Sowing the seeds of Muntú (part 1)

by | Jul 12, 2020 | Afro-descendants, Colombia, Literature |

Sowing the seeds of Muntú to decode my Alphabet of a root-woman (part 1)

By Ashanti Dinah (Activist, Poet, Teacher, Researcher); translated by Peter Wade

Alongside the social definition of black people as “criminal, immoral and dirty”, I, like other women in Our America, was educated in a patriarchal, authoritarian, classist, sexist and racist society. During my childhood, I grew up hearing phrases such as “She’s got fine features, so she doesn’t seem so black”, “She is black, but pretty”, “Why doesn’t she know how to dance if she’s black?”, “Working like a black to live like a white”, “My boss is slave-driver”, “Smile so they can see you at night”, “Black women are really hot”, “Black men have got big ones”, “Marry a white man to improve the race”, among others. I grew up with the idea that blacks are only good for sports and music, that we discriminate against each other, and that we do not get into positions of power because we do not have the abilities or because we do not want to. Despite the ancestral dance of my curly hair, its thick baobab forest, I was taught to hide it, because of the preference for straight hair.

In time, I leaned towards the humanities while studying for a Bachelor’s degree in the Education Sciences at the Universidad del Atlántico and I enrolled in the Angela Davis Organization in Barranquilla. I fought against the endless racist stereotypes and prejudices, legitimated by the elites aligned with the systems of exploitation and domination that underlie capitalism, patriarchy, racism and imperialism. Doing so, I realized that the great classics of universal literature were not universal and univocal, and that in my five years as an undergraduate, I did not read a single work written by a black woman nor even a book in which a black woman was the protagonist of the story.

Once I finished my undergraduate degree and obtained a scholarship in 2005 to pursue a Master’s in Hispanic American Literature at the Instituto Caro y Cuervo de Bogotá (ICC), I became one of the few black women professors at the universities where I worked. Fully committed to black struggles, I have been an outstanding teacher, according to my students. As a teacher of the degree in Child Pedagogy at the Francisco José de Caldas District University in Bogotá, I tried to counteract institutional racism and Western myths about the rules of art by means of Afro-literature projects as part of the implementation of the Programme of Afro-Colombian Studies in the academic curricula of higher and primary education.

Using dialogical, intercultural and decolonial pedagogies, and starting from the idea that “educating is a political act”, as Paulo Freire points out from critical pedagogy perspective, I advised on many student research projects, including the following:

  • Self-identification and recognition of Afro-Colombian girls and boys from a classroom dynamics perspective 
  • Cucurrumbé: portal for pedagogical experiences as a contribution to the Programme of Afro-Colombian Studies
  • Sing the yambó to the rhythm of the yambambé: the creation of African songs and musical instruments for early childhood
  • The creation of Afro-Colombian puppets: pedagogical proposal for the implementation of the PACS with boys and girls in early childhood
  • The creation of black dolls: a proposal for the implementation of the Programme of Afro-Colombian Studies in early childhood
  • Utambulisho Wangu (my identity): the creation of album books for the strengthening of Afro-Colombian identity, based on cultural representations in the classroom 
  • Feeling Afro: creating a differential book-object for the recognition of the child body and Afro-Colombian culture through sensory experiences
  • A Mendé for a Bongó and a Balele: a choreographic game with musical instruments and dance from the Colombian North Pacific (Chocó) to promote corporeal and musical awareness in early childhood
  • Cantiré: singing and feeling the Colombian Pacific through the construction of a song-story for young infants
  • Weaving the voices of Raizal literature in early childhood through stories in the oral tradition with Breda, the spider Ananse
  • Ma Gende Suto Ri Palengue: the construction of instrumentalized books of Afro-Palenquera musical culture with young infants
  • Orisha-Lucumí: the spiritual knowledge of the Yoruba community in environmental care through oral narration and puppets for early infants
  • Weaving tales of freedom: the creation of a woven book-album with a differential approach for early childhood.

