia it was the 1920s. Cheng Zhiping came as a labourer but soon became a merchant, selling wood, Chinaware, and seafood. He also ran a bakery. According to Wang Qin, when Jean was a month old, his father took him to be baptized in order to respect his Christian Gabonese mother’s wishes. It was also his father who named him Jean. His father sent Jean Ping to be educated in France. Jean Ping would eventually receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).
Jean Ping’s political career inside and outside Gabon has been charmed. In 1972, began working for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In 1978, he became Gabon’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO until 1984. Subsequently, he became President of the Civil Cabinet of Omar Bongo, a position in which he served until 1990. According to Africa Confidential, it was this period that was pivotal for his career: “The career of Gabon’s consummate diplomat owes its success less to the impact he made as President of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004-05 than his accomplishments as head of cabinet to the country’s veteran President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1984-90.”
Ping’s connection with Bongo goes beyond politics. Jean Ping had a romantic relationship with Omar Bongo’s daugther, Pascaline, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite being married to another woman who he had no intention of divorcing. Ping and Pascaline had two children together while working side by side in Bongo’s Cabinet. Ping took over from Pascaline as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994, when she became the Director of the Presidential Cabinet. Pascaline eventually married another Gabonese politician in 1995. Ping would hold the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs for nine years. In 2002, Jean Ping wrote the book “Mondialisation, Paix, Démocratie et Développent: l’expérience du Gabon, published by Editions de l’Harmattan.
In 2004, Jean Ping was elected as the 59th President of the United Nations General Assembly.
As Foreign Minister since 1999, he has led Gabon’s campaign to open up trade with non-traditional partners including China, Brazil and South Africa. Ping is uncritical of the Chinese, who signed a controversial US$3 billion iron ore-backed deal for the development of the Bélinga deposit in northeastern Gabon in 2006, saying: ‘With China, everything is simple. She gives us debt forgiveness or long-term loans without interest or conditions.’
Jean Ping would eventually visit his father’s town of Wenzhou in 1987. According to Wang Qin:
When Jean Ping first returned his hometown, the people there welcomed him heatedly just like they were celebrating a festival. The most exciting was to see his ninety-four-years-old aunt. One of his cousin even excitedly said it was unimaginable to have such a black and great cousin. They were filled with the happiness of family reunion. Even though they could not understand what each other said, their hearts were together.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping discussing the role of the African Union in economic development and peace-keeping:
You have talked about regional integration as a priority for the African Union. How do you explain why trade among African countries accounts for less than 10 percent of the continent’s total imports and exports?
I think that this is due to lack of infrastructure. You need roads and railways; otherwise you can’t provide goods among yourselves. It is not easy. In the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, the 15 member countries have succeeded in creating a free zone for about 170 million inhabitants, [built around] the economic strength of South Africa, which produces goods, not just raw materials.
It would be good for the rest of the continent to sell to each other, but you need infrastructure and a common market. We now have a market of one billion inhabitants. But, unfortunately, 165 borders divide the continent into 53 countries. Some of these [places] have less than half a million people. Progress has been slow, but progress has been made and things are moving faster, especially in two sub-regions – SADC and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States]. ECOWAS has the same land area and population size – about 390 million inhabitants – as Europe, but a smaller economy. The first step is regional, and then you move to the continental market. The key is taking down barriers to foster economic growth.
Is there a danger that integration could exacerbate other problems? There have been, for example, outbreaks of xenophobia in countries as disparate as South Africa and Ghana.
We can’t wait. We have some obstacles but can you imagine a project like that without obstacles? One of the big problems has been sovereignty – the principal of non-interference in internal affairs. Our charter, which has been ratified by all 53 countries, says clearly that in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, we have the duty to interfere, immediately, without asking permission [from] anybody.
Africa is probably the only continent in the world that has codified that principle. This gives us the right to go into Somalia, the right to send an army to The Comoros and re-establish a constitutional government on the island of Anjouan by force. But you use force when you have no other means. You have to try all the other means and, if you can’t succeed, think about using force. Using force is not something, which can be routine.
Conflict resolution and peacekeeping are central to the mission of the African Union. How would you measure progress in that area?
We have moved a lot from 15 or 20 years ago. In 1996, the continent was confronted with more than 15 conflicts responsible for half of the deaths caused by war in the whole world. Half of them! Recall the situations in Liberia; Sierra Leone; the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ten countries were fighting inside one country; the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many countries in the north of Africa were confronted with terrorism – Algeria, Egypt. The continent was in blood. But mainly Africans themselves have resolved these conflicts. We still have the problem of consolidation of peace, because countries like Liberia are vulnerable, Congo has not yet achieved peace in the eastern part. And we still have two remaining conflicts: Darfur and Somalia.
In Somalia, the AU has the primary peacekeeping responsibility. What are the prospects for ending the war there?
This is the only country in the world with no government and no institutions for 18 years. The country is no longer a country. The terrorists are doing everything that is forbidden, including piracy. It is not acceptable. A few years ago, [people might have said]: ‘This is happening in Africa; I’m not concerned’. But then the piracy happened. Somalia became a threat to world peace, a threat to the world economy. All these warships went to that region. But pirates were not born in the ocean and they don’t live there. They come from Somalia. If you want sustainable peace you have to go where they come from, which is on the land.
