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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Replacing language meant that a new order was created. This new hierarchy established a Eurocentric frame o

f reference that literally removed the older way, not merely of speaking, but of visualizing the world. The search f

or the half-sign seemed, in the final analysis, a fruitless endeavor . . .



Books by O. R. Dathorne

On the Margins  / Worlds Apart  / Asian Voyages  /  The Black Mind

Imagining the World  /  In Europe's Image  / African Literature in the Twentieth Century

*   *   *   *   *

Searching for the Half Sign

(Re)placing the wor(l)d: the search for the half sign

By O. R. Dathorne

. . . each culture fixes its thresholds differently. This amounts in effect to allowing that the act of naming belongs to a continuum in which there is an imperceptible passage from the act of signifying to that of pointing . . . The natural sciences put theirs on the level of species, varieties or subvarieties as the case may be ...  The same method of operation is involved with the native sage—and sometimes scientist . . . —Claude Lévi-Strauss The Savage Mind, p.215

Once knowledge can be analysed in terms of region, domain, implantation, displacement, transposition, one is able to capture the process by which knowledge functions as a form of power and  disseminates the effects of power—Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge, p. 69

In this paper I wish to contend that the Enlightenment was a means by which the "other" world was re-arranged. Particularly, I wish to show that Europeans sought to place the word so that it reflected their world, so that their language (in this instance Latin) became the accepted medium for intellectual discourse. In particular, I will attempt to show how "Science" was therefore very one-sided in that it reflected the norms and aspirations of the Eurocentric world, while neglecting and discarding the rest of the world. As a result of this enormous power to "signify," those others who lacked the accepted signs were indeed left with a half-sign. When they had the mental image, the "sound-image" was not theirs; and more often than not their mental image was often superimposed by another, a grander one that belonged to the signification of les grands récits.

This would have been bad enough, but in addition the use of what I have termed the half-sign (still part indigenous language, part indigenous concept) meant that the West which had the power of arms was able to control bodies. First the natives were convinced (from what they understood of the new process of ordering) they were only part-human. As such they were the object of the gaze, of exhibitions and fairs where their very "difference" became not a mere abnormality, but a cultural deformity. They were objects of curiosity and, ironically, began to see themselves almost as human substitutes, replacing themselves in a world from which the new word had banished them. What had begun with the sustenance of their word, ended with the collapse of their known world.

The intellectual colonization of the world was done by two leading intellectuals of the eighteenth century—specifically, Carl von Linné or Linnaeus (1701-1778), a Swede, and an aristocrat on the make, and the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), an aristocratic and wealthy Frenchman—particularly because the European "scientific" endeavor has always been presented as truthful, non-subjective, and "universal." Together, from the eighteenth century onwards, they began a system that would influence the world well into the late modern period, indeed as late as the contemporary present. Both creatures of the Enlightenment, they named and classified according to so-called objective criteria that remained unchallenged until well into the postmodern period.

Linnaeus: Sexualizing Things

Linnaeus used his penchant for classification and naming to earn himself a place among the aristocracy.

He believed that the world should and could be classified, in Latin, and according to certain basic principles and ideas, of which members of the Enlightenment were so sure, and over which Europe held sway. Accordingly he and his "apostles" (as they called themselves with a quaint touch of religious fervor)1 travelled throughout the world giving every plant two names, somewhat like a European person—a family and a personal name, one for the genus and another for the species. 

However, the so-called "objectivity" of Science was compromised from the very start. The earth would be labelled in Latin, surely the ancient language of everyone on the globe, and European values would be imposed on the plant, mineral and animal world. I am, of course, not only interested in the "naming" process, but particularly in the unabashed "worlding" of gender, sexuality and race.2 

For what European cataloguing of natural phenomena did, was to accord everything and everyone a certain hallmark, if not of approval, then certainly a condescending and totalizing uniformity. Of course, needless to say, the old names persisted, but at the level of the folk, the uninformed, the ignorant, so no one would seriously be thinking of writing a scientific paper without knowing the "right" moniker for golden apple or breadfruit or stir apple or stinking-toe or five-finger. Even now, as I write the words, I smell and taste the fruits, but I have to resist the temptation to use quotation marks around each one—for aren't they after all, half-signs, said but never written, the inferior signification of those of us who live on the margins?

Along with the new words, came new concepts, and most important in this regard was a different way of regarding race, class, and sexuality. I am going to give one startling instance where they all combine in the name of a plant. I refer here to the marsh plant that acquired, indeed was identified with, the name Andromeda. Co-incidentally, Andromeda belongs not only to European Greek myth, but the name is a particularly suitable candidate, since it denotes the Other, for Andromeda was Ethiopian. Second, she was chained to a rock. "Chain" suggests both the Chain of Being, namely her physical fixedness, as well as the chains of enslavement and her social immobility.

