The Woyingi Blog

Early Black European Lives: Joseph Knight (Scotland)

Posted in Countries: Jamaica, Countries: Scotland, Early Black European Lives, Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade by the woyingi blogger on October 31, 2011

I don’t know when Joseph Knight was born or when he died. I first learned about his story while watch the BBC Documentary Series A History of Scotland. Joseph Knight’s story is also the basis for the novel Joseph Knight by Scottish author James Robertson, a novel with has been ranked as one of the 100 Best Scottish Novels.

Cover of the Novel Joseph Knight

What we know of Joseph Knight’s life has been documented for posterity in the records of his case, (“Joseph Knight, a Negro of Africa v. John Wedderburn of Ballindean“) against his master, John Wedderburn which was heard by the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1778.

Joseph Knight is said to have been taken captive as a slave from Guinea in West Africa when he was about eleven or twelve. He was brought on a slave ship to Jamaica. John Wedderburn was a Scottish plantation owner who had made a fortune in Jamaica after escaping the persecution of Jacobites after the battle of Culloden (He subsequently named his plantation Culloden). Wedderburn took a distinct liking to the young Joseph when he saw him for sale. Wedderburn bought the boy, named him after the captain of the slave ship he had been brought to Jamaica on, Joseph Knight, and kept him as a house slave. This meant that Joseph was not subjected to the back-breaking work in the sugar fields of the plantations which even Wedderburn testified later in court would have probably killed the boy. Wedderburn even had Joseph baptised, which was quite uncommon for slaves at the time, and allowed him to be taught how to read and write by the same schoolmaster who taught Wedderburn’s own children. About nine years after purchasing Joseph, in 1769, Wedderburn decided to leave Jamaica and return to the more appealing climate of his Scottish homeland; he took Joseph Knight with him. Wedderburn settled on his estate called Ballidean. But Joseph was growing up, and although allowed to quarter with Wedderburn’s house servants he was still a slave and was not paid a wage, although he was given pocket-money. Joseph asked to acquire a trade and so Wedderburn paid for him to apprentice with a barber in Dundee. During this time, it is likely that Joseph learned of the case of the fugitive slave James Somersett who had successfully appealed to the court in England to be freed from his master in 1772.

Joseph became involved with a female house servant named Annie who became pregnant. This greatly displeased Wedderburn who dismissed Annie, but allowed her to stay at Ballindean to give birth, paid the doctor’s bills and for the funeral of the baby when it subsequently died. However, Joseph continued his relationship with Annie, who had moved to Dundee, and again fathered a child with her. Joseph wanted to be able to work to support his family and demanded that Wedderburn either give him a cottage on his estate for his family or give him wages so that he could provide for them. Otherwise, he was going to leave. Wedderburn refused these demands so Joseph left. Wedderburn successfully appealed to the Justices in Perthshire to enforce his rights of property against Joseph and Joseph was arrested and returned to Wedderburn. As Maclaurin, Joseph Knight’s lawyer in the case Joseph eventually raised against Wedderburn at the Court of Session in Ediburgh, said, according to the court documents which have been written as dialogue in James Robertson’s novel:

‘It was at this point that Mr Wedderburn applied tae the Justices o the Peace o Perthshire tae prevent his taking aff in this mainner, on the grounds that he had aye treated him kindly and furnished him wi claes, bed, board and pocket money, and that in consequence o haein acquired him legitimately in Jamaica he had the richt tae detain him in perpetuity in his service for life. The justices, all, let it be said, guid freens o Mr Wedderburn’s and some wi their ain interests in the plantations, upheld his petition and the pursuer was arrested and returned tae him.’

Knight could not accept remaining as Wedderburn’s slave. He appealed to the Sheriff of Perth who decided in his favour, as he found the laws of slavery that applied in Jamaica did not apply in Scotland. Wedderburn than appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s Supreme Civil Court at the time, arguing that Joseph Knight owed him lifetime service. The case was considered so important at the time that it was given a full panel of judges, including a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, Lord Kames (Henry Home). Knight’s lawyers argued in his favour on several fronts including raising the fear that Wedderburn intended to send Joseph back to Jamaica, where the slavery laws would mean that Joseph could be punished for desertion. According to Maclaurin in Robertson’s novel:

The defender, Mr Wedderburn, has been at pains in aw his written submissions tae the court, tae emphasise his kindness and generosity tae the pursuer. We will leave aside, for the moment, whether these words can ever be applied tae a relationship founded upon ae man’s absolute power ower anither. But we note that he seeks frae the court no jist the richt tae the pursuer’s service in perpetuity, but also the richt tae send or cairry him back tae Jamaica if he should choose it. He insists that he has nae intention o daein that, but, as he acquired him legitimately there, he must be entitled tae return him there. Whit, though, would be the purpose o assertin that richt, were it no tae exercise it? My lords, if Mr Knight behaved in Jamaica as he has done here, that is if he claimed his freedom and acted upon that claim, he would be subjected tae the maist horrific punishments for desertion. Are we tae believe that if he were sent tae that island, it would be for his security and happiness and the guid o his soul?

According to the National Archives of Scotland (NAS):

The records relating to the Knight v Wedderburn case survive among Court of Session records in the NAS (reference CS235/K/2/2). They consist of five bundles of papers, including an extract of process by the Sheriff Depute of Perth (20 May 1774), an extract of process by the Lords of Council and Session (30 May 1774), and memorials for John Wedderburn and Joseph Knight (1775). Of these, the memorials are the most interesting. In their respective memorials each man presents his side of the story and legal arguments concerning the definition of perpetual servitude. Wedderburn blamed Knight’s relationship with another servant, and her subsequent pregnancy, as the cause of a falling out between master and servant and Knight’s desire to leave his service. Knight’s 40-page memorial includes an account of his life (including his baptism and marriage in Scotland), evidence – partly in French – on enslavement of Africans by their chiefs as judicial punishments, and descriptions of the miseries of slavery in the colonies.

The court found in Joseph Knight’s favour. According to judge Lord Kames:

….the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro’s service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.’

According to Lord Auchinleck, the father of another figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, James Boswell, and another judge on the panel who voted in favour of Joseph Knight:

Although in the plantations they have laid hold of the poor blacks, and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to our Christian religion. Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not of our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child, let him remain there.

Joseph Knight won his freedom from Wedderburn but we know nothing of his life after this. Was he able to find employment and support his family? What was life like for his children in Scotland being of mixed race? James Robertson, in his 2003 novel Joseph Knight, mixes fact and fiction by having John Wedderburn hire a Dundee private detective to go looking for Joseph Knight 25 years after the court case. In a 2011 interview, Robertson discusses his novel, which won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Award in 2004:

I first came across a brief mention of the story of Joseph Knight in a book about Dundee in, I think, 2000.

There were gaps in the historical record – not least being a complete absence of information about what happened to Knight after he faced down his master John Wedderburn in court – but this simply meant that fiction came into its own as a means of reconstructing the past. In fact, the cast of real-life characters – Knight and Wedderburn themselves, other planters, slaves and their families, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and all the eccentric, hard-drinking judges, philosophers, poets and lawyers who made Enlightenment Edinburgh such a vibrant place – was so extraordinary that it was tempting (though not very) to tone them down a bit to make them more credible. As I gathered information, I became fascinated by the profound humanity of some of the people in the story, which was matched only by the hypocrisy of men in Edinburgh coffee houses debating what constituted a civil society while enjoying the products of slave labour thousands of miles away.

Somebody directed me to an aphorism of the Nigerian writer Ben Okri: ‘Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free themselves for future flowerings.’ This gave me the key to what I felt the book was about: Joseph Knight, or his story, came to symbolise a Scotland full of possibilities, past, present and future. I’d always been interested in how different times can speak to one another, how our understanding of ‘then’ can influence our understanding of ‘now’ and vice versa, and here was that same thing happening again.

…Despite good reviews and the reception of both the Scottish Arts Council and Saltire Society Book of the Year awards, and although many readers have told me how much they enjoyed it, of my four novels it has sold the least well. I don’t know why this is, but it makes me all the more grateful that it got the recognition it did back in 2003–04. You can never tell what books will survive their own times – many bestsellers are gone and forgotten a decade after first publication – but I like to think that someone, some day far in the future, may pick up Joseph Knight and find that it opens a door for them into the strange but perhaps not irrelevant world of Enlightenment Edinburgh and Scotland’s deep engagement with slavery and the plantations.

Further Reading:

Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? – the Joseph Knight case (The National Archives of Scotland) article available online

Guardian Review (2003) of the novel Joseph Knight by James Robertson by Ali Smith available online

Extract from James Robertson’s novel Joseph Knight available online

Interview (2011) with James Robertson available online

Scotland and the Slave Trade (National Library of Scotland) article available online

Scotland and Abolition by Rev. Dr. Iain Whyte article available online

Film Review: Tabataba (1988) by Raymond Rajaonarivelo

Tabataba Film Poster

Film: Tabataba (1988)

Director: Raymond Rajaonarivelo

Country: Madagascar, France

Language (s): Malagasy, French with French Subtitles

Genre: Historical Drama

Tabataba (Rumour) is Malagasy director Raymond Rajaonarivelo’s first feature film, which was selected for the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. After Madagascar won independence in 1960, several Malagasy students were regularly sent to France to study cinematography, Rajaonarivelo among them.

The film follows the fate of a small Malagasy village in Eastern Madagascar as it gets caught up in the revolt for independence from France. French colonial forces brutally repressed this uprising, leaving 30,000 to 90,000 dead depending on your sources, and the subsequent famine led to the deaths of many women, children, and elders as well. Rajaonarivelo was told stories about this time by his father when he was a child and these stories influenced his screenplay for the film.  The horrors of the repression of this revolt were not readily acknowledged by France until recently when, in July 2005, then French President Jacques Chirac, during a visit to Madagascar, stated that the nature of the repression was “unacceptable” and “born of the excesses of the colonial system”.