This is a collective responsibility. The United Nations belongs to all of us. Of the 192 [member] countries, 53 are African. But when we asked the Security Council to go there they don’t agree. Some said that there is no peace to keep in Somalia, which means we have to bring peace first, and then they would come to keep the peace. We are alone there. We are maintaining the security of the transitional government of Sheik Sharif Ahmed. We protect them according to the mandate that we have received. But Somalia should be a state like all others [with] their own government. They should maintain their own peace. To do that we’re training their security forces, about 10,000 troops.
How many peacekeepers does the AU have in Somalia?
Today we have 5,200 troops. We plan to have 8,000. But we are not going to be there forever, so we train, equip and pay [the Somalis]. There is an embargo on armaments, so we’re asking for a lift on the embargo for government troops. There is a road map.
In Darfur, the AU is working alongside the United Nations. How is that progressing?
In the beginning, when the conflict started, we sent our troops alone, like in Somalia. It was called AMIS, the African Mission to Sudan. It was a very difficult time. Some of our troops died, so we called on the UN to be there. They accepted to come to Darfur and we have a joint mission, a hybrid operation. It is the biggest operation ever organized by the UN. When we reach full force, it would be 26,000. Let me tell you that 95 or 96 per cent of troops there are Africans. None are from western countries. The commander is Rwandese. Rwanda has four battalions there, and Nigeria has four battalions. It’s an African component trying to bring peace to Darfur.
Today, there are no more killings, really, which means that we are moving in the right direction.
The AU is now using the term ‘low intensity fighting’ to describe the situation in Darfur. But many NGOs working there take issue with that characterization and say the conflict is still serious. In Darfur, the NGOs [are now] an industry. So you can understand that, sometimes, maybe people want to stay there. I am sorry to say it as [plain] as that. But it should be clear enough that you have four main issues in Darfur. In the African Union, we take them in a holistic manner – all of them. The NGOs consider justice here, peace there. There is a problem of security and we have UNAMID [the African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur] to bring peace. But since the civil war there is a need for reconciliation. It is not the army that will solve the problem; it is dialogue and reconciliation among the population. It is not only to stop war or to give food to refugee camps, but to solve the root causes of the war and we have a political joint mediator working there
AU President Jean Ping went back to hometown, Wenzhou, for many times by Wang Qin (2010 article translated from Chinese for Africa Magazine available online)
Jean Ping’s Profile from Africa Confidential available online
Excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping available online
Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines: A Filipina American Grandaughter remembers her African American Grandfather
While researching Buffalo Soldiers, I stumbled upon an interview by Evangeline Buell, a Filipina American activist, discussing her grandfather, an African American who had fought in the Philippines. My knowledge of Filipino History isn’t what it should be so this interview and my subsequent research was really an eye opener.
The Spanish American War began in 1898, and was fought in several Spanish colonies around the globe, including the Philippines. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in December 1898, and the United States took over control of the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Filipino Nationalists, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, were not happy about having to trade one colonizer for another and resisted American occupation. In February 1899, these Filipino insurgents (insurectos) began attacking U.S. Troops. Thus began the Philippine American War (1899 to 1902). During these wars, African American soldiers were recruited to fight for the United States in the segregated Black regiments of the 24th and 25th Infantry, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and African American National guardsmen.
Evangeline “Vangie” Canonizado Buell is a leading Filipina American writer and activist living in San Francisco, California. She is the co-founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s East Bay Area Chapter and is the retired Events Coordinator of the University of California-Berkeley International House. She has written books about Filipino American history, including a memoir about her family, Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride: Growing Up in a Filipino Immigrant Family (T’Boli Publishing, 2006). Her family immigrated to the United States in 1928 and she was one of the few Filipinos growing up in West Oakland, California in the 1930s and 40s, a difficult time for Asian Americans. She remembers seeing signs stating “No Filipinos or dogs allowed” posted at restaurants. During World War II, she had to wear a button that declared “I am a loyal Filipino” in order to avoid harassment if she was mistaken for Japanese.
This memoir also records the life of her grandfather, Ernest Stokes, an African American who came to the Philippines as a Buffalo Soldier during the Spanish American War and stayed during the subsequent Philippine American War. According to Buell, her grandfather joined the military in order to escape racism in the American South. In a reading from her memoir for a 2007 podcast of San Francisco Chronicle’s Pinoy Exchange commemorating Black History Month, Buell states:
My grandfather Ernest Stokes was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee around 1870. Grandpa Stokes wanted to escape from the South where he had experienced oppressive racial prejudice. In 1898, he found an opportunity to leave for an overseas assignment, hoping for a life free of racial discrimination in another country. He responded to a call for volunteers for the Spanish American War in the Philippines and travelled with a group from Tennessee to San Francisco to receive training at the Presidio Army Camp. The windy and cold military base on the scenic hills overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Grandpa Stokes and the other Tennessee volunteers would cross the largest and deepest sea in the world to fight a war in a land they knew nothing about and later on in life Grandpa Stokes explained to his second wife, Roberta: “We had to leave this deplorable country even if it meant facing the unknown, at least we had a chance for a new destiny, perhaps a better life than here.” Grandpa Stokes was among 6,000 African American soldiers who were sent to the Philippines in 1898 to fight in the Spanish American War. Upon arriving in the Philippines he became part of the 9th Calvary of the United States Army. My grandfather became a sergeant in that unit consisting of African American members who were called Buffalo Soldiers.
