Episode 13: Decolonizing Africa


In the words of the great philosopher Toto, “I bless the RAINS down in AFRICA.” [This song plays every year at the Saturday night dance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, otherwise known as Kalamazoo. Very medieval. –Jesse]

We explore Africa from a decolonizing viewpoint, including words of wisdom from deceased UW–Madison professor Dr. Harold Scheub, an interesting conversation about the Crusader or Shah ‘Abbas Bible, and the traditions of Ethiopian Christianity, and a few digressions about Mt. Rushmore, trans people and film, the movies Coming to America and The Last Samurai, and some discussion of the spread of religions and Jewish genetics.

Notes, Annotations, and Corrections

1/ The creation of global trade routes and a global system of economics is a major theme of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which covers approximately 1649–1715.

2/ The Chinese did “discover” America in 1421. Allegedly. According to a book by a British man who had no particular training in history and, in fact, not even a bachelor’s degree; also the book was allegedly worked on by over 130 ghost writers and no one fact-checked it. SO, uh. Probably not. Incidentally, the explorer given the honor of discovering the US was Zheng He, who I think we mentioned in another episode–he was a Muslim eunuch, explorer, and diplomat who became an important figure at the court of the Yongle Emperor.

3/ Various pipeline projects have been cancelled. Sort of. [Yeah, the US Court of Appeals already set aside the verdict of the lower court and said the Dakota Access Pipeline can keep running while the court battle rages on. –Jesse]

4/ The guy who carved (part of) Mt Rushmore (he died) and (a non-surviving part of) the monument to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (he was kicked off the project and his work blasted off the mountain; this is the monument we mention carved on Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, GA) was Gutzon Borglum. (The LCotC bas relief DOES feature Traveler, in case you have been keeping track, along with the horses of Jefferson Davis (Blackjack) and Stonewall Jackson (Little Sorrel). Neither of the other two horses is cool enough to have their own Wikipedia page though.) Borglum was an odd duck–he was a child of Mormon polygamist immigrants, Freemason, and if not an actual Klan member then someone who was deeply involved in Klan politics. He also carved a bust of Abraham Lincoln from a six-ton block of marble, won a prize for carving Union General Philip Sheridan (one version stands in Washington DC, one in Chicago), and did another statue of progressive IL governor John Peter Altgeld. His son, who took over Mt Rushmore after his death, was named Lincoln.

5/ Netflix documentary: Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen. Apparently 80% of Americans don’t know any trans people. That’s so crazy. Apparently I know a lot more trans people than average. [I’m not giving links to D.W. Grifith, but definitely look him up if you want to. More importantly, look up Susan Stryker. She has great books; check them out at your favorite local library or bookstore.–Jesse]

6/ The Nazi anatomy text was Topographische Anatomie des Menschen by Eduard Pernkopf.

The remark about how white supremacy is the playing field we all stand on was something Fran Lebowitz (a writer who exists primarily to occasionally be interviewed by the New Yorker, as far as I can tell) said (in an interview with Vanity Fair). It was something she said in 1997. Actual quote:

The way to approach it, I think, is not to ask, “What would it be like to be black?” but to seriously consider what it is like to be white. That’s something white people almost never think about. And what it is like to be white is not to say, “We have to level the playing field,” but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. White people are the playing field. The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word “advantage” at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.

Judith of Bethulia.

I don’t know where the idea I had that Jefferson had many children with enslaved Black women came from–we know that he had six with Sally Hemings (who was actually his deceased wife’s half sister. Four of the children survived to adulthood and were freed; the youngest, Eston Hemings, brought his family here to Madison, WI, where he changed his last name to Jefferson and lived as part of the White community and is buried here). Anyway, you can read The Memoirs of Madison Hemings here, and see the reflections of some of his living descendents here. The Madison Hemings piece suggests that he didn’t have children with other Black women that MH was aware of. [As far as I know, Sally Hemings is the only enslaved woman who people know Jefferson raped. (She was a slave and didn’t have the power of consent, although their “relationship” may have started in France, where she was technically free. Why didn’t she stay in France? No one really knows.) That being said, I agree emphatically with Em here because there’s no reason that I know of to be sure that Jefferson didn’t rape any other enslaved women, even if he didn’t have children with them. Assuming that he didn’t is a way of making his “relationship” with Hemings seem more legitimate.–Jesse]

7/ The story that Jesse tells about our mutual great grandfather is, as far as I know, absolutely true. He entered the US via Rotterdam (having traveled with one suitcase, leaving the rest of his belongings behind) in September of 1904, married the woman from the ship in 1910, and became a naturalized citizen in 1917, according to the notes I have. (Also, he spoke seven languages, which makes me wonder if that’s where Jesse and I get it from.)

8/ Harold Scheub obit. The Angelina Jolie film was probably The Good Shepherd, which was not entirely set in Africa but included some scenes set in the Congo (with, probably, no or few actual Africans in them, or at least none with speaking parts). On the other hand, Blood Diamond is more of a White savior thing.