Tabataba in Malagasy has many meanings beyond  “rumour”,  including “noise”, “trouble” or “political unrest”. It is probably best understood to mean the chaos that results from the spreading of rumours. As we watch the film, we see that the villagers, inexperienced in political resistance and not well-informed about the realities in other parts of their own country, let alone the world, are reliant on “rumours” as they make decisions about what actions to take during the revolt. We first hear the word used in the film when the village chief tells the villagers to stop making “noise” and listen.

The film opens with a stranger arriving in the village. He is a representative of Mouvement Democratique de la Renovation Malgache (MDRM) , a Malagasy political party established in 1946 in response to the island becoming a French Overseas Territory. MDRM wants full independence for Madagascar. The village’s teacher, Raomby, welcomes the stranger. The villagers are informed that they are now “free” and have the right to vote. He encourages them to vote for the MDRM so that Madagascar can gain its independence. However, some of the villagers do not believe that the French colonial officials will let them have their land back so easily and predict that it will only be able to be won back in battle. Raomby and the party representative believe that violence will not be necessary. One of the villagers who believe that war will be necessary is the young Lehidy, whose father we learn also died resisting the French. It is Lehidy’s little brother Solo who is the central character of the film, although he is unable to participate in any of the major action because he is a child, it is through his eyes that much of the narrative plays out. Bakanga is a village elder who throughout the film sits regally in a Louis XVI chair given to her, she says, by a colonial general. She passes advice to passers-by, including Lehidy, who she discourages from getting into conflict with the French. When it is stated that if the French invade the village, the inhabitants can flee into the forest and hide there, she warns that people will end up starving, which foreshadows later events.

When French colonial officials arrive in the village to run elections, we see an amusing case of miscommunication as the French colonial official must rely on his Malagasy assistant to translate for him. But we viewers can see that the words of the Frenchmen and the replies of the villagers are being mistranslated. We can see the theme of miscommunication, which runs throughout the film, beginning to develop. The French official informs the villagers that they are now allowed to have representatives in the French government as a reward for their colony’s service in World War II. When Raomby sees that MDRM is not on the ballot and asks why, he is informed by the French official that the MDRM has been banned and are considered a seditious party. Raomby refuses to vote and storms off. He is then arrested by the colonial authorities. Lehidy and other villagers who see this as a call to arms, attempt to rescue Raomby from prison but in the shoot out that ensues Raomby is shot and killed accidentally. Lehidy and his comrades flee the village. Lehidy reassures his little brother Solo that he will return with weapons from the Americans.

The villagers learn that the uprising is spreading across the country through various dubious sources, including a number of posters that wash on shore. These messages tell them that their side is winning. Solo is told that his brother Lehidy has become a general. However, when Solo spots a neighbouring village being burned by Senegalese Riflemen, he warns the village and everyone flees into the forest, except Bakanga who remains in her chair in the centre of the village until the Senegalese Riflemen and their French commander arrive and find her dead. They do not pursue the villagers into the forest but instead wait for them to return out of hunger. We watch as Solo and his mother struggle to find food and shelter in the forest. Solo becomes so ill from malnourishment that he begins to have hallucinations about fruits. Eventually, he and his mother return to the village to find that rations are being provided by the French colonial forces.

Solo still holds out hope that Lehidy will return with American weapons, but when the remaining resisters from the village are captured that hope dies. Solo and his mother learn that Lehidy has been killed and that their fellow villagers were trying to lead a revolt with wooden guns!Eventually, the French troops leave the village, but only after burning the teacher, Raomby’s, house down.

The film was cast mostly by the residents of the village it is filmed in, Maromena. Despite this, the cast is engaging, particularly the actors who portray Solo and the village wisewoman Bakanga.

One of the rumours that keeps being spread by the villagers is that the Americans will come to their aid. This may puzzle many viewers. American reviewer Thomas E. Billings, who reviewed the film in 1989 after watching the U.S. Premiere at the San Fransisco Film Festival, at which Raymond Rajaonarivelo was in attendance, explains:

At several points in the film, there are references to the fact that the Malagasy people believed that America would intervene on their behalf and send weapons. This was due to two things. First, the Malagasy heard that America had “saved” France in 1945 (liberation of France in World War II) and they thought that America was going to “save” the entire world, including Madagascar. Additionally, an American sea captain had given (in early 1947) a pistol as a gift to a native on the west coast of Madagascar, and this caused many rumors that America was going to help the Malagasy. The information above concerning the belief of the Malagasy people that America would help them is not explained in the film. As this was the U.S. premiere, the film’s director was in attendance, and chaired a discussion afterwards where this information was brought out.

Again, the villagers are relying on rumours that are entirely baseless to make life and death decisions. The death of Raomby is a turning point in the film, and as we see with the symbolic burning of his house, his role in the village as its educator was crucial. As an educated man, he could have helped the villagers discern fact from rumour. He also advocated peaceful resistance over violence.

However, as he was not like the villagers, as he was a man from the city, he perhaps did not fully understand the villagers’ anger against the French for taking their land. The villagers are farmers but what they are cultivating is coffee, a plant which is not native to Madagascar and which they don’t even use. The coffee they are growing is for export. Although not stated in the film, famine had become a regular occurence in Madagascar as less and less farmland was available to grow food and was instead used to grow useless products to satisfy colonial appetites. Of course, tea was similarly cultivated in Kenya by the British.

The French use of les tirailleurs senegalais (Senegalese Riflemen) to crush the revolt particularly disturbed me. The ways in which colonizers use colonized and marginalized peoples against each other never ceases to trouble me, whether it be the Nubians used by the British to suppress the Mau Mau Revolt in Kenya, or the Americans’ use of African-American “Buffalo Soldiers” to suppress resistance in the Philippines. Les tirailleurs senegalais were used extensively during World War 1 and World War 11 to defend France, and after 1945, were used by France to protect its colonial possessions in Indochina and Algeria.

Rajaonarivelo has continued to make political films in Madagascar, most recently the documentary Mahaleo (2005) about the Malagasy music group by the same name whose music was the inspiration for the 1972 uprising against the neo-colonial regime in Madagascar. In 2007, he opened a free online Film School in order to teach aspiring Malagasy filmmakers.

Other Malagasy writers have taken it upon themselves to write about the events of 1947, such as Malagasy Novelist Jean-Luc Raharimanana’s Nour 1947, written in French. Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo  discusses this novel as well as others in her essay Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles »

Further Reading:

Tabataba Film Review by Karine Blanchon

Tabataba Film Review by Thomas E. Billings

Trailer in French available online

Interview (2007) with Raymond Rajaonarivelo in French available online

Tabataba, un film malagache by Francoise Raison-Jourde (film review in French available online)

Madagascar, 29 mars 1947, « Tabataba ou parole des temps troubles » by Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo (essay in French available online)

Painful memories of the revolt of 1947: Nationalism or survival? by Philippe Leymarie (Monde diplomatique article in English available online)

African Women’s Lives: Fatimata M’Baye

Fatimata M’Baye is a human rights lawyer, co-founder of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH) and vice-president of the NGO International Federation for Human Rights (Fedération internationale des droits de l’homme, FIDH).

M’Baye was born in 1957. She was initially not allowed to get an education because of her grandmother, however, her mother, who felt that her daughter was intellectually gifted, fought for her daughter to be allowed formal education. M’Baye was finally allowed to go to school when she was 11 years old, she graduated from high school at age 25. In 1985, after completing her law studies at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, Fatimata M’Baye became the first female lawyer in the country. M’Baye was first arrested for her activism in 1986, when she, along with her 14 year old sister, were arrested for distributing flyers protesting the arrests of Black Mauritanian Intellectuals who had written about the Mauritanian State’s racism against Blacks. She would be arrested again in 1998, along with fellow Mauritanian Human Rights activists, after a report on slavery in Mauritania was aired on French Television. After protests locally and outrage internationally from organizations like Amnesty International, M’Baye and the activists were pardoned by the Mauritanian President at the time, Ould Taya.

In 1991, she co-founded the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH). In 1999, M’Baye became the first African to win the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. This award, created in 1995, is given out in the City of Nuremberg, Germany.

Over her career, she has defended fellow human rights activists, women wrongfully convicted under Mauritania’s “Sharia” laws, and has been an advocate for the rights of children and the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Although her activism has focused on conditions in Mauritania, she has also challenged police brutality against Mauritanian migrants in France.

She is a mother of three, divorced, and currently living in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Fatimata M’Baye’s defense of Rape Victims in Mauritania

M’Baye’s work came to international attention when she was spotlighted in the 2008 documentary, Mauritania: A Question of Rape. This documentary was part of BBC’s Series Women on the Frontline. The Series, introduced by Annie Lennox and shot by all-women crews in Mauritania, Nepal, Morocco, Austria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia, documents the personal stories of women’s rights activists.

The film documents the plight of women who come forward with accusations of rape and are then convicted of zina, sexual immorality, because this is a crime under “Sharia” “Islamic” Laws. Part of the problem is that within Mauritania’s Penal Code, based on a cultural interpretation not an Islamic one, a distinction which unfortunately is not made in the film, pregnancy cannot result from rape, therefore if a woman coming forward with an accusation of rape is pregnant as a result of that rape, she is accused of zina because it is believed that she could not have become pregnant without her consent. This is a truly hopeless situation. As M’Baye states in the film:

We want more than we now have, we want a law that protects us. When a woman has been a victim of rape, when she has lost her honor, when she has lost her future, and when she has no hope left to continue to live, it is the state’s responsibility to protect her.