We have, therefore, both imprisoned woman and enslaved Blackness in the name that is foisted on the unfortunate plant, with one being gender-controlled and the other race-dominated, hardly botanical qualities endemic to plants. Add to the conceptualization of all this within the Great Chain of Being, the way that a Europeanized God had seen fit to arrange the universe, with man (European male, of course,) just beneath the angels and the godhead, and some humans lower than others. Thus we understand Andromeda's total "odderness."

As Winthrop Jordan put it in White over Black:

The idea of the Great Chain of Being possessed all the power and all the weakness of any gigantic synthesis. The Chain of Being, as usually conceived, commenced with inanimate things and ranged upwards through the lowliest forms of life, through the more intelligent animals until it reached man himself; but it did not stop with man, for it continued upward through the myriad ranks of heavenly creatures until it reached its pinnacle in God.3

Thus the naming said much; Andromeda was woman and Ethiopian, low on the gender and racial scale. Therefore, classification is not just an idle way in which Linnaeus and his followers simply set up convenient markers for world usage, but in reality how Europe imposed its obsessions and ethnocentrism on the rest of the world, and how we all readily accepted these as a step towards our own enlightenment and civilization. The Greek myth is most appropriate in still another context; Andromeda is rescued by a very European icon, Perseus, and even, some might contend, "saved" by his marriage to her. No better illustration of European beneficence and goodwill is as readily apparent; it speaks much to the colonized everywhere about the virtues, strengths, and goodness available from the civilized offerings of Europe, because it was being willingly given, seemingly with no strings attached. In exchange for passivity, even some might contend for the feminization of the native, a rescue would be effected from the jaws of a chaotic and deadly monstrousness, and a re-situating of the colonized, now united with the savior, to a secure place of order, peace and law.

Andromeda's name was imprinted, first as a botanical specimen low down on the Chain of Being, and later emblazoned as an astronomer's curiosity high up in the sky as "the chained lady" in a faraway constellation between what was named Pisces and Cassiopeia. There is much more that could be said about this additional instance, but lest I be accused of making too much of it, I will simply add that the depths of the swamp and the heights of the sky are physical but not cultural spaces. Whether colonized Other observers looked down or up, they would always be reminded of the wretchedness of their condition, apparently justified by the very nature of the God-centered universe itself.

Let me cite some additional remarks by Alan Bewell in Visions of Empire that help buttress what I have been contending:

Linnaeus reads the marsh andromeda as if, indeed, it were integrally expressive of the classical myth. Gazing upon the plant transports Linnaeus into a mythological Golden Age as yet unaffected by the darker elements of sexuality (though they are obviously present in the [what Linnaeus termed] "evil toads and frogs" that drench Andromeda "with water when they mate"). In this nostalgic pastoralist vision, Linnaeus does not distinguish between women and plants, but instead treats the sexuality of the marsh andromeda as if it were the same thing as the specific conception of female sexuality conveyed by the Andromeda myth—that of ideal innocence threatened by bestiality. It is not simply that Linnaeus continually passes from talking about plants to talking about women; he really feels that he has discovered their fundamental kinship. . . . To see the plant properly, therefore, requires a special kind of double vision, which allows us to see both plant and female as one, passing easily from one to the other.4

For Linnaeus the marsh plant is almost one with woman and, as I have tried to stress, one with a negative concept of a racialized blackness. Linnaeus himself ecstatically scribbled in his notebooks:

I noticed that she was blood-red before flowering, but that as soon as she blooms her petals become flesh-coloured. . . . As I looked at her I was reminded of Andromeda as described by the poets, and the more I thought about her the more affinity she seemed to have with the plant; indeed, had Ovid set out to describe the plant mystically . . . he could not have caught a better likeness. . . . Her beauty is preserved only so long as she remains a virgin (as often happens with women also)—i.e., until she is fertilized, which will not now be long as she is a bride.5

This seems a trifle absurd, and rather far removed from a marsh plant, commonly called "rosemary." Gender and race demarcate class in this classificatory scheme, and although Linnaeus does not establish a hierarchical order for race, the next century would be rife with all and sundry who could draw on some of these notions to do just that.

Bewell went on to argue in the same article, that for Linnaeus:

plant and girl [were] juxtaposed. The fact that the same name "Andromeda," applies to both tells us that, for Linnaeus, the proper understanding of the botanical description requires that we constantly recognize the analogies established between vegetable reproduction and human sexuality.6

What we note in the apparently harmless triad of genus, pistils and stamens, and species, is the neat substitution of class, gender, and race. This leads us ultimately to plant, women and blackness, as one and the same.

Linnaeus' typically Enlightened European obsession demarcates mere plants like the andromeda as innocent and virgin, or as possessing the human hermaphroditic constituents of a bodily hybridity, so beloved of earlier travelers to the East. This constant sexualizing of the plant world continued to leave its marked and distorted imprint on his system.

