03:14:19 am on
Monday 27 May 2024

Sjef Frenken

Jack said: "There's something odd going on with this Black business."

I said: "What Black business?"

"You know," said Jack, "about Obama."

I said "What about Obama?"

Jack said: "He's called the first Black President of the USA. But he's only half Black."

I said "I guess technically speaking he should be called the first Mulatto President of the US. Although in these days of political correctness use of the term Mulatto is verboten. Mulatto would give credit to both ancestries."

Jack said "But that's my point, the white part of his ancestry is given short shrift."

"That may be so," I said, "but after all the hard times the forcibly transplanted Africans have had in the Americas, it may not hurt to give them a little more credit."

Jack was not to be diverted from his topic. "Still, it seems a bit odd that someone like Halle Berry can claim she's the first Black actress in a leading role to win an Oscar, when in fact she's probably more white than Black. Her mother is British and her father was an African-American, but like most African-Americans he probably had some white blood in him."

I said "I guess what you're trying to tell me is that scale has tipped a bit the other way. It used to be that Blackness was a taint. People would call someone with one Black grandparent a Quadroon, and someone with one Black great-grandparent an Octoroon, with all the social stigma attached to having any Negro blood at all."

"Oops," said Jack, "You used the N-word."

"Well," I said, "I happen to think it's not a bad word. It's nothing more than the Spanish word for Black. So what's the difference? Nigger, yes, that's a demeaning name, and meant to be such; but Negro? By what name do ethnologists and anthropologists call the sub-Saharan people -- the Blackoid race? Come on!"

Jack said "Black people don't like the word because it reminds them of slavery."

I said "Slavery is nothing new. Slavery has always been around, and in some parts of the world people are still being sold, or working in conditions that might as well be outright slavery. Some of the American Indians had or were slaves, Europeans had or were slaves. China, India, you name a civilization, Romans, Greeks, Persians, slavery was an element of society."

Jack said "There was slavery in Western Europe?"

I said "Think of the appalling conditions of children and the poor working under inhuman conditions in factories and mines during the Industrial Revolution in England, as late as the Victorian era. That may not haven been legal slavery, but the effect was pretty much the same. But I meant actual, real slavery: the Germanic tribes, for instance, had slavery just as the Romans did. And, let's not forget, the Africans had slaves too."

Jack said "Nothing new under the sun."

I said "I lived for a few years on a Caribbean island. For two years I was the only 'pure' European kid in the class, all my classmates were coloured, although not all with African blood. They ranged in shade from paler than myself, to as close to Black as you can get. I remember one day reading a letter-to-the-editor in one of the two local papers by one of the island's doctors -- a very Black ophthalmologist -- commenting on some remark made by a local politician who was trying to stir up some resentment against the minority white population. The doctor wrote that while white slavers had some blame for the slave trade, a good measure of blame also rested on the native Africans who had sold them slaves for transport to the Americas. That had everyone on the island in an uproar!"

"How," asked Jack, "did the Africans get the slaves?"

I said "same way most people became slaves: they were conquered and became a booty of war, they had committed a capital crime and had to make restitution by becoming a chattel of the offended family, or they incurred a debt they couldn't repay. I'm sure that if you and I could trace our ancestry back far enough, there'd be one or more slaves in the European family tree. And considering living conditions two thousand years ago, I doubt that their circumstances were any better than those experienced by African slaves in the Americas two hundred years ago."

Jack said "Is that an excuse?"

I said "No, that's an observation. I don't think white people, nor yellow, red, or Black people for that matter, have to apologize for what their ancestors did in their day and in their mind-set. That's history, and there's nothing we can do to correct it. All we can do is learn from it."

"And that," said Jack, "is something which we always have a hard time doing."

I said "At least things have changed to the point that an African-American has made it to the White House. Something that was inconceivable even a decade ago. And that's a mile-post in itself. Maybe in the larger scheme of things, the colour of our skin is becoming less and less important."

"Besides," said Jack, "if Professor Leakey is right, we're all of African descent anyway. We pale-skins merely happened to get out of Africa a little earlier."

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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