JWTC
JWTC Blog

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Revolting Music – A Brief Survey of South African Liberation Songs by Laura Efron

Neo Muyanga at the Rainbow Restaurant in Durban
(c) Tana Nolethu Forrest

 La primera vez que escuché a Neo Muyanga cantar fue en el colectivo. Un largo viaje camino a King Williams Town que empezaba a acumular sentimientos, ideas, imágenes; una serie de explosiones emocionales e intelectuales dentro de un grupo que sólo se conocía hacía menos de una semana. La primera vez que escuché a Neo Muyanga cantar, la magia se apoderó de mí y de nosotros a través de canciones que nunca antes habíamos escuchado. La música puede hacer eso. La música nos encanta y nos encandila; nos libera de nosotros mismos.
The first time I heard Neo Muyanga sing was in the bus, alongside 60 other writers, activists, and scholars. It was a long road trip across the Eastern Cape from Durban to King Williams Town. There had been a series of moments of intense intellectual experiences among a group of people who had only known each other for less than a week. As I listened to Neo Muyanga sing, magic washed over me and over us through songs we had never heard before. Music can do that. Music bewitches and dazzles; frees us from ourselves.
Como un instrumento de liberación y de lucha, la música tiene su propia historia en Sudáfrica. Las raíces de los géneros locales pueden rastrearse en los cantos y plegarias de los Khoi-San, habitantes originarios del Cabo. Con la llegada de los colonizadores europeos y el posterior desarrollo de la Unión Sudafricana, los ritmos y melodías locales y extranjeras comenzaron a fusionarse, generando nuevos estilos musicales característicos de la región, como por ejemplo el Goema.
A few days later in Cape Town, Muyanga gave a lecture---titled "Revolting Music"--- that explored the history of music as an instrument of liberation and struggle in South Africa. He explains that the roots of local genres can be traced in the hymns and prayers of the Khoi-San – the original inhabitants of the Cape. With the arrival of European settlers and the subsequent development of the South African Union, local and foreign rhythms and melodies began to fuse, creating new musical styles that became characteristic of the region. 
A partir de la instauración del Apartheid y el desarrollo de la violencia de estado, antiguos cantos religiosos, como es el caso de Nkosi Sikelela, fueron adoptados por la población como canciones de unidad y de protesta. Al mismo tiempo, el jazz se transformó en un estilo musical experimental, en el que sonidos, tonos y ritmos diferentes se entremezclaban en busca de un nuevo discurso y una nueva identidad. En tal contexto, los músicos comenzaron a compartir espacios de producción no-racializados, espacios que procuraban construir otros vínculos diferentes a los impuestos por el Estado. Hacia mediados de la década de 1960, muchos de ellos lograron exiliarse en Europa y Estados Unidos, donde se perfeccionaron y expandieron la lucha contra el sistema segregacionista. Con el paso del tiempo, y el aumento de las medidas raciales, la música se transformó en un espacio de protesta, un espacio desde el que era posible desarrollar una comunión identitaria y un discurso legítimo y fácilmente escuchable. La música se convirtió en una forma de hablar sobre la vida cotidiana en los townships.
Since the beginning of Apartheid and the development of state violence, old religious songs such as Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Lord Bless Africa in Xhosa) were adopted by the people as songs of unity and protest. At the same time, jazz became an experimental musical style, in which sounds, tones and rhythms mingled in search of a new discourse and a new identity. In this context, musicians began to share non-racial spaces of production, spaces that sought to construct social links different to those that were state-imposed. By the mid-1960s, many of them were exiled to Europe and the United States, where they refined and expanded the fight against the Apartheid regime. With the increase of racial segregation, the music became a space of protest, a space from which it was possible to develop an identity, a legitimate communion and a vector for communication. Music became a way to talk about everyday life in the townships.
Luego de la transición democrática, la música ha ocupado un lugar diferente en la sociedad. Los cantos de protesta y de lucha fueron desplazados por el hip hop, el rock y el rap. Nuevas letras con pocos contenidos y nada de sueños invadieron el ámbito de la música popular, concepto que desde entonces cambió de significado. La antigua música popular, aquella que le daba sentido a las luchas por los derechos de la mayoría de la población, se convirtió en un archivo de la resistencia contra el Apartheid. Lo que queda por descubrir, entonces, es qué lugar ocupa la nueva música popular en la actual sociedad sudafricana. ¿Podrá seguir siendo un camino hacia la redención? ¿Podremos seguir cantando en pos de una sociedad más equitativa?
Since the democratic transition, music has occupied a different place in South African society. The songs of protest and struggle were displaced by hip hop, rock and rap music. New lyrics with little content and no dreams invaded the field of popular music, a concept that has since then changed its meaning. The popular music of the past, one that made sense of the struggles for the rights of the majority of the population, became an archive of the resistance against Apartheid. What remains to be discovered, then, is what place the new popular music has in South African society today. Is it still be a path to redemption? Can we keep singing towards a more equitable society?
Mientras la globalización y el neoliberalismo arrasan con las tradiciones locales en pos de la expansión del capital, la música sigue viajando por los mares y también a través de los colectivos. Empecé el viaje escuchando a Neo Muyanga cantar. Y así también lo vamos a terminar en estos días. Esa música viajará con nosotros hacia nuestros hogares en los distintos rincones del mundo. Y así, mientras caminemos cantando por las calles, recordaremos que la música puede romper barreras y combatir ejércitos que la violencia física no puede vencer.