But he, as well as his fellow Black soldiers, still faced discrimination in the US Military. As Buell explains: “He was sent out by the Caucasian soldiers into the front line to take the bullets from the opposite side. It was only their cunning and their street-wise defiance that they were able to not get shot.”
Buell says that Stokes loved life in the Philippines, including its people, culture and food. While in the Philippines, Stokes, like many other Buffalo Soldiers, married a Filipina woman, Maria Bunag, Buell’s grandmother and lived in a Filipino village. They had three daughters, including Felicia, Buell’s mother. According to Buell, Stokes was accepted by most of Maria’s family. Maria died in 1917, and Stokes could not raise his daughters and serve in the military at the same time so he sent one sister to live with her grandmother, and two of the sisters, including Felicia, to live with their mother’s cousins. This was a troubling time for these Black Filipina sisters. These relatives were not accepting of these darker-skinned and coarse-haired girls. According to Buell, her mother and aunt were treated like servants and beaten. They were also repeatedly raped by older male cousins. This went on for five years, until their father discovered what was going on and rescued them.
Buell’s grandfather later remarried another Filipina, Roberta Dungca. It is from Roberta that Buell learned about her grandfather’s life in the Philippines and his early life in the United States. According to Roberta, Stokes refused to shoot Filipino insurgents because he understood their resistance to American colonial rule. Many African American soldiers felt torn about fighting Filipinos and African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells, were outspoken in their opposition to the Philippine American War.
After living in the Philippines for 25 years, Stokes returned to the United States with all his children and Dungca. They settled in West Oakland, California in 1928.
Buell remembers her grandfather fondly. She stated that:
…her favorite memories are of her grandfather bouncing her, her younger sister and their cousin on his knee while he counted to them in Cantonese and sang in Tagalog. Stokes learned eight languages while in the Philippines, including Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish and various Philippine dialects.
Stokes died in 1936 and is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. According to Buell:
The relations between the African Americans and the Filipinos, the beginning of that, was in the Philippines. … And it’s important today in terms of Filipinos getting to know black Americans and (black people) getting to know the Filipinos — to know that we have had that relationship way back, a hundred years ago.
Filipina activist Buell writes family history to understand herself (2007 article available online)
Buffalo Soldier came to Philippines to fight, instead found new way of life (2007 Audio Interview available online)
The Philippine War: A Conflict of Conscience for African Americans (article available online from the National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco Website)
White Backlash and the Aftermath of Fagen’s Rebellion: The Fates of Three African-American Soldiers in the Philippines, 1901-1902 by S. Brown (essay available online)
Ever since reading Hans Massaquoi’s memoir Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, I’ve become fascinated with the life stories of Afro-Germans. After World War II, when African-American soldiers were stationed in Germany, the number of mixed race Afro-Germans would increase rapidly up until today when their existence, although not as common as in the US, France or even Britain, could hardly be said to be rare. There are even Black History Month celebrations, organizations like the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), that combats racism and supports programs for Black youth.
When I was in Germany, in the former mining town of Mulheim an der Ruhr, a White woman sat beside me on the train and asked me how I managed my hair. Her daughter, who was mixed race like me, was having trouble figuring out what to do with her hair and wanted a new style for going into high school. I didn’t really know what to tell her because I myself didn’t know what to do with my hair at the time. I just lived with it.
Theodor Wonja Michael is one of the oldest Afro-Germans living in Germany. He was born on January 15th 1925 in Berlin. His father, Theophilius Wonja Michael, was originally from Cameroon and arrived in Germany in 1894. According to Theodor, his grandfather was one of several community leaders who signed protection treaties with German explorer, and later Imperial Consul-General Gustav Nachtigal (1834-1885) in 1884 which began German’s colonization of Cameroon. I’ve realized that many people don’t know that Germany had African colonies: Togo, Cameroon, Tanganyika, and Namibia. These were lost after Germany lost World War I and divvied up by France and England in 1919.
Growing up, German children would sometimes ask Theodor if he was from the Rheinland. This was because there were other Afro-Germans born in the Rheinland, the children of local German women and the some 25, 000 to 40,000 African soldiers who had been stationed there as occupation forces by France from 1919 to 1929. Many of these soldiers were Senegalese Tirailleurs. These mixed race children were often referred to as “Rheinlandbastards”. The German government protested the presence of African solidiers in the Rheinland and much propaganda was written about these soldiers kidnapping and raping White women. The situation was often referred to as the “Schwarze Schmach” or “Black Shame”. Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.” It’s hard to know if and how many of these children survived under the Nazis. According to the Deutsche Welle article “The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany“:
Deutsche Welle spoke to leading German historian Prof. Reiner Pommerin to find out what happened to these children. “I published a book in the 70s, which told the reader about the sterilization of mixed blood children. These were children who had been fathered by occupation forces – mostly French occupation forces,” he said. His book, “Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde. Das Schicksal einer farbigen deutschen Minderheit 1918 – 1937” (“Sterilization of the Rhineland Bastards: the fate of a colored German minority 1918 – 1937”) publicized the sterilization of the Black minority in Nazi Germany.
Prior to the publication of the book in 1979, this information was unknown to the public. The sterilization of biracial children was carried out secretly because it went against 1938 Nazi laws and procedures. The exact numbers remain unknown, but it is estimated that 400 children of mixed blood were sterilized – most without their knowledge, Pommerin said.
