A black tongue in a white mouth

A black tongue in a white mouth

Saturday, December 5, 2020 9:10 am


Dr. Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

Picture a black tongue in a white mouth and you will realise it instantaneously evokes and provokes bemusement, maybe in some sensitive people, horror and disgust and in a broad spectrum of human types, a variety of reactions almost always negative. That figure with a black tongue in a white mouth is liable to be dismissed as fustian, a ludic caricature of sorts or even a circus stuntman.   A marionette. S/he will never cut a figure of dignity or gravitas, but one of fun, provoking belly-laughs and broad humour.  A Falstaffian fellow.  The above character, though hypothetically drawn, is, sadly, the description of all peoples of colour.  Notice the emphasis on colour.

Black versus white.  This is a real-life situation in which racial binarism is embossed and spotlighted, one which excavates Rene Descartes’ dictum, to wit: cogito ergo sum [Latin for “I think, therefore, I am”].  This originary fount of Caucasian delusion of grandeur or, to use a clichéd expression, white supremacy, forged by the French philosopher, Descartes, was historically countered by Leopold Sedar Senghor, the Senegalese poet-president in the Negritude movement, he co-founded with Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas and others.  Senghorean Negritude, also referred to as the mystical or spiritualist school of Negritude, is anchored on a countervailing argument, namely: ‘I feel, therefore, I am”.  By this single statement, Senghor succeeded in underwriting and reinforcing the Descartes Heresy that rationality or logic is the sole property of “Whites only” and, therefore, Blacks are distinguished by their congenital emotiveness.  In other words, peoples of colour are like Thomas Hardy’s heroine, Tess Durberville in the novel Tess of the D’urberville: they are vessels of emotion untinctured by reason or experience.  It is this unreflecting hollowness of Negritude that forced Wole Soyinka to denounce Negritude and declare that ‘A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude, it pounces”.  By the same token, the racialism spun by Descartes and Senghor equally sired and spawned ethnocentric Manichaeism, reifying a typology of  races.  We may simplify this racial or racist categorisation this way:

White emblematises purity, holiness, sainthood, perfection, symmetry, grace, beauty, heaven and life.  On the other hand, Black symbolises impurity, sin, the devil, night, the netherworld, or Hades/Hell, imperfection, asymmetry, defeat, failure, ugliness, corruption, death.  To be certain, the larger, more far-ranging racial reverberations of colour derives from pseudo-scientific  ideologies developed by the likes of Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914 – 2003), Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and Sir Edward Evan Evans – Pritchard ( 1902 – 1973), an English anthropologist and Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford.  It is not unlikely that both these Englishmen of letters were pretty inspired and influenced by Melville J. Herskovits (1895 – 1963), American anthropologist who helped established African and African-American studies in American academia.  As a matter of fact, Cambridge and Oxford intellectual gurus had denigrated blacks and regarded them as eternal infants of humanity or freaks of nature.  These western scholars’ theoria (or inchoate theories) were inspired by older forms of “knowledge” generally embodied by Hegel who claimed that peoples of colour do not have history or ancestrology.  It was this ancient gnosisthat provided the moral warrant for the historic enslavement of black peoples from the 15th to the 19thcentury, the colonisation of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, neo-colonialism and globalism.  The white man has always been afflicted with ethnocentrism and false claims of universalism.  He is the normative order, the measure of all possibility while the black person is the demonic other, the subaltern, as argued by Edward Said in Orientalism and Gayatri Spivak in “The Subaltern Also Speaks”.  