While globalization and neoliberalism destroy local traditions by means of capital expansion, music continues to travel the seas and through the bus. We began the journey listening to Neo Muyanga singing. We will finish it in the same way. That music will travel with us to our homes in different corners of the world. And so, as we walk through the streets singing, we will remember that music can break down barriers and combat armies that violence cannot defeat.

***
About the Author: 
Laura Efron is an assistant professor in African History at the History Department in the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). She is writing an M.A dissertation on South African history.

Friday, July 11, 2014

"My Political Life Has Been Informed by the Struggle in South Africa" --- Angela Davis | JWTC 2014 Interview

American political thinker and activist, Angela Davis, traveled through South Africa with the JWTC mobile conference. During our stop at Ginsberg, I had a chance to chat with her at the Steve Biko Center. She reflects on how the South African anti-racist struggle informs her political work and comments on the place of women in political struggle. 


Angela Davis addressing JWTC participants on the Bus. (c) Tana Nolethu Forrest  

Ainehi Edoro:  60 intellectuals. One bus. 47 hours of road time. And the theme: "The Archives of the Non-Racial." What is your sense of what this intellectual project is about?

Angela Davis: The project is informed by place and space. This was the attraction for me---our movement from Johannesburg to Swaziland to the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape. I have visited South Africa on three other occasions, but this is the first that I’ve been able to acquire a real sense of space. Of course, it also has to do with the kinds of conversations that have been happening around the question of race and political struggle. I was primarily interested in this project because most of my political life, which is most of my life, has been informed by the struggle in South Africa.

Ainehi Edoro: Can you tell us a bit about your life---growing up in the south and entering into a life of political activism.

Angela Davis: I grew up in a racially segregated city--- Birmingham, Alabama--- a city that was known as the Johannesburg of the south. So my entire life, in many respects, has been informed by an anti-racist political project. I’m interested in how people, intellectuals---organic intellectuals---cultural workers, imagine the possibilities of moving beyond racism.

I often tell a story about my mother trying to me help understand why it was that we lived in a place where black people where treated as inferior and systematically excluded from education, amusement parks, libraries. As a child, I constantly asked my mother why.  And I’m very fortunate that, as an activist herself, she had her vision. She always insisted that we inhabited a world that was not supposed to be structured that way.  She helped me live in that reality without feeling as though I was fundamentally of that reality.

I eventually became involved in the campaign to free Nelson Mandela. I was very young. I could probably tell the story of my political life by pointing to various moments in the history of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.  For many years, South Africa was the center of the world in the sense that it was here that we invested all of our aspirations. But as with most investments that are as absolute and total as this one was, it didn’t turn out in the way we had all imagined.

