East Africa as America: Playing With Fire

by zunguzungu

Charles Eliot was the Commissioner of British East Africa (today, Kenya) from 1901 through 1904, and after leaving that post, he wrote a book in 1905 entitled The East African Protectorate, basically as a an argument for white settlement of the territory. A couple passages which I’m about to append blew my mind; he’s making the argument that Africans (unlike a variety of higher races) don’t seem to mix well with whites and seem, in fact, to be positively resistance to developing themselves. The racism of this isn’t what’s unusual here. What’s interesting is that since his argument for paternalist imperialism hinges on the argument that Africans can’t develop (and tend to “fall apart” rather than adapt), he decides that it would be a good idea to point to the United States as showing the failures of assimilation.

To wit:

“The example of America shows that they have great limitations. In the northern States the negroes, though they speak the same language and enjoy the same political rights as white men, though they are the objects of no social or commercial persecution, still manifestly remain on a lower plane than the whites, not only in such matters as art, science, and literature, but in business. Their powers of organisation, management, and controlling other men seem too deficient to allow them to conduct any but the simplest concerns. They can manage a shop, but not a bank. The most effective talent which they possess is eloquence: they make good preachers, and, I believe, good barristers. This reminds us of the East African’s fondness for words. The simplest business transaction with native chiefs necessitates discussions lasting for hours and perhaps days.”

Teddy Roosevelt, for example, made this analogy for precisely the opposite reason. As he put it, “No one could fail to be impressed with the immense advance these men represented as compared with the native negro; and indeed to an American …it is pleasant to be made to realize in vivid fashion the progress the American negro has made, by comparing him with the negro who dwells in Africa untouched, or but lightly touched, by white influence”

And of course he’s right: if you accept the terms in which both he and Eliot are working, by which “development” signifies racial essence and you can determine the genetic capabilities of a race by their accomplishments in practice, then the example of American Africans actually contradicts Eliot’s thesis. This is why Dubois, for example, was so obsessed with proving and celebrating black accomplishment: because the theory of white supremacy rested on the presumption of black non-accomplishment, he reasoned that proving black accomplishment could dis-prove white supremacy.* In practice, of course, white supremacists didn’t give a shit and people like Eliot proceed precisely by cherry picking the data (such that when he looks at America, he sees an almost unblemished record of African failure to progress).

But the very fact that he sets up the analogy in the first place is fascinating to me, as is the use of American reconstruction (which is to say, the myth of its failure which DuBois was the first to contradict) as justification for the Kenyan settler colony state since it explicitly models its justification for British imperial rule of Africa after the kinds of arguments used to justify Jim Crow in the American south. Which is to say, his chronology puts American white supremacy first and white supremacy in Africa second, precisely the reverse of the usual historical chronology in which African colonization comes first followed by an American racism that gradually weans itself from the institution of slavery, brought by the old world from Africa or whatever. Here, for example, Eliot’s mis-remembered history of reconstruction becomes an argument for white supremacy in British East Africa:

“After a period, when Africans were treated almost like beasts, and were certainly captured and shipped with less care than would now be bestowed on a consignment of valuable animals, came another period when they were suddenly declared to be the brethren and equals of the white man, and were given the same political privileges. There can be little doubt that the reaction erred by excess, and that the American negroes are not fit for the suffrage or for exercising the public offices to which they are theoretically eligible. This would seem to be the opinion of so liberal-minded and dispassionate a judge as Mr. Bryce. In practice government in the southern States is only carried on by rendering the Constitution a dead letter, and by using various devices to prevent the negroes from exercising the influence to which their numbers entitle them. If they do exercise it, a revolt among the white population is the result. In 1898 a political combination was made in North Carolina, by which, in order to secure the negro vote, a certain number of judicial and municipal offices were distributed among negroes, with the result that in a few months all parties united to turn them out by force and to pass a law rendering such occurrences impossible in future.”

The “revolt” Eliot is talking about was the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the most successful coup in American history, in which white racist thugs refused to accept the results of elections that put black men in elected office and they took control of the local governmental structure by force. As their actions implicitly acknowledged (and which Eliot explicitly acknowledges) white supremacy is incompatible with democracy; in the words of Alfred Waddell, one of the ring-leaders, “If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

Which is why I find Eliot’s analogy so interesting: by acknowledging openly that white supremacy and the American constitution are two irreconcilable things, he opens up the rhetorical space for anti-racism to be aligned with American patriotism. Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America again . . . the land that never has been yet,” for example, only works if you acknowledge that white supremacy was a perversion of the American constitution, something white supremacists in the South didn’t want to do. Which is one of the reasons why Frederick Douglass broke with abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison** and made his life narrative into a story of American emancipation, his freedom a realization of American liberty. Eliot, in other words, is playing with fire.

* Note, too, the common claim that African-Americans were only good at oratory as opposed to the written word, the old speech/writing hierarchy in which writing is a cultivated superior version of mere speech. This is one of the reasons why I wince when people talk about Obama’s oratorical eloquence; the fact that he’s a writer first and foremost (and has to dumb-down his writing to make it into speech) is the sort of thing that doesn’t fit well into the crypto-racist framework so many people quietly operate within. And it’s also why DuBois so quickly and completely abandoned his early success as an orator at Fisk and Harvard in favor of his lifelong aspiration to be a man of (written) letters.

** Garrison, for example, once publicly burned a copy of the Constitution, saying it was a “Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell” because of the 3/5ths compromise.