The discoverer names what he sees; so any dictionary will reveal that a word like "monoecious" is a Linnaean neologism, between 1755 and 1765 from the Latin "Monoecia," for plants that have both stamens and pistils. However, since this would seem to be a common element among a host of plants, why would the difference be so important, except that it could be contrasted with "normal" humans? Does it have some eye-opening and macabre appeal because of its alternative method of reproduction? Are we looking at the majority of flowering plants as so-called "objective" scientific observers or curious voyeurs? Does this supposed "difference" further confirm these types of plants and their names as even more distant, more utterly Other?

Linnaeus did not establish a hierarchy of humans per se, but he did stress in Systema Naturae (1735) that there was an "objective" Scientific European way of regarding race. We were all of the genus homo, of the species sapiens, varying from the Wild Man, to the American [Native American], to the European who had "gentle" eyes and "was governed by laws," to the "sooty" and "black." The latter had "frizzled" hair, was "crafty, indolent [and] negligent" and "governed by caprice."7 So readers, in accepting the obvious contrasts, could draw their own hierarchical conclusions.

On the other hand, Mary Louise Pratt quite rightly asserts that "[o]ne could scarcely ask for a more explicit attempt to 'naturalize' the myth of European superiority."8 And clearly, by citing how Captain James Cook's expeditions sailed under secret orders, Pratt shows that Linnaeus' forays also marked still another official attempt by Europeans to inscribe the earth. As she puts it, ". . . the naming, the representing, and the claiming are all one; the naming brings the reality of order into being."9 These efforts would provide a reasoned justification for colonization. Peter Fryer mentions a pupil of Linnaeus' who was provoked to speculate that "one would have reason to think that the Moors had a rather strange origin" (166).10 The latter was suggested when the news spread that a rabbit had interbred with hens giving birth to some very fluffy-covered chickens.

Other students of Linnaeus helped to give scientific validity to the idea that the Khoi (or so-called "Hottentots") and the San (or so-called "Bushmen") a group they referred to as the Khoisan had little concept of God, and had never speculated about life after death. Hence they were plainly inferior. As David Chidester concludes in his recent study, "'Bushmen' shared with 'Hottentots', according to all reports at the end of the eighteenth century, this common feature: They lacked any trace of religion."11 This made it much easier to visualize them as the natural objects of a slowly growing apartheid consciousness premised on an All-Unknowing Self and a totally ignorant other. The un-Enlightened truthfully began to fear extermination, and the nineteenth century would witness their neurosis grow, as some of the most hateful racial claptrap that was ever published appeared under the aegis of "Science."

Buffon: Talking Race

What is truly ironical about the eighteenth century is that Europeans were so certain about the rightness with which they conceptualized the world both known and unknown to them.

But since they were preoccupied with themselves, issues of race continued to plague their enlightened minds. George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon and Linnaeus were bitter rivals and probed at the same issues with the same pre-occupations. Buffon had the time and money to devote to a thirty-six volume Natural History, the first of which appeared in 1749.

It rivalled Diderot's thirty-five volume Encyclopédie (1751-1772) whose bold idea was to encapsulate all knowledge in a book, or rather several books. Whereas Diderot's venture was a joint enterprise, this was an individual man's work, very much in keeping with the bold claims of Enlightenment.

Linnaeus had been moving in the direction of the proclamation that there was in some way the inevitable connection between the African and the ape, the Black man and the monkey. Lisbet Koerner writes that Linnaeus had hesitated over the use of the term homo sapiens, since homo diurnus had the advantage of being contrasted with homo nocturnus "whom Linnaeus termed Homo troglodytes, and associated with albino Africans, in those days often exhibited as freaks . . . [claiming that] exotic apes shaded into humans."12 Had he gone this route, it does not leave much to the imagination as regards which race would have been day, and which night, which wise and which the troglodytes. We might still have been mired in that swamp of yet another invention by a precious Enlightened mind. But it seems as if Linnaeus had had his doubts, or rather his more ambitious flights of fancy were severely reined in by theologians. There were no such constraints for Buffon.

With the assurance born of his time and class, Buffon easily explained blackness:

. . . as the east wind, which generally blows between the Tropics, arrives not at Nubia till it has traversed Arabia, it is not surprising to find the natives very black; it is less surprising to see the inhabitants of Senegal perfectly black; for the east wind before it reaches them, must blow over the whole of Africa in its great breadth, which renders the heat of the air almost insupportable.13

Like Linnaeus' disciples, he also ranges the world from the Caribbean where "these savages, though they never think, have a pensive melancholy aspect," or South America, citing Raleigh to explain that there was a group of Indians in Guyana "of which the natives are blacker than any other Indians."14

The European pre-occupation with blackness goes back to the earliest contacts between Blacks and Whites. I will note the total and complete fascination of George Best over two hundred years before in 1578, when he describes an "Ethiopian" (quite black we are told) who marries an Englishwoman, but who never changes color, although he lives in England, and whose son retains the darkness of his father. Best says:

I myselfe have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as a cole brought into England, who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father was, although England were his native countrey, and an English woman his mother: whereby it seemeth this blacknes proceedeth rather of some natural infection of that man, which was so strong, that neither the nature of the Clime, neither the good complexion of the mother concurring, coulde any thing alter, and therefore, we cannot impute it to the nature of the Clime.15

Another explanation is called for—infection—and this would be advanced over and over again. Buffon took the position that albinos fitted into this category and that "white therefore seems to be nature's primary color."16 Actually by arguing that the two colors could be equated, Best wasn't really attacking anyone; instead, he was merely trying to show that all the various parts of the world were habitable, and that since the Ethiopian could live in England and never change color, then English people could travel elsewhere without hazardous results to their complexion.

