Thursday, February 02, 2006

Lomnitz on Mexico + Zimbabwean Twins in Goatskins + 2006 Super Bowl

GuerreroToday as I was battling a terrible cluster headache and prepping for my class, I heard a really engaging conversation on Chicago Public Radio WBEZ-FM's Worldview, hosted by Jerome McDonald. He's been focusing on racial issues all week, and, discussing "Racism in Mexico" today he interviewed Claudio Lomnitz, Distinguished University Professor of anthropology and historical studies at the New School University, and an authority on Mexican and Latin American history and society. A great deal of what Lomnitz talked about can be found in his excellent article "Mexico's Race Problem," which appeared in the November-December 2005 issue of the Boston Review. (He quotes intellectual Enrique Krauze claiming that the grotesquely offensive Memín Penguín caricature/cartoon figure could be "elected president" of Mexico, though Krauze obviously has forgotten that the negative response towards the Afro-Cuban (aren't all Hispanics the same?) wife of Michoacán governor Lázaro Cárdenas when he was running for his post.)

This afternoon, Lomnitz did speak quite a bit about the Penguín controversy, Mexico's myth of racial equality, and its problematic view of US racial problems, but he didn't really really address either in his on-air discussion and or in his essay the particular sociopolitical marginality of Afro-Mexicans (like Mexico's second president, Vicente Guerrero, pictured above at right), who remain invisible in both internal and external Mexican media representations, or their responses to Mexican President Vicente Fox's comments about Mexicans "taking jobs Blacks won't" and the Peguín commemoration. One thing he pointed out that I found enlightening was the role that external critiques of American racism have played, along with internal political and economic activism, in nudging the US government towards changing its state-approved racist policies; in the Peguín cartoons, there's a storyline that addresses mid-20th century US segregation, and Peguín's experiences with US racism provides the opportunity for a moment of Mexican national solidarity, overriding (erasing?) his raced representation.

Many of the Worldview "Color Complex" series interviews and discussions (on skin lightening, racism and US and Australian immigration, xenophobia in Japan, and relations between African-American and Africans, etc.) can be found on WBEZ's site. There will be a public forum from 4-6 this Saturday at Unity in Chicago, 1925 W. Thome Avenue, in Rogers Park, on this topic.


Many thanks to Prof. Byron M., who passed on a Steve Vickers BBC article, "Zimbabwe furore over loincloths," about twin brothers in that country, Tafadzwanashe and Tapiwanashe Fichani (at right, BBC from Zimbabwe Herald) who were charged with "indecent exposure" and jailed, with attendant psychological observation (!), for wearing traditional goatskin kilts (nhembes) that exposed their bare buttocks. The brothers, who're 22, claim that after their return from study in Britain (and Tafadzwanashe's brush with the British legal system) "God" urged them to reject Western clothes, implements and attitudes. God spake and they responded. Now they refuse to sit in chairs or sleep on beds, opting instead for the comfort of the floor or ground.

In addition to God, the young men are postcolonial agents with a vengeance, or as Vickers reports it

The brothers said that those who look down on them for their decision were "mentally colonised", as they were just going back to how things were before Europeans arrived in Africa.

However, these champions of cultural authenticity, traditional values and resistant performance upset some Zimbabweans who don't accept their praxis, and denounce them on the grounds of a problematic, quasi-Darwinian, quasi-Hegelian progressivist view of their country's sociocultural development:

They have reignited a debate about the place of traditional dress, but not many people in the capital are on their side.

"What they did is very disgraceful, especially to the parents," one man said.

"If human nature developed from apes, so there's development in life. So they should appreciate the development of clothes," he added.

Another woman said she thought their move was "stupid."

"I think we're advanced. We can't wear those things," she said.

"I think we're advanced"...why does she sound so unsure? Could it be the crazed dictator-qua-"president" who is still lording over her country, sending into negative territory in economic terms? The comment section offers up similar responses, with the counterargument that they should be allowed to wear "African" garb (one only person really appeared to speak of the specifics of Zimbabwe's history and internal cultures, noting that in rural areas, people wear the nhembes without harassment). So is the fact that Harare is the national capital, a site of modernity and that its residents are more focused, at least in this regard, on the demands of the external (Western/global) gaze that has criminalized these two young men's traditionalist performance? Because I wonder why contemporary clothing as well as "traditional" outfits can't coexist, as they do elsewhere? And really, what's wrong with exposed male buttocks? They're even legal in Virginia now.


The Super Bowl, the National Football League's annual championship, is rolling up this Sunday in a newly gussied up Detroit. The Pittsburgh Steelers, winner of the AFC Championship, face the Seattle Seahawks, who won the NFC trophy. This year I have no interest or stake in either team winning (or losing), and really wish both of them the best, though at the same time, since Seattle has never won a Super Bowl, it would be great to see them finally take the crown out to the northwest.

One heartwarming story involves Pittsburgh's veteran running back, thick and handsome Jerome "the Bus" Bettis (at left above, with Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, AP) scorer of 94 (91 rushing) career regular-season touchdowns and a former Ram, who may retire after this season; if he does, no matter who wins, he'll go out in his native city and a winner nonetheless. Rod 2.0, of the eagle eye, also points to another interesting angle in this match-up: the central roles played by several star Samoan players, including the luxuriously maned, stunning Steeler defensive back Troy Polamalu (at right, AP) who gets (cuz he deserves!) the lens and dap whether his helmet is on or off.

So it sounds like I'm leaning towards Pittsburgh...but I actually think Seattle will win this one, on the strength of their coaching, improved quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, and outstanding running-back Shawn Alexander (at left, AP), who in addition to looking like the third phyne Barber brother (thanks Bernie!) set an NFL record this year with 27 regular-season touchdowns. Look for Mack Daddy to score at least one or two more this weekend.

Seattle has the offense and defense, and the determination (the hunger, if I can be dramatically clichéd) to win it all, and I think they will. Still, Pittsburgh has a very good team too, with a top defense, one of the better young QBs in the league, and a 1-2 backfield punch--does that sound like hedging?--so it ought to be a great contest.


  1. "don't accept their praxis" lol I can't figure out why that phrase is so hilarious to me: is it for its lewd possibilities ("Wanna see my ...?") or for marking a sudden swerve into septasyllabic characterisations of the extremely earthy (and down to earth) comments from offended Zimbabweans that follow. "Praxis" ... he he. I love this blog.

    Kai in NYC

  2. interesting article about the twins - it's ashame they are being treated so harshly by their own community who are just concerned w/ what white folks think

  3. Thanks for the Race and Mexico hook-up. While working with Latin Americans and Brazilians I noticed some things concerning me and the rest of the bunch. I think some people thought that I was stupid. That was simply not the case of course, but they did talk to me in a certain way. And as I learned more about Spanish I understood that the conversations a lot of the time dealt with my body. My height. My weight. My butt (it is real African, the Portuguese guys called it my "bahian butt"). etc. I am physically different than them, but at one point a guy said I looked exactly like his cousin, and this mexican had a wide nose and face and very, very curly hair, but everything else was Aztecan.

    Not to be too essentialist, but I did notice that about him as sure as he said I look like his cousin.

    I am friends with everyone there, but there were some notions. I had notions too. I just don't know much about the hisotry or race in central america to engage me comrades. Just as they were asking about my background and origins and I had to explain.

  4. Clay, I'm not sure if the other people are concerned with what white people think. That's the think about being colonized (or colonised), mentally or otherwise. The colonial ideals become creolized.

  5. Mendi O. -- and I think that creolization works the other way around also. Very interesting usaged of the creolization concept. What do you think about these twins? Are they trying to show others "the way" to salvation by staying in the city? Are they exhibiting some form of creole hybridity like the first dreads walking down the streets of Kingstons in the 1930's by living amongst the people, preaching and not heading to the hinterlands (I am rusty on my Rasta history, but the image came to mind)? And if they really want to wear a loin cloth why don't they just leave the city all together, or are they trapped?

    J -- I read "Mexico's Race Problem". Great freakin' article! I am going to print it out and take it to my old job today (gotta get my second to the last check). I want to know what my co-workers think about Penguin and Vincente Guerro.

    ciao, ciao

  6. I really just hang out here for the pictures

    I'm hoping you put up some of the football players looking all sexy

    it's late at night; I'm only semi-articulate most of the time . . .

  7. Mendi's right on--the colonial ideals are internalized and creolized, reified really and commodified. People don't think of them as colonial any more. The two young men in one sense, then, are subalterns, aren't they? But then there is the question of what they're really after, and if it's possible to resurrect something from the past without it being transformed or changed in the proces, about the problematics of the new context (however colonialist it is), and so on. I wonder, L, why you suggest they should leave the city? Why can't the city accommodate their desires? Certainly Harare (or its upscale suburb) is large enough, and if people are so "modern" and liberal and open-minded...

    Keguro, no football porn today. I'll have to wait till after the Super Bowl!

  8. Wow! OK creolization as the normalization of colonial manners, thoughts, rules, I got it. I am always thinking of culture in a different way.

    OK. J, got your question.

    Well, I wasn't suggesting that they should move. It was more a hypothetical question. But, if they want to live their lives in a traditional way, then the option of living in the country where people do follow that mode of life is always a possibility. I wonder if that would not be even more "liberating" -- however they define it -- and if it could not be anymore or any less revolutionary. It is hard for me to formulate an answer without getting too long winded, which I think I already am, but my answer to the first question is that it depends on what they want and their desires. If they want to live in the city, then living in the country would not be liberating. I don't know enough about them to say what they do and do not know about the traditional way of life and their contact with that world, so I can't say they would learn more about tradition if they went out of the city.

    The answer to the second quesiton is that I do believe living outside of dominate culture has its place in social change in some instances, and in others it can just be escapism or utopianism that is detached from society and limits its impact on the rest of the world because of its seperation.

    When I say that the twins are "trapped", I am wondering if they are caught between that world in the hinterlands and the modern world of the city. They want to emulate tradition but they want to do it with in the realm of the city. Possible reasons are family, friendships, environment, profession, etc. But is there something about themselves that they can't change that is "modern" or "colonialist"? Is there something deeper than sitting in a chair or sleeping in a bed that needs to be examined? I would like to talk or spend more time to hear what they say.

    That's all for now.

    I don't think they should leave because people living in the city don't except their behavior. They should be able to stay if the other "citydwellers" like it or not.

    I am just thinking in terms of options, choices, motivations, places to live, spaces created, etc.

  9. I guess I'm struck more by the sense that the twins' decision to go "traditional" is itself a distinctly modern idea. And their manner of doing is, is distinctly modern. It was not done in consultation with their parents, their elders, or their community. It might reject being westernized, but does not take into account ideas of honor, respect, hospitality, and discretion, which are central in many African societies. Should they be "chained" to tradition? Well, no? However, we can certainly question the emphasis on the individual that undergirds their choice to be anti-modern, albeit through a distinctly modern method.

    To dress in a "traditional way" does not, in and of itself, constitute living "in a traditional way." I suspect the backlash comes from this dissonance. A few years ago, John Mburu, a kenyan-born gay activism, argued that Africans have yet to appreciate a sense of individuality; community still looms large. I disagreed with him then and still do. I don't really think a high sense of agency or individuality is an unambiguous good, especially when it ignores the structures and institutions that allow for subjectivity, as it so often does in Euro-America. But now I'm going off on a tangent.

    It's not simply about what "white folk think," as clay puts it, but also about real transitions within Africa that still draw from traditional concepts of family and community. Even the largest African city feels and acts like a village. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing.

  10. Keguro,

    Tell me more of the African metropolis and how it differs from say New York City.

  11. Oh, dear, I set myself up for that, didn't I?

    I was actually thinking about the last time I was home, when my sister was heavily pregnant. She was rather elated as men cleared a path for her, as, traditionally, touching a pregnant woman's body is a huge no no. From my (admittedly) limited experiences, African cities still live in a manufactured bubble called "Africanism" or what Senghor termed "Africanite" (can't do the accent on the e). A sense that certain traditions, customs, ways of acting, toward elders or institutions, hold sway, irrespective of actual ethnic affiliation. That someone might be Luo, for example, does not mean I don't apply Gikuyu standards of respect (stuff like who says hello first in a conversation, and the like).

    Religion also looms larger in ways that it doesn't in New York. African cities tend to be strangely religious; comments I've made here and many recent articles speak about the "second" missionary venture to Africa, often through sophisticated evangelical crusades (T.D. Jakes has visited a few times), and, at least in Kenya, the 700 club remains one of the top-watched programs. My parent's generation (late 50s through early 70s) hold to ideas of decency instilled under missionary education, which blend, interestingy, with tradition. In some cases, leading to forms of patriarchy supporting each other; other cases, with interesting innovations.

    Perhaps I simply grew up in Nairobi, so experience it differently. Anonymity is not really possible. That's part of what I mean about the "village." Someone always knows someone who knows someone. Always. Perhaps the same obtains in New York; I can't be sure. Of course, we also have to think about the relative size of both cities and the patterns of migration in and out; people rarely move in and out of Nairobi with the frequency of multi-city countries like the States. Unless trends have changed, travel tends to be heavily uni-directional, punctuated with multiple trips, either monthly or yearly to rural homes. But again, I haven't lived in Nairobi for 10 years, so much of this might have changed.

  12. Thanks. I have lived in Nashville, New York, Cologne and Stuttgart. All cities that are Western, extremely different in many aspects and subject to the extremes of regionalism. The formality of speech, the effects of past leaders (put Bismark in the place of Senghor, the German system is still a structure cast in his image), and how people come to terms with the city in different ways are things I haven't really isolated in my own mind. No time to reflect I guess.

    I have been to Accra but did not stay long enough to really venture out and to see it, plus there were larger differences that my eyes zoned in on. The poverty was shocking, the way people approached me was very gentle, how people took your word so seriously as compared to the states, etc . . . Kenya and Ghana are worlds a part, but for me, that was the only major city I have been to below the equator. I would like to go back one day, with the experience and knowledge I have now. Then, it was more the romance of returning "home", before I started to question all the Afrocentric politic that was flowing real heavy in the early 90's.