“History of Histories is Needed to Address Systemic Racism” by Gisele Yitamben

Black power symbol

In recent months, racial and social justice, and systemic racism have been at the forefront of the battle for human equality. A few days ago, Mrs. Gisele Yitamben wrote a piece for the World Economic Forum (WEF) where she addressed a very important point in the battle against systemic racism, namely the fact that the history of the victim needs to be told accurately in all its glory and entirety for the healing process to start. There is a saying that “until the lion tells its story, the hunter will always be the hero.” Mrs Yitamben has been most gracious to share with us her ideas on ways to address systemic racism, and expand on her WEF article here. Enjoy!

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History of Histories is Needed to Address Systemic Racism

By Gisele Yitamben*

“Systemic racism” is used to talk about all of the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions that harm certain racial groups and help others. “Systemic” distinguishes what’s happening here from individual racism or overt discrimination, and refers to the way this operates in major parts of society: the economy, politics, education, and more.

Systemic racism is also a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within society or an organization. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power and education, among other issues. 

Systemic racism has its roots in extractive capitalism”

 It is “a deeply rooted prejudice, combined with institutional power and systemic oppression of certain groups of people.” continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth, and representation in leadership positions are rooted in humanity’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism.

In the case of African and people of African descent, it is a direct consequence of doctrine patiently distilled, policies developed and communications put in place to downgrade the blacks with the end results of taking their wealth, their souls.

To support the Portuguese expansion, Pope Nicholas V issued a Papal bull on 18 June 1452 authorizing Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens (Africans) and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude”. Successive popes reiterated the Bull: Pope Callixtus III in 1456 with Inter Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 and Pope Leo X in 1514 with precise denotations.

Pope Nicholas V

This position of the Catholic Church, accompanied by the legend of Shem in the Bible, that the noble institution disseminated without being encumbered with its real textual and theological foundation, too happy to have new territories of crusades, of evangelization, would be authority sweeping the reluctance herding slave traders and neophyte traders.

The position of the Catholic Church in relation to the slave trade was not going to be an epiphenomenon, far from it, its encouragements to enslavement would continue throughout the Negro period, like doctrinaire activism of the eminent French theologian Bellon de Saint Quentin, who used the “Holy Scriptures” to free the conscience of those who relied on his science.

All sorts of means will be used to dehumanize races, as a matter of policy to seek to assimilate cultures, for example, US and Canada, established boarding schools, prevented native language speaking, and separated children from their parents to put them in foster homes.

Slaves on board a ship

“People went as far as exhibiting Africans in Zoos”

Human zoos

Paris, the  capital of lights celebrated 100 years of freedom, equality and fraternity in 1989 with a “Universal Exhibition”. In addition to the brand new Eiffel Tower, the main attraction offered to the 28 million visitors to the “Universal Exhibition is the “Negro village” and its 400 Africans, exhibited on the Esplanade des Invalides, in the middle of the colonial pavilions. For ten years, these indigenous villages have been present in most of the major exhibitions, and they continued to be so for much of the 20th century in Hamburg, London, Brussels, Chicago, Geneva, Barcelona, ​​Osaka. Senegalese, Nubians, Dahomeans, Egyptians, Lapps, Amerindians, Koreans, and other so-called exotic peoples were thus presented in an environment evoking their countries, often in junk costumes and alongside wild beasts. More than 1 billion visitors rushed to these exhibitions between 1870 and 1940.

Caricature of Sarah Baartman from the 19th century

One of the most pathetic cases, of those  human zoos, is that of Sarah Baartman, who was put on display around Europe as a sexual freak, paraded naked on runways by a keeper who obliged her to walk, sit or stand so that audiences could better see her protruding backside

Even when she died, destitute and diseased, the ”Hottentot Venus,” as she was called, did not get a decent burial. Napoleon Bonaparte’s surgeon general made a plaster cast of her body before dissecting it. He preserved her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals, placing them in jars displayed at Paris’s Museum of Man. Her brain, skeleton, and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated and buried until 2002.

It was President Nelson Mandela who took up the cause of trying to get the young woman’s remains a proper resting place. Nelson Mandela sought the intervention of President François Mitterrand for his help in the matter when the two men met in South Africa in 1994. It took 8 more years to finally get Sarah buried.

Exposed face of Sarah Baartman from the French Museum

For more than five centuries, the Doctrine of Discovery and the laws based upon it have legalized the theft of land, labour and resources from Indigenous Peoples across the world. This has regrettably rendered indigenous peoples to be seen as dolls (see history of Sarah Baartman) that appeared not to have made any contribution to the evolution of mankind. Research has proven that modern day medicine took roots from traditional medicines practised by indigenous people. It is the same with other domains of social science.