This did not mean that the point made by Buffon was not part and parcel of European consciousness. After all, if all you see around you is "white," this color would tend to assume an aura all its own. And it works the other way as well; as a mere tourist of no significance on the most mundane of visits to China, I was a minor celebrity as I went through Chinese villages, accompanied by a small squad of locals, intent on rubbing next to me, attempting to yank at my hair, or importuning me regarding the whereabouts of a certain "Mr Michael"—Jackson or Jordan really didn't matter. I have witnessed the same "curiosity" exhibited in African villages towards Whites. African villagers stared, touched, wanting a closer examination of skin and hair.

However, there is a difference in that eighteenth century Europeans were saying that they were acting in the name and interest of an "objective” prurience called "scientific evaluation." Hence there is the recent argument that is made quite repeatedly—one I don't totally buy—between European "racialism" (or racial awareness) and "racism."17 I can't wholly accept the distinction, because when you possess the power, this becomes no idle fetish, but the ability to transform people into your own construct. The Chinese could not re-construct me in this manner, nor could the curious Africans examining the Europeans. But the Europeans named the world, named and misnamed me, and then went about the business of ordering/giving orders to what they had apparently brought into existence.

Despite the trend of Jacques Roger's recent study of Buffon to justify Buffon, and account for Buffon's illusions, Roger must still conclude that:

It would be impossible here to examine the mix of errors, hasty generalizations, half-truths and exact observations that Buffon echoed. Despite his critical intelligence, he was at the mercy of his informants, who often added to their European prejudices those of their station.18

But all this merely places Buffon within the general, misinformed perspective of his time. Both he and Linnaeus were driven, not by horrible notions of the Other, but by a safe and contented feeling about their own center. They both saw nothing awry with armchair speculation as they listened to, or read from, reports in the field. They then invented the theory, and wrote about it, learnedly and profoundly. The people about whom they wrote had nothing to say; they remained at the margins of the text.19 At one extreme point they were "other," somewhere in-between they were "odder," (Bhabha's "white but not quite"), and at the extremest end, they were "oddities" shown at fairs, circuses, and exhibitions.

Other Odder Oddities

Some of the native, human, suitably re-named oddities turn up in the texts of explorers like William Dampier (who bore back the "painted" Prince Jeoly) and Captain James Cook (who returned with Omai). The South Pacific was now the cultural arena of the Other, so the Enlightened traveled there, fully preened, exhorting in the wonder of their selves. Greg Dening places it in perspective:

. . . It was a period in which the nations of Europe and the Americas saw themselves acting out their scientific, humanistic, selves. Government-sponsored expeditions from England, France, and Spain followed one another, self-righteously conscious of their obligations to observe, describe and publish, to be humane and to contribute to the civilizing process of natives out of their superior arts and greater material wealth. It was a time of intensive theater of the civilized to the native . . . 20

Much like Linnaeus' plants, natives also had to be classified and studied.

In the sixteenth century, Native Americans had been kidnapped and dragged across the Atlantic by "discoverers" from Columbus on. Lewis Hanke mentions that Bartolomé de Las Casas, as a young lad of eighteen, had been in Seville when Columbus returned from his First Voyage with "seven Indians, brightly beplumed parrots, Indian masks cleverly contrived from fishbones," and (in the words of Las Casas) "a large quantity of gold, including samples of finely wrought work."21 Las Casas would afterwards become a fierce spokesman against the injustices of European enslavement of Indians, and indirectly, a proponent of African slavery in the Americas.22 His observation of these early captives, and his later association with an unidentified Indian (supposedly "given" to him by his father) 23 seem to have bred in him a degree of sentimental exoticism, which made him all the more ready for the campaign he mounted to end Indian slavery in the Americas. But it was not apparent in anything I have read that he ever changed his mind that Indians were "barbarians," although deserving of Christian salvation.24

I do not want to discuss the arguments that were advanced by Las Casas and Sepúlveda. Suffice it to say that neither comes off today as particularly enlightened, since the argument advanced was not so much whether there ought to be slavery or not, but under what conditions. According to both of them, Aristotle became most important in defining not just the slave, but those who had the right reason to make war in order to enslave. Las Casas could not seemingly have opted out of his time and century, and put forward a notion so radical (as he later did) that nobody should be enslaved. The Bible, St Augustine, Cicero and all the "right sources" which Las Casas cited, had asserted that it was wrong to enslave Indians because they were civilized.25

That was why it was important to argue, as Thomas Jefferson would in the eighteenth century, that Indians possessed artistic finesse, unlike Blacks.26 In a curious way, then, these circus parades of the Other in European capitals, could be reduced to a mere commodity spectacle, but the European viewers also registered pity, empathy, and a feeling of responsibility. Hence was born the Noble Savage, against whom war could not be justified. Thus the pity that abolished New World Indian slavery, but retained serfdom; thus the hypocrisy that introduced African slavery, but kept the Africans marginalized as totally outer, so no such misgivings as regards their humanity would hasten abolition.