Therefore, for the white man, the other [read: BLACK] dwells in a twilight zone, an interstitial in-betweenness, and there is where you find Man Friday and Caliban.  In postcolonial discourse, much has been written about the Caliban Complex: Caliban, a person of colour, is said to have learnt how to speak from Prospero, his white master and thereafter “curses” him in his newfound metropolitan, master-race language.  This is the brief of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Thus, Caliban’s revolutionary Atundaesque gesture betokens a heroic act of self-liberation or self-definition; a staking-out of a sphere of influence and a domain of self-expression.  As Niyi Osundare would quip: “To utter is to alter”.  Caliban thus sets himself free, secures his manumission through the act of utterance.  True enough, the power of life and death is in the tongue (Proverbs 18: 21).  But regardless of the liberating boon of acquiring the master-race’s language – English, French, Portuguese, or Mandarin, yours is lost, or denigrated, demonised, corrupted, or forgotten.  The effect? The Naipaul syndrome known as mimicry.  This is a post-colonial condition characterised by linguistic pathologies such as hybridity, syncreticism, displacement, the crisis of consciousness, inauthenticity, identity theft/crisis and split-personality disorder syndrome.  The victim – you and I – suffers self-defenestration and the destabilisation of self-concept.  The all-important question, then, arises: Who Am I?  Am I still a son/daughter of the soil?  A genuine, authentic African?  Or a deeply-compromised and corrupted westernised African?  Perhaps we should remind ourselves that our language defines us; carves a niche for us in the world, invests us with an identity and signifies our ontology.  Fela Anikulapo-Kuti says so much in his song “Teacher Don Teach Me Nonsense”. The English speak English, the French speak French, the Spaniards speak Spanish, the Chinese speak Mandarin but what do Africans speak?  What language do peoples of colour speak?  Their indigenous, native tongues or those of their erstwhile colonial conquistadors?    Truth be told, Africa, for instance, is a continent of apes and parrots; it is the Black Menagerie where the natives ape and parrot the white puppeteers in London, Paris and Lisbon.   We are mimic-men and women and children, and, if things continue this way, our enslavement is eternal: Bio ti wa, Ni yio se wa…

It is against this backcloth and, indeed, in order to interrupt this grim tread of history that the late professor of Education, Babatunde Fafunwa inaugurated and executed the Mother Tongue Project for primary school pupils.  He made sure children in pre-school, aged 1 – 3 were taught in their respective mother tongues.  He also worked very diligently to see that primary school pupils were fluent in their indigenous languages.  His ideas were incorporated into Nigeria’s policy on education.  He was conscious of the fact that our speech organs are developed and set in the first years of our lives.  Thus, the language a child is first exposed to is of paramount importance.  That first language, be it its mother tongue or not becomes the prism or window through which it sees the world, segmentsreality and cognises experience.  For the child, therefore, the home is its first school, its mother is its first teacher, and its mother’s breast is its classroom as the child learns from her by imitation.  But what happens when Mom cannot speak her own mother tongue?  What language does Mom teach her little bundle of joy? English? French? Or Portuguese?  Any of these languages can potentially awaken in the infant breast the collective unconscious of enslavement, inferiority complex, dependency mentality and psychic disorientation.  Ask Sigmund Freud.  Ask Carl Jung. A sum of similar cases is bound to create a nation of cultural bastards, who speak tongues of other lands that violate our ears, a la Lenrie Peters.  Truthfully, only the teaching of our mother tongues in our schools, primary to tertiary institutions of learning, can mitigate this disaster.  A person who cannot speak their mother tongue, cannot think, introspect and dream in their mother tongue will suffer forever the inner plague of self-falsification, and self-inauthenticity, and will be culturally rootless and willflounder in an existential abyss.  So, what’s the way out?  There is urgent need for a curriculum review in our school system in order to prioritise the teaching of our Mother Tongues; teachers who teach our native languages must be encouraged and their work incentivised.  We should have special scholarship schemes for students in tertiary institutions wishing to read or study our languages and let them also have job security and enhanced social prestige.  There should also be a renewed synergy between Town and Gown as teachers, scholars and researchers in language studies collaborate with the owners of the languages in the rural areas, thus according due regard and recognition to the dying generation of native speakers.

Parents must endeavour to visit their villages periodically with their children in order to expose them to native speaker environment and thus bone up their own linguistic performance.  This way, the rural dumps are gentrified as urban dwellers take part in village cultural activities like the New Yam Festival.  So, let the next generation be speakers of our Mother Tongues, lest we die out as a race.

-Chris Anyokwu, PhD, Associate Professor of English, University of Lagos.

 

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