By Fred Mbogo
Published May 20, 2013
When Senegalese Leopold Senghor and his colleagues who subscribed to Negritude talked about Africa, they romanticised it. They gave it beautiful names and raised the profile of blackness. But do you not agree that this romanticization of a people and a place can at times mask a million problems, sanitising chaos and disorder? Why can’t artists simply tell their story without distorting the image of Africa? Romance and fantasy have their place but they must not deliberately lie or be used as propaganda.
Rastafarianism appears to be guided by ideals similar to those espoused by Negritude. The songs of Bob Marley of Jamaica, for example, urge black people to return to their roots and cultures for survival. In “Africa Unite”, Marley sings of “moving out of Babylon” and coming to “our Father’s Land.” That‘’Father’s Land’ is Ethiopia where the ‘messiah’, Emperor Haile Sellasie (Ras Tafari), reigned till 1974 when he was overthrown by the military, detained and lost his life in prison to the backdrop of a starving country.
This raises the question of fantasy versus reality in art. Should works of art such as poetry and music be crafted with ‘reality’ in mind? In so doing, how much of their aesthetic touch would they lose?
Music must follow its own rhythm and rhyme. It must work within a given space in terms of time. Beats and harmony and the conversation of the instruments and voice of the artist must not be sacrificed at the altar of over-explaining. Music is not a factual essay. That’s how Bob Marley can escape with fantasies about “father’s land” in the Rastafari-speak.
Writers like Sister Souljah of the United States of America have their own version of connectedness to African aspirations. Taking on the idea of “togetherness,” a la Bob Marley’s message in “Africa Unite,” she employs the idea of “sisterhood” to raise that need to reconnect with those of her race. “Souljah” (the spirit of god?) combines that difficult history of blackness narrated in “soul” music, in a bitter-sweet fashion, with the Rastafarian acknowledgement of Jahova (Jah’s long form) as the supreme deity. “Souljah” as a name then carries an identity of universal blackness that is imprinted boldly.
It comes as no surprise that in a novel like Midnight: A Gangster Love Story blackness is the main line of discussion. Indeed, we learn from Sister Souljah that blackness must be considered from perspective. There can be blackness from mother Africa and blackness stuck in Babylonia (USA and the West in general)!
Midnight is from Sudan. His blackness comes ‘flavoured’ in Islam and dressed in the wise sayings of his father. He glides through life with a self assuredness that is distinctly noble. His father is a rich man. He comes from a stock of Sudanese men who must live up to admirable status’; leading other men.
The novel provides a character whose commitment to upholding honour and dignity is beyond question. He loves his family and kills when it is threatened ever so lightly. Sudan comes to life whenever Midnight is confronted by an issue that he cannot understand. Then, the voices of his father and grandfather are echoed in the background with sayings and little narratives that explain life’s tricky terrain. The Sudan we read about in this novel is one where peace is supreme. Islam as a religion of ‘salaam’ is given prominence as the route to self realisation.
There is no sense of identity crisis in Midnight. He knows his place because his roots are planted firmly in the Sudanese soil. He treads the paths of life with the same spring in his step as his father and father’s father would have done.
Midnight comes to the US at the age of seven with his pregnant mother. The first people to welcome him and his mother are Customs officers sporting pink snouts and pink ears. It should be a moment of cultural shock. Instead, seven-year-old Midnight begins his glide through American life with a confident poise, leading his mother away from the offending officials.
Midnight must live and thrive in Brooklyn. It is a dangerous place where gunshots, crime, idleness, fear and all the negativity of life are the order of the day. Having been thrust by circumstances into this notorious area where he is a witness of black-on-black violence on a daily basis, he walks about with the consideration that he is at war with every other black person he encounters. To him, the blacks are lost; they have no legs of self respect on which to stand. They are reckless and their value for life is so painfully low. He questions the meaning of being black in America.
While he hates the violence, Midnight is nevertheless prepared to employ it to better his life and protect his family. His violent ways, however, are painted with such a soft brush; they are like ‘cool’ artistic works.
When he kills Gold Star Tafari, a Jamaican man who has been stalking his mother, he simply “claps” (shoots) him twice and disappears in the dark of the night. Similarly, when he knifes a man called Conflict to death, it is with such clinical precision that it can be said to be part of a choreographed silent dance. His knife is a piece of art created out of a book on weapons. It could as well have been shaped out of an art class.
Sudan’s women are painted as graceful beings. Midnight’s mother does not question the authority of men. She prospers because she sticks to the principles of her religion. Sudana, a girl about Midnight’s age, is presented as being well brought up, again because she has “roots” in Sudan unlike the ‘’rootless’’ American girls. Although the law in America does not allow a 14-year-old to marry, Midnight marries a 16-year-old Japanese girl through the power of the Islamic law.
Why does Sister Souljah find it necessary to paint Sudan as Paradise through Midnight and his relatives and Sudanese acquaintances in America? Whereas every black American citizen is presented as being anxious, unsettled and unsure of his or her space, the Sudanese are packaged as people who are sure of their future based on the clear path charted by religion. Whereas Midnight is portrayed as hard working, morally upright, committed to family, organised and charming, black American characters are presented as being lazy, disorganised, ‘rootless’, lost, confused, incestuous, and plain ill. Africa’s pure blackness is therefore seen as salvation.
But the real Sudan must find its own space to articulate its being, for it is not heaven. If we revert to Sudan’s Arabic meaning as “black”, then Sister Souljah is presenting to us Midnight as a “rooted” black man from Africa, the source of every good thing.
Islamic Sudan, in Sister Souljah’s fantasies, is heaven. Islam is seen as a purer, better religion than Christianity, the religion of ‘Babylon’. This is the same take that seems to have informed Malcolm X’s sojourns in the world of activism. His search for an identity pushed him towards a search for that which in Islam is egalitarian. He sought in Islam a sense of justice which he thought wasn’t in the “white” religion that Christianity is perceived to be.
Critics of Islam dig deeper into its use of violence as a way of winning new converts. When the acts of jihad traversing Arabia, parts of Europe and Africa are brought to life in history books, Islam as a religion of peace is questioned. How then does it become embraced by Sister Souljah and Malcom X? When Nation of Islam becomes a champion for black rights using Islam as a religion that should bring hope, is this ‘brutal’ history swept under the carpet?
Sister Souljah’s Midnight: A Gangster Love Story is then a worship of an Africa that is not real and a religion that has been fantasized about.
Lest we forget, South Sudan seceded from Sudan on claims of mistreatment and marginalisation based on race and religion. Has the International Criminal Court not indicted President Omar El Bashir of Sudan for crimes against humanity?
Fred Mbogo, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.