THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH
CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH A
If you are my age or thereabouts, your basic education in American literature included Vachel Lindsay's The Congo. I can recite the opening lines to this day. And I have to wonder what the impact of this poem was on the African-American students who, no doubt, had to read it as well. The first stanza is called Their Basic Savagery, and it begins:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom
While I was writing this, remembering this, I wondered if this poem or parts of it had ever found its way into rap. And Googling, I found this. Which sent me straight through to Kongo Groove. Interesting.
But it's Prose Day, not Poetry Day, and I've gone here because last night I closed the back cover on Adam Hochschild's .
Hochschild traces one of the most horrific scenes of the European appropriation of Africa, and introduces us to unsung heroes who tried, with some success if not much actual benefit, to draw the world's attention to this one microcosm of colonialism. Which, as Hochschild is careful to remind us, may have been one of the worst examples but was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only instance of brutal occupation.
The final chapter, which outlines the sorry legacy left to the post-colonials, is brought up to date and amplified by today's headlines.
I found myself wondering why. Why, when great benefit could have been achieved without the violence, without the subjugation, without the maiming and forced labor and rape and murder - murder which was not seen as such by the perpetrators any more than shooting spavined or vicious horses would be seen, although rarely is torture for pleasure performed upon actual draft animals.
I had to come to the conclusion that it was done because it could be done, by people who were given powerful weapons unavailable to the peoples they were sent to rule, people whose faces had been, for the past centuries, known only to many of their new rulers as the faces of slaves. It was done because maiming, forced labor, torture, rape and murder are activities of which people are capable, and when there is no one to stop them, when they are, indeed, rewarded for it, when they are far beyond the bounds of familiar society, they will too easily give in to their worst impulses. At home, these might be people who laid a vicious whip to a horse or discharged a servant for stealing an apple.
Out in Africa, they knew no bounds.