Addressing the root causes of systemic racism and bias

Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l'astronomie et mathematique
Manuscripts a Tombouctou (Mali) montrant de l’astronomie et mathematique

As a Black woman in Africa, I am living the reality that the “deep roots” of systemic racism lie in extractive capitalism on this continent. Slavery, the colonization of Africa and the economic exploitation and speculation that continues today, are driven by greed for profit which is underpinned by cheap replaceable labour and raw materials seemingly at any cost, using obnoxious cooperative accords inherited from the colonial era [The Charter of Imperialism]. Ultimately, it is greed that has led all European to the systematic and methodical devaluation of all Africans. For centuries, African peoples have been discounted and devalued as the colonizers sought to maximize profits and focused on their own needs and “happiness”. This mindset continues to drive racist attitudes today.  What is amazing is that the exploitation of African resources have been going on for 500 years and the minerals are showing no signs of depletion [The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu]!!! This should have called in a big change of the system’s approach.

Current approaches to addressing racism have failed for the most part because they have addressed the symptoms but not the root causes of racism. We see this when we consider that while slavery and colonialism were officially abolished, the system of oppression merely transitioned into Central banks serving slave owners [The Bank of Senegal: Ancestor to the FCFA – producing Bank], but not former slaves [Reclaiming History: Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners], and police forces serving elected officials rather than  ordinary citizens.  In Liberia for instance, a country populated by ‘freed’ slaves, plantations enslave the rural populace.

If we want to end systemic racism we need to get beneath the surface and understand what’s really going on, especially on an unconscious or subconscious level. And to do this, we need to go beyond campaigns, slogans and figureheads—important as these are—and re-write the real stories of each race and its contribution to humanity.

Writing the history as it happens

Black Pharaohs of Nubia
Black Pharaohs of Nubia

It has always been curious to me that the “black pharaohs” of Egypt – powerful Kushite leaders that ruled all of Egypt from Nubia to the Mediterranean Sea from about 760 B.C. to 650 B.C. – have been largely forgotten by history [The forgotten kingdom of Nubia]. This dynasty of leaders embarked on an ambitious building program up and down the Nile, including the construction of pyramids in modern-day Sudan [Africa’s Forbidden Pyramids: Meroe, Nubia, and Sudan], under which their kings are buried. Yet the average person – black and white alike – if you mention pyramids, they think of those in Cairo first, and are not even aware that such structures exist further down the Nile in Sudan because this southern country is mostly a Black country.

“Black people need to start telling their stories”

In confronting racial stereotypes we need to tell the story as it happens and show how the development of the world is made of interwoven efforts; that will rebuild respect. There’s a reason why the Black Lives Matter activists are targeting statues of colonial and slave oppressors – because they recognize that there is power in these stories and symbols that have kept people trapped for centuries. As David Adjaye – lead designer of the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington DC –once wrote: “there is a direct relationship between symbols and systems and that people are starting to seek complex truths in new symbols that don’t ignore the losers or the forgotten underbelly of history”.

Pyramids of Nubia
Pyramids of Nubia, Sudan

For many years, the narratives about Africa have been about misrule, corruption, poverty and hunger, yet it remains one of the richest continents in terms of mineral wealth and agricultural potential. This is not to discount the reality of poor governance and corruption, which I must stress out is being encouraged and promoted by developed countries within the frame work of the exploitation strategy.; Many people lose their lives each year trying to cross dangerous waters into Europe in search of a better life largely because of these factors [Francis Bebey, Fatou Diome, and Immigration]. But there are positive stories we can tell too.

“When we really know each other, their contribution to common history and see that their solutions also hold value, we may start to shift systems” 

Africa needs to take the lead in telling her stories to shape a new perception. This new perception will be positively shaped if truth is told. It is not about begging to be accepted. We need to tell the stories that make visible the things we value, the beauty and the power that have been written out of history. We have a saying – “Until the lioness tells her side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Driving systems change at the local level

By telling real Africa’s stories (victories and downfalls) and making Black history more visible we can start the work of unraveling the systems that hold racism and oppression in place, but this alone will not be enough. Systemic racism has also to be tackled at structural, institutional and political levels. A system that has historically devalued a whole group of people is by definition exclusionary; we need to therefore re-design systems that value inclusiveness. In this, solutions cannot be imposed from outside. Those that need change most must be involved in bringing it about.

