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We need to know our own history

OUTRAGE: H&M has since apologised for advertising its monkey hoodie on a young black model

THE FURORE last week over a young black boy modelling a hoodie for the clothes firm H&M, with the motif ‘the coolest monkey in the jungle’, has re-opened one of the deepest wounds from the days of enslavement when Europeans used and abused Africans for profits.

I don’t need to tell you that they dehumanised us as standard to justify their immorality. We weren’t exactly humans they declared. At best we were four-fifths human so therefore, in their minds, closer to the lower primates than the dumbest white folk.

Clearly we haven’t gotten over it. And, perhaps, equally clearly neither have they. It depends which way you look at it. For one thing I am not a monkey. So I don’t take it personally when the racists throw such abuse at me. And I always implore my fellow Africans and descendants of Africans not to either.

For even though these are highly personal attacks they are intended to rile us, throw us off course and corner us into implying that maybe, just maybe, there is something in it. We wouldn’t get so riled up, for example, if the same racists were to call us lions or zebras or giraffes or say that the men of our race shares a certain length of anatomy with a donkey.

I’m not saying that those things don’t wind us up, I’m simply saying that those com- parisons are not a call to arms. Even when we are described individually or as a race as cool cats or dogs (and there are those who suggest that the men of our race are the latter if not the former) somehow those references do not agitate in the way that monkey with its long history does.

And even though that history is imprinted on our minds, it is not without its problems. For one thing a lot of white people don’t know that history and don’t know how sensitive we are about it.

Racists know, because they make it their business to wind us up as much as they can so that we don’t maintain, let alone succeed, in this babylon of a dispensation that we find ourselves in.

But your rank and file white folk ain’t got a clue why we are so upset about being the coolest monkeys in the jungle when they happily describe their own as cheeky monkeys. “What’s the problem?” they’ve been asking me since H&M were forced to pull that particular advert and apologise for any offence that may have been caused.

And it’s not just the white folks that don’t know our history. Plenty of us don’t, either. It is a shocker – a real shocker – that plenty of us do not know where the source of irritation comes from and what the connection with enslavement is. Genuinely.

The number of black folk that I have come across in the last week who may as well believe that our ancestors were stolen from Africa in chains and put on the 16th century maritime equivalent of the Concorde, is disturbing. Slavery was no picnic.

The sooner we all accept that the better. So devastating was the murder and brutality that there is no single word in the English language (or in any other language in the world as far as I understand) which encapsulates it.

We can call it the ‘maafa’ (loosely translated from the Kiswahili as ‘great disaster’) but it doesn’t seem to suffice, not least because it has not been embraced by us so it wouldn’t be embraced by any other community.

Therefore we have to borrow from the lexicon of the horrors foisted upon the Jewish people by Nazi Germany and describe what our people had to endure as a ‘black/African holocaust’. But that is not a definition that we own. Until we own a definition and embrace it, the wholesale slaughter of Africans will always be denigrated to the popular euphemism of ‘the Transatlantic slave trade’.

As though it was just one of those things, like the Brexit trade negotiations. But let me get back to the ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’, because one hoodie size does not fit all. Once upon a time, the coolest monkey in the jungle was Tarzan or Johnny Weissmuller.

We rightly were incensed. Not least by his cod-English when he spoke to the natives.
Now, the coolest monkey in the jungle is a young black boy of seven or eight if we are to follow the narrative of this H&M advert. Should we not own that?

His mum is incensed at the worldwide protests that led to H&M withdrawing the advert and has told us lot to “get over it”. But like I said earlier, if after hundreds of years we have not gotten over it, we are unlikely to do so in the next day or two.

But what about our chil- dren who haven’t even got under it. More crucially, it has not gotten under their skin? Are they not innocent? Should we rip apart that innocence because of the bag- gage that we bring to the table, albeit one that they will eventually have to learn to survive. Should they not learn in their own time?

I remember when I was a little child actor, I once got a role to be a little black servant boy in some film that was being made by one of these UK rock bands. The film was set in the days of slavery. My old man said point blank that he wasn’t going to allow me to be no black servant boy to some white guys. I was mortified at losing the role and have been screwing about it for years.

On reflection, he probably did the right thing. I would probably have been embarrassed to this day if I had em- barrassed my ancestors in that way. But when it came to my own daughter who at the age of seven or eight had fashioned her email address as ‘xxxxxthemonkey@hotmail.co.uk’, I was horrified.

Not just horrified, but angry at her and at myself that she didn’t understand. I told her in no uncertain terms that she could absolutely not have that email address and she looked up at me through tearful eyes in fear of a temper she had never previously seen form me and never seen since and asked “Why not? I love monkeys....”

What would you have said?

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