Weirdly, I (Em) was living in Viet Nam when Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt adopted a kid from there (renamed Pax Thien). For whatever reason, the Vietnamese people I spoke to at the time were big fans of hers because of this. Also one time, a businessman on an airplane (flying from HCMC to Laos, I think) asked me what I thought of her and then gave me a lengthy lecture about having kids before  my eggs dried up (I was 24?). Luckily it was in Vietnamese, so I only understood about half of it.

This is the attack in Nairobi, Kenya I mentioned.

This article has a good collection of African book covers.

9/ Eclipsed, by Danai Gurira.

Eddie Murphy: Coming to America. Also he apparently flew to the US on the CONCORD. Because it was 1988 and he was classy AF.

You’ve already seen it, but here’s the trailer for Black Panther. In ten years they will remake this with Michael B. Jordan’s character as the hero. [Well, he kind of already is. The problem is that his desire to pillage and destroy Wakanda to make up for colonialism isn’t the answer either. Luckily, Black Panther learns a lot from Killmonger.–Jesse]

Key and Peele were amazing. For example. (This sketch has nothing to do with anything except it’s amazing. No one even has any lines until 3:30 into a 3:40 sketch.) [This sketch is amazing no matter what, but I think it reaches new heights if you grew up during the 80s. Just sayin.–Jesse]

10/ Hidden Figures. Kevin Costner’s character was named Al Harrison. Also, apparently in real life Katherine Johnson just refused to walk all the way to the other bathroom and used the White one, which is a much less dramatic solution.

11/ Bus Stop, by Gao Xingjian. Its initial run was apparently shut down by a holdover from the Cultural Revolution. Wow.

12/ I don’t really remember the plot of The Last Samurai except that a guy hit Tom Cruise in the head with a stick a bunch. Oh, also it turns out that the old phrase, “He who lives by the sword dies by he who lives by the Gatling gun” is true in many situations. One thing I will say about it as a film is that all the Japanese characters appear to have been played by actual Japanese people, which is…often not the case in Hollywood films (Memoirs of a Geisha, I’m looking at you).

13/ The Crusader or Shah ‘Abbas Bible.

St. Louis, aka King Louis IX of France. He led two crusades and, during the second, died of dysentery. Most interestingly, he exchanged letters and eventually sent an envoy to the Mongols. Sainte Chapelle is an amazing chapel.

Judeo-Persian is a bit similar to Ladino (Jewish Spanish) and Yiddish (Jewish German)–syncretic languages typically spoken by Jewish communities in a given area. In this case, Judeo-Persian is a literary form of New Persian with some Jewish idiosyncrasies, and also it is typically written in Hebrew characters (as it is in the Shah ‘Abbas Bible). (There were many more spoken dialects in this region, often referred to as Judeo-Iranian.)

14/ Christianity was adopted in Ethiopia during the fourth century CE (converted by a missionary name Frumentius). By that time, enough people were practicing Judaism that they rebelled when the king tried to change the kingdom’s religion.

The Kebra Nagast is a 14th century Ge’ez epic written by Is’haq Nebura-Id of Axum.

The Ark of the Covenant is claimed to be held by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (an Episcopal Church–sorry, Dan Brown) in Axum. They don’t really show it to people, sorry.

15/ Okay, this discussion about Judaism in Ethiopia and how it was interesting to come to terms with the idea that Judaism was originally not primarily a White religion, begins with me (Em) mentioning something I saw a former classmate of mine post on FB. Since we taped this episode, I’ve become aware that the quote is weirdly similar to some statements made by some anti-Semitic people (Nick Cannon among them) in the media lately. Obviously, the idea that Black people can’t be anti-Semitic because they’re the “original Hebrews” is problematic, and I believe some of the conspiracy theories go on to suggest much worse things. This makes me pretty uncomfortable; I definitely don’t want anyone to point to our podcast as evidence that Jews subscribe to these destructive beliefs, but I thought the discussion of genetics and race was useful, so I kept that in. For the record, I don’t believe the person I saw posting this actually believes all of this (“this” meaning the anti-Semitic stuff).

Anyway, I just wanted to say that as a disclaimer. And this.

Jesse: I love Dave Chappelle! To be fair though, Nick Cannon apologized and may have meant it (he’s been talking to a rabbi, and apparently his grandfather on his mother’s side was a Sephardic rabbi, which Cannon acknowledged he did not want to use as an excuse). Better yet, here’s the ever-incredible Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s take on recent events.

The anti-Semitic rhetoric in question stems from the Nation of Islam, which is an important and influential African American organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Nation of Islam as a hate group due to the “deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders, including top minister Louis Farrakhan.” This is the rhetoric that Cannon and others have recently been popularizing. Be warned: if you click on the SPLC link you will see some truly horrific quotes.