Today, the fate of the “Rhineland Bastards” still remains largely unknown. The lack of public knowledge regarding their fate may have to do with the “lack of public interest in minorities,” said Pommerin.
Back to Theodor’s story. In 1926, his German mother, Martha Wegner died, leaving behind her four mixed race children, Theodor, James (born in 1916), Juliana (born in 1921) and Christiana. In my research it states that his father was a circus performer and that after his death Theodor and his siblings were taken in by his father’s circus colleagues. According to Osei Boateng, most Blacks in Germany at the time worked in the entertainment industry. Africans were hired to portray “traditional African dances and songs”. People would pay to see them perform as if they were animals in a zoo. But it was a living. When Theodor go older even he performed in these circuses, seeing songs he didn’t even understand the words to. As Theodor grew older the racist policies of the Nazi regime began to affect his life more and more. In 1936, mixed race Germans lost their citizenship and declared “fremde” foreigners. He lost his job as a bellhop at Hotel Excelsior due to a complaint from a Nazi guest. Theodor found work in films. He was cast in a small but visible role in Germany’s first colour film in 1943, “Muenchhausen”. He played an African servant cooling dignitaries with a feathered fan. The film was commissioned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. When asked about the experience, Theodor said “They trained me–and it is, of course, extremely ironic that it was the Nazis who gave me my big break!”
Theodor was twice conscripted and twice rejected because he was Black. The second time was when Germany desperately needed soldiers, but he still wasn’t good enough. In 1943, at the age of 18, Theodor was forced into a Labour Camp outside of Berlin. He had to work 72 hours a week at a war munitions factory. During this time, Theodor was constantly afraid of being sterilized like many other Afro-Germans were. In 1945, the Labour Camp was liberated by Russian soldiers.
Theodor and his siblings were separated after their parents’ deaths. In my research I haven’t been able to find out what happened to his sister Christiana however, his brother and sister James and Juliana ended up in France. These siblings were only united with each other and Theodor in the 1960s. In 1994, while researching her book Rewriting The Footnotes — Berlin and the African Diaspora, Paulette Reed-Anderson met with James. He recounted to her how the German authorities in France took away his German passport and learned that he was no longer a German Citizen because he was Black:
“[It] was in 1937. We were in Paris… My passport had just run out, so I went to the German consulate to have it renewed… ‘What do you want’, the clerk demanded. ‘To renew my passport,’ I answered. ‘Your passport?!’, he said. ‘What are you, are you German?’ ‘Yes, here is my passport,’ I answered. “He examined it. “Born in Berlin on 2 October 1916 and so on and so forth. Then he took my passport and went away with it.
A quarter of an hour or more went by before he returned — but without my passport. I said: ‘I thought you were going to give my passport back to me’. “He said: ‘No, we are going to keep your passport. You are no longer German. Black Germans do not exist’. “Then, I was really angry. What was I supposed to do without identity documents and such? Nothing! How could I prove that I was really born in Berlin? This was the worst moment in my life…”
Theodor returned to acting after the war because there was nothing much else he had experience doing. He would go on to become one of Germany’s most respected Shakespearean actors. He has used his respected position to influence the casting and direction of the plays he is in. For example:
In “The Tempest,” for instance–performing the role of Prospero–he persuaded the director to cast the Duke of Milan as a black man and his deformed slave, Caliban, as white. And in “Driving Miss Daisy,” he enhanced the fond but prickly relationship of the black chauffeur with his white Georgian employer to “somewhat of a romance, a love story.”
Theodor also eventually went back to school, receiving a Master’s Degree from the Institute of Economics and Politics in Hamburg. He was able to visit Africa as the editor of the journal Afrika-Bulletin and as the economic advisor for German development projects in Niger, Ghana and Nigeria. In the 1960s, he was even able to visit Cameroon and see his father’s birthplace. Theodor said that he has always felt a connection to Africa and as a child his father told him African folktales at bedtime. However, Theodor sees himself as German, first and foremost.
In 2000, Theodor Wonja Michael was invited to speak about his experience in Nazi Germany at Howard University in Washington D.C. The lecture he gave was entitled “German-African Relations–A Retrospective From the Colonial Period Until Unification.” He had been invited by Professor Yvonne Poser on behalf of the university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literature in an effort, according to Poser to “help our efforts to integrate black German history and culture in our German curriculum and to foster a dialogue between blacks in Germany and the Howard community.”
Many in the United States still don’t know about the experience of Blacks in Nazi Germany or even that there are Afro-Germans. Theodor appears in a British documentary entitled “Black Survivors of the Holocaust” (Hitler’s Forgotten Victims UK Title) by David Okuefuna and Moise Shewa. He was happily surprised to find that at Britain’s Holocaust Museum there were many documents about the Afro-German experience under the Nazis. While at Howard University, Theodor remarked, making reference to the documents in the British Museum: “Of course, what they say is not known in America. In fact, I am puzzled about how little Americans seem to know about Africa in general.”
When asked by Afro-German journalist Jeannine Kantara what he thought Obama’s election meant for Afro-Germans, he remarked:
In Germany, we still have a long way to go. Here we encounter a form of careless racism that is based on racial purity. A German has to “look “German and accordingly, he or she must be white. I do not know whether my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will already be able to reach such a position because here in Germany they will still be confronted with the question of origin.