Due to my many years of experience in ethno-education, Bogotá’s mayor’s office, through the District Institute for Community Participation and Action – IDPAC – awarded me, on 21th May 2016, the prestigious “Benkos Biohó” Prize, recognizing my contributions as female leader to the Afro-Colombian community in the field of culture. On 25 July 2019, during the Commemoration of the International Day of Afro-Latin, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women, a prize recognising my work as a woman activist was awarded to me by the Social Movement of Black Women of Bogotá, the District Office for Women (SDMujer), the Office for Differential Focus and the Office of Ethnic Affairs of Bogotá.

Just a couple of years ago, due to those symbolic synergies inscribed on the covering of the throbbing ovum of life (which they often call “destiny”), standing before an interested audience, I recounted how I was just a teenager, when I asked myself, for the first time, why I had never seen black people represented in toys, in books, on television, in the educational system, or in executive positions. I remember having asked myself, Why did I not know any contemporary Afro-descendant women who were writing, being published and being remembered as part of a Latin American and Caribbean literary heritage? How many of them achieved literary recognition in their countries? And, in flashback mode, I reflected: Why, if I had tried so hard in school, in university, in the master’s programme, was I still so invisible that it was as if I did not exist? Why did I always have to “fight tooth and nail” for my political and aesthetic stances?

In that space, I pointed out how, over the course of more than four centuries, our ancestors were mortified and silenced, precisely so that they, like us, the Reborn, the survivors, should have no voice. Our crime: having dreamed of a body.

It is still a challenge to overcome the conditions in which a high percentage of black/Afro-Colombian people exist, caused not only by the trauma of being uprooting, the abrupt transplantation of the migratory movement of the journey of no return, but also by the war, the armed conflict, land grabbing, forced displacement, unemployment, low levels of income and schooling, lack of access to education, job opportunities and basic services, as well as to information and new technologies. These unsatisfied basic needs create a deep humanitarian crisis in the lives of black people, and specifically, of their social leaders. In “furrows of pain”, there is no “immortal joy”; for blacks “the horrible night” still has not ended [translator’s note: these are quotes from Colombia’s national anthem].

A consequence of this is that a geopolitics of ways of seeing has also colonized art, imposing a strategy of erasure, in Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s terms (2009). Unfortunately, the prevailing trend for writers and literature scholars has been simple omission or silent and systematic complicity: they resort to a series of discursive practices to minimize, trivialize, mask, circumvent or disqualify the problem of anti-black racism, while also exempting their favourite authors from responsibility. Most of these theoretical approaches assume that literary and school texts are neutral objects and conceive of the reader as an abstract entity. With this myopic view, such books are proposed in schools for instructors to teach girls, boys and young people to read, write and interpret.

If we define reading, literature and writing as cognitive, socio-cultural, political and aesthetic-ethical practices that develop through the senses, intentions and functions, with psychological, emotional, socializing, participatory, playful and creative effects on the reader, then these works instil prejudicial values and attitudes about “others”. With their hygienist pedagogy, they legitimate injustice and naturalise the symbolic violence and epistemic racism suffered by subalternised communities. It should be remembered that, since the 1970s, neither the School Manuals in the collection of the Documentary Foundation of the Colombian Pedagogical Museum nor the booklet “Nacho Reads” [translator’s note: a reading primer for beginners] narrates us, writes about us or reads to us as Afro-descendants.

In this context, socializing agents such as family, religion, school and above all the media, through their speeches and representations, have contributed significantly to the construction, legitimation and sedimentation in the social imaginary of prejudices and stereotypes relating to the criminalization of raciality, which infests and corrodes the daily dynamics of society. As Teun Van Dijk rightly states in his essay “El discurso y la reproducción del racismo” (1988, Discourse and the reproduction of racism), in news reports African-American people are often “described as having problems, for example, housing, education, employment, or social security (and who, therefore, need extra help) or who cause problems when they protest or demonstrate” (p. 158).

It is enough to simply review the state of the art of Spanish American literature and advertising texts and we will find indifference, distance and rejection of these communities, which appear as others on the map of identities.

