Empire’s Bones

by Panashe Chigumadzi

Someone else's paradise (Issue IV/2019)

Bones are rattling.

I have nothing to say.

Bones are rattling.

It is June 2019. We have been invited to Weimar, Germany. The occasion is the second international Kultursymposium. At every opportunity our hosts, eager to impress upon us their liberal progressiveness, remind us that more than five hundred participants from all over the world are in attendance. Indeed many of us, the Wretched of the Earth are represented here. We are Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Bangladesh, India, China and many more and we have been gathered to discuss “the great upheavals of our time”.

Bones are rattling.

“Recalculating the Route”. It is one of the many invitations I have had in the last few years, as the latest tide of right wing nationalism in the West has delivered massive political upheavals in the form of Brexit, the Trump presidency and threatened to collapse liberal democracy as we know it.

Bones are rattling.

Empire is in material, spiritual, and philosophical shambles. There is much hand-wringing. They are surprised. They are indignant. How did we get here? Where do we go to from here?

Bones are rattling.

They look to us for answers. I have nothing to say. I see this feeling too in the eyes of my fellow Others gathered here to address Empire on its problems. We, the Wretched of the Earth, are not surprised. We have been here before. We knew that this was bound to happen. We, the Wretched of the Earth, are here not because we truly have anything to say to Empire – for we know if its incapability of hearing the bones rattling at its foundation – but to hold our own Bandungs and Pan-African Congresses on the sidelines.

Bones are rattling.

It is the end of the symposium. I am asked to I speak about the future ahead of  “our” “troubling times”?

Bones are rattling.

I have nothing to say. I can only point to the past and its continuing present. For, what is there to say about human rights for those of us Others who have been historically “thingified” into subhumans? What is there to say about those who don’t quite fit in the universe of, to quote Sylvia Wynter, “normal humanness”?

Nothing, unless we are willing to go back 500 or so years in Western-centric modernity, which has structured the modern world and universality according to oppositional relationships such as  subject-object, human-animal, rational-irrational, free-enslaved, normative-Other.

If this is too abstract, let me try to make it concrete: What can be said about an Orange Turd who grabs pussies, hates African Americans, repeatedly attempts to ban Muslims, proposes to build wall between itself and Mexico, and cannot bare to shake the hand of a woman president? Or his European counterparts who inaugurated the Brexit moment?

Not much. Though I’m sure more can be said by those surprised at the re-emergence of the right wing in the West, or surprised that the “progress” of Western “humanity” and “development” and “civilisation” has brought us here.

For those of us who are unsurprised, we have long recognized what Cornel West calls “the dark side of modernity”, the underbelly of the Enlightenment. We recognize the neglect of that inconvenient truth: that the “progress” of the “modern world” has been underwritten by anti-black institutions of genocide, slavery, colonialism, apartheid, and neo-colonialism.

Bones are rattling.

I have nothing to say. Nothing that has not been said before. Let my ancestors speak:

Aimé Césaire. 1950. Discourse on Colonialism. “Europe is indefensible…First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism…a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery.”

Frantz Fanon. 1960. The Wretched of the Earth. “Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness, and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appealing dimensions.”

Susan Sontag. 1967. “What's Happening to America? (A Symposium).” “[I]f America is the culmination of Western white civilization… there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization.”

Bones are rattling.

It is 2019. Why dredge up these ancestors to speak to this moment? To remind us that Empire’s Bones rattle, have rattled, and are rattling as history repeats itself because Empire refuses to listen to them.

Bones are rattling.

I have nothing to say. My mouth is full of my ancestors’ bones. Let the bones speak:

1904. German Sud West Afrika (1884-1905). A German soldier issues an “extermination order” for “troublesome” Herero people fighting for their lost lands and livelihoods. Germans push Herero people into the desert, poison wells and confine thousands to concentration camps. Later, they use the same tactics on the Nama people. With more than 65000 murdered, the Herero are decimated to a fraction of their original numbers.

Bones rattle.

The first Holocaust of the 20th century has just taken place. The world is silent.

Bones rattle.

German soldiers pack the skulls of Herero and Nama people, and send them off to Germany along with those from other German colonies, where scientists eager to test the Social Darwinist theories they will perfect in the second Holocaust they will carry out this century. 

Bones rattle.

In the aftermath of the material, moral, and spiritual crisis facing Western civilisation in the post-war era, Cesaire reframed Western history by firmly planting fascism’s roots in colonialism and slavery: “People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind – it's Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices…” To Western humanists, Cesaire writes, the real shock was that fascist leaders had now “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘n***’ of Africa.”

Bones are rattling.

August 2018. For the third time this century, Germany returns bones to Namibian soil. It is unknown how many such remains are still in Germany. Can we surprised when it took more than a century for Germany to begin to whisper that a genocide took place in their former colony? No formal acknowledgement. No formal apology. No reparations. Only development aid, obfuscations. The Herero and Nama are adamant, they want direct reparations, a full apology, full recognition. The sort given to Holocaust survivors after World War II. They are suing for human rights violations. Their ancestors were, after all, human too.

Bones are rattling.

If our symposium had begun by laying out these bones, we might have had more to say.

Bones are rattling.

Germany is not alone in its’s bones. Empire is built on bones. I’ll tell you the bones of my country.

1898. Rhodesia (1890-1980). Spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda is hung by the British for her role in anti-colonial uprisings that swept across the colony. Her famous dying words: “My bones will rise again.” Her head, along with the heads of dozens of other  anti-colonial resistance leaders, are presented as trophies of conquest to Queen Victoria. Today, our ancestors’ bones are in the basement of the British National Archives. We, their descendants, are fighting for the return of our ancestors’ bones as we speak. We are not the only ones. The world over this is happening. All over Empire, bones are rising, bones are rattling, just as Empire is facing renewed moral, economic and spiritual crisis.

Bones are rattling.

If the West could re-imagine a humanity not dependent on dehumanization, perhaps I’d have more to say. I’d speak of how the Bantu-language speakers in Southern Africa conceptualize humanity and personhood—not according to Descarte’s, “I think therefore I am,” but rather through the philosophy of Ubuntu which is contained