In 2009, Theodor received the first Black History Month Award for his role as an Ambassador for the Afro-German community. Theodor currently lives in Cologne with his second wife. “I walk a lot and rehearse, but that must soon make way because I wish to write my memoirs,” he says. “It’ll be about a German, not an African.”
Remembering Africans in the Nazi Camps by Rowan Philip (article from The Washington Post available online)
The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany by Chiponda Chimbelu (article in Deutsche Welle available online)
Blacks During the Holocaust (article from the United States Holocaust Memorials Museum available online)
Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era by C. Lusane (Academic Text published by Routledge)
Black Germans do not exist by Osei Boateng (article in The New African available online)
We Are President! by Jeannine Kantara (article in The Zeleza Post available online)
Gert Schramm: A Black German Survivor of the Holocaust & Barack Obama by J. Kantara (article from Kantara’s Blog avaiable online)
A Tribute to Theodor Wonja Michael (article from Black History Month Berlin Germany 2009 available online)
Black History Month Berlin-Germany 2009 Website
Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) Website
Schwarze Menschen im Nationalsozialismus by Nicola Lauré al-Samarai (article in German from the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung available online)
Sie sind Deutsch? Ja, klar. Afro-Deutsch (article in German from Deutsche Welle available online)
Schwarz sein und deutsch dazu by John A. Kantara (article in German from Die Zeit available online)
Video Interview in German with Theodor Wonja Michael available online
Wikipedia Page in German on Theodor Wonja Michael
Wikipedia Page in French on Theodor Wonja Michael
Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich by Tina Campt (text from the University of Michigan Press)
I couldn’t resist seeing the latest incarnation of The Karate Kid starring the progeny of Will Smith and Jada Pickett Smith, Jaden Smith, and China’s Number One Internationally Recognized Action Hero Jackie Chan.
But I wonder why it was called The Karate Kid? Did the film’s producers really worry that people wouldn’t go to see the film if there was no brand recognition? Didn’t they think that the adorable Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and a theme song by every tween’s favourite Canadian Heartthrob Justin Bieber would be enough to get people to the box office? Unlike when the original Karate Kid starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio came out in 1984, your average North American knows a thing or two about Asian Martial Arts. For example, your average North American viewer knows that what Jackie Chan ends up teaching Jaden Smith isn’t karate, it’s kung-fu. So why not call the film The Kung-Fu Kid? Actually, the film is called The Kung Fu Kid in the People’s Republic of China!
The film begins with Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) preparing to leave his apartment with his mother (Taraji Henson). We learn that his father is dead and his mother has been transferred to Beijing, China by the Auto Factory she works for. Dre isn’t happy to leave his Black neighbourhood in Detroit for China, where he thinks everything is old.
There is a great scene on the plane ride to China when Dre’s mom forces him to greet a fellow passenger who looks East Asian in Mandarin Chinese. The passenger replies in perfect American English that he comes from Detroit.
On his first day in Beijing, Dre has to go looking for his new apartment’s handyman, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) because the hot water isn’t working (it actually is working, it’s just not automatic due to an energy-saving switch). Dre’s first meeting with Mr. Han doesn’t go well as Mr. Han ignores him and instead picks up a dead fly with his chopsticks and then continues to eat noodles with said chopsticks-Gross.
Dre is befriended by another expat White kid who takes him to the local park to play Basketball with the local Chinese kids. Dre isn’t good at Basketball (Way to Challenge Black Stereotypes!). Instead, he decides to chat up an adorable Chinese girl named Mai Ying who is sitting on a park bench practicing her violin. She immediately takes a liking to him and asks to touch his hair (Oh, the universal request when anyone not used to Black people meets a Black person-They want to touch our hair!!!) But Cheng, whose family I close to Mei Ying’s family, doesn’t take Dre’s fraternizing with Mei Ying well. There is really no reason for this kid’s beef with Dre given other than that maybe he himself has a crush on Mei Ying but that’s not developed. Cheng and his friends continue to bully Dre at school and terrorize him whenever they see him.
After rescuing Dre from a brutal attack by Cheng and his gang, Mr. Han decides to help Dre by approaching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher. Mr. Han believes that any genuine Kung-Fu teacher would be horrified to learn that his students were starting fights and ganging up on defenseless kids. But after watching the boys’ Kung-Fu teacher, Master Li, in action, it becomes clear that he won’t be of any help because his whole predatory “no mercy” approach to teaching Kung-Fu is actually why his students are such bullies. In order to get himself and Dre out of Master Li’s class without getting themselves beaten up, Mr. Han promises to register Dre in the upcoming Kung-Fu Tournament. In return, Master Li forbids his students from attacking Dre, until the tournament. Mr. Han then promises to teach Dre Kung-Fu.