Flag of Cameroon

The COVID-19 pandemic may ironically be showing us a way here. In Cameroun working in remote areas with social entrepreneurs – lockdown measures have effectively cut us off from our usual means of trade; incomes have collapsed and we’ve been forced to create new systems to ensure that people can attend to their basic needs. This has included creating a local currency to allow people to trade during this time and setting up of new localized trade routes. While driven in this instance by necessity, there is power in this approach in that it starts with what is under the control of the beneficiaries and needed and what is valued and then builds around that.

Going forward, we can seek to apply this principle of localization more broadly. When we start to respect others and see that their solutions also hold value, we can start to shift systems.  These systems are built on mutual trust.

I believe social entrepreneurs will have a central role to play in this regard by driving localized solutions, for example, creating access to affordable finance for initiatives that can improve livelihoods for future generations of Africans. In this way we can build out a new narrative for the continent and create systems that value people, and their happiness and well-being, over profits.

We are at a historic moment in the fight against systemic racism. There is a wider moral recognition that some things in our society are fundamentally wrong and a broader understanding of the need to address the root causes of these ills. We have an opportunity to uproot systemic racism and it starts with rediscovering what has been forgotten and revaluing what has been systematically devalued.

Gisele Yitamben is the Founder and President of Association pour le Soutien et l’Appui à la Femme Entrepreneur (ASAFE) a social enterprise  that provides business training and development services, alternative financing and access to e-commerce to support thousands of women entrepreneurs in Cameroon as well as in Guinea, Benin, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She can be reached on myitamben@yahoo.fr

Sarah Baartman: The Black Venus

Sarah Baartman_Caricature drawn in early 19th century
Caricature of Sarah Baartman from the 19th century

I have long wanted to talk about Sarah Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus or the Black Venus. This Black woman was promised a life of fortune, taken to Europe as a slave to be exhibited naked to men and women around Europe just because of her physique, the physique of a Black woman. Her life was that of humiliation, prostitution, and slavery of another name. Her story is a very hard one to hear when you are a Black woman, when you love Black women, or when you love women in general. Her life was not that of a Venus, but rather that of a sex slave and zoo animal being exposed naked all the time, and raped by men who dreamt of “trying” this Black Venus. She was displayed as a freak because of her unusual physical features, studied, dissected after death and will only finally be put to rest 187 years after her death.

Sarah Baartman_1
Saartje

Sawtche, from her real name, was born in 1789 in the Eastern Cape, of modern-day South Africa. Her father was from the Khoikhoi tribe, and her mother came from the Bushmen or San tribe, the oldest tribe in Southern Africa. Women from that tribe are known to have a lighter skin tone, with very developed hips. In the Khoi tribe, it is a sign of beauty, but to Europeans who had never seen it, it was considered a physical deformation or a sign of racial inferiority (not sure how having a flat bum-bum can attest of a race superiority). As a teen, Sawtche was a typical Khoi woman of medium build and light skin tone, and as will be said today, with a big bootie. Even if she was beautiful, no one in her tribe was shocked by her physique given that thousands of women were just as Sawtche.

Sarah Baartman_2
Exposed face of Sarah Baartman from the French Museum

She was captured and moved to the Gamtoos River as the slave of a rich Afrikaner farmer for whom she worked several months. A Dutch doctor working for the Royal Navy, William Dunlop, met the farmer, and noticed Sawtche and was not indifferent to her physique. She seemed to meet all his sexual fantasies, and so he decided to buy her. He made her his slave and sexual servant, and took her back to Cape Town, and from there taken onboard a boat to London where he gave her the name Sarah or Saartjie (little Sarah in dutch).

Sarah Baartman_La_Belle_Hottentot_illustration de la mode des zoos humains
La Belle Hottentot on display, French print, 19th century

In 1810 in London, Sarah was only 16, and Dunlop was very manipulative. He constantly had sexual relations with her, and the young woman thought he loved her. He made her believe that in London, and throughout Europe, she could become rich just by exposing her body. He told her that white women didn’t have the same physique and will be willing to see her in exchange for some money. White Men will be crazy to touch and get the power to touch a Black woman, object of their wildest most secret fantasies, in exchange for money.

Sarah accepted without hesitation, and was quickly exposed in cities in England and in the Netherlands, exhibiting her body under all orders given her. As an animal, she walked, stood up or sat obediently. The public was mixed with astonishment, amusement, disgust, and stupefaction. Those men and women who wanted to approach her, those who wanted to touch her did. People told her all sorts of words, sweet as well as disdainful. Doctors and scientists came up with all sorts of theories to explain her anatomy. It was clear to them that Sarah was the proof of the Black race’s inferiority! To them, she was victim of a sickness that was the lot of all people of her race. Her sickness was called steatopygy, and since her sexual organs were abnormally developed she was said to be suffering from macronymphy (even though this is a normal characteristic found only in Black women).