Fatimata M’Baye and Police Brutality in France

According to a 2009 Amnesty International report on police brutality in France:

On 11 March 2008 she was arrested and held in police custody for 24 hours after protesting at what she considered to be ill-treatment by police officers of a Mauritanian migrant being forcibly expelled on the flight she was travelling on. During the period she spent in custody she states that she was subjected to degrading treatment.

On 11 March 2008 Fatimata M’Baye boarded Air France flight 765 at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, bound for Nouakchott, Mauritania. She noticed several police officers on board but did not consider it unusual until she and the other passengers heard sounds of a man in distress from the back of the plane, who shouted “Help me! Untie me! They’re going to kill me!”. She says she saw a young man who had his arms strapped to his body with a belt, and was being forcibly restrained by border control police officers who were trying to silence him. Fatimata M’Baye and another passenger, a doctor, called on the police officers to untie him and protested that they were treating him in an inhuman and degrading manner.

The flight captain told the police officers to untie the young man as this was forbidden during flights. They refused to do so, so he ordered them to disembark. The passengers applauded this action. A few minutes later approximately 20 more police officers boarded the plane and one told Fatimata M’Baye and the doctor to disembark. Fatimata M’Baye said she would not leave the plane until she was told on what grounds she was being ordered to do so. She says the police officer told her “we have ways to make you do so”, and in response to what she perceived as a threat of physical violence, she disembarked.

Fatimata M’Baye was taken into police custody at the airport, where she was stripsearched. At around 6pm she was told that she had been arrested for “opposing a forcible expulsion” and would be held in custody for 48 hours. At 11.30pm she was taken to a detention cell in a different part of the airport. She was stripsearched again and, while naked, told to “spread her legs” so the officers could check that she was “not hiding anything”. She was deeply humiliated by this procedure which appeared entirely unnecessary as she had already been searched when she entered custody. She protested to the two police officers present and the search was finally halted.

Fatimata M’Baye remained in custody overnight and the public prosecutor was informed of her detention. However, she was released the following day at approximately 3pm and the public prosecutor did not pursue any charges against her. The doctor who had also protested about the treatment of the migrant being forcibly expelled, and had likewise been detained, was also released around the same time. He states he was never informed of the reason for his detention.

No further information is available on the fate of the young man being expelled. According to Fatimata M’Baye’s understanding, he was returned to Mauritania on the next flight.

A video interview, in French, with M’Baye about this case is available online.

Fatimata M’Baye and the Forced Fattening of Female Children in Mauritania

On Oprah Winfrey’s show about Beauty Around the World, the fact that in Mauritania a woman being fat is considered beautiful was discussed, and the fact that some women were being forced fed, particularly in rural communities was addressed. The practice of fattening young girls in preparation for marriage is called leblouh. According to M’Baye, as quoted in a 2009 Guardian article:

The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful. The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl’s thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process.”

“If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30.”

M’Baye asserts in the article that the fattening process is linked with early marriages, as young girls are plumped up, so that they look more mature and therefore can marry younger. She states:

I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.

Further Reading:

Portrait of Human Rights Activist Fatimata M’Baye 1999 Amnesty International article available in German online

Mauritania: Serious Attacks on Freedom of Expression and Association 1998 Amnesty International document available online

Tribute to Fatimata M’Baye by Chinese Democracy Activist Wei Jingsheng available online

Mauritania: A Question of Rape video available online

Amnesty International 2009 Report Public Outrage: Police Officers Above the Law in France available online

2008 Video Interview with M’Baye in French available online

Girls being force-fed for marriage 2009 Guardian article available online

Oprah’s Beauty Around the World: Mauritania Clip 16 and Clip 17 available online

Human Rights Issues in Mauritania

Fighting Slavery in Mauritania BBC Radio Documentary available online

Mauritania’s Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans 1994 Human Rights Watch Report available online

BBC Radio Play Review: Choice of Straws

BBC Radio 4 rebroadcast an adaptation of Afro-Guyanese writer E. R. Braithwaite’s novel Choice of Straws. The BBC Radio 4 website describes the radio play as follows:

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.

Jack…..Harry Hepple

Dave…..Luke Norris

Michelle…..Gugu Mbatha-Raw

Mum…..Ellie Haddington

Dad…..David Hargreaves

Ruth…..Annabelle Dowler

Mr Spencer….. Alex Lanipekun

Officer…..Stephen Hogan

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.

E. R. Braithwaite, photographed by Carl Van Vecten

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“.

Further Reading:

E.R. Braithwaite

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

Gugu Mbatha-Raw

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)

African Filmmaker Profiles: Flora Gomes

Flora (Florentino) Gomes was born on December 31, 1949 in Cadique, Guinea-Bissau. Gomes was born to illiterate parents and grew up under Salazar’s oppressive Portuguese colonial regime. He supported the Bissau-Guinean resistance to colonialism led by Amilcar Cabral. Gomes left Guinea-Bissau for Cuba, where he completed his high school and went on to study Film at the Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography under the guidance of Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez. He continued his Film Studies in Senegal under the direction of Senegalese filmmaker and film historian Paulin Soumanou Vieyra. Gomes was inspired to become a film director after discovering the films of Ousmane Sembene.

Gomes had the honour of filming his country’s independence ceremony in 1974. Guinea-Bissau was visited by many socialist filmmakers and reporters after its independence and Gomes assisted many of them with filming. By the end of the 1970s, Gomes was working as a photographer and cameraman for the Ministry of Information. In 1979 he served as an intern with French filmmaker Chris Marker, whose film Sans Soleil is partly filmed in Guinea-Bissau. Gomes later co-directed three short films: “La reconstruction” (The Reconstruction), “Anos no oça luta” and “Regresso do Cabral” (The return of Cabral), these last two with fellow Bissau-Guinean filmmaker and Cuban Institute of Art and Cinematography graduate Sana na N’hada, who would later be the assistant director for Gome’s film Mortu Nega.

In 1987, Gomes made his first feature film (It was Guinea-Bissau’s first fictional feature length film), Mortu Nega. After the film was selected for showing during Critic’s Week at the Venice Film Festival, Gomes was heralded as a great new voice in African cinema. Gomes has gone on to become one of Africa’s most internationally well respected filmmakers.

In 1994, Gomes was distinguished with the Order of Merit for Culture by the Tunisian government. In the same year, he was also named a member of the principal jury at the Tunisia’s Carthage Film Festival. In 1996, Gomes was knighted by the French government with the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres.

In 2002, Gomes was recognized in Portugal by the Guinean community for his services in making Guinean culture known around the world. In 2004, he was a member of the jury at the Amien Film Festival. Also in 2004, a retrospective of Gomes’ films was showcased at the first Brown University African Film Festival.

In 2005, Gomes received an award from the University of Lisbon in Portugal in recognition of his body of work. Also in 2005, Gomes was the president of the ECOWAS jury at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO)

In 2006,Gomes’ was a visting artist and professor in Brown University’s Africana Studies Department in 2006.

About the films of Flora Gomes

According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:

Flora Gomes has international stature as a distinguished filmmaker whose works are aesthetically innovative and historically significant texts of African and global culture. It is notoriously difficult for major African filmmakers to produce a sustained output of high quality, because of the historical legacy of profound funding and infrastructural deficiencies on the continent. Yet Gomes makes a point of residing in his native country of Guinea-Bissau, and despite the severe material constraints this poses to film-making, has completed a number of shorts, starting in 1977, as well as five full-length feature films, beginning with “Mortu Nega” in 1988. Filmed using local languages and shot above all in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, as well as France and Portugal, his features have won awards at prestigious international film festivals and are invariably discussed in textbooks on African cinema and post-colonial film. His work often deals with questions of history and memory, particularly regarding the national liberation struggle, as well as notions of modernization and the conceptualization of identity. Gomes’s films go beyond many conventional binomials. For example, his female characters depict a sophisticated African feminism , by turns militant and gentle, tragic and comic, seldom seen in representations of black women. His more recent work, especially “Po di sangui,” broaches the timely subject of environmental degradation , by using a complex layering of symbols, landscape and nature, drawn from indigenous African systems of knowledge and belief. Both the aesthetic quality and powerful narratives of these later works touch audiences everywhere.

Mortu Nega (1987)

Film Description from California Newsreel:

California Newsreel has released Flora Gomes’ now classic, Mortu Nega, to commemorate three starkly dissimilar events. 1998 marked both the 25th anniversary of the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the assasination of its leader Amilcar Cabral but it was also the year that country virtually annihilated itself in a brutal civil war.

Mortu Nega, as its title implies, is a unique kind of elegy – not so much to the victims of the liberation struggle as to its survivors….is a bittersweet eulogy to those veterans who gave so much yet often benefited so little from the struggle. The film poses a question facing much of Africa at the start of the 21st century: with the goal of independence achieved, what can serve as an equally unifying and compelling vision around which to construct a new society? Or as Chris Marker observed in his 1980 documentary San Soleil, coincidentally contemplating the decay of Guinea-Bissau’s revolution: “What every revolutionary thinks the morning after victory: now the real problems begin.”

Mortu Nega covers the period from January 1973 during the closing months of the war against the Portuguese until the consolidation of an independent Guinea-Bissau in 1974 and 1975. This tiny West African nation’s valiant struggle and eventual triumph over 500 years of Portuguese domination attracted international support and heralded the final anti-colonial wave culminating in the defeat of apartheid in 1994. The revolution’s charismatic leader, the Cape Verdean agronomist, Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated on the eve of victory in January 1973 by Portuguese assisted mainland nationalists. The fragile union between Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde islands itself was finally dissolved in a bloodless military coup in 1980 led by an old guerilla commander, the present president, João Bernardo Vieira. When the post-revolutionary generation in the military and the population as a whole began to oppose Vieira’s increasingly kleptocratic regime, he called in troops from Senegal and Guinea (Conakry) resulting in the carnage of June, 1998.