Jackie Chan is a really fun actor to watch and early on in the film we are intrigued by the quiet and slovenly maintenance man who seems to know Kung-Fu so well but is so sad. What’s his story? We will learn that Mr. Han comes from a remote Chinese village in the Wudang Mountains where the teaching of the ancient art of Kung-Fu goes way back and people can harness their chi to manipulate cobras-Say What? Hopefully, people watching this film will know that this is a “fantasy” aspect of the film. Far too often, North American films about the Chinese and Martial Arts tend to not differentiate well between fantasy and reality, The Karate Kid (2010) is unfortunately no exception. Kung-Fu is mixed up with “magic” as is practical Chinese Medicine which Mr. Han uses to heal Dre’s wounds twice in the film, the second time with totally unrealistic results. More on the side of realism, we learn that Mr. Han has a drinking problem and lost his wife and child in a car accident in which he was the driver. Having the Mr. Han character be a broken man who ends up finding himself again through his mentorship of the fatherless Dre brings the story to a level higher than a just a vehicle to make Jaden Smith a big star (remember this film is co-produced by his parents!).
Dre’s relationship with Mei Ying is sweet to watch and as a product of a mixed race relationship myself I always love to see young mixed race love on screen (and Black/Asian hook ups are too few and far between in films for youth audiences) but this romance is a bit troubling considering their ages (Dre is supposed to be 12). Am I a prude to be freaked out by 12 year olds kissing and doing sexy dances to a Chinese Dance Dance Revolution version of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face? I think not and Simon Abrams from Slant Magazine agrees with me.
Needless to say, Dre ends up winning the tournament, overcoming a deliberate injury to his leg through the miracles of Mr. Han’s Chinese Medicine. Cheng is beaten by Dre but instead of being a sore loser ends up pledging his allegiance to Mr. Han and is soon followed by other students of Master Li. And all is right with the world.
All in all it was a pretty entertaining film, although I really do feel an opportunity was missed to do a remake of the song “Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting” to go along with the film.
The Karate Kid (2010) and The Karate Kid (1984)
Watching The Karate Kid (2010) helped me to really appreciate The Karate Kid (1984).
The differences between the films point to the superiority of the original film’s message.
A Fatherless Boy Moves to a New Town
Karate Kid (2010) Dre, an African American 12 year old, moves from Detroit, Michigan to Beijing, China with his mother.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel, an Italian American high school senior, moves from Newark, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California with his mother
The Fatherless Boy Gets Beaten Up by Really Mean Guys
Karate Kid (2010) Dre becomes a target of Cheng and his kung fu student friends because he befriends Mei Ying, who Cheng knows but isn’t romantically involved with and doesn’t seem to have any romantic interest in.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel becomes a target of a karate student after coming on to his girlfriend.
The Asian Maintenance Man Comes to the Rescue
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han, the Chinese maintenance man at Dre’s apartment, rescues Dre when he is attacked by Cheng and his friends.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi, the Okinawan maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment, rescues Daniel when he is attacked by the Karate student whose girlfriend he came on to.
The Asian Maintenance Man Tries to Enlist the Help of the Bullies Martial Arts Teacher
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to the Kung Fu School where Cheng and his friends are students. Mr. Han believes that any true Kung Fu Teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Han realizes that Master Li is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. No reason is given for why Master Li is such a nasty dude. In order to get out of the Kung Fu school in one piece, Mr. Han agrees to register Dre in the upcoming Kung Fu tournament. Master Li promises to make his students leave Dre alone in the meantime. Mr. Han promises to teach Dre kung fu.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi takes Daniel to the Karate dojo where his bullies are students. Mr. Miyagi believes that any true Karate teacher would not stand for his students bullying a defenseless person. But Mr. Miyagi realizes that the teacher at the Karate dojo, an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran, is himself a bully who is teaching his students to have no mercy. Being that the teacher is an ex-Special Forces Vietnam Veteran and generally speaking American sentiment in the 1980s was that the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary and brutal, his military background goes to explain why he’s such a nasty guy. In order to get out of the Karate dojo in one piece, Mr. Miyagi agrees to register Daniel in the upcoming Karate tournament. The teacher of the Karate dojo promises to make his students leave Daniel alone in the meantime. Mr. Miyagi promises to teach Daniel karate.
Simple Chores Equal Mad Martial Arts Skills
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han makes Dre repeat the steps of putting his coat on, taking it off, and hanging it up over several days. This frustrates Dre because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with kung fu. But one of the things we know about Dre from the beginning is that he always leaves his coat on the floor, much to his mother’s chagrin, so it’s probably for the best that he gets in the habit of hanging his coat up. Mr. Han finally reveals to Dre that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key kung fu defensive and strike techniques.
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi makes Daniel do household chores, like waxing a car (the now classic “Wax on, Wax off!”). This frustrates Daniel because he doesn’t see how this has anything to do with karate. Mr. Han finally reveals to Daniel that that movements involved in picking up his coat, putting it on, and hanging it up are key karate defensive techniques.
The Teacher and the Origins of the Martial Art
Karate Kid (2010) Mr. Han takes Dre to his village in the WuDang Mountains and visits an ancient Kung Fu monastery where Dre gets to drink mystical Kung Fu-powering giving water and watch a woman manipulate a cobra by harnessing her chi. Ya right….
Karate Kid (1984) Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel about karate’s origins in Okinawa, a island of Japan where Mr. Miyagi comes from….a lot more realistic.
Why the Teacher is so Sad
Karate Kid (2010) Dre discovers that Mr. Han lost his family in a car accident. While arguing with his wife, Mr. Han lost control of the car and it crashed killing his wife and young son. This is why Mr. Han is so depressed and withdrawn.