Another sixteenth century sympathizer with the Indian was Albrecht Dürer. In 1520, Hernando Cortés had dispatched six Aztecs to Spain, complete with a number of artifacts. They became a kind of traveling circus, as they toured Seville, Valladolid, and Brussels to mark Charles V's coronation.27

In Brussels Dürer had witnessed the exhibition of these strange but nameless creatures and had written in his diary as follows:

I saw the things which have been brought to the King from the new land of gold, a sun all of gold, a whole fathom broad, and a moon all of silver of the same size, also two rooms full of the armour of the people there, and all manner of wondrous weapons of theirs, harnesses and darts, very strange clothing, beds and all kinds of wonderful objects of human use, much better worth seeing than prodigies. These things are all so precious that they are valued at a hundred thousand florins. All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart as much as these things, for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art and I marvelled at the subtle Ingenia of people in foreign lands. Indeed I cannot express all that I thought there.28

Dürer would later take an active interest in depicting some of the unusual faces he saw in the Europe of his day. One writer harks back to Dürer's visit to Brussels as a turning point in his art, citing his famous portrait of a Black servant, Katharina, twenty years old in 1521, and commenting that Dürer accorded her "the same attention as he shows in the delineation of wealthy merchants or fellow artists."29 

Where both Las Casas  and Dürer were mistaken, however well-intentioned, is in interpreting Aztec orbs and discs in pure contemporary European obsessions, i.e., as the sun and moon. They did not read them as calendars, as the signatures and signs of another culture providing a significance beyond anything that Europe was able to imagine in the sixteenth century. They looked for crude equations—the sun and the moon—and they found them.

By the seventeenth century, Africans became fashionable as pets to decorate milady's chamber, to accompany her on walks, and to be painted with her next to her horses.30 This did not seem to prevent the continuation of the African body as a floating and often contrary signifier. So that, for instance, the servant or groom turns up in other depictions as one of the magi (which is a carryover from the sixteenth century). Now two more contrary signifiers appear—Black St. Maurice31 and the Black Virgin.32 Therefore, even as Black figures were represented mainly as servants, somewhere in the European mind these representations carried along with them an accompanying but non-connecting co-representation as saints and virgins—all solemnly yoked together in the Christian church.

In England, by the eighteenth century, Blacks were so numerous that, even as they met and congregated around St. Giles Circus in London, the locals dubbed them "St. Giles blackbirds."33 By then, however, the articulate "subaltern" was no longer silent, but still Eurocentric, as witness the writing of Ottobah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, and Ignatious Sancho (in England), Jacobus Eliza Capitein (in Holland), Anton Wilhelm Amo (in Germany) and Phillis Wheatley (in the United States). The problem was that very often we see their texts filtered through the European editors and readers. They too are very much imprisoned by the circumstances of their own time.34

By the eighteenth century, Indians and Blacks gave way to South Pacific islanders as objects of European curiosity. They were carted back to Europe, and subjected to the same humiliations as the Indians and Africans, but now in the name of Science. Additionally, the United States had begun to embark on its own genocidal hegemonization of its indigenous peoples, which would reach its apogee in the next century.

In the nineteenth century there occurred a new twist, as race, gender and sexuality combined in the indecent exposure of the "Hottentot Venus" in London and Paris, as crowds gazed at the bare bottom and vagina of Saartjie Baartman, observing its supposed excessive size with prurient interest.35

Let me add at this point that it was no accident that Saartjie Baartman was supposedly a "Hottentot," a vivid European construct which sought to place a kind of super-barbarism, an ultra-"negro" savagery, on this perversion of the unfortunate Khoisan of South Africa. Winthrop Jordan contends that Europeans felt that "the Hottentots" were "the most appallingly barbarous of men," arguing that, for Buffon, polar peoples "shared honors with the Hottentots," whereas for Linnaeus there was a serious question about their human status.36

The perception of Hottentot inferiority went hand in hand with the generally current view that all "natives" were sub-European. Egyptians could not have built the Sphinx, nor could ancestors of present-day Native Americans be responsible for the Mississippi Mounds, much less the civilizations of the Aztec, Inca and Maya, or the magnificent buildings at Great Zimbabwe.

Omai, Cook's "boy," read back to Cook what was already in Cook's mind, namely that Pacific Islanders could never have planned to make extensive voyages to found living places in the South Sea. Their journeys had to be derived from whim, not good planning. In this connection, Ben Finney asserts that:

On his third voyage into the Pacific, before heading north for his fatal encounter with the Hawaiians, Cook had touched on the small island of Atiu in the archipelago later to be named the Cook Islands after the English navigator. There Ma'i (whom the English called "Omai"), a Tahitian whom Cook was taking back to England, met four of his countrymen who told a tale of their drift voyage to the island. Some ten years earlier they were part of a group of twenty men and women who had set sail from Tahiti to Ra'iatea, a day and a half's sail away. For some reason, however, they missed the island and drifted for many days to the southwest until the canoe, which had by then been overturned, came within sight of Atiu, at which point the Atiuans spotted the wreckage and rescued the five survivors.37

Cook used this one incident to demonstrate that this was the manner in which the islands were settled. Local people, it seemed, could not erect pyramids in Egypt, or found civilizations in Central America or Africa. After all, they were the colonial Other, and incapable of any positive civilizing endeavor.

Not only were these specimens "outcastes," or rather "un-classed" in a very class-conscious European society, but additionally they occupied the space at which sexuality, race and gender intersected. In 1810 visitors paid to see Saartjie Baartman, because she confirmed their worst feelings that she was the utter(most) Other, complete it was reliably stated with elongated genitalia. Dampier was able to loan out Prince Jeoly because, again, Jeoly was conceived as being odder. Otherness became odder(most) became utter(most) when it inhabited a different body like the "Elephant Man," or especially when (as in these cases) the skin pigmentation of those observed was not the same as the observers. Later, these oddities would be exhibited at state-sponsored expositions and fairs, before becoming part of the private commodification of spectacle at exhibitions and traveling circuses.

Replacing language meant that a new order was created. This new hierarchy established a Eurocentric frame of reference that literally removed the older way, not merely of speaking, but of visualizing the world. The search for the half-sign seemed, in the final analysis, a fruitless endeavor, since as a language, the indigenous contribution had been rendered irrelevant, and as a value system it had been made laughable. The sensible thing seemed to become a "been-to," a mimic-man, one who had been to the metropole and learned its ways. This the new writers did, whether they admit it or not. But they re-arranged the order: the new writers have replaced the European world by placing their old words in new texts. Even now they are stressing the nether half of the half-sign, the word-image discarded so long

*   *   *   *   *


1Their mission was divine; hence the names "apostles" or "disciples" were fitting. Heinz Goerke points out in Linnaeus that Linnaeus himself "chose the term to indicate that their task was a missionary one. Their assignment was to travel all over the world, scrutinizing nature at his direction and according to his ideas, and at the same time spreading his fame." In Heinz Goerke. Linnaeus. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973, p.149. The same writer cites a source that had admiringly described Linnaeus as "God's Registrar," p.89. Daniel Boorstin adds that Linnaeus had invented the syntax he used, but as he tried to make his ideas conform to reality, his descriptions got longer and longer. Boorstin relates how the various "disciples" went off to the East Indies, North America, China, the Middle East, South Africa, the South Pacific, Japan, and various parts of Europe. "Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit" (God created, Linnaeus classified), Boorstin sardonically concluded. Daniel Boorstin. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, pp.436-446. Let me add that I deal here mainly with primary sources. However, I recommend the additional work of such scholars as Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York/Cambridge: Zone Books—distributed by MIT Press, 1998. Bruno Latour has several relevant publications; I particularly recommend his study with Steve Woolgar. Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979; and his We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1993. For a good gender perspective, see particularly Londa L. Schiebinger. Nature's Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

2 See Spivak for her coinage of "worlding". She uses the word to describe how the unnamed but barbaric Other may be transformed as "human", and thus become suitably pliable for use by Western imperialism. See Spivak. "Three Women's Texts" in Gates, Race, p.267.

3 Winthrop D. Jordan. White over Black : American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812. Chapel Hill : Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Va.: University of North Carolina Press, 1968, p.219.

4 Alan Bewell. "On the Banks of the South Sea". In David P. Miller & Peter Hannis Reill (eds.). Vision of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.178.

5 Cited in Wilfrid Blunt. The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. London: Collins, 1971, p.56.

6 Bewell, pp.178-79.

7  Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze. ed. Race and The Enlightenment: A Reader. Cambridge, MA.: Blackwell Publishers, 1997, pp.13-14. Eze's book is very useful, since it has compiled in one place most of the audacious statements on race by Enlightenment thinkers.

8  Mary Louise Pratt. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London/New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 32.

9  Pratt, p.23.

10  The allusion here is to Nicolaus E. Dahlberg in 1755. See Peter Fryer. The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto Press, 1984, p.530, n6.

11 David Chidester. "Bushmen Religion : Open, Closed and New Frontiers". In Tippa Stotnis. Miscast : Negotiating the Present of the Bushmen. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1996, p.54.

12 Lisbet Koerner. "Purposes of Linnaean Travel : A Preliminary Research Report". In David P. Miller & Peter Hannis Reill (eds.). Vision of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.123.

13 Eze, p.21.

14 Ibid., p.19.

15 George Best. "A true discourse of the three voyages of discoverie, for the finding of a passage to Cathaya, by the Northwest, under the conduct of Martin Frobisher Generall;..." in Richard Hakluyt. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. [1598] 12 Vols. Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1903-1905. Vol VII, 1904, pp.262-263. This passage, quite rightly, is used by writers in Cultural Studies to pinpoint (a) an early Black presence in Britain (b) an early example of intermarriage and (c) proof that there had been a continuous Black presence in Britain.

16 Roger, Jacques. Buffon: A Life in Natural History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997, p.175.

17 See, for instance, Kwame Anthony Appiah. In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp.13-17. Note the outright opposition in Kim F. Hall. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995, pp.3-4, n7. Hall disagrees with Appiah's assertion that racism is an eighteenth century phenomenon. In a way, this is really a great deal of fuss about nothing. "Racialism" is really the British English usage for the American English "racism".

18 Roger, p.176.

19 See illustrations in Kim Hall. Things of Darkness. Also see an ongoing work in progress, The Image of the Black in Western Art, under the general editorship of Ladislas Bugner. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1976 to present, 5 Vols so far. A problem with the series is that it tends to stress how well Blacks integrated into European life and culture, ignoring the issues of color and race.

20 Greg Dening. "The theatricality of Observing and Being Observed : Eighteenth-Century Europe 'Discovers' the? Century 'Pacific'". In Stuart B. Schwartz (ed.). Implicit Understandings of Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters Between European and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.452.

21 Lewis Hanke. Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historian: An Essay in Spanish Historiography. Gainesville, FL.: Univ of Florida Press, 1952, p.78.

22 For Las Casas's opinions on African slavery and his later change of heart, consult Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen ed. Bartolomé de Las Casas in History: Toward an Understanding of the Man and His Work. De Kalb, IL.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1971, pp.22-23, 165-166, 291, 415-18, 505-506 & 584-584.

23 Las Casas had been "given" an Indian by his father Pedro de Las Casas. Columbus, in turn, had made this "gift" to Pedro himself. The account states that Bartolomé had returned the Indian to the authorities, for repatriation to the Indies. Few can vouch for the veracity of this--indeed it sounds a little like George Washington and the cherry tree. See Bartolomé de Las Casas. The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account [1552]. Trans. Herma Briffault. Baltimore, MD.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. "Introduction" by Bill M. Donovan, p.3.

24 Las Casas had conceded as much in his famous debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda at Valladolid in 1550-1. See Lewis Hanke, All Mankind is One: A Study of the Disputation Between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Inés de Sepúlveda in 1550 on the Intellectual and Religious Capacity of the American Indians. De Kalb, IL.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974.

25 See Bartolomé Las Casas. In Defense of the Indians: The Defense of the Most Reverend Lord, Don Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas of the Order of Preachers, Last Bishop of Chiapa, Against the Persecutors and Slanderers of the People of the New World Discovered Across the Seas. De Kalb, IL.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1974. This work, unpublished until 1974, constitutes the formal Las Casas argument against Sepúlveda in 1550-1. Modern scholarship has tended to fault Las Casas for arguing too strongly in "Manichean antitheses (innocent Indians, cruel Spaniards), enhanced by the biblical image, repeated over twenty times in the text, of docile sheep versus cruel wolves and tigers" in Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Ed. Roberto González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker. 3 Vols. Cambridge University Press, 1996, Vol 1, p.96.

26Thomas Jefferson had praised the industry of the Indians, arguing that a Black person had never "uttered a thought above the level of plain narration." Thomas Jefferson. "Notes on the State of Virginia" [1785] Writings. New York: The Library of America, 1984, p.266. Jefferson's views on race are typically those of the "Enlightened" European we have been discussing.

27 Later, the escutcheon of Charles V would be emblazoned with an Indian as a "Wild Man" in the appropriate posture of submission. No doubt these early visitations of humble Indians would have helped supply the necessary belief in such a representation. See John Block Friedman. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Life and Thought. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1981, p.201.

28 From Dürer's diary, quoted by Jean Michel Massing, "Early European Images of America: The Ethnographic Approach" in Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration. Ed. Jay A Levinson. Washington, DC.: National Gallery of Art, 1991, p.515. Also see Lewis Hanke. All Mankind is One, p.75.

29 Gude Suckale-Redlefsen. Mauritius: Der helige Mohr /The Black Saint Maurice. Houston, TX.: Menil Foundation, 1987, p.103.

30 See Hall. Things of Darkness. Note the illustrations of numerous aristocratic ladies and their prestigious "Blackamoors".

31 Concerning Black St. Maurice (d. 286), see Gude Suckale-Redlefsen. Mauritius. St. Maurice was supposedly a synthesis of beliefs from East and West. In the West, he is a combination of a forgotten Moor, and Maurice, commander of the Theban Legion from Egypt. In the East, he was associated mainly with martyrdom.

32 See Ean Begg. The Cult of the Black Virgin. London: Penguin, 1996. This is a fairly comprehensive book, discussing Black Virgins, Black Christs, as well as saints like St. Maurice.

33 See an early treatment of this in Wylie Sypher. Guinea's Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature of the Eighteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942, pp.2-3.

34 Recent studies are appearing on some of these writers particularly from England. Also see O. R. Dathorne. The Black Mind: A History of African Literature. Minneapolis, MN.: University of Minnesota Press, 1974, pp.76-88.

35 For more on Saartjie Baartman, see Fryer, pp.229-230 and Sander L Gilman. "Black Bodies, White Bodies" in Race, Culture and Difference. Ed. James Donald and Ali Rattansi. London: Sage Publications, 1992, pp.174-176. She was brought to Britain in 1810 by an Afrikaner farmer and put on exhibition in Piccadilly. The show was so popular that her "stage" name, "The Hottentot Venus", was revived in Paris by another woman in 1829 some years after the original Saartjie Baartman had died there in 1815.

36 Winthrop Jordan, pp.226-227.

37 Ben Finney. Voyage of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey through Polynesia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. p.24. The account does not relate how the rescuers arrived there. Finney asserts that Cook would probably have changed his viewpoint, had he not died.

Source: MotsPluriels

Oscar Ronald Dathorne (November 19, 1934 – December 18, 2007) was a Guyanese educator, novelist, poet and critic. Born in Georgetown, Guyana he attended Queen’s College prior to his parents moving the family to England in 1953. He attended the University of Sheffield obtaining his BA, English in 1958 later completing his MA in 1960 and PhD, English, in 1966.

However, having completed his studies he found that few English universities were willing to offer him anything other than junior positions. He therefore sought job opportunities abroad and successfully applied for a teaching post at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. He remained in West Africa for six years completing his stay whilst holding a full professorship at the University of Sierra Leone as head of the English department. With his use of African literature as a basis for many English classes and the increased recognition that African literature be defined as written by Africans rather than about Africans; in 1969 he was invited to the United States as a guest lecturer at Yale University.

With the continuing changes in the black American psyche, African culture and heritage were viewed as a past in which to take great pride. As a result, universities throughout the US were becoming interested in forming African and African-American study departments. Having specialist knowledge within this area, Dathorne became professor of African studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

He was a pioneer of Black Studies in the United States teaching African American studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and then spent fifteen years working at Ohio State and the University of Miami, establishing and directing African, Caribbean, and African-American study programs. In 1987 he left the University of Miami to take up a post as a professor in the English department at the University of Kentucky.Wikipedia

posted 24 March 2011

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The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume III

 From the "Age of Discovery" to the Age of Abolition

Part 1: Artists of the Renaissance and Baroque [Hardcover]

By David Bindman

One of the most thorough collections depicting the African-American in works of art...The books build on the research and photo project started by art patron Dominique de Menil in the 1960s, which grew out of a frustration with segregation. The collection was then transferred and continued to grow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. De Menil's original volumes have been updated by David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr. and now include more detailed descriptions and provide a larger context of the artwork that spans more than 5,000 years, including the Roman Empire to present-day pieces, filling in tremendous gaps in de Menil's collection, according to some art historians. The images, printed in full-color on high-quality pages, are available for the masses to see and understand how African-Americans not only fit into the various societies of the Western world, but how those relationships evolved throughout the ages.—Kirkus Reviews

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance

Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It

By Les Leopold

How could the best and brightest (and most highly paid) in finance crash the global economy and then get us to bail them out as well? What caused this mess in the first place? Housing? Greed? Dumb politicians? What can Main Street do about it? In The Looting of America, Leopold debunks the prevailing media myths that blame low-income home buyers who got in over their heads, people who ran up too much credit-card debt, and government interference with free markets. Instead, readers will discover how Wall Street undermined itself and the rest of the economy by playing and losing at a highly lucrative and dangerous game of fantasy finance. He also asks some tough questions:  Why did Americans let the gap between workers' wages and executive compensation grow so large? Why did we fail to realize that the excess money in those executives' pockets was fueling casino-style investment schemes? Why did we buy the notion that too-good-to-be-true financial products that no one could even understand would somehow form the backbone of America's new, postindustrial economy? How do we make sure we never give our wages away to gamblers again? And what can we do to get our money back? In this page-turning narrative (no background in finance required) Leopold tells the story of how we fell victim to Wall Street's exotic financial products. Readers learn how even school districts were taken in by "innovative" products like collateralized debt obligations, better known as CDOs, and how they sucked trillions of dollars from the global economy when they failed. They'll also learn what average Americans can do to ensure that fantasy finance never rules our economy again. The Economy

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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