I’ll bet I’m not the only person who, upon reading Jon’s open letter to Maurice Riordan, clicked on the link to the poem ‘If I told you’. I’ll link it now just in case you missed it. The author’s name is Anthony Anaxagorou:
It’s a moving performance and it’s worth listening to it before reading it on paper. I was initially very struck by it – I thought it was deliberately presenting me with a partial, selective, manipulative reading of history as a way of placing me in the position of someone whose history has been similarly misrepresented over the years (i.e., any minority). In other words, it provoked me in an attempt to make me feel what it’s like to be provoked. Subtle and Trojan.
I was so impressed with the poem, in fact, that I started researching the author, and I came upon this video. Here Anaxagorou elaborates on some of the statements he makes in the poem, and it was upon seeing it that I realised I was mistaken. ‘If I told you’ is not some satire or parody. It’s not a clever intellectual game or a winking of an eye. It is, with all due concessions for a poem’s rhetorical mode, what the author actually thinks. Talk about a disappointment.
I’m going to be arguing with this poem – and not very nicely – so before I do anything else, let me state that I didn’t dislike it entirely. Around halfway through the text shifts from the historical into the personal, building to a type of humanitarian crescendo which is at times touching and intense. I can agree with statements like ‘every bit of you is in every bit of me’. However, I think these very statements are undermined and contradicted by the poem’s first half – and that’s the bit I take issue with.
According to the author, in that part he ‘challenges many conventional beliefs about the origin of humanity, civilisation and philosophy’. To be clear, I don’t have a problem with the idea that European civilisations, both ancient and modern, have been largely influenced by Africa, even to the point that some of the great early Greek thinkers may have learnt their trade from African masters. I do have a problem, however, when said European civilisations are represented in a manner which is offensive and distorted.
Yes, I understand that the poem has certain layers of subtlety and should not be taken at face value. I know that it’s saying ‘what if I told you’, and not ‘I am telling you’. The first line – ‘What if I told you that all life is African?’ – already sets a hyperbolic (even epic) tone that suggests the poem is not to be taken literally. For this reason I can accept an approach to history that is at times convenient and selective (e.g. comparing the dark ages to the empires of Mali and Kush). I can also accept that some of the raw figures presented may be difficult to corroborate (Anaxagorou claims that Native Americans today have a life expectancy of forty-six, but Wikipedia gives it at seventy-one and most other searches give me similarly differing results – but then I haven’t read the author’s suggested ‘study-list’, so maybe that’s where the data comes from). I can even swallow – with some reluctance – intellectually lazy statements like ‘the abolition of slavery had nothing to do with philanthropy / but pure economics’.
Where I draw the line, however, is at his representation of the European civilisations, most notably the Greeks. It’s one thing to claim that Africa’s history has been understated. It’s wholly another to twist and vilify the history of other cultures. Anaxagorou writes, ‘What if I spoke about the library in Kemet and Alexander’s pillaging of knowledge, / the burning of books, of culture and philosophy?’ I’m assuming that what he means is the Library of Alexandria, a fulcrum of academic studies in the ancient world. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how it could have been pillaged by Alexander since it was founded (and it flourished) under the Ptolemaic dynasty, thus after Alexander’s conquest and death. It was not burnt down until centuries later, after the advent of the Romans. Anaxagorou claims in the interview that Alexander and Aristotle both took books from the library of Kemet back into Greece, and that ‘a lot of the information in those books was used and plagiarised by the Greek philosophers’. The reality is that the Greeks founded, managed and developed that library, and that the majority of the texts it contained were written in Greek; regardless, most of the major Greek philosophers (including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Empedocles, Leucippus, and of course all of the seven sages) could not have plagiarised anything from that library simply because they were all dead before it was built.
Anaxagorou portrays Alexander as some sort of cross between a book-burning Nazi and Attila the Hun. While the man was certainly no saint, to characterise his import and distribution of foreign books as a form of ‘pillaging’ is historically obtuse. A perfect example is provided by the Enuma Anu Enlil, a sequence of tablets detailing the enormous astrological and astronomical knowledge of the Babylonian civilisation. Had Alexander never sent it back from the stagnant Babylonian culture, which had neither updated nor developed that old text in more than two thousand years, it might simply have been lost. Instead, the introduction of the Enuma Anu Enlil prompted an explosion in Greek astronomical studies that laid the foundation, among other things, for the subsequent astronomy of the Moors (which Anaxagorou lionises). Without Alexander’s ‘pillaging’, our stars may not bear such beautiful Arabic names as Aldebaran and Betelgeuse at all, and the poet's own point about the influence of the Moors would lose its most celestial point of reference.
Going back to the idea that ‘a lot of the information in [the library’s] books was used and plagiarised by the Greek philosophers’, I would also question the choice of words – the Greeks did not simply learn or draw inspiration from this foreign knowledge, they ‘plagiarised’ it (by this standard I might as well say that Virgil plagiarised Homer when he wrote the Aeneid). This is but one example of a string of expressions that Anaxagorou uses in that interview which are offensive and appropriative. Again, I have no problem with the idea that African cultures influenced the European ones. But to say that ‘this group of people was responsible for [Europe’s] ascent into history and civilisation’, and that they ‘put [Europeans] in the position they are in, scientifically, philosophically, academically, culturally and linguistically’ – I don’t know. I reckon I might tell a modern American that the origins of his nation lie in Europe and that Europe was a great influence to the Americans throughout, because it’s true; but I don’t think I’d tell him that Europeans are ‘responsible’ for their achievements, or that Europeans put the Americans in the position they are in. That would simply come across as an attempt to insult them, right? No-one put the Americans where they are: they put themselves there, with their own hands, their own heads, and their own hearts. And so did the European people.
In his claim that Europeans are denying African cultures their historical agency, Anaxagorou goes and does exactly the same thing with the nations of Europe. I won't go so far as to call the poem itself racist, because I understand that the historic power relationships between different countries / continents mean that you cannot discuss them as though they were perfectly equivalent. Even so, I cannot help but sense a definite insensitive bias, even a certain contempt, in his refusal to differentiate between the most basic of European cultures and histories. Consider this line:
‘What if I told you all great European philosophers were trained by Black Africans in Ionia?’
All great European philosophers? European philosophers? Doesn’t he mean Greek? Am I really to believe that he doesn’t know there is an entire legacy of philosophers, working all over the continent, which came long after the Greek civilisation was extinguished, from Aquinas to Descartes, from Hume to Kant, from Nietzsche to Derrida? Is he really unable or unwilling to make such a basic distinction as one between the Classical and the Modern ages, or between Greeks and other Europeans? Doesn’t he understand its importance? Are all Europeans the same to him? Would I be justified in speaking about ‘all great Asian philosophers’ if I only ever referenced Chinese culture? (I must also – again – contend the choice of words, specifically in the selection of ‘training’ over ‘teaching’. You can train a soldier, a circus acrobat, a football player, or an ape. But you do not ‘train’ a philosopher, or an artist, or a mathematician).
This philippic culminates in the enigmatic line ‘What if I told you that racism was invented?’, which he explains in the video thus:
The idea of race and racism as an ideology is only two-hundred and fifty years old. It was only at the start of the seventeenth century that we started to see a change in the way that humans regarded each other. So it’s a very new idea.
I’m sorry, this is just plain wrong. Anti-Semitism, to make one easy example, is much older than two-hundred and fifty years – the term ‘ghetto’ actually originates from Italian, because it was the district in Venice where Jews used to be relegated at the beginning of the 1500s (also, Anaxagorou seems to be confused about his numbers… the ‘beginning of the seventeenth century’ was four-hundred years ago). Of course, the Jews derive their own identity from one of the oldest and most racist texts in the world – the Old Testament of the Bible, the Histories of which are entirely about the elect people of God, the Jews, migrating and ‘legitimately’ slaughtering all of the populations they invade. Naturally the ancients wouldn’t draw on the language of genetics to legitimise discrimination, but this doesn’t mean that such a way of thinking was absent from their world. What is the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel if not an anti-racist tale, bearing in mind that Samaritans used to be one of the most generally despised and discriminated against of all ethnic / religious groups? I don’t know if it’s true that ‘the Greeks never had the concept of race’. I know that they had the concept of ‘barbarians’ to describe anyone who was not Greek, and while the word may not have had the special pejorative connotations we associate with it today, it was enough to discriminate people from certain aspects of society (taking part in the Olympic Games, for example). The concept was adopted by the Romans, who denied Roman citizenship to barbarians – even though they were themselves, technically, barbarians!
Anaxagorou is identifying a particular and contingent line of thought (mostly amenable to the history of eugenics, judging by his references) and identifying that with racism. That's why he specifies that he is talking about 'racism as an ideology'. Unfortunately, this specification is exactly the problem (and the reason, I guess, why his poem upset me so much). Not only is it highly controversial, suggesting as it does that only white people are responsible for and capable of racism, it’s extremely dangerous. Negating the terrible universality and a-historicity of racism – the fact that it is not some casual hole in the road we could just have driven around, but something the potential for which inheres in all of us, like evil itself – is to disrespect some of its faceless victims and to encourage it to happen again. Some months ago I was working as shop-floor assistant in a Poundland, and when it emerged that I was of Italian origin, some of the staff members stopped calling me by my name and simply referred to me as Mafia. Hello Mafia. How you doing Mafia. How many whores did you have beaten today Mafia. These quips are a form of racism: and the fact that they have nothing to do with either anthropology or the colour of my skin (for what it’s worth, I’m white and the two people calling me that were Middle-Eastern and black respectively) does not make them any less hurtful. ‘What if I told you that everyone that looked like you was a killer, a bomber, a terrorist?’ Well, it would be racist and unforgivable, of course, but it wouldn’t be qualitatively different from saying that every Italian is a member of the Mafia or a fascist or a wop, or – to make an example that is so rarely acknowledged, so rarely sympathised with – that every German man and woman is a Nazi.
As I said at the outset, I understand that the poem is not entirely literal. I also understand the value of a certain type of historical revisionism in terms of modern identity – if you’re black, it’s important to understand that your ethnic history does not begin the day that one of your ancestors was kidnapped and sold into slavery. At the same time, however, I think this type of revisionism should be equitable, not to mention ethical. I think there are lines that should not be crossed without being condemned, regardless of whether they are being said in a joke, or in a story, or in a poem. I found myself feeling hurt and neglected by Anaxagorou’s text. I found myself reading a poem in which all that there is of best in my cultural heritage as a European is either vilified or negated, and yes, I know that the notion of a ‘European identity’ based on our political union is something alien or distant to most people in this country, but it’s there, and it’s young, and it’s new, and it’s not about defending the horrors that we have perpetrated in the past, it’s about believing in our ability to transcend them. ‘What if I told you that the enemy is White supremacy?’ Then you’d be wrong, Anthony. The enemy doesn’t have a colour. It doesn’t need to be white to call me Mafia. It doesn’t need the language of Darwin to start enslaving others, as all ancient civilisations – regardless of colour – reveal to all but the most partial observer. It doesn’t need anything but a little bit of fear on which to feed and a person’s heart in which to sleep. What if I told you that was your heart.