For renowned writers such as Lope de Rueda, Luis Góngora y Argote, Francisco de Quevedo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the famous anonymous author of La vida del Lazarillo de Tormes, with the character of Zaide, all from the Golden Age of Spanish literature (the Renaissance and the Baroque of Early Modern times, in Enrique Dussel’s terms), Africa was a symbolic place, a paradise, as well as a jungle and an abyss, full of dangers and savage pagans, future “slaves”. Thus, Africa was not only a territory of imagined inhabitants, but also an imagined and imprecise cultural geography for these Spanish authors, who produced stereotypes that were repeated ad infinitum. Libya and its burning sands; Ethiopia the land of blacks; the River Nile and its origins in the Mountains of the Moon; Guinea, land of ferocious animals and monstrous human beings, such as pygmies, cynocephali or dog-headed men; others with flat faces, or people with a single hole in the face, who ate with a straw; others who had no language. In this emblematic literature, for example, there is abundant reference to the concept of black skin colour as something rare, and at the same time, imperfect. In Don Quixote de la Mancha, for Sancho Panza, Africa or Guinea was a warehouse of slaves (Chap. 31). For his part, Quevedo in “Boda de Negros” (Black Wedding) speaks of a “dismal wedding, / because only blacks were there” (cited in Mansour, 1973: 43). For example: black and mulatto women are impure, despicable, cunning, skilful; they serve as cooks, as prostitutes associated with mares or fillies, or as superstitious, cannibalistic, false, ruthless witches who fitted perfectly in the classifications of the medieval treatise, Malleus Maleficarum, “The Hammer of Witches” (1486), by the Dominican monks Kramer and Sprenger, as destined for execution by The Inquisition, due to their possessions and alleged evil pacts with Satan. In an “othering” hypersexualized-eroticized reading, they are frequently associated with the Edenic myth of the serpent. In these narratives, frenetic and obscene dancing and the contorted movements of backsides made too large by steatopygia (fat on the buttocks) is a negative and degenerative sign, which marks black women with negative traces.

For its part, the “huge phallus” of black men is perfectly adjusted to the fevered sexuality of horses, to polygamy and the desire to rape a white woman. His “animality” fits into an image of a person who, as an African slave, is funny, childish, happy-looking, dependent, irresponsible, trusting, cowardly, unpunctual, lazy, lying, greedy, empty, ungrateful, unmannered, thieving, and ignorant. Therefore, manual or intellectual trades that he carries out as a servant, a low-ranking soldier, a driver, and a hitman are of lower rank compared to white or mestizo characters who, in addition to embodying qualities of kindness, intelligence, leadership, entrepreneurship and being guarantors of the avant-garde and of development, have professional occupations: they are engineers, doctors, businessmen, university students, and high-ranking military and religious officials.

In my Master’s thesis entitled: “Towards a Socio-Critical Approach: the Afro-Caribbean Subject and Colombian Modernity in the Work of Gabriel García Márquez” (2009), which focused on an analysis of the Afro-Caribbean characters of this writer from the Colombian Caribbean and a Nobel Prize in Literature, there are stigmatisations, explicit and visible, which create a picture of social “abnormalities” that pathologise, criminalise or morally or aesthetically condemn the Afro-descendant subject.

In “Nabo, el negro que hizo esperar a los ángeles” (1951), El Coronel no tiene quien le escriba (1961), En este pueblo no hay ladrones (1962), La mala hora (1962), Cien años de soledad (1967), El amor en los tiempos del cólera (1985), El general en su laberinto (1989) and Del amor y otros demonios (1994), we can observe male characters who show signs of “double consciousness” (W.E.B. Du Bois), the black skin/white mask syndrome (Fanon), alienation, mental objectification, archetypical traits of the domesticated black, the condition of being in exile, cultural dislocation and disjuncture; not to mention states of poverty, marginality, apathy and ignorance of the surrounding social circumstances. As for the female characters, both the black woman and the mulata play servile roles; they are associated with exoticism, sensuality, concubinage, debauchery and prostitution. Nor is the theme or locus terribilis of “witchcraft” or “sorcery” absent.