Karate Kid (1984) Daniel discovers that Mr. Miyagi lost his wife in childbirth while she was interned by the American government in an internment camp during World War II. Mr. Miyagi was away fighting the Germans in the American Army in an attempt to prove his loyalty to the United States. Mr. Miyagi’s tragedy opens Daniel’s eyes to a shameful part of American history, the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. In this way, The Karate Kid is not only a film about an underdog who overcomes through martial arts. It’s an attempt at honouring the history and heritage of Japanese Americans, a community which has been an underdog in the United States. Japanese American actor Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi.
The Karate Kid (2010) and racism against Blacks in China
I found it problematic that the film never broaches the issue of Chinese anti-Black racism. Frankly, racism seems to be a better reason behind Cheng’s animosity towards Dre than the total lack of a good reason the film provides us.
There are two common Chinese racial slurs for Black people: Black Devil (hei gui) and Black Chimpazee (hei xingxing). I have the misfortune of being called both in my life time. I’ve even experienced not being allowed to visit some of my Chinese friends’ homes because I was a Black person. Although the awareness of difference between Chinese and Blacks doesn’t go beyond curiosity about hair in the film it is a serious problem in real life, no matter how many sequels to Rush Hour Jackie Chan might make with Chris Tucker.
While watching the film, I wondered what Dre’s mom was going to do about her hair while in China (that weave could only last for so long!). If you are Black and in China there is hope…African Hair Salons. There are actually a lot of Africans in China, particularly in Guangzhou. The area where they live is often referred to as “Chocolate City“. Some have come as students, others as small-scale entrepreneurs. Even Barack Obama’s half brother lives in China and recently wrote a novel entitled Nairobi to Shenzhen.
But being present doesn’t mean being liked…actually it often leads to the opposite. The most violent outbreak of Chinese anti-Black racism was the infamous Nanjing anti-African protests which were ironically the lead up to 1989 the Tiananmen Square Demonstrations for Human Rights.
The Nanjing Anti-African Riots began on December 24, 1988. According to the Wikipedia Page for The Nanjing Anti-African Protests:
On December 24, 1988 two male African students were entering their campus at Hehai University in Nanjing with two Chinese women. The occasion was a Christmas Eve party. A quarrel between one of the Africans and a Chinese security guard, who had suspected that the women the African students tried to bring into the campus were prostitutes and refused their entry, led to a brawl between the African and Chinese students on the campus which lasted till the morning, leaving 13 students injured. 300 Chinese students, spurred by false rumors that a Chinese man had been killed by the Africans, broke into and set about destroying the Africans’ dormitories, shouting slogans such as “Kill the black devils!” After the police had dispersed the Chinese students, many Africans fled to the railway station in order to gain safety at various African embassies in Beijing. The authorities prevented the Africans from boarding the trains so as to question those involved in the brawl. Soon their numbers increased to 140, as other African and non-African foreign students, fearing violence, arrived at the station asking to be allowed to go to Beijing.
By this time, Chinese students from HoHai University had joined up with students from other Nanjing universities to make up a 3000-strong demonstration that called on government officials to prosecute the African students and reform the system which gave foreigners more rights than the Chinese. On the evening of December 26, the marchers converged on the railway station while holding banners calling for human rights and political reform. Chinese police managed to isolate the non-Chinese students from the marchers and moved them to a military guest house outside Nanjing. The protests were declared illegal, and riot police were brought in from surrounding provinces to pacify the demonstrators, which took several more days.
The course of the Nanjing protests went from anti-African sentiment to banners proclaiming Human Rights. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 came 4 months after the anti-African protests in Nanjing and some elements of the Nanjing protests were still evident, such as banners proclaiming “Stop Taking Advantage of Chinese Women”.
Mira Sorvino, who starred opposite China’s other Internationally Recognized Action Hero, Chow Yun Phat in The Replacement Killers, studied Mandarin and for her Honours Thesis at Harvard wrote “Anti-Africanism in China: An Investigation into Chinese Attitudes towards Black Students in the People’s Republic of China” which won the Harvard Hoopes Prize.
The Karate Kid (2010) Website
The Nanjing Anti-African Protests Wikipedia Page
Big trouble in China’s Chocolate City, August 1 2009, The Toronto Star
Beijing police round up and beat African expats The Guardian Sept. 26 2007
China Racial Unrest Moves to Beijing: Students Protest Alleged Attack on Woman by African, January 3, 1989, Associated Press
This post is under construction.
Rick Riordan, a former Texas school teacher, is best known as the creator of the popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians Series. This series connected modern day young heroes and heroines with the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece. Riordan’s latest series follows a mixed race brother and sister, Carter and Sadie Kane, as they discover the truth behind their mother’s death, their family’s magical heritage, and the world of the Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt.
Reading The Red Pyramid is itself an education in Ancient Egyptian Mythology. As young readers (and quite frankly older readers as well) are not as familiar with the myths of Ancient Egypt as they are with those of Ancient Greece, Riordan had to meet the challenge of writing a novel that is engaging for young readers but also informative. In an interview with The Seattle Times in 2010, Riordan expressed surprise that no other author had attempted to create a children’s book based on the fact that Ancient Egypt has the oldest school of magic in the world.