Mortu Nega can be divided into three “movements” each with a style reflecting a distinct stage in the revolutionary process. The film begins mysteriously someplace in the bush on the supply road from Conakry to the front. A convoy weaves its way through tall grasses camouflaging itself like Mao’s “fish in the sea.” Gomes’ portrayal of guerilla war is one of the most accurate on film, capturing its tedium, terror and heroism, its rhythm of fragile silences broken by helicopter fire from above or exploding landmines from below. In this war of attrition with the Portuguese, the exhausted militants press forward along a unclear, even circuitous path, directed only by their vision of a free Guinea-Bissau. Throughout this section, the emphasis is on the group over the individual. Only after five minutes, does a heroine, Diminga, emerge and the story of her unflagging loyalty to her husband, Sako, a wounded guerilla commander, serves to underline the sense of solidarity developed among the freedom fighters.

The first feature film that Gomes directed, Mortu Nega, which means Those Whom Death Refused, was selected for showing during the Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival in 1988. Mortu Nega won the Bronze Tanit and the Prize for the Best Actress at the Carthage Film Festival. It also was awarded the prize for the Best Film and the Best Actress at the 1988 Pan-African Film and Television Festival (FESPACO).

Trailer for Mortu Nega available online

Description of Mortu Nega from California Newsreel available online

Review of Mortu Nega by Professor Mustafah Dhada available online

The Blue Eyes of Yonta (1992)

Film Description from California Newsreel:

…Udju Azul di Yonta (The Blue Eyes of Yonta) is one of the few recent African films to make the disillusionment of the revolutionary generation its primary subject – and offer a glimmer of hope for the future. Flora Gomes (born 1949) is a member of the generation which fought for Guinea-Bissau’s independence. This director’s first feature film, indeed the first feature film made in Guinea-Bissau, Mortu Nega (Those Whom Death Refused), commemorates that nation’s arduous independence struggle, while hinting at its subsequent bureaucratization. Udju Azul di Yonta can be seen as a continuation and commentary on this film.

In Udju Azul di Yonta, the most compelling character is Vicente, a disenchanted hero of the independence struggle who has only grudgingly adapted himself to post-revolutionary society. He is a figure with whom many disappointed Western ’60s activists will identify. As “Comrade Boss” of a fish warehouse, he continues to work for the development of his country against staggering odds. A power outage (a recurrent motif in the film) has spoiled an entire catch of fish and the fishermen and fishmongers are furious. Corruption and kickbacks have become rampant in the city; unbridled free market capitalism is triumphant. Vicente confesses to an old comrade, “We thought the revolution was for everyone, but it is only here for a few of us.” Despairing at his own compromised ideals, he exclaims, “Vicente no longer exists; I am a vulture,” devouring the carcass of his revolutionary hopes.

Vicente is so despondent he doesn’t notice that Yonta, the beautiful daughter of two of his old comrades, is infatuated with him. Yonta represents the generation which has grown up since liberation whose heads are full of dreams of fashion, music and European affluence. In fact, one of the guilty pleasures of this film is noting how revolutionary culture has given way to stunning couture.

Yonta, for her part, is unaware of the attentions of a third character, Zé, a poor student from the country. He anonymously sends her love poems cribbed from a book written about a Swedish girl. One reads, “In the cold long nights when snow caresses your windows…the blue of your eyes is the immensity of the sky over my life.” The younger generation’s incongruous dreams give the film its striking title.

Flora Gomes identifies a fourth important character, “quite an unusual one, who gradually changes everything, the motion and color of the film: it is Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau, where I have always lived…For fifteen years, while I reluctantly grew older, I saw Bissau recovering its youth almost every day. I heard it switching to another language, another dream, another aim.”

Gomes’s second feature film, The Blue Eyes of Yonta, was produced in 1992. It was selected for the “Un certain regard” section at the Cannes Film Festival, and won the Bronze Tanit and the OAU (Organization of African Unity) prize at the Carthage Film Festival. “Os Olhos Azuis de Yonta” won also won the Best Actress Prize at FESPACO, and the Special Jury Prize at Greece’s  Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Trailer for The Blue Eyes of Yonta available online

Description of the film from California Newsreel available online

Tensions of Modernity in Flora Gomes’ The Blue Eyese of Yonta by K. Ogunfolabi (academic essay available online)

Po di Sangui (1996)

Film Description from The African Film Library:

This film is a joint collaboration between several European and African countries, and is said to be among the most elaborate, high-tech films of the African film genre. Exquisitely photographed and filled with archetypal figures to create a poetic look at nature’s revenge against those who would exploit her, it is set in the forest village of Amanha Lundju, a place where the birth of children is celebrated by the planting of a tree. The trees are considered spiritual twins. But for every tree planted, the rapacious state destroys many more for firewood and lumber.

The beauty of Po di Sangui is the insight it gives into the nature of rural African culture. The veil between the world of the living and the dead is not absolute, as in Western culture. The living communicate with the dead through visions, conversing with trees, and signs. Conflict erupts when scientists arrive who neither respect nor believe in the power of rural culture. The people must decide if the solution is isolation from the modern world, embracing it, or a mixture of the two. Each viewing of this gripping feature provides deeper insights into the dilemma.

Po di Sangui, which means Tree of Blood, is Gomes’ third feature film, was screened in the official competition at Cannes in 1996 where it was nominated for the Golden Palm Award.  Po di Sangui  also won the Silver Tanit Award at the Carthage Film Festival.

Trailer for Po di Sangui available online

Description of the film available online

Nha Fala (2002)

Film Description:

Set in the gorgeous pastel cities of the Cape Verde Islands, the film avoids the usual grim images of Africa, locating itself instead halfway between Brazilian Carnival and African politics. Fatou Ndiaye (from the French TV hit series Fatou, The Malian) plays Vita, a young African woman who aspires to be a singer, but is prevented from doing so by a longstanding curse which she circumvents in an especially beautiful, ingenious, and musical way; seizing the chance to speak and sing as a woman for her generation. This may be the only musical that has rousing, danceable numbers that critique identity politics and ballot-box democracy. 2002, Portugal, France, Luxembourg, color, 35mm, in Creole with English subtitles, 110 minutes.

Nha fala, which means My Voice, is Gomes’s fourth feature film. It was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival competition. Nha fala also won the city prize at the Amiens Festival in 2002 (France), and the Grand Prize at the Vie d’Afrique Festival in Montreal in 2003. It was the only African film selected to be screened during the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.

Music for the film was composed by Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, the “grandpappy of Makossa soul“.

Flora Gomes had this to say about Nha Fala:

Whenever Africa is spoken about or depicted, it is always in terms of the aid we receive, war, people dying of starvation, sick people . . . These things do of course exist in Africa: Africans kill other Africans, and nobody knows why we go to war, yet it still goes on. But there is another side to Africa, and that is what I wanted to show. It is a side you never see on your television screens in the West. That is why I made this film. I wanted people to see our Africa, the Africa of my dreams, the Africa that I love and that I would like my children to know one day. It is a happy Africa, where people dance, where people can speak freely. It is my take on the future for a new generation.

In the fallout of Guinea-Bissau’s civil war, Gomes had to flee his homeland. Surprisingly, these events inspired him to make a film far brighter and more light-heartened than his earlier work-the musical comedy Nha Fala. The conditions in Guinea-Bissau after the 1998 war, also meant that Gomes would have to find another location for his film. He chose Cape Verde. In reality, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau are deeply linked. Cape Verde is the island nation just across from Guinea-Bissau. The Bissau-Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s parents actually came from Cape Verde and he was also educated there. Both countries speak Portuguese Creole and from 1974 to 1980, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau were one nation. Therefore, the connections between the two small countries run quite deep. However, most of the cast and crew actually came from Guinea-Bissau, including Bia Gomes who has been in all of Gomes’ films. The film’s star, Fatou N’Diaye, is actually French of Senegale descent. Canadian film-goers would have seen her in the film adaptation of French-Canadian writer Gil Courtemanche’s novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. For Nha Fala, N’Diaye learned Portuguese Creole in two months.

Despite the more whimsical nature of this film, it is still political. The film opens with a dedication to Amilcar Cabral: “Father of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands, assassinated in 1973”. Gomes wishes to evoke all the promise of Cabral’s struggle for independence, which he himself never lived to see. Despite all the disappointments and horrors of post-colonial Africa, that promise can still be a resevoir of hope for Africa’s younger generations.

Trailer for Nha Fala available online

Review of Nha Fala available online

 

Further Reading:

Flora Gomes

Flora Gomes on Wikipedia

Flora Gomes Profile from Brown University available online

Portuguese Colonialism in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde

Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)

Image available online of a 1974 Demonstration in New York outside the Portuguese Consulate to commemorate the memory of Amilcar Cabral and protest against Portuguese Colonialism in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau

The History of Guinea-Bissau by LEAD International (webpage available online)

History of Cinema in Guinea-Bissau (article available online)

Guinea-Bissau: If a Boat Moored by P. Cardoso (article available online)

Amilcar Cabral

The Weapon of Theory (1966) (Political Speech available online)

National Liberation and Culture (1970) (Political Speech available online)

Amilcar Cabral’s theory of class suicide and revolutionary socialism by Tom Meisenhelder (1993) (Academic Essay available online)

Amilcar Cabral: an extraction from the literature (1998) (Academic Essay available online)

Critical Reflection on Amilcar Cabral’s Criteria for Citizenship by Victor Alumona (Academic Esssay available online)

Amilcar Cabral’s Vision of Diplomacy by Carmen Neto (Essay available online)

Portrait of Cabral by Ana Maria Cabral

Cabral’s Speeches and Writings available online in Portugese

Passing for Desi: The Strange Case of Christopher Simpson

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?

