African images under Western eyes: Part Two …racist ideology and the dehumanisation process

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By Dr Rino Zhuwarara

‘Father Biehler is so convinced of the hopelessness of regenerating the Mashonas whom he regards as the most hopeless of mankind that he states that the only chance for the future of the race is to exterminate the whole people, both male and female, over the age of 14.’
IT is important to verify what those of the West have said about Africa and its people.
And a lot has been said about us by some influential Westerners including their philosophers, scholars, historians, missionaries and empire builders of all sorts.
The aim of undertaking this recall exercise is to highlight sources of some of those ideas which lie at the root of the derogatory and dismissive perspective with which we are regarded by the rest of the West.
Here is how that much revered German philosopher, Wilheim Hegel, defined the Negro:
“The negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state.
“We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him.”
Noticeable in this definition of the negro (blacks) is the assumption that someone will have to perform the duty of transforming Africa from being a wilderness into a civilised continent; also implied in the same definition is the need to be ruthless in the ‘taming’ of Africa, that is, not to be constrained in doing so by those feelings of empathy which should normally determine how human beings are supposed to feel towards each other.
Doing so would be inappropriate since, as far as Hegel is concerned, the negro is much closer to the animal world.
In other words, in Hegel’s definition of the negro is an implicit manifesto on how Europe should deal with Africans.
In light of this derogatory and dismissive stance, it is not surprising that the German General Lothar von Trotha does not hesitate to slaughter more than 100 000 Hereros and 10 000 Namaqua people between 1904 and 1907 in Namibia.
And this genocide does not invite strong condemnation from the West either!
Why?
Because in their hearts and minds there is this deeply entrenched belief that blacks are not exactly like other normal human beings.
Up to this day, the Germans have refused to apologise for this gruesome horror they perpetrated in Namibia and to pay compensation for it just as the rest of Europe has consistently refused to pay any compensation to the descendants of all those they enslaved between 1450 and 1888, the ones whose labour laid the foundation of modern industrial Europe and America.
It is as if to confess the wrongs which Europe perpetrated against Africans is to acknowledge that Africans are normal human beings like them.
Up to this day they are not prepared to do so yet they go around the world, more so in Africa, preaching about human rights as if their murderous record on our continent is not known and as if they have paid all the moral debts they owe to all people of African descent.
In a sense, by preaching to us about human rights which, in reality, they do not care much about at all, especially in Africa, they reduce a serious moral debate to a sordid sham, a kind of self-marketing rhetorical exercise which can only work if most of us remain oblivious to the outstanding record of atrocities which Europeans committed in Africa.
Perhaps a more revealing voice which shows why Europeans insist on regarding blacks more or less like primitive primates is that of Arnold Toynbee.
In his much celebrated book The Study of History, he states with disarming candour:
“When we, Europeans, call people natives, we take away anything from them; anything that suggests that they are human beings.
They are to us like the forest which the Western man fells down.
Or, the big game that he shoots down.
They have no tenure of land.
Their tenure of land is as precarious as that of animals that they find.
What shall we, the lords of creation, the white people, do with the natives we find?
Shall we treat them as vermin to be exterminated or shall we treat them as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
There is no other alternative, if niggers have no souls.”
Of particular significance here is the way Toynbee’s statement clarifies before all and sundry why blacks have to remain, as far as whites are concerned, more or less sub-human.
Blacks are regarded as an integral part of the natural resources of the European empire in Africa.
Their labour and natural resources are fair game for exploitation!
Blacks have two stark choices before them: either to face extermination or to accept total subjugation to the whiteman as slaves.
In fact, the two choices are no choices at all, but tragic options determined by the movers and shakers of the empire.
From another angle, it means the racist ideology which informs European imperialism in Africa is a well-thought out rationalisation that is designed to justify the dehumanisation process of the African which accompanies the military conquest of Africa.
It is a self-serving racism which justifies, with a kind of pseudo-sense of self-righteousness, the brutalities to be inflicted on the subaltern of empire and the subsequent looting of the fruits of his labour and natural resources on a grand scale.
In this context, racism becomes the ideological cement which creates a powerful bond amongst colonists who in turn are determined to categorise, degrade and ultimately dehumanise the blackman in order to make him a suitable beast of burden for the empire.
In a strange twist of logic, the black man becomes the author of his own misfortunes because, according to Toynbee: “He has no soul.”
Here Toynbee speaks like a god, displaying the kind of arrogance which most whites in Africa have always exhibited.
If blacks have no soul as Toybee claims, it means that they are not complete human beings like whites are.
They are perhaps half-human and half-beast and therefore continue to occupy a thoroughly ambiguous zone in the grand scheme of things!
According to imperial logic, such a species, half-man and half-beast that the blackman is, cannot be expected to generate and to bequeath a meaningful legacy of any kind.
Here is how Professor Trevor Roper, then Chair of History at Oxford University, defines what he regards as the African dilemma:
“African history is nothing, but the unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque, but irrelevant corners of the globe.
There is only the history of Europeans in Africa.
The rest is darkness and darkness is not the subject of history.”
The gross ignorance displayed by the professor here would amount to a comical narrative were it not also tragic in the sense that such embarrassing ignorance often has tragic practical consequences for blacks!
The metaphorical darkness which the professor alludes to as a kind of incontestable truth strips the African of his humanity and makes him a fair target for all sorts of assaults, both metaphorical and real.
This kind of demonisation process often carried out by the West is often a prelude to actual physical attacks.
Here is what Father Biehler of the Roman Catholic Church proposed to do in 1897 in Zimbabwe in order to wipe out what he considered to be a superstitious and backward belief system of the Shona people.
His idea was to banish the so-called darkness which he regarded as retarding the repentance of the rebellious Shona: “Father Biehler is so convinced of the hopelessness of regenerating the Mashonas whom he regards as the most hopeless of mankind that he states that the only chance for the future of the race is to exterminate the whole people, both male and female, over the age of 14.
This pessimistic conclusion, Grey continued, I find it hard to accept.”
The challenge for us is now clear: We should try to relate to the West from a position of knowledge about how they have always regarded us for a long time.

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