On the Nakedness of Africans, part one

by zunguzungu

“When people talk about layering they are usually referring to clothes. But the layers of meaning were piled on thick Friday at the Bryant Park tents, where the hastily formed African Fashion Collective staged a show that aimed to dispel some of the hoary clichés that cling to a continent as obscure as ever, in some ways, to the West.”

This sort of article is absolutely symptomatic. But of what? The NY Times seems to have a macro on their computers that produces Africa-through-clothing trope, although there’s something almost pathological about this one in particular, and it makes me wish I knew more Freud. After all, how does it happen that a text like this one can be so incredibly adept at diagnosing itself, and yet be so incredibly oblivious as it does so? The principle of the interpretation of dreams, after all, is because your subconscious already “knows” what’s wrong with you, in some sense, the trick simply becomes to figure out how to read what it’s trying to tell you, to learn what you already know. It’s hard not to see the same thing here: how could the writer possibly not get what is going on, yet still do what he’s doing? I mean, seriously.

Anyway, I can’t be bothered to actually do anything with that piece of whatever it is. Those kind of articles are omnipresent; I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a very large percentage of news articles about Africa either contain some kind of “nakedness” trope or, like this one, cunningly play on the fact that Africans aren’t always naked, don’t you know.

It has a long history. For example (all examples from African Game Trails), when TR was in Kenya, he took nakedness, simply, as a sign of savagery, an absence whose presence indicates the absence of civilization, whose presence savagery is:

“The dark-skinned races that live in the land vary widely. Some are warlike, cattle-owning nomads; some till the soil and live in thatched huts shaped like beehives; some are fisherfolk; some are ape-like naked savages, who dwell in the woods and prey on creatures not much wilder or lower than themselves.” (p.viii)

It is also an indication of African subjection to nature, a failure to have fashioned artifacts out of nature and a vulnerability to its tender mercies, especially by reference to wild animals:

“African man, absolutely naked, and armed as our early paleolithic ancestors were armed, lives among, and on, and in constant dread of, these beasts, just as was true of the men to whom the cave lion was a nightmare of terror…” (p.3)

In my chapter, I’m interested in hunting (and both these passages figure the Africans in question by reference to what they hunt and what hunts them), but the way that hunting lines up with nakedness is equally interesting. As is when their nakedness is the signifier of what makes it strange to see Africans in the same scene as a locomotive:

“It was strange to see a group of these savages, stark naked, with oddly shaved heads and filed teeth, armed with primitive bows and arrows, stand gravely gazing at the train as it rolled into some station…” (p.15)

In fact, either TR was writing from the same notes, or his mind ran along the same patterns; he will later echo himself, writing that “It was interesting to watch these naked savages, with their filed teeth, their heads shaved in curious patterns, and carrying for arms little bows and arrows.” (p.77)

But even when Africans wear clothes, it doesn’t seem to help them much. When speaking of the Wakamba, who he asserts are “in most ways primitive savages, with an imperfect and feeble social, and therefore military, organization,” he will note that “though they wear blankets in the neighborhood of the whites, these blankets are often cast aside; even when the blanket is worn, it is often in such fashion as merely to accentuate the otherwise absolute nakedness of both sexes.” (p35) It is very clear, in fact, that Africans only wear clothes in deference to the tastes of whites. For example:

“Some of the savages we saw wore red blankets, and in deference to white prejudice draped them so as to hide their nakedness. But others appeared-men and women-with literally not one stitch of clothing, although they might have rather elaborate hairdresses, and masses of metal ornaments on their arms and legs.”

Even more troublesome, what they do wear seems to not be protective clothing, but constrictive chains:

“One group of women, nearly nude, had their upper arms so tightly bound with masses of bronze or copper wire that their muscles were completely malformed. So tightly was the wire wrapped round the upper third of the upper arm, that it was reduced to about one-half of its normal size; and the muscles could only play, and that in deformed fashion, below this unyielding metal bandage. Why the arms did not mortify it was hard to say; and their freedom of use was so hampered as to make it difficult to understand how men or women whose whole lives are passed in one or another form of manual labor could inflict upon themselves such crippling and pointless punishment.”

If clothing is an index of “culture,” then it is clear that African culture sucks. But even authentic nakedness, as it happens, has political consequences that don’t work out well for the Africans. As he will write:

“The Kikuyus were real savages, naked save for a dingy blanket, usually carried round the neck. They formed a picturesque safari; but it was difficult to make the grasshopper-like creatures take even as much thought for the future as the ordinary happy- go-lucky porters take. At night if it rained they cowered under the bushes in drenched and shivering discomfort; and yet they had to be driven to make bough shelters for themselves.”

Good thing they had Teddy to take care of them! And finally, this lovely bit from the aftermath of a successful hunt, when it turns out that within the breast of even ostensibly domesticated Africans, the heart of a naked savage longs to celebrate the mastery represented by Teddy’s, um, rifle:

“Our gun-bearers usually felt it incumbent on them to keep a dignified bearing while in our company. But the death of an elephant is always a great event; and one of the gun-bearers as they walked ahead of us campward, soon began to improvise a song, reciting the success of the hunt, the death of the elephant, and the power of the rifles; and gradually, as they got farther ahead, the more light-hearted among them began to give way to their spirits and they came into camp frolicking, gambolling, and dancing as if they were still the naked savages that they had been before they became the white man’s followers.”