“asian black”

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.

Further Reading:

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)

BBC Radio Play Review: God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe

God’s President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a play that was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 for its Friday Play Series to mark the 30th anniversary year of the Independence of Zimbabwe. According to the BBC Radio 4 website:

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play tells the story of the tense negotiations around the Lancaster House Conference, and the road to Zimbabwe’s Independence.

On 4th March 1980 the Shona majority in Rhodesia was decisive in electing Robert Mugabe to head the first post-independence government as Prime Minister. Six weeks later, on April 18th, Zimbabwe celebrated its first Independence Day.

On the 21st December 1979, following three months of talks, the Lancaster House Agreement finally brought independence to Rhodesia following Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.

Margaret Thatcher’s government had invited Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith, and the leaders of the Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo  (Zimbabwe African People’s Union/ZAPU)and Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe African National Union/ZANU) to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House in London, to be chaired by the foreign secretary, Lord Carrington.

The purpose of the Conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an Independence Constitution, and to ensure that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means.

Each scene of the play takes place on crucial day of Zimbabwe’s history, some of these days are well-known, others are not. The play jumps back and forth in history and goes back as early as 1960 and as late as 1980, covering twenty years in the history of Zimbabwe’s independence movement. British Zimbabwean actor Lucian Msamati (best known for his role as Mr. Matekoni in HBO’s No. 1 Ladies, Detective Agency) plays Robert Mugabe.

18th November 1971, in Salisbury Prison, Rhodesia

Alex Douglas Hume, the British Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Heath  and Bishop Muzorewa of the United African National Council visit Robert Mugabe and Edgar Tekere, who have been imprisoned by Ian Smith’s government. They are there to discuss the proposed constitutional settlement. The British government wants to get Tekere and Mugabe’s opinion.

Mugabe and Tekere feel that the proposal is just British capitulation to Ian Smith’s demands. Hume argues that the mechanisms are in place to lead to majority rule eventually. Bishop Muzorewa also objects to the proposal.

17th May 1979, Office of Lord Carrington, Britain

Lord Carrington reflects on Margaret Thatcher’s speech in regards to the crisis in Rhodesia. The British are considering recolonizing Rhodesia, establishing a constitution that both sides accept, then leaving. Margaret Thatcher doesn’t want to be seen as a racist by the Commonwealth and has sent a video of her speech to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda in order to assure him that she supports Black Majority Rule.

3rd September 1979, Havana, Non Aligned Movement Summit, Cuba

Zambian President Kaunda is meeting with Robert Mugabe and challenging him on his squabbles with Nkomo. Kaunda doesn’t want to see more of his people die because Mugabe is behaving in a reckless and criminal fashion. Kaunda threatens to shut all of the ZAPU bases in Zambia if Mugabe won’t accept to negotiate a peace at Lancaster House.

10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Lord Carrington observes that Nkomo has come separately from Mugabe and they are both staying at separate hotels and have different PR representatives although they are both members of Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Front.  Bishop Murorewa arrives with Ian Smith; they are both members of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation.  Edgar Tekere arrives with Robert Mugabe.

10 September 1979, Lancaster House, Opening Plenary Session, Britain

Lord Carrington presents the proposed constitution for Rhodesia with which Britain will be prepared to grant independence. Lord Carrington expresses his anger that a cease-fire has not been called during these negotiations. Mugabe accuses Bishop Muzorewa of betraying the nationalist movement for siding with Ian Smith and defending thee rights of the White Minority. 

In the bathroom, Robin Renwick, who works in the Rhodesia Department of the British Foreign Service, meets Tekere and expresses his hope that, even if  official talks break down, he and Tekere can keep communicating.

Renwick asks if Tekere knew Mugabe before the liberation struggle because they seem so close. Tekere says he knew Mugabe would be their leader from the first time he spoke.

20th  July 1960, Highfield Township, Salisbury, Rhodesia

Robert Mugabe has participated in demonstrations against and been chased by riot police. Tekere encourages Mugabe to speak to the crowd of demonstrators. Mugabe is hesitant because he doesn’t know what to say. Tekere tells him to just talk about his experience in the demonstration. Tekere introduces Mugabe to the crowd, explaining that he has three university degrees and has just returned from Ghana. Mugabe finally speaks. He says that Ghana was the first African state to gain independence and his expresses his admiration for that country where Africans are in control of their own affairs. While in Ghana, Mugabe realized that in Rhodesia Blacks are taught to worship the White man. Mugabe encourages the people in the crowd to stand up for their rights.

Tekere tells Mugabe that he is going to introduce him to Nkomo and invites him to join the party. Tekere tells Mugabe that he would be a great spokesperson. Mugabe states that he is a teacher in Ghana but Tekere says that now Mugabe’s job is to fight for freedom in Rhodesia.

10th September 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Bishop Muzorewa is meeting with Lord Carrington on his own. Carrington emphasizes that if there is no settlement the British will not lift sanctions against Rhodesia. Carrington tells Bishop Muzorewa that his party needs to accept that White Privilege will come to an end in Rhodesia.

10th  October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, Britain

The land of White farmers will be protected for 10 years in the proposed constitution. Mugabe says that this war is mostly about land and is angry about idea that Blacks will have to compensate Whites for the land they stole. Lord Carrington wants Mugabe to sign off on the constitution. Carrington informs Mugabe that he will only negotiate with Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith because they accept the proposed constitution. He tells Mugabe and Tekere that their attendance at the conference is no longer required and that they should keep in mind that Britain will be lifting sanctions on Rhodesia so they will facing a war with an economically revitalized country.

Mugabe is fed up with trying to negotiate with Carrington and decides to go over his head.

15th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who Mugabe has contacted, confronts Lord Carrington about his decision to expel Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo from the conference and accuses him of treating Mugabe like a child and being too close to Bishop Muzorewa and Ian Smith. Lord Carrington states that he thinks Mugabe is an unreasonable monster. Ramphal informs Lord Carrington that there are rumors that he had a separate meeting with Bishop Muzorewa, making it clear to him that he would get Mugabe, Tekere, and Nkomo to leave the negotiating table. Bishop Muzorewa discussed this meeting in a letter which has been leaked to African newspapers.

Ramphal says he can get Mugabe back to the table. Lord Carrington accuses Ramphal of being too close to the Africans. Ramphal explains that there are things he can get Nkomo and Mugabe to agree to that Lord Carrington can’t. 

15th October 1979, a Hotel in Central London, Britain

Ramphal, Mugabe and Tekere are meeting. Mugabe is furious that in the proposed constitution Blacks will have to buy land from Whites at market price. Ramphal says that he spoke with President Jimmy Carter and America will contribute to the land resettlement fund to buy the land so it will not have to come from the new Zimbabwean government’s budget. 

18th October 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Tekere and Mugabe show up with a signed copy of the constitution, much to Lord Carrington’s surprise.

Now, the transition to democracy can be discussed. Lord Carrington says that Britain will return to Rhodesia for two or three months to monitor new elections.

Mugabe flips out and demands that their be a new Chair instead of Lord Carrington. He then storms off.

Robin Renwick tries to speak with Tekere before he goes off to follow Mugabe.

25th October 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Bishop Muzorewa is meeting again with Lord Carrington. Lord Carrington asks Bishop Muzorewa to stand down as Rhodesian Prime Minister during the transition period because if he stays in power it looks like he is getting an unfair advantage. As he was only elected six months earlier, Bishop Muzorewa is not happy with this proposal. Lord Carrington assures the Bishop that British intelligence says that he is sure to win the election again and that Mugabe won’t be able to get his campaign together in only a few months so Muzorewa should not worry.

7th November 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Lord Carrington is meeting with Robin Renwick. Lord Soames will be appointed as the New Governor of Rhodesia during the transitional period, although he knows nothing about Rhodesia.

14th November 1979, Lord Carrington’s Office, White Hall, Britain

Lord Carrington is happy that Bishop Muzorewa has agreed to step down as Prime Minister of Rhodesia. He reflects on the fact that in 1974, Ian Smith released Mugabe and his comrades from prison, only because the South African government asked him to. But then these former prisoners started getting killed. It looks like they were only released so that Ian Smith could take them out.

18th November 1974, Cambazumo/a Service Station, Salisbury, Rhodesia

Edgar Tekere picks up Mugabe in a car, Bob Marley music is playing on the radio. They are heading for the mountains at the border with Mozambique where they will walk to safety. They are fleeing assassination attempts by Ian Smith’s mercenaries. They have learned that Ian Smith’s mercenaries have sneaked into Patriotic Front camps and slaughtered men, women and children.

6th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain

President Kaunda is meeting with Mugabe. He assures him that the Patriotic Front should not fear attacks by Ian Smith’s mercenaries as there will be a Commonwealth Monitoring Group stationed in Zimbabwe to ensure that the cease-fire is maintained.

14th December 1979, Press Conference , Hotel in Central London, Britain

Mugabe holds a Press Conference criticizing the negotiations and demanding that the international community become involved in order to protect the Zimbabwean people from the Rhodesian Security Forces.

14th December 1979, Hotel Room in Central London, Britain

Lord Carrington is angry about Mugabe’s Press Conference. Mugabe demands that Patriotic Front (ZAPU and ZANU) militias be permitted to have a central assembly point in Rhodesia so they are not vulnerable to attack at the country’s borders. He will only sign the Lancaster Agreement if his is allowed.