Nigromanta, a minor character in the novel Cien años de soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude), is a young Afro-Anglo-Caribbean prostitute who initiates the youngest of the Aurelianos in the pleasures of sex. The fact that she is black, which is her ethical as well as ethnic value or her “ethical norm” in the terms of Philippe Hamon, creates negativity because she breaks with civil social codes by behaving in certain ways associated with feminine anti-values rejected by traditional western macho society, such as a certain “frivolity” with men. She is the great-granddaughter of the oldest West Indian black who was still alive at the time when Aureliano Babilonia began to circulate in the town, after the death of José Arcadio. The narrator of the novel goes into detail when describing her rugged, heavy matronly figure:

Aureliano […] sometimes shared the chicken-head soup prepared by the great-granddaughter, a large black woman with solid bones, the hips of a mare and teats like live melons, and a round and perfect head, armoured with a hard cap of wiry hair, which looked like a medieval warrior’s mail headdress. Her name was Nigromanta […] [Aureliano] would run into Nigromanta under the dark almond trees of the plaza, using her wild-animal whistles to lure the few night owls. […] Nigromanta took him to her room lit with fake candles, to her folding bed with sheets marked with the stains of bad loves, and her wild-dog body, hardened, heartless […] They became lovers. Aureliano would spend the morning deciphering scrolls, and at siesta time he would go to the soporific bedroom where Nigromanta waited for him to teach him how to do it first like earthworms, then like snails and finally like crabs, until she had to abandon him to lie in wait for loves lost […] It was the first time that Nigromanta had had a steady man, a full-time bruiser, as she herself used to say, dying with laughter, and she was even starting to get her romantic hopes up when Aureliano confided to her his repressed passion for Amaranta Úrsula […] After that Nigromanta continued to receive him with the same warmth as before, but made him pay for her services with such rigour, that when Aureliano had no money, the cost was charged to an account that she did not reckon with numbers but with little lines that she made with her thumbnail behind the door. (323-324).

There is clearly an intention to evoke a process of dehumanization, and the instinctual and natural side of the black woman. The idea is to attribute to her a unique and wild identity, based on her physical appearance. This rather legendary symbol of blackness has a leitmotiv of “anomaly” and distortion. In the description of the scene, it is interesting to note the repetition of lexies – lexical units that derive from semantic fields or sets of words – with meanings related to the word “animal” (wild-animal whistles, wild dog, teach him how to do it like earthworms, snails and crabs); to the word “witchcraft” (room lit with fake candles, folding bed, soporific bedroom [translators’ note: these items all evoke a kind of shabbiness and sultriness associated with magic in the region]); or the word “prostitute” (sheets marked with the stains of bad loves, her wild-dog body, hardened, heartless, to lie in wait for loves lost, a full-time bruiser, heat).

Here the idea of “race” operates as a social construction of predilections for and aspirations towards whiteness, to the detriment of non-whiteness. Consequently, male and female authors and their privileged aesthetics are the ones who materialize the worldview and the value system of these Europhile and negrophobic mestizo oligarchies.

References cited

De Sousa Santos, Boaventura. 2009. Una epistemología del Sur. La reinvención del conocimiento y la emancipación social. México: CLACSO/ Siglo XXI.
García Márquez, Gabriel. 1970. Cien años de soledad. Barcelona: Círculo de Lectores.
Mansour, Mónica. 1973. La poesía negrista. México: ERA.
Orozco Herrera, Dinah, 2009. Hacia una aproximación Sociocrítica: el sujeto afro- Caribe frente a la modernidad colombiana en la obra de Gabriel García Márquez. Tesis de Maestría. Bogotá, Instituto Caro y Cuervo.
van Dijk, Teun A. 1988. El discurso y la reproducción del racismo. Lenguaje en contexto (Universidad de Buenos Aires), 1(1-2): 131-180.

To be continued