Sawtche_(dite_Sarah_Saartjie_Baartman),_étudiée_comme_Femme_de_race_Bôchismann,_Histoire_Naturelle_des_Mammifères,_tome_II,_Cuvier,_Werner,_de_Lasteyrie
Illustration of Sarah Baartman from Illutrations Histoire Naturelle des mammiferes (History of Natural studies of mammals)

A young Jamaican, Robert Wedderburn, activist against racism and slavery watched those disgusting scenes and decided to act. He formed a support group for Sarah and started a series of judiciary pressures against the British government to stop this sort of horrible spectacles. Because of all these pressures, Sarah was taken to Paris, where she was exposed publicly between two circus spectacles, in music halls, and in the halls of the Haute Bourgeoisie. They called her the Hottentot Venus. She ended up being forced to prostitute herself at private soirees where she became a true sex object, believing that in due time she will be given the money she had made up to then.

It is at that time that she became the subject of studies by zoologist and surgeon Georges Cuvier, generalist, and surgeon of Napoleon Bonaparte. For him, Sarah was the missing link between the animal and man. The zoology professor and administrator of the National museum of Natural History of France, Etienne Geoffroy de Saint Hilaire, asked for the official authorization to “profit from the circumstances given them to have a Bushman woman in Paris to study, with more precision, the distinct characteristics of a peculiar race.” [« profiter de la circonstance offerte par la présence à Paris d’une femme bochimane pour donner avec plus de précision qu’on ne l’a fait jusqu’à ce jour, les caractères distinctifs de cette race curieuse. » ] de Saint Hilaire concluded his studies by comparing the face of Sarah with that of an orang-utang and her buttocks to those of female mandrills!

Sarah Baartman_A_Pair_of_Broad_Bottoms_caricature de William Heath 1810
1810 caricature of Sarah Baartman by William Heath

Later, the writer Victor Hugo made reference to Sarah in his work “Les Misérables” in 1862, describing the activities of the city of Paris: “Paris is like a good child. He royally accepts everything: it is not difficult in fact of a Venus; Her callipyge is Hottentot; provided he laughs, he amnesties ; ugliness cheers him, difformity delights him, vice distracts him […]: « Paris est bon enfant. Il accepte royalement tout ; il n’est pas difficile en fait de Vénus ; sa callipyge est hottentote ; pourvu qu’il rie, il amnistie ; la laideur l’égaye, la difformité le désopile, le vice le distrait […] »

Sarah died in Paris on 29 December 1815 at the age of 26. She died poor, she who was made to think that she could become rich by exposing her body as an art object.

After her death, Georges Cuvier dissected her body, and displayed her remains. He gathered her brains and genital organs which he conserved in formol. He extracted her skeleton and continued his studies about the missing link between humans and monkey. In 1817, he presented his work at the Academy of Medicine, and concluded, “the races [the niggers] are condemned to eternal inferiority.” [« Les races à crâne déprimé et comprimé [les “ nègres ”] sont condamnées à une éternelle infériorité. »]

Sarah Baartman_Hottentot_Venus_Poster
Advertisement for Sarah’s exposition

Her genitals, skeleton, brain, and a plaster cast of her body were exposed for over 150 years in Paris until 1975. In 1994, when Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, the Khoi people’s first request was for the return of Sarah’s remains. But the French government refused stating that they wanted to conserve their “national collections.” However, after several discussions, on 9 August 2002, Sarah was inhumed near the village of Hankey in Eastern Cape in a ceremony presided by President Thabo Mbeki, several ministers, and traditional chiefs Khoi.

Weird how today, most women around the world wish for a nice bum-bum, and some are willing to pay thousands to have it protruding, while the beautiful Sarah was exploited, humiliated, raped, for simply being beautiful, the way her Creator had made her.

Mandela_1
Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela

There’s more to the story: Sarah would have been considered highly attractive and desirable to her people. The Dutch told Sarah if she came with them to Paris they would make her a celebrity and she would be treated like a queen. Her humiliation was even greater because she was deceived. If only Sarah had known that nearly 50 years after her death she would inspire the fashion of the times. Women wanted to resemble her shape so they began wearing corsets and ridiculous layers of clothes with a back bump. Her shape became the most coveted and white women would risk death wearing constricting corsets. In fact, many white women died from having their ribs crushed and internal organs like kidneys and the stomach moved up and out of place. Instead Sarah died of shame and disease.  At last, in 2002, she was laid back into dignity at home among her ancestors!