Ainehi Edoro: How had you imagined it?

Angela Davis: As someone who was involved in communist politics and had close relations to the South African communist party, I could never separate economic liberation from racial liberation.  I imagine racial liberation as taking place within the context of a redistribution of wealth.  I imagined the end of privatization.  And that is not what was achieved.

But I’m interested in the achievements of the South African struggle because things are different. We cannot discount the struggles and those who gave their lives. It has to mean something, and it does mean something.

Angela Davis reflecting on Nelson Mandela's Legacy at Qunu---Mandela's hometown (c) Naadira Patel


Ainehi Edoro: You have taken part in many political movements. How has the South African anti-apartheid/anti-racist movement informed your own theories and practices around the questions of political struggle?

Angela Davis: My involvement in the campaign for international solidarity against apartheid dates back to the 1960s. I was arrested in 1970 by the US Government and charged with 3 capital crimes. I faced the death penalty 3 times. It was thanks to an international solidarity movement that I was released.

I’m saying this to point out that many South Africans joined that campaign. I received numerous expressions of solidarity from South Africans in exile, from the ANC, the South African communist party. In the year after my release---I was in jail for about two years—I visited London and participated in the anti-apartheid rally there. Not long after that, on August 9th,---the South African Women’s Day--- I went back to London and spoke at a huge rally.

I can’t imagine my own trajectory without that constant South African theme. In 1980 when I was arrested on the campus of UC Berkeley, I was participating in an anti-apartheid rally. I was also involved in the International Longshore and Workers Warehouse Union. They were the first to engage in actions that served as a catalyst for the student anti-apartheid efforts by refusing to unload South African Ships.

What I didn’t have a chance to say during the session at Qunu---where we shared our experiences about Nelson Mandela---was that I spoke to Winnie Mandela during the time of her banning. We rranged a conversation on the telephone. She went to a paid telephone. I was doing a radio show at that time, so I was able to organize the show around Winnie Mandela. I later met her and spent some time with her when she and Mandela were still living together.

Ainehi Edoro: Political movements tend to constellate around male figures. Think Mandela, Martin Luther King, Nkruma and so on. Names of women tend not to take on as much force. What do you think is the place or status of the feminine or the woman in these kinds political struggles?

Angela Davis: In the black struggle--- in black radical struggle---women have played an absolutely pivotal role. The struggle is inconceivable without the participation and the leadership of women.  It’s unfortunate that the figure of the heroic individual---the masculinist figure of the heroic individual---almost inevitably erases the people who are most responsible for the emergence and the development of these struggles. This applies to South Africa as well. We don’t hear about the women who played absolutely essential roles. There’s Albertina Sisulu. There’s Ruth First, a white woman whose name is not evoked nearly enough.

But what about those whose name we will never know? I’m primarily concerned about how we pay tribute to those whose names we can never know. How do we acknowledge that, in the US civil rights movement, it was Black women domestic workers who played the central role? Most people who are thankful for the civil rights movement never think about poor black women maids as being the ones who refused to ride the bus and therefore who were responsible for the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Women’s role in South Africa is very much the same. Hilda Bernstein’s book, For Their Triumph and their Tears, comes to mind. It’s a nice book that records the names of a number of these women.

We have to figure out how to read the silences of the archives. And certainly women are almost consistently absent---masses of women who participated in these struggles.

Angela Davis and Achille Mbembe during lunch in Johannesburg (c) Naadira Patel
Ainehi Edoro: This year’s workshop is built around the concept of the “non-racial.” What is your take on the term?  Do you see it has a helpful way of naming an ideal to which anti-racist struggle, philosophy, practice, or theory should aspire?