21st December 1979, Lancaster House, Britain

Members of the Patriotic Front delegation, the Zimbabwe Rhodesia delegation and the British delegation sign the Lancaster House agreement. Despite this, Mugabe expresses that he feels wronged and cheated.

20th February 1980, Election Rally, Harare, Zimbabwe

Mugabe and Tekere return to Zimbabwe after five years in exile. Lord Soames has been threatening to kick them out of the elections but if that happens, they have declared that they will consider the forces of the Patriotic Front absolved from maintaining the Lancaster Agreement, particularly the ceasefire.

4th March 1980, Harare, Zimbabwe

Nkomo’s Part, ZAPU has won 20 seats. Bishop Muzorewa’s party has won only 3 seats. Mugabe’s ZANU has won 57 seats. Although he has won, Mugabe says that the fight has only just begun.

18th April 1980, Zimbabwe House, Harare, Zimbabwe

Bob Marley has been invited to perform for Zimbabwe’s first Independence Day. Mugabe is so excited to meet him. He explains that Patriotic Front soldiers sung Marley’s songs while they fought the resistance struggle. Marley will be performing the song he wrote in support of Zimbabwe’s freedom struggle, Zimbabwe.

Bob Marley expresses concern with what he sees going on in Harare. He says that he doesn’t just want to perform for “Uptown people” and doesn’t want to see ordinary people being beaten by police just because they want to come and see him perform but were not invited. Mugabe agrees to organize a free concert for the masses on the next day.

Bob Marley quotes from the song Zimbabwe  “Soon we will see who is the real revolutionary”.

Carrington, Renwick asks if they got the right man, relates that there have been reports of atrocities in the north, Carrington says that it’s Africa so a strong leader is needed, not sure

Personal Reflections

I’m not sure if you can consider this play “entertaining” in the traditional sense; however, for those of us who are interested in how politics actually works, it is a great play and incredibly informative. Dramatically speaking, there are many interesting moments which could be considered even poignant if you are knowledgable about Zimbabwe’s post-independence history. For example, the fack that Edgar Tekere was so close to Mugabe, that he actually was the one to encourage Mugabe to become a leader in his party, is ironic given their current rivalry. Bob Marley quoting from his song Zimbabwe by saying “soon we will see who is the real revolutionary” is very striking, as it has become quite clear that, although a Black Nationalist, Mugabe has seemed particularly inconsiderate about the lives of poor Zimbabweans and the fact that he at first only organized Marley’s concert for the political elite and their guests foreshadows this. Rasta Ngwenya describes Bob Marley’s first concert in Harare as follows:

In fact, the first official words uttered in Zimbabwe, following the raising of the new flag, were: “Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Marley and the Wailers.”

Twenty minutes later, Bob and The Wailers started their set. As soon as the first notes rang out, pandemonium broke loose in the enormous crowd gathered by the entrance to the sports stadium: the gates shook and began to break apart as the crush increased, the citizens of Harare, both excited and angry at being excluded from seeing these inspirational musicians.

As clouds of teargas drifted almost immediately into the stadium itself, the audience on the pitch fell on their feet in an attempt to protect themselves. The group members tasted their first whiffs of the gas and left the stage. “All of a sudden,” said Judy Mowatt, “you smell this thing taking over your whole body, going in your throat until you want to choke, burning your eyes. I looked at Rita (Marley) and Marcia and they were feeling the same thing.”

“I feel my eyes and nose,” remembered Family Man, “and think, from when I was born, I have to come all the way to Africa to experience teargas.”

Bob, however seemed to have moved to a transcendent state. His eyes were shut, and for a while the gas didn’t seem to have an effect at all. Then he opened his eyes and left the stage.

Backstage, the group had taken refuge in a truck. Outside they could see small children fainting and women collapsing. It looked like death personified to Mowatt, who briefly wondered whether they had been brought to Zimbabwe to meet their ends.

She persuaded someone to drive her and the other I-Threes back to the hotel, only to discover on the television that the show had resumed. After about half an hour Bob and the Wailers had gone back on stage. They ended their set with Zimbabwe, a song Bob had worked on during his pilgrimage to Ethiopia late in 1978, and which became arguably his most important single composition.

Bob was just coming offstage as Mowatt and her fellow women singers returned to the stadium. “Hah,” he looked at them with a half-grin, “now I know who the real revolutionaries are.”

It was decided that the group would play another concert the following day, to give the ordinary people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see Bob Marley.

Over 100 000 people-an audience that was almost entirely black- watched this show by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The group performed for an hour and a half, the musicians fired up to a point of ecstasy. But Bob, who uncharacteristically hadn’t bothered to turn up for the sound check, was strangely lacklustre in his performance; a mood of disillusionment had set in around him following the tear-gassing the previous day.

After the day’s performance, the Bob Marley team was invited to spend the evening at the home of Tekere. This was not the most relaxed of social occasions.

As the henchmen strutted around with their Kalashnikovs, Mills was informed by Tekere that he wanted Bob to stay in Zimbabwe and tour the country. “Bob told me to say he wasn’t going to, but the guy didn’t want to hear me.”

While Bob remained in the house, Rob Partridge and Phil Cooper sat out in the garden. “I could hear,” said Cooper, head of international affairs, “Tekere saying to Bob, ‘I want this man Cooper. He’s been going around putting your image everywhere. He’s trying to portray you as a bigger man than our President.’ I could hear all this.

“Then Bob came out and said to us, in hushed, perfect Queen’s English; ‘I think it’s a good idea for you to leave’.”

“Partridge and I went and packed, and took the first international flight out, which was to Nairobi. About five months later Tekere was arrested and put in jail; he had been involved in the murder of some white settler.

I was particularly fascinated to learn about the roles played by Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda and Indo-Guyanese politician and former Foreign Minister of Guyana, Sir Sonny Ramphal, who is played by the writer of the play Kwame Kwei-Armah.

About Kwame Kwei-Armah

Kwame Kwei-Armah is a British playwright, actor, and singer. He is the First Black Briton to have a play staged on London’s West End when his play Elmina’s Kitchen was staged in Garrick’s Theatre in 2005. He was born Ian Roberts in London. His parents are immigrants from Grenada. He changed his name to Kwame Kwei-Armah in his 20s after he traced his family’s roots to Ghana.

Further Reading:

Zimbabwe’s History: Key Dates (BBC News article available online)

Zimbabwe at 30 Audio Slideshow (BBC News article available online)

Joshua Nkomo’s Obituary (BBC News article available online)

Viewpoint: Kaunda on Mugabe (BBC News article available online)

House of Stone at 30 by Farai Sevenzo (BBC News article available online)

Lucian Msamati Cut His Teeth Doing Political Theatre in Zimbabwe. Now He Has a Lead Role in Alexander McCall Smith’s Rose-Tinted Vision of Africa by Aida Edemariam (Guardian article available online)

Interview (1980) with Lord Carrington by Time Magazine (Time article available online)

Interview (2000) with Lord Carrington by David Frost (BBC News transcript available online)

When Bob Marley Caused a Riot in Africa by Rasta Ngwenya (article available online)

Video of Bob Marley performing Zimbabwe, with lyrics available

Profile of Kwame Kwei-Armah (article available online)

Interview (2008) with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online

Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah available online

African Artist Profile: Malangatana Ngwenya

Malangatana, Photo by Werner Puntigam

Mozambican artist Malangatana , (pronounced mah-LANG-gah-tah-nah en-GWEN-yah),  died following respiratory complications on January 5th of this year. I had an opportunity to learn about his life and work from the BBC African Perspective Podcast. I have decided to write my own profile of Malangatana in order to help me learn more about the man, his work, and his country.

Born Valente Malangatana  Ngwenya  (Ngwenya means crocodile) on June 6th 1936, Malangatana grew up in a village called Matalana, located about 30 km north of Maputo, Mozambique’s capital. He helped his mother, who was a traditional healer, on her farm while attending first Swiss Protestant and then Roman Catholic mission schools. His father, like many men from the country’s southern region, was often absent as he was away working in the gold mines of South Africa. While growing up in Matalana he worked herding cattle and studied traditional healing from two of his uncles.

At the age of 12, Malangatana moved to the capital to find work. At that time, the capital, now called Maputo, was called Lourenço Marques by the Portuguese colonial authorities. Marques was a Portuguese trader and explorer who settled in Mozambique. The capital was renamed Maputo, after the Maputo River, during independence in 1976. He first found work as a nanny, then, in 1953, Malangatana found work as a ball boy at a tennis club. It was here that he met Augusto Cabral and Pancho Guedes, both members of the tennis club, who would help to introduce him to Maputo’s artistic community and support his education as an artist. As Joe Pollitt recounts how Cabral met Malangatana:

[Malangatana] asked Cabral, one of [the tennis club’s] members, whether he had a pair of old sandals he could spare. The young biologist – and amateur painter – took him home. Malangatana asked to be taught painting, and Cabral gave him equipment and the advice to paint whatever was in his head. Putting aside his teenage training as a traditional healer, Malangatana did just that, encouraged by Cabral and the prolific Portuguese-born architect Pancho Guedes, another tennis club member.

Years later in 1981, when Cabral had become the director of the Natural History Museum in Maputo, he would give Malangatana a commission to create a mural in its gardens. Joe Pollitt describes the mural as follows: “In a celebration of the unity of humankind and the often brutal world of nature, the work depicts wide-eyed figures in earth-coloured pastels, with extended limbs and claw-like hands.” Malangatana began to attend events organized by Nucleo de Arte. In 1959, he exhibited publicly for the first time as part of a group show organized by Nucleo. Alda Costa describes the formation of the Nucleo de Arte as follows:

In 1936, some of these individuals were involved in the creation of the Núcleo de Arte da Colónia de Moçambique, which was set up in the city of Lourenço Marques with the aim of spreading aesthetic education and promoting the progress of art in the colony. According to the association’s statutes, its job was to organise art courses, put on art exhibitions, create an art museum (with an indigenous art section), and organise visits by artists from Portugal, who could create works of art in the colony inspired by local subjects. It was also its job to organise art exhibitions dealing with Mozambican subjects in Portugal and contribute, in every possible way, to the artistic exchange between Mozambique and the metrópole. Its sections included: Architecture, Fine and Decorative Arts; Music and Choreography; Theatre; Literature and History of Art; Indigenous Art and Ethnography and also Propaganda and Publicity. In the event of a situation not being covered by the association’s statutes, the statutes of the metropóle’s Sociedade Nacional de Belas Artes (Portuguese Fine Arts Society) would apply. The creation of the Núcleo de Arte was clearly the embodiment of imperial thinking and of the attempt to build closer relations between Portugal and its colonies, as were the large-scale propaganda campaigns carried out at the time. Its actions and importance in the colony, however, spread far beyond those interests…

Final Judgement, 1961 from the site of the David Winton Bell Gallery

In 1961, at the age of 25, he had his first solo exhibition. According to Joe Pollitt, writing Malangatana’s obituary in The Guardian:

He courageously presented his ambitious Juízo Final (Final Judgment), a commentary on life under oppressive Portuguese rule. Mystical figures of many colours, including a black priest dressed in white, evoke a vision of hell. Some of the figures have sharp white fangs, a recurring motif in Malangatana’s work, symbolising the ugliness of human savagery.

Malangatana also wrote poetry. In 1963, some of his poetry was included in the journal Black Orpheus and was included in the anthology Modern Poetry from Africa.

In 1964, Malangatana joined the struggle for Mozambican independence by becoming a member of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO). For his involvement, he was arrested by the Portuguese secret police (PIDE) and spent 18 months in jail. One of his fellow prisoners was Mozambique’s leading poet, José Craveirinha.

In 1971, he received a grant from the Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation (created by the Armenian oil magnate and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian, who played a key role in making the Middle East’s oil reserves available to the Western world) and went to Portugal to study printmaking and ceramics. His art reached an international audience and he had exhibitions in Lisbon. Three years later, he returned to Mozambique. The Carnation Revolution of April 1974, the military coup in Portugal that forced its government from a dictatorship to a democracy, accelerated Mozambique’s independence. He rejoined FRELIMO, which had developed from a guerrilla movement into a single-party Communist organization aimed at becoming the new ruling political power. However, a rival political party, the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO), supported by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South Africa, came into conflict with FRELIMO, and a devastating civil war ensues costing the country about a million lives, as people died in combat, from starvation. About five million people were displaced. Many were made amputees by landmines, which are still a problem even after the civil war ended in 1992.

Malangatana was active in FRELIMO during this period but he also continued his work as an artist. His work during this time is a reflection on the horrors of the civil war. According to art critic Holland Cotter in his obituary for Malangatana:

Most of the paintings and drawings Mr. Ngwenya did during this period were a direct response to the violence he witnessed. Densely packed with figures, they presented lurid, Boschian visions of the Last Judgment and the torments of hell rooted in images related to healing and witchcraft remembered from childhood. It was only after peace was finally declared in 1992 that the content and the look of his work changed: he introduced landscape images and cooled a palette dominated by charred reds and stained whites with greens and blues.

In 1997 he was named a UNESCO Artist for Peace and received a Prince Claus Award.

He is survived by his wife, Sinkwenta Gelita Mhangwana, two daughters, and two sons.

According to Guardian journalist Duncan Campbell, who met Malangatana in 2005:

While on an assignment for the Guardian in Mozambique in 2005, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Malangatana, who was then living in a large house near the airport which was part gallery and part archive. I had already been shown some of his work, which was not only in public galleries in Maputo, but also widely used for book covers and CDs. What was remarkable about him was that he brushed off questions about his own work and insisted instead on taking us on a magical conducted tour of local artists from painter to sculptor to batik-maker. He was anxious that they should receive publicity rather than him. For their part, they clearly held him in high esteem. “He is my general,” one of the young artists told me.

He was a generous and entertaining host, telling us with a smile that his father had been a cook for the British in South Africa. A volume of his paintings, entitled Cumplicidades, published in 2004 with a foreword by the Mozambican writer Mia Couto, illustrates the impressive range of his work. I treasure my copy, which is inscribed “for Dunken Cambell from my heart”.

Further Reading:

Obituary by Joe Pollitt from The Guardian available online

Obituary by Holland Cotter from The New York Times available online

Obituary from BBC News available online

Obituary by Pauline Wynter from Pambazuka News available online

Interview with Albie Sachs available online

Images of Malangatana’s paintings at the Contemporary African Art Gallery  available online

Images of Malangatan’s paintings at Kulungwana available online

Malangatana, edited by Julio Navarro,  “this superbly illustrated book of Malangatana’s paintings is a showcase of his work. The paintings are accompanied by two introductory essays, one on the artist’s biography, the other a critical essay situating the paintings and the importance of his work in context. To date only available in Portuguese, this English-language edition provides the opportunity for a wider audience to gain an in-depth appreciation and understanding of the background and meanings of the paintings” (description available online)

Webpage for the 2007 documentary film “Ngwenya, the Crocodile” about Malangatana

In search of new African art in the 1960s. Sponsorship and training in the decade of euphoria – Ulli Beier, Pancho Guedes and Julian Beinart by. A. Pomar (article available online)

Revisiting the Years When Pancho Guedes Lived in Mozambique: The Arts and the Artists by A. Costa (article available online)

Duncan Campbell’s 2005 Maputo Photo Gallery for The Guardian, includes a picture of Malangatana, available online

British Artist Joe Pollitt’s Blog

Portuguese Colonialism in Africa: The end of an Era by E. de Sousa Ferreira, with an Introduction by Basil Davidson (UNESCO Press history text available online)

Black Firsts: Rotimi Adebari, Ireland’s First Black Mayor

Posted in African Diaspora in Ireland, Black Firsts, Countries: Ireland, Nigerian Diaspora by the woyingi blogger on December 29, 2010

Rotimi Adebari

On June 28th, 2007, Rotimi Adebari , a Nigerian-born father of four, made history when he became Ireland’s first Black mayor. Adebari was elected mayor of the town of Port Laoise, in County Laois, in the province of Leinster, in the midlands of  the Republic of Ireland.  Adebari ran as an independent. Adebari came to Ireland as an asylum seeker in 2000 from Nigeria.

Before I go on to discuss Rotimi Adebari, I want to take a closer look at the Republic of Ireland in general and the town of Port Laoise in particular. 

One can find parallels between the history of the Irish people and other colonized indigenous peoples. Ireland was literally colonized by the English. Even before the religious division that further divided English Anglicans from Irish Roman Catholics, the Irish (Gaelic) were viewed by their colonizers (Normans and the English) as uncivilized savages and barbarians. In reaction to the fact that many of Ireland’s colonizers were beginning to intermarry with and take on the culture and language of the indigenous Gaelic population, England enacted The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367. The statutes forbade the English settlers from marrying the Irish, adopting Irish children, and using Irish names and dress because English authorities were concerned that the English settlers were becoming more Irish than the Irish themselves. The expression “beyond the pale“, which means unacceptable behaviour (His behaviour was really beyond the pale) actually refers to this time period. The Pale was the demarcation line between territory in Ireland that was directly under English control and therefore “civilized”. It is clear that the English really perceived the Irish as a different race. Even as recently as the 1950s, English landlords actually put out “No Irish need apply” signs while renting out houses and apartments.

The Republic of Ireland has long had the reputation of being one of the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous countries in Western Europe. Since its independence from Britain, the Republic of Ireland has also been considered Western Europe’s poorest country. It’s been known more for its emigrants than its immigrants. So many Irish have fled Ireland over the last two centuries that the Republic still has a population less than it had before the Potato Famine of the 1840s (As a bizarre example of positive Muslim-Christian relations, The Ottoman Sultan actually donated money and three shiploads of food to support those starving in Ireland) The Irish abroad faced a great deal of discrimination based on religion and culture. Although many found success in their newfound lands, many also faced gruelling poverty becoming part of North America’s exploited working classes. As we can see here in Canada, many Irish settled in the Maritimes, worked in horrendous conditions in mines, and still haven’t escaped cycles of poverty. However, beginning in the mid 90s, the Republic of Ireland went through an economic boom, sometimes being called “the Celtic Tiger” in comparison with the economic growth of Asian countries. This led to an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, South Asia and Africa attracted by jobs and some of Europe’s most generous immigration laws. Several of these migrants came as asylum seekers (some 30,000), most from Nigeria. As you can imagine, integrating into a society like that of the Irish hasn’t been easy. The Irish government has recognized this and actually created a Minister of State for Integration! I would think that the recent crash of Ireland’s economy and rising unemployment (currently 14%) is only going to escalate anti-immigrant sentiment.

The town of Port Laoise is about an hour’s ride outside of Dublin. As of 2006, Port Laoise had a population of 14, 613. That’s quite small I would think.  The major employers in the town are the Irish Department of Agriculture and Port Laoise Prison, a maximum security prison which housed the majority of Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners sentenced in the Republic of Ireland. But the majority of prisoners are in there on drug-related convictions. The town is also the base of the international charity organization Self Help Africa, which promotes and implements long-term rural development projects in Africa. It’s the first Anglo-Irish development agency. It appears that Port Laoise is mostly a commuter town for people who work in Dublin but can’t or don’t want to live there.

So how did this small Irish town make history?

Rotimi Adebari was born in 1964 in Oke Odan, Ogun State, Nigeria. Ogun State borders the Republic of  Benin. Its capital is Abeokuta. Although I haven’t discovered it in my research, I would assume that Adebari is ethnically Yoruba. He studied Economics in University. He was never involved in politics in Nigeria, however he did take on leadership roles at school and he was a chief of a local Palmwine Drinkards’ Club, otherwise known as a Kegite among Nigerians. He also worked in the marketing division of a television station.

He is a Christian and his interest in Ireland developed out of his relationship with an inspirational Irish missionary in Nigeria. When Adebari arrived in 2000 in the Republic of Ireland he claimed asylum based on religious persecution. When he made headlines in 2007, many Nigerians were elated but his claim that he fled from Oke Odan due to religious persecution didn’t hold water and the newspaper THIS DAY investigated his claims and found them to be wanting. There is no doubt there is religious persecution of Christians in Nigeria but this occurs mainly in the Middle Belt and Nigeria’s North, not in the South-Western Yoruba heartland! Actually, according to THIS DAY, Oke Odan is a majority Christian town, with a minority of adherents of traditional African religions! Also, although there were no interreligious clashes in the town in 2000, there was a serious flood that left many of the town’s residents homeless. It also appears that some Oke Odan residents want him to return to Nigeria and run for Governor of Ogun State in 2011. The controversy over the legitimacy of Adebari’s asylum claim has helped fuel racist and anti-immigrant reactions to Adebari’s election. On Youtube, I was rather shocked to find comments demanding that Adebari be deported for coming into the country on a false claim. However, they should know that according to The Associated Press Adebari wasn’t granted asylum due to insufficient evidence of direct religious persecution. His family’s citizenship was established because his third child was born in Ireland. However, in 2003, Ireland stopped granting automatic citizenship to immigrants whose children were born in the Republic and in 2004 it stopped granting automatic citizenship to children born in Ireland whose parents were not citizens Actually, Adebari’s asylum claim hampered him because asylum seekers are not permitted to work in Ireland. Instead, Adebari began volunteering and helped to found the organization Suil (Supporting the Unemployed in Laois) that lobbies for the interests of the unemployed. As Adebari puts it: “I got involved in the community and I volunteered. It gave me the opportunity to meet people firsthand and they got to know me.”

Whatever the circumstances of his coming to Ireland, Adebari soon went to work making a name for himself, and as Port Laoise is a small town, you can’t say that he got the “immigrant vote”. In 2004, Adebari, by then a citizen, was elected to the Port Laoise town council, as a councillor. Adebari earned a Master’s Degree in Intercultural Studies from Dublic City University. In 2005, he won an award from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. On their site, they give the following description of Adebari’s accomplishments:

Rotimi hosts a local community radio programme, called “Respecting Difference” on Midlands 103. The programme draws on the presenter’s experience and his election into Portlaoise Town Council to serve as an inspiration to the socially disadvantaged in the community, by engaging in discussions that motivate and offer a lift to people currently experiencing social exclusion.

Originally from Nigeria, Rotimi Adebari has lived in Portlaoise for the last 5 years. He is an elected member of Portlaoise Town Council, and has a Masters degree in Intercultural studies at Dublin City University.

He works with Dublin City University on the European Intercultural Workplace Project (EIW). He delivers training in intercultural awareness and anti-racism issues and works in association with local, regional and national groups to achieve an integrated society where everyone has a sense of belonging

He is an elected member of the National Executive Committee of INOU – Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, and is a director on the board of Portlaoise Community Action Project (PCAP).

Rotimi is also a founding member of Suil – An organisation that provides support for the unemployed in Laois, and a member of Laois Ethnic Minority Support Group.

Adebari also set up a consultancy firm, “Optimum Point”, which trains companies and educational institutions on cross-cultural awareness.

What those who aren’t familiar with Irish regional politics need to understand is that the town did not elect Rotimi Adebari as mayor. The town council did. The Port Laoise Town Council is made up for 9 town councillors. Six of the nine town councillors voted for Adebari to be mayor. Again, those who are outspokenly against a “non-national” being a mayor have blamed “political correctness” for Adebari’s election. I somehow doubt this. I think it had a lot more to do with him being an independent candidate while many of the other town councillors were party affiliated. Adebari was actually supported by two rival parties, the “left-wing” Sinn Fein and the “right-wing”  Fine Gael. So, Adebari’s real accomplishment, and one not to be underestimated, was getting elected as a town councillor in the first place. Adebari has said that he owes the success of his campaign for town councillor to this campaign team. He explains:

It was one team, but in the team we had Africans, Irish and non-Irish as well. But when I went out knocking on doors I went with Irish members of the team. The reason is because I understand the society. This is a society that some people are yet to come to terms with their changing world. In November 2001, a man approached me on the street and said he had never seen a black man before. So you can imagine, if two black people then went knocking on the doors, the sort of reception they would probably get. And I thought that won’t be a good idea. I did go knocking on doors with Irish members of my team, and we were well received. That is not to say that there were no instances where people slammed their doors in our faces. But it was not because I am black. They slammed their doors probably because they were disillusioned with politics.

But why did people vote for him? According to Adebari, his manifesto (in Canada we would call it a platform) related to people’s concerns and his experience volunteering in the community and setting up an organization representing the interests of the unemployed helped him to really understand these concerns. As he says:

I understand the issues. I was only four years in the country then, but my antecedent over those four years, what I have been involved in. I set up a support group for the unemployed. I was in the board of community organization in Portlaoise that caters for the lone-parents, the travellers, etc. So I understand the issues of each and everyone. And it was all these issues that I brought together, in putting my manifestoes. What is there for the unemployed in the country and what is not there for them? What aspect of education do I want an improvement on? Services to the youths and the elderly. Is there anything in the town for them? All these and more were the things I put together.

According to Adebari, the secret of his success was just getting involved in his community. As he says: “I want to encourage immigrants to be a force in their communities, to engage with their communities. People will get to know you. Their perception of you will change just like that. That’s what happened to me.”

But why did Adebari decide to go into politics? In an interview in Xclusive, an magazine for the African Diaspora in Ireland, Adebari explains:

When I arrived here in 2000, if anyone had said to me that I would be going into politics, I would have said to that person that he was joking. I felt I was not cut out for politics. I was looking at politics the way it is played back home in Africa. We all perceive politics like dirty water: if you don’t want to get stained, don’t get involved. I remember during my college days in Nigeria my Political Science lecturer used to say to us that, if you want to know the name that people call you at your back go into politics: they will no longer call you that name at your back, they will say it to your face. I would have arrived here with that mindset as well. But I see those of us who are here as the first generation of immigrants in Ireland. That is not to say that immigrants have not been coming here before we arrived, but it wasn’t as evident as it is in the last ten years. So we are like the first generation, and we know we have to really put something in place for generations coming behind. It got to a point that I had to say to myself what legacy do I have to leave for generation coming behind? Maybe one of those legacies would be to get involved in politics. One other thing that might have led me into politics was the image of Nigeria in Ireland at that time. They associated anything with Nigeria with fraud, criminality and all that. So it was like something has to be done. And I thought maybe politics was one of the ways to go: if I got elected people would begin to see that we are not all criminals.

There is no doubt that Adebari is a pioneer and the immigrants of Ireland will need him because I foresee that times will be tough for them now that Ireland’s economy has crashed, and not only will they face discrimination at work and school, but actual physical violence. Frankly, I’m afraid for them. And they include one of my Nigerian cousins and her family who live in Limerick.  But I am also hopeful. Many immigrants in Ireland, particularly Africans, are making names for themselves and showing that African immigrants are not all criminals. Maybe someday, they too will be accused of being more Irish than the Irish themselves.

Further Reading:

Rotimi Adebari’s Website

Rotimi Adebari’s 2007 Interview with Xclusive Magazine

Ireland Gets Its First Black Mayor by Shawn Pogatchnik (2007 article available online)

Ireland elects first Black Mayor (BBC article available online)

Laois County Council Article about Rotimi Adebari (article available online)

‘New’ Ireland’s changes go more than skin deep: Country long known as a land of emigrants is transformed by migrants (article available online)

Life in the land of a thousand welcomes by Crispin Rodwell (TIME article available online)

The African Voice Ireland’s No. 1 African Community Newspaper Website

Xclusive Magazine: Ireland’s African only lifestyle monthly and the first and only African magazine to break into the mainstream Irish media market

Akina Dada wa Africa (AkiDwA; Swahili for sisterhood) is an authoritative, minority ethnic-led national network of African and migrant women living in Ireland. The non-governmental organisation with charitable status was established in August 2001 by a group of African women to address the needs of an expanding population of African and migrant women resident in Ireland. The organisation is a recognised authoritative and representative body for migrant women, irrespective of their national/ethnic background, tradition, religious beliefs, socio-economic or legal status. AkiDwA’s advocacy approach is based on a gender perspective and the organisation promotes an equal society, free of racism, discrimination and stereotyping. AkiDwA’s advocacy approach is based on strengthening migrant women’s voice, applying a gender perspective to policies and practices and the promotion of equality of migrant women in Irish society, free of gender and racial stereotyping.

Irish Aid’s Africa Day Website

Africa Centre Dublin Website

A Short History of Ireland: A BBC Radio Series that tells the story of Ireland from the Ice Age to the present over 240 episodes. Transcripts of each episode are available on this site.

Mixed Race Lives: Theodor Wonja Michael

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's Mother and Father Courtesy Bundeszentrale fur Politische Bildung

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.

Theodor Wonja Michael

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.”

Recommended Reading:

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)