I was initially drawn to the book when I discovered that its central characters were mixed race. Riordan has stated that: “Egypt straddles civilizations — African civilization and Western civilization. I wanted to capture the sense that Egypt is a multicultural society, and that its African culture is part of African-American heritage.” This is definitely the sort of book that would make many of my Egypt-obsessed Afrocentric friends happy but what I must commend Riordan for is creating two mixed race characters who are allowed to express the identity conflicts that being mixed race creates for them. As Riordan states: “At a time when kids are searching for their identity, when you add race to it, it’s a big challenge.”
Carter Kane, 14, is visibly more “African” than his sister Sadie, who takes more after their English mother. Sadie Kane, 12, is light-skinned with carmel coloured hair and blue eyes. Since her mother’s death, she was sent to live with her English grandparents in England, whereas Carter continued to live with their African American father. The fact that the siblings are virtual strangers and don’t even look like siblings creates many challenges for them in the book.
Set, the main villain of the story, is the God of the desert, storms, darkness and chaos.
Isis, the Goddess of Magic and Fertility. Sadie is unknowlingly hosting Isis.
Anubis, God of Funerals and Mummification. Anubis is depicted in the book as something of an Edward Cullen wannabe. He is pale, handsome, and brooding. Sadie is infatuated with him and he seems to be also attracted to her. What’s with girls today and dead boys?
Thoth, the God of Wisdom. He is portrayed in the book as an eccentric University Student. We also learn that he is the God of Baboons which, in Ancient Egypt, were considered to be very intelligent animals.
Bast, Goddess of Cats. Bast is the protector of Sadie. She has been living in Sadie’s cat Muffin since being realized from her battle with Apophis by Julius and Ruby Kane.
Nut, Goddess of the Sky. She is the mother of Set, Osiris, and Isis.
Geb, God of the Earth. He is the father of Set, Osiris and Isis.
Serqet, Goddess of Healing Bites and Stings, in the book she is portrayed as a villain and the Goddess of Scorpions.
Sobek, God of the River and Crocodiles.
Other concepts from Ancient Egyptian Mythology:
Per Ankh, House of Life.
Duat, the Underworld.
Ma’at, Order, Truth and Justice.
First Chapter of The Red Pyramid available online
Interview with Rick Riordan about The Red Pyramind in The Seattle Times
The Kane Chronicles’ Website
Rick Riordan’s Website
Egyptian Legend: Apophis in the Duat
BBC Archive: Chronicle: The Key to the Land of Silence: How the Rosetta Stone translated ancient Egypt to the modern world.
Lena Baker was the first and only woman every killed by electric chair in the state of Georgia. She was executed in 1945. Sixty years later she was pardoned.
The film Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story by Ralph Wilcox is more than a biopic about an African-American woman who, like so many others, was a victim of the racism of the American Justice System, but it is also a harsh reminder that although there may be a Black President, America still has a terrible legacy of racism to overcome.
The film chronicles the life and unjust death of Lena Baker from her childhood picking cotton in the early 1900s to her death by electric chair for murdering her employer.
Lena Baker is played by actress Tichina Arnold. Arnold is best known for her comedic roles in shows like Everybody Hates Chris but she is excellent as Lena, a woman who has many demons to face. The filmmakers do not sugarcoat Lena Baker’s life. She is an alcoholic who once was a prostitute and did time in prison. She had three children who were mostly raised by her long-suffering mother.
When Lena seems about to turn her life around she is bullied by Eugene Knight to look after his father, Ernest, who has injured his leg. She is reluctant because Ernest Knight has the reputation of being violent but at this time in Georgia it is difficult for Blacks to refuse the demands of Whites. The film depicts Lena’s relationship with Knight with all the shades of grey that there probably were. Ernest Knight is an alcoholic and in his company Lena returns to alcoholism. They develop a sexual relationship and Lena often stays with him for months on end without being able to return to her mother’s home. When Lena is able to return, Knight repeatedly forces her back to his home. He even at one point takes her to Florida. Because sexual relationships between Blacks and Whites were illegal at this time in the State of Georgia, Knight’s son eventually intervenes to get Lena away from his father, however he blames Lena for the relationship and beats her severely but doesn’t take any measures to hold his father responsible for the affair. The film shows that this is all unfolding with the full knowledge of the town’s sheriff who also holds Lena responsible for the relationship and does nothing to protect her or prevent Knight from repeatedly kidnapping her. Finally, when Lena again attempts to flee from Knight, he threatens to kill her with a gun and in the struggle that ensues she shoots him.
Lena made no attempt to cover up what happened. She went straight to the town’s coroner and told him what she had done. She then told the town’s sheriff. Although Lena claimed self-defence, she was convicted of Capital Murder by an all-White, all-Male jury (hardly a jury of her peers). The film portrays her lawyer as incompetent and racist as he has no interest in listening to her suggestions for her defence. After a 60-Day reprieve, Baker was denied clemency and was executed. Her last words before her execution were as follows:
What I done, I done in self defence, or I would have been killed myself. I have done nothing against anyone. I am ready to meet my God.
In 2001, Lena Baker’s family, led by her grandnephew Roosevelt Curry, requested a pardon from the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles. She was granted an unconditional pardon. The Board did not find Lena Baker innocent of the crime but suggested that a verdict of voluntary manslaughter would have been more appropriate under the circumstances.
Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story is hardly an easy film to watch but I recommend it for anyone who is trying to educate students about the ways in which racial segregation in the American South perpetuated the economic and sexual exploitation of African American women.
The Hope and Redemption: The Lena Baker Story Website