Angela Davis: I’m trying to be open. [laughs]. I’ve expressed some of my ambivalences, some of my suspicions, and my historical reluctance to embrace the non-racial except within a particular context of South Africa. What is important about this workshop is that we have stayed open to the exploration of all sides of the concept. The non-racial is not a unitary concept. And because it has played such an essential role in the history of South Africa and in the theorization of a free South Africa, we have to come to grips with it. We have to engage it. But then whether it travels in the way the idea of South African freedom has traveled across the planet, I do not know. But as I said, I’m trying to be as open as possible.

***

Ainehi Edoro is a doctoral student at Duke University where she studies African novels. She also writes an African literary blog called Brittle Paper

"Shit is Racial" --- The Archivist by Simon Abramowitsch

Simon Abramowitsch wrote this poem on the road and read it for the first time on the bus. We had just had lunch in a little town called Swellendam and were on our way to Cape Town. In the three hours that lay before us, some of the participants came up to the front of the bus to share their experience of the journey, seeing it was coming to an end. Most people reflected on our intellectual project of the non-racial. Other's gave thanks. Simon read this poem. --- Editor's Note

A JWTC participant standing on the Sliding Stone at Qunu, Nelson Mandela's hometown

The Archivist

down a bumpy road
in Swaziland, the end
of a beautiful evening,
the southern sky glistening above
the roof of her hospitality
Dolores Godeffroy told us:
“shit
is racial.”

From a bus in Southern Africa
and yet the archive is
in Oakland and Berkeley, CA
can never be removed but
can be turned inside
out from anywhere.

1. The Archive of Friendship

I was in the midst of kings:
junior high named for martin
and rodney on the tv: here
brown boys
yellow boys
black boys
white boys
together, clowning and frowning.
and we thought
it was hiphop
and we thought
it was as the sons of single mothers
and our mothers thought
it was the accident or genius of the school district.

listen: no politics here
no political families here,
or so we thought.
we learned politics from the police
they showed each one of us who we were.
we learned politics from houses bought, houses rented,
from evictions and foreclosures and property values
these showed each one of us who we were.
we learned politics from job interviews, bank accounts, and bills
these showed each one of us who we were:
brown boys, yellow boys, black boys, white boys.

in the wake of this knowledge, these politics
i tried to remember
that which I had never known.
listen now,
listen now,
i tried to remember
in Berkeley, CA
this possibility realized—so fragile
—and from where did it come?
and whose work was this?
whose politics suggested the promise of something else
whose politics worked like artists, magicians, sculptors
carving from within
carving a humanity already forever present
and listen now
listen now
I found the panther, so many
listened close.
I knew the first line
Black Power for Black People
knew that one, knew it well.
but listen again:
Black Power for Black People
Brown Power for Brown People
Red Power for Red People
Yellow Power for Yellow People
White Power for White People
All Power to the People!
in this archive
the ideal was the possible, no?

2. The Archive of Family

In the home of those friends
made amidst kings
that are now uncles and aunties
to my son: children play:
Iyari, Santana, Lucien
the laugh, the cry, the yell, even the whine.
To show you this scene
to make this scene language
or make this scene image
to utter the rainbow
would that destroy it?
—as if, somehow, this moment of freedom can exist.

but dolores told us
“shit is racial.”
here, in the home of friends
happiness, and nevertheless
we are under siege:
racism and the racial world
come through gaps under the door
cracks in the window
through the mail slot
through electric lines and tv cables
sneaks in with toys and children’s books
it knocks on the door and asks to come in
it kicks in the door in with the ferocity of the police.
and in this home of the uncles and aunties to our children,
how do we defend ourselves?
what armor shall we wear?
what arms shall we take up?
Now,
in the tradition of those who came before
what shall be our self-defense?

***

Image by Naadira Patel.

About the Author: 
Simon Abramowitsch works on multi-ethnic American literature and African American literature, literary ethnic nationalisms and the Black Power/Black Arts Movement--as well as the relationships between these various categories and movements.

Instagram: btownthinker

Twitter: @ambitionsaz

Blog: http://btownthinking.wordpress.com/

"The future Must Be Made in the Present" --- Notes on Biko by Jess Auerbach

Reflections on Kelly Gillespie’s Presentation ‘The Trouble with Non-racialism’ given at the Steve Biko Center in Ginsberg, South Africa, as part of the Johannesburg Workshop on Theory and Criticism.
JWTC participant walking in the fading light of dusk to Steve Biko's grave in Ginsberg (c) Ainehi Edoro


On Voice

It begins with voice, rolling out over a still image and a still room, conscious of certain irony but nonetheless aware of the importance today of listening.

To Biko’s voice. So often we speak his words, read them, articulate them – but in our voices. And here is his.

It is in Ginsberg that this history began, and in Ginsberg that this sound enters the air, is absorbed into ears and through carpets and down into the ground of this place through pens and keyboards and multiple spatial recorders.

People are different, he tells us, and that’s fine, but to fail to see that difference and act with it in mind is a failure of humanity.

On the Future

We must prepare for a future in which things will be not as they are, Biko says. The question enters the air: which future are we preparing for now? It percolates with urgency, and we are all drawn in, because today the reality is that little has substantively changed.

And in the commodification and brandification of Biko’s face and voice and concepts, we find an echo of a failing of a future – the failing of the future that was dreamed and yet is yet to come.

“The sign of Biko then and now is the sign of the unfinished business of racism,” Gillespie says with calm intensity. To ignore this sign is to miss a vital marker of where and what we as a nation and a place of global movements are feeling. The future must be made in the present and the present is a national project of various exclusions.

On the Present National Project

And so the question, in this place at this time, becomes about the present to my ears. How do we enact a conscious humanity cognizant of the past but seeking to surpass it in the everyday minutiae of living? Herein lies the urgency.

Can race be surpassed in our daily lives lived now? What might that mean in coming tomorrows? Where in the grist of profound present inequality and fear are the moments where the non and the anti and the a-  of racialism are transcended through the simple experiences of living, listening and speaking together? Listening and to hearing and to voicing in South Africa as we go forward, attended and in constant dialogue with that which is outside of us, beyond us, and witnessing.

Surrealism takes us beyond the ‘sordid antimonies’of our task. It is presented as a tool of transcendence, and we closed the meditation on Biko with that as an offering from Suzanne Césaire: “Colonial idiocy will be purified in the welder’s blue flame. We shall recover our value as metal, as the cutting edge of steel, our unprecedented communions.”
***

About the Author: 

Jess Auerbach is originally from Durban, but did her undergrad at the University of Cape Town where she began working with refugees from around the continent. Her current work at Stanford University considers the ways in which circulation within the former Portuguese empire continues to inform Angola's post-war development.

Twitter: @jess.auerbach





Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Cities of Migration and Contradictions by Gcobani Qambela

Michael Keith's lecture in session at the BAT Center, Durban, South Africa

The past week travelling by the “Thought Bus” through Johannesburg, Swaziland, Durban and now the Eastern Cape has been incredibly enriching not only in terms of the scenic drives and views, but also the intellectual stimulation. Yet, it was hard to not notice the contradictions of these cities, starting with Johannesburg, ‘the city of gold,’ where only a few actually benefit from its riches. But then there is also Swaziland where some people feel censored by the government and Durban where poverty, deprivation and opulence often stand side by side.
Yet, despite many challenges that cities often face, for many people the city still represents some hope particularly in offering economic opportunity and ‘work’. It is in this fashion that Micheal Keith delivered his talk on the theme of ‘The Right to Have Rights in Cities of Migration’. The talk focused on five main themes:
1.     Austerity politics and historicisation of neoliberalism,
2.     City rights and property rights,
3.     The city commons, Insurgent informality and institutional forms,
4.     And, new forms of urban participation.
Keith notes that his works emerges our of a dissatisfaction with the ways in which race and class are looked at particularly as it relates to the right to the city. He is interested in looking at the ways in which “the empire strikes back” and particularly inspired by Raj Patel's work on shack dwellers (anti)evictions movements and other studies that illuminates the circuit of realizing the right to the city.

For Keith, it is important to ask: ‘who is displaced in the city?’ and ‘who belongs?’ To address this question, we need to take into account the tensions between the political economy and theory. He says in order to understand the neoliberal processes that result in so many people being excluded from the city, we need to understand neoliberalism (‘the beast’) as well as understand its genealogy.

I found Keith's idea that urban spaces should accommodate future planets particularly striking. It reminded of the old proverb:“We do not inherit the Earth from our parents; we borrow it from our children”. As Keith noted, the city (and planet I would argue) belongs not only to people who are alive now, but also those who will constitute the city in the future which will include those that are dislocated economically by surplus.

I was also taken by Keith’s idea of the ‘arrival’ (into the city), temporarility and the disorientating effect that this has on the (im)possibility of being able to dwell in the city. We need to ask and think about “where the neoliberal movement comes from” and the relationship between power, people and property for it is here that institutional rights play against race and class.

Yet, while in many ways illuminating, it was disappointing that the presentation was UK/East London focused for the most part especially since it was taking place in South Africa. South Africa is somewhat peculiar when it comes to land and property issue because the land (along with the economy) is owned by a white minority although the bill of rights in South Africa stipulates that everyone should have access to property, land and economic participation. This shows the limitations of legal rights without sufficient substantive application, that even property rights are not enough if they are not applied and reach people at the ground level.

On our way to Keith’s talk on the ‘Thought Bus,’ we passed a group of about five homeless people who were being removed by police for sleeping on the city center. This is what Keith called ‘the economization of everyday life’ and has a lot of implications for what we then understand to be the ‘non-racial’ and what rethinking and reshaping has to be done to get there.

But we also have to think about who will do this rethinking? Will it be an all-inclusive community-wide process or will it be a few policy makers? What will be the (re)gendering of social relations that the new cities will have to do? Ultimately I agree with Keith’s conclusion that we should not let economics continue to override the law. Our future cities will be shaped by the decisions we take now and those will also ultimately dictate which way the non-racialism project goes.

Images by Naadira Patel. 

***

About the Author: 
Gcobani Qambela is a graduate student in Anthropology at Rhodes University. He currently works on cultural masculinities, HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health.

Follow on Twitter: @GcobaniQambela

Instagram: GcobaniQambela


Race, Genomic Science, and the Meaning of Ancestry by Elliot James



If at one point it was clear that race is a social construction, this is no longer the case. As Dr. Ruha Benjamin explained in her presentation, “Can the Subaltern Genome Code?” genomics has brought back ethno-racial categories in a big way.
Benjamin clearly lays out the stakes in genomic scientific projects and shows how elites in India, Mexico, South Africa (once sites of colonization) are at the forefront of using science to determine what makes their populations unique biologically. As post-colonial scientists have argued, Genomics enables their nations, as opposed to the pharmaceutical giants in the North (i.e. the former colonizers), to exploit subaltern gene pools for profit.
Genomicists in the global south have now sought to develop medicines tailored to treat diseases specific to their local populations, rather than have outsiders make money doing that work for them.
What Benjamin puts on the table is the way post-colonial genomics needs race to be fixed and objective in order to serve capitalism and nationalism well.
But what else is it about the genome, as opposed to something else, that gives it the potential to reify the racial? And how might we begin to reframe the very categories genomics has deemed natural in order to advance an anti-racist politics?
It is useful to pose these questions in Africa, not just because it is the place where genomicists continue to locate “First Man,” but also because querying genomics here exposes the limit of the project of ancestry (africanancestry.com). As much as what the genome reveals about our great-great grandparents, it tells us nothing of the ancestors.
What elders, griots, and praise poets have taught us across the African diaspora, for example, is that past peoples need not be located and extracted through the scientific method or historical inquiry to be engaged or remembered. Rather, our ancestors are already amongst us—guiding and teaching us. So, how do we invoke the ancestors in the age of ancestry?
The ancestors made themselves present when Dr. Benjamin invited spoken word artist and fellow JWTC participant Roberta Estrela D’Alva to lead the group in song. We banged on chairs and desks, clapped and snapped, stomped our feet, and sang in response to the call of D’Alva’s voice.
I had no clue what the words we sang meant, and I sat amongst people who did not look like me, but drumming and singing in chorus with everyone in the room felt like church to me. It transported me to the Church of the New Vision, where I once communed every Sunday with folks I no longer see—some of whom have passed away.
Though our ancestries differed, Benjamin, D’Alva, and the people in the room that day invoked my ancestors, and I have no doubt that mine sang, drummed, and danced with theirs. We might very well need to continuously find ways to invoke the ancestors as we journey through the country and theorize the “non-racial” if only to contest the ways ancestry has reinscribed the racial in this post-genomic era.

The image is under a Creative Common License: (c) Victoria Pickering via Flickr

***

About the Author:
Elliot James is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and studies the history of technology in Africa from a “queer of color” perspective. He is currently writing a thesis that retells the history of South Africa’s minibus taxi in order to que(e)ry the nature and consequences of transport reform.
Twitter @elliot_mpls




Monday, July 7, 2014

The Secret Life of Bananas by Federico Navarrete



Banana is a commonplace fruit. It is ubiquitous, tasty, and quite easy to eat. But behind this facade of banality---safely hidden within thick peels---lies a perturbing history of global capitalism, racial oppression and gender discrimination. 

Françoise Verges's presentation at the 2014 Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism is a brilliant exposition of this unsettling history of capital and violence that lurks behind the banana. 

The banana is one of the oldest cultivated fruits in the world. It originated in New Guinea and spread to South Asia and Africa thousands of years ago. In the 16th century, it was brought to the Americas, alongside millions of African slaves captured by European colonial powers and forced to work in plantations. 

Ever since then, bananas have become an essential part of life in the West and of modern consumer culture. However, the consumer’s right to enjoy this fruit has always been attained at the cost of subjugating the laborers who produced them---laborers ranging from African slaves and indigenous workers in the Americas to indentured laborers across the Indian ocean.

In some ways, the development of labor and capital in the west requires an examination of the rise of banana as a stable commodity. The industrialization of banana in the 20th century brought about a new wave of labor migration accompanied by racist segregation and exploitation that forced female, male and child workers to work in terrible conditions with little rights. It also engendered a new kind of colonialism centered on the Banana Republic and new forms of ecologic devastation due to the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

In the West, these contradictions have been rendered largely invisible thanks to well-funded advertisement campaigns that seek to dissociate the fruit from its origins and to peel off the layers of race and class and gender, including political and environmental imperialism that allow its production. These kinds of campaigns are rendered all the more powerful because they draw on sexual tropes that associate the fruit with blackness, the feminine body, and the tropics. Banana has, thus, become feminized and linked to Latino sensuality.

By examining such an everyday object, such a commonplace article of food through a critical lens, Francois Verges reveals the hidden networks that shape our world and define our lives in such contradictory and unequal ways, hence giving some the privilege of consuming fruits produced half a world away, while demeaning the lives of many others, generally those with darker skin, often women. Add to this the fact that entire islands such as Martinique and Guadaloupe in the Caribbean are left with land that can no longer be cultivated as a result of pesticide use and other harmful agricultural practices. 

In referring to banana as a "strange fruit," Verges evokes an iconic expression of anti-racism. "Strange Fruit" is a song originally written as a poem and then set to music by Abel Meeropol but later popularized by Billie Holiday.  The song is itself an attempt to express the horrors of black male lynching in Southern USA. 

By evoking the image of banana as a "strange fruit," Verges makes the point that a fruit as innocuous as the banana can be redolent of exploitation, racism and sexism that haunt our world just as the stench of death pervaded the nights of the racist South.

The image is under a Creative Common License: (c) Jo Christian Oterhals via Flickr

About the Author: 
Federico Navarrete is a Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He has also written many books for young readers, including novels about the conquest of Mexico and the interaction between Amerindians, Africans and Europeans through their supernatural beings and beliefs. The title of his latest novel is Nahuales contra vampiros.
Follow him on Twitter: @Fedenavarrete


Followers