Human Gorillas in our midst? Guerilla scholar debunks that myth!
The dialectical process of dialogic exchange purports that the convening of a consensus of thought–that is, a synthesis of opposing terms or ideas–is contingent upon diametrically opposed elements of argumentation occurring. One critical element, the thesis, is a statement, utterance, even an idea that assumes one side of a conversant coin. Its opposing conception, though seemingly operating parallel to the initial conviction itself, represents the antithesis of such articulated ideological construct. The proverbial giving and taking; the parrying and countenancing; the steely-eyed visual exchange in the mirror involving both spheres of ones corporeal being are, in a sense, a synopsis of the triangular communicative process as hitherto iterated. As one can see, the visual may act as surrogate stead for the verbal. But, what are trans-postulate representations of the dialectical process? Can they occur in physical, material exchange and representation? What about the simple binarism of black and white? And in a racialized society such as America, what prefigurement of sorts has the polarizing dichomitization of the color scheme, thus eliciting and hyper-valuating the chromatic aberration with which the sepia imagery of America has been produced, provides the hierarchical scale where the black-and-white motif illumines the social arrangement of reverse order; or, as the scholar, Winthrop Jordan said best, “White over Black” (Jordan, 1968).
In an editorial piece that appeared in the Washington Post on 11 September 2009, the author, Eugene Robinson, attempts to provide a scant overview of the incivility that had been accorded President Obama earlier in the week while addressing Congress on the merits of a health care reform initiative. For those who haven’t been made privy as to the scandal that ensued while the President pitched his case, the (un)gentleman South Carolinian Republican Representative, Joe Wilson, interposed–rather rudely while his conservative cronies looked on and nudged him along with their own silent forms of disgusted dissent–“you lie!” Robinson, while describing such antics as “childish,” and inferring that they shone a bad light on the crew, sums up the indecorum that such presented by juxtaposing that against the lack of said civility that previous presidents have been proffered within the same chambers. However, once Robinson reaches the thirteenth paragraph (the numerical thirteen still carries the black cat crossing the path heebies in Western society) the issue of race is alluded. “You will note,” Robinson reminds the readers, “that I have not yet mentioned race.” You see, there may be some who, with the election of the first black president, have been deluded into believing that we have become post-racial, and that those types of issues of outright disrespect toward someone black don’t warrant mention anymore. However, as the author continues, “For the record, I suspect that Obama’s race leads some critics to feel they have permission to deny him the legitimacy, stature and common courtesy that are any president’s due.” Then, as if to engage his audience, drawing them even closer to conceptualize and possibly imagine why, Robinson cajoles his reader into partaking in a exchange of ideas on why, concomitant the current first black President’s nine months in office, there have been a rash of racial angst. If only, he contends, “[w]e could have an interesting discussion about the historical image of the black man in American society…” Well, the cudgel will be taken up here, and the explanation won’t be that nice.
This ethnological tract of inquiry will be one that deliberately deviates from the presumed conventions of anthropological rendering and assessment. To sum up the particular position that such an academic interrogation purports, it is imperative at the outset to rationalize such a iconoclastic notion. Whereas the field of anthropology has routinely and reasonably studied the “Other,” at the expense of only appraising the position of those who define such as perhaps occupying a approximation of normalcy, as those who constitute “the problem,” this piece will coincide with the strident remarks profferred by Laura Nader that invert such theoretical order. In order to appreciate the richness and appositeness of such prologue, she will have to be quoted at length:
If we look at the literature based upon field work in the United States, we find a relatively abundant literature on the poor, the ethnic groups, the disadvantaged; there is comparatively little field research on the middle class and very little first hand work on the upper classes. Anthropologists might indeed ask themselves whether the entirety of field work does not depend upon a certain power relationship in favor of the anthropologist, and whether indeed such dominant-subordinate relationships may not be affecting the kinds of theories they are weaving. What if, in reinventing anthropology, anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty (1969, p. 289).
Hence, those affecting cultures and individuals, realities and legitimized rationales, in this expository piece, will upend the customary status quo of the means of “study” by which a solution of socialistically-ordered sordid sorts is normally systematized, and become the problem to be examined.
Circa the middle of the eighteenth century, when Europeans began to branch out beyond the strictured territorial confines of Europa proper, the abecedarian methodology of devising descriptors of foreing peoples–thus making novel the forerunners of a formal classificatorysystem–were provided by early taxonomists. The chief taxonomist who would be academically immortalized by the binomial nomenclature accorded living things in his 1735 publication, System Naturae, was a Swedish botanist, Carolus Linneaus (Ewen & Ewen, 2006; Gould, 1981; Gossett, 1963).
Howbeit, Linnaeus’ conception of reality wasn’t merely subsumed beneath the scientific arrangement of things in a hierarchical order, for that had already, according to Arthur Lovejoy (1936), been accomplished in the Western Enlightenment’s apportionment of things–material and immaterial–in a chain of order beginning with God at the top, and descending to the lowest form of life extant at the terminating end. Linnaeus was chiefly concerned with ascertaining and making a discernment between species and varieties. Species were regarded as immutable, non-morphological conceits and prototypes as created by God (Gossett, 1963). In contradistinction, varieties, while existing as shades or slight changes in shape, color, or figurement, were merely variant expression of the samesaid phylogenic species types. Linnaeus didn’t give a hoot about varieties, his mission was to establish the fixity of species. “His contributions to science,” Gossett explains, was not in niggling over the subleties, but “lie almost wholly in his system of nomenclature. He considered his work done when he had classified a biological organism, assigned it to a place, and tagged it with a name” for posterity purposes (1963, p. 35). As such, since human beings reside in the grandiose reticulum of organisms, they didn’t escape his notice, for he divided humanity into quadrant varieties: Homo Europaeus, Homo Asiaticus, Homo Africanus, and Homo Americanus. He didn’t stop there though, for he committed two acts that would later provide fodder for the exprobations of those of African extraction. In one manner, he conjoined great apes with the phylo “homo” and Anthropomorpha, while in the other, he commingled descriptive aspects of physical features with putative attributes of character. For example, Homo Africanus was described as such: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; hair-black, frizzled; skin-silky; nose-flat; lips-tumid; women without shame, they lactate profusely; crafty, indolent, negligent; anoints himself with grease; governed by caprice (Smedley, 2007).
So, as one can see, the die was cast to infer from such that Africans were “substantially different” than the Europeans who were described as being governed by laws. However, since at the time of Linnaeus’ writings there was a dearth of those “scientist” who obtained first-hand information empiracally resulting from their own visuals, much less engaging in field research to procure direct, relative, and accurate information, the question beckons, “from whence did such source material derive?” Moreover, much of the attendant perspectives of the African was devoid a qualifiable source material, instead emerging as it possibly did from some vacuous region supplied only with folk-tales and myths of the “other” by means of highlighting the white European corporeal, this was not lost on those scientist–especially Linnaeus–who would furnish the foundation of anthropological study in determining the relations and kinship of human beings. “Like all his European contemporaries,” Audrey Smedley convincingly informs us in her compendium study, Race in North America: Origins and Evolution of a Worldview,:
Linnaeus acquired the vast majority of his data from the writings, descriptions, commentaries, speculations, musings, opinions, and beliefs of travelers, explorers, traders, missionaries, plantation owners, and the like with experience of the New World, parts of Africa, or Asia. Their perceptions of “savages” with accompanying interpretations and fantasies flowed into the scientific establishment and fueled its speculations (2007, p. 170).
Coincidentally, such travelers tales were provided by ones who were, for the first time, laying their sights on a black person. And, this isn’t too situate squarely on the shoulders of Linnaeus the independent responsibility for structuring the foundation for “the scientific establishment,” but his work appreciably influenced the outlook that many of his contemporary and future European (and those of extraction) colleagues would have on the African’s humanity as representing a midway point between homo sapien sapien and the greater primates. Hence, just a reminder, Smedley conveniently accedes that another European scientist, Edward Tyson, a prominent member of the Royal Society of London, was the first to study the morphological similarities in skeletal structure “between humans and the great apes.” Although Tyson deemed his specimen a “pygmy,” in reality the pygmy was a chimpanzee and the implications of such were scientifically devastating. By doing such, “[h]e speculated that his ‘pygmy’ was a form that has been created on the ‘Scale of Being” halfway between monkeys and true men, thus establishing a kind of ‘mising link’ theory even before the development of evolutionary paradigms in biology” (Smedley, 2007, p. 168).
That premature paradigmatic shift in biological conceptuality would not be lost on future scientific generations. For, as eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropologist would be conflicted with the notion of contemplating monogenetic and polygenetic theorems of human beings origin, the derivative of the African was invariably situated as being of first cousin relation to gorillas and orangutans. As such, this ideology wasn’t lost on other supposed free thinkers who subscribed to the “multiple humankind origins species concept,” for Voltaire, idolized as Enlightenment dramatist and philosopher, “thought of black Africans as mere animals who mated with orangutans” (Smedley, p. 175). Furthermore, keeping in mind the relative significance that such paradigmatic presuppositions contained regarding the African’s positionality as a grade lower than the white Europeans, especially as an antithetical projection of everything the European denied within him or herself, it is useful to conjure the hierarchical scale by which the African was gauged and situated. Arthur Lovejoy, in a fitting reminder, provides such extrapolation:
No history of the biological sciences in the eighteenth century can be adequate which fails to keep in view the fact that, for most men of science throughout that period, the theorems implicit in the conception of the Great Chain of Being continued to constitute essential presuppositions in the framing of scientific hypotheses (1936, p. 227)
One such prominent man of science, a luminary a little closer to the current caricaturing that President Obama is experiencing and enduring, was his presidential predecessor, Thomas Jefferson. Although posteriorly known and respected for enshrining into the Declaration of Independence the idiom, “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal,” he was, according to Stephen Jay Gould’s scholarly estimation, “among our heroes [who] argued for biological inferiority” (1981, p. 64). For, as George M. Frederickson postulated in his seminal book dealing with the nature of this debased imagery in the minds of some whites, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, “In the 1780’s, Thomas Jefferson, alone among the spokesmen for the American Enlightenment, had moved in this direction by arguing that blacks were probably inferior to whites in certain basic qualities…” (1971, p. 1). Howbeit, Jefferson gingerly asserted such thoughts in his writings, Notes on Virginia (1784), when he laid it on the line by assevering, “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites both in body and mind” (pp. 256-262). And, one of the foremost authorities on the range of denigratory suppositions that whites’ advanced about blacks, Winthrop Jordon, in his book, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812, signified the implications of such thoughts on future rationale by reminding us that, “Until well into the nineteenth century Jefferson’s judgement on that matter, with all its confused tentativeness, stood as the strongest suggestion of inferiority expressed by any native American” (p. 455).
Jefferson’s lead was to be followed by a host of pseudoscientists, quacks, putative religious scholars, and jaded political, as well as social scientists, who would drink from the same trough of racist thinking regarding the alleged biological and psychological inferiority of blacks. The pronouncements of such unoriginal thinkers wouldn’t be spoken behind closed doors, but would provide kindling for the perpetuation of such inaneness in congeries of publications that bespoke the depth of such sordid ideological bent. There was: Ariel’s, The Negro, What is His Ethnological Status? Is He the Progeny of Ham? Is He a Descendant of Adam and Eve? Has He a Soul? Or Is He A Beast in God’s Nomenclature? What is His Status As Fixed by God In Creation? What Is His Relation to the White Race? (1867; Yes, his work carried that long ass title); Hinton R. Helper’s 1867 book, Nojoque: A Question for a Continent, with provocatively titled chapters as “Black, a thing of ugliness, disease, and death,” and “The Negro’s Vile and Vomit-Provoking Stench;” Dr. John Van Evries, White Supremacy and Negro Subordination (1868); Josiah Clark Nott & George Robbin Gliddon’s, Types of Mankind (1854); Charles Charroll’s, ‘The Negro a beast,’ or ‘In the Image of God’ (1900); Robert W. Shufelt’s, The Negro, A Menace to American Civilization (1907); Frederick L. Hoffman’s, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (1896); and, all of the aforementioned scholarly works standing on the scholarly shoulders of the grand racist poobah of them all, Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau’s, The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races, with Particular Reference to Their Respective Influence in the Civil and Political History of Mankind (1856). All of these works evinced the taxonomic order that would be illustrated in social mores, myths, caricatures, and buffoonish banality of the African being depicted as “nigger,” “gorilla,” “ape,” and “savage atavist with bone protruding though the nose.”
If one suspects for a minute that such spectacles and descriptors are ananachronisms of previous century’s bygone eras, the culmination of such racist thinking materialized in the flesh for the entire world to witness just how far many white folk esteemed the teleological and phytological constitution of the black African. In 1905, as the penultimate delineation of hte African’s social degradation, the Bronx Zoo in New York–that cosmopolitan citadel–debuted an African pygmy in the monkey house. Words could never do justice in describing the enormity of the iniquity committed by such, however, I’ll defer to the newspaper articles at that time that editorialized the event.
Carrying the headliner, “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Apes,” the New York Times on Sunday, September 9, 1906 stated:
There was an exhibition at the Zoological Park, in the Bronx, yesterday which had for many of the visitors something more than a provocation to laughter. There were laughs enough in it too, but there was something about it which made the serious minded grave. The exhibition was that of a human being in a monkey cage. The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale, but to the average non-scientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something about the display that was unpleasant. The human being caged was the little black man, Ota Benga, whome Prof. S. P. Verner, the explorer, recently brought to this country from the jungles of Central Africa.
While, on Monday, September 17, 1906, the New York Journal carried the story as such under the title, “The Black Pigmy in the Monkey Cage”:
The gentlemen in charge of the Zoological Garden in the Bronx have again illustrated the foolishness of allowing semi-official busybodies to manage public affairs. These men–with good intentions probably, but without thought and intelligence have been exhibiting in a cage of monkeys, a small human dwarf from Africa. Their idea, probably, was to inculcate some profound lesson in evolution. As a matter of fact, the only result achieved has been to hold up to scorn the African race…
Yes, a century has elapsed since such palpable display of the alleged inferiority of the African was asserted so brazenly, however, the source material has always been there ready to tap into to castigate those of African extraction. The profusion of placards showcasing Obama as a witchdoctor, an ape, a chimpanzee, and the likes, are mere throwbacks to what once was emblematics accepted amongst the status quo. So yes, Mr. Robinson, there has been much to say about the image of the black person in America, but some of us are waiting for those racist chapters to be closed, the pop-up imagery put away, and acceptance of one of those incidental characteristics that make the spectrum of humanity more interesting and exciting, rather than bland, mundane, and monochromatic–the varied hues of colors that make humans human, and not some outgrowth of biological deterministic presumptions.
Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Gossett, T. F. (1963). Race: The history of an idea in America. Oxford University Press.
Jordan, W. D. (1968). White over black: American attitudes toward the negro, 1550-1812. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Lovejoy, A. (1936). The great chain of being: A study of the history of an idea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Nader, L. (1969). “Up the Anthropologist: Perspectives Gained From Studying Up,” in Dell Hymes (ed.): Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Vintage Books.
Smedley, A. (2007). Race in North America: Origin and evolution of a worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Stanton, W. (1960). The leopard’s spots: Scientific attitudes toward race in America, 1815-59. University of Chicago Press.