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Sunday, August 7, 2022

African Tribalism–Mungo Park, The Heart Of Darkness, And Its American Legacy

Mungo Park was one of the first European travelers to explore central Africa and his adventures were recorded in a series of books chronicling his journeys in the late 1700s.  In The Life and Travels of Mungo Park in Central Africa he provides a firsthand account of life in heretofore unexplored regions of the continent.  The story was not pretty.  In fact, it was savage, brutal, and primitive. 

He himself had been captured many times, bartered as a slave, and only escaped death because of his value as a European and for the clothes he wore.Mungo Park in his journals wrote of being captured by African tribes, enslaved, and sold to other tribes for food, women, or land.  He was kept alive only because of his value – an oddity, a freakish white man in Africa to be displayed and tortured.  He brought back no Margaret Mead stories of tribes living simply, harmoniously, in tune with nature, the gods, and themselves.

He found only a barbaric primitivism without an inkling of civilized behavior.  These were not simple hunter-gatherers but savages who lived short, brutish, and cruel lives in the forest.  He returned to Europe to confirm what others suspected – Africa was indeed a dark, primitive, dangerous place.

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The eunuch and his four followers were here butchered, after a very slight resistance, and stripped within a few yards of me: their cries were dreadful; and even now, the feelings of that moment are fresh in my memory. My hopes of life were too faint to deserve the name. I was almost instantly surrounded, and incapable of making the least resistance, as I was unarmed, was as speedily stript; and whilst attempting first to save my shirt and then my trowsers, I was thrown on the ground. My pursuers made several thrusts at me with their spears, that badly wounded my hands in two places, and slightly my body, just under my ribs, on the right side. Indeed, I saw nothing before me but the same cruel death I had seen unmercifully inflicted on the few who had fallen into the power of those who now had possession of me; and they were only prevented from murdering me, in the first instance, I am persuaded, by the fear of injuring the value of my clothes, which appeared to them a rich booty,--but it was otherwise ordained.

Could it have been the dense jungles of central Africa which isolated tribal groups from outside contact, prevented any infusion of new ideas and assured that the native primitive animism would only turn more inward, less rational, and less adept at the trades and techniques of the modern world? Was it climate, the brutal heat and aridity of the Sahel, the proliferation of tropical disease, and cycles of high fertility and high mortality?

Was it tribalism which had lost the forest character of ritual sacrifice, animistic worship, slavery, and inter-tribal warfare noted by Mungo Park and Conrad, but had been transposed to modern rule? 

Joseph Conrad understood far better than most the allure and the perils of African primitivism. 

The earth seemed unearthly”, Marlowe says in The Heart of Darkness. “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one.

They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.

And why not? The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valor, rage—who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time. Let the fool gape and shudder—the man knows, and can look on without a wink. But he must at least be as much of a man as these on the shore.

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In the rush to plurality and inclusive multiculturalism, this primitive, tribal past is overlooked, deliberately forgotten, and dismissed as an irrelevant piece of colonial history.  Yet it cannot be so easily relegated to historical insignificance

Just as America’s first settlers were Puritan, English, and profoundly religious, so were the first slaves from Angola and Dahomey conservative and rooted to their native land.  They brought with them animism, ancestor-worship, totemism, and the world of supernatural spirits. 

Just as the first pilgrims from Scotland and Northern Ireland, schooled in a rigorous and penitential Calvinism believed that sexual congress outside of marriage was wrong and punishable by the worst of penances, the first African slaves were inheritors of a more earthly, sensual, and procreative culture. The concept of promiscuity – a Christian censorious idea – was never a part of West African tradition, mores, or religion. 

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It is no surprise that, given this cultural history and the economic interest of slaveowners to encourage the propagation of  their property, that this indifference to Christian traditions of monogamy and sexual self-control was hypocritically encouraged.  Nor is it any surprise that the legacy of both African tribalism and slavery persist.

Much has been made of the male, African stereotype – a man willing, able, and eager to have sexual relations whenever, wherever, and with whomever possible.  In other words, and in socially unacceptable ways, the sexual fantasy of white women for the black experience.

Despite feminism, the rise of the woman, and the pursuit of sexual equality, sex is what it has always been – a Lawrentian, existential enterprise.  Just as Lady Chatterley cared less for the social status of Mellors, the  gamekeeper, and cared only for his male intent, male desire, and male completion; white women are attracted to the idea of the uninhibited sexual desire of African men, men uninfected by notions of sexual parity, consideration, and emotional attachment . 

Of course, as liberal critics will be quick to note, African men have evolved from The Heart of Darkness, and African American men have been tamed by democracy and white social pressure.  Women look to Barack Obama and Colin Powell as their progressive ideals, and dismiss the idea of Deshaun Watson, macho, unrepentant sexual male par excellence and accused by masseuses of ‘inappropriate’ behavior.  

Yet naked and under the soft, delicate, and knowing fingers of his female ‘trainers’, he made certain sexual advances.  The only story here is that certain masseuses, pressured by MeToo advocacy and seeing profits in legal action, demurred.  Money rather than sexual gratification, matters.

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The dysfunction of the black family – the now well-known and chronicled phenomenon of the absent father – is summarily criticized as it should be; but those who decry the wayward black man ignore history.  He was the key to economic profits during slavery – the more children a prize specimen of African manhood could produce, the better, not withstanding the long, equally important social importance of the dominant male in African tribal history.

It is only in this current, ignorant, woke period of America, that such social history is not only ignored but considered inappropriate for discussion.  Who would  dismiss the legacy of the English nobility, the Puritans, the cavaliers, or the thinkers of the Enlightenment when analyzing American politics and culture?

Liberal critics say, “So what?”.  What difference does it make how inner city dysfunction became a disruptive reality?  One can and must deal with it as a contemporary problem, one of racial animus, superiority, and oppression without suggestions of cultural determinism which would be tantamount to racism.

Yet knowing where one comes from, one’s social and cultural roots, means everything.  Understanding African tribalism and the plight of Mungo Park means everything.  One cannot necessarily forgive Deshaun Watson, but at least cut him some cultural slack.

By the same token, a certain  trust and credibility should be accorded to European legacy. European kings are responsible for the extension and universalization of enlightened civilization, purveyors of the wisdom, art, and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome.

America was founded on European values and philosophy.  Jefferson was a legatee of the Enlightenment, and transposed its notions  of individualism, independence under God to the American Constitution.  Too much, in these days of inclusivity and multiculturalism, is erased from collective historical memory.  Too many European, Christian values are dismissed or forgotten in the rush to claim Third World legitimacy.

Historical revisionism – the attempt to discredit America’s European heritage while championing the experiences of Africa and the ‘Third World’ – is unsustainable, wrong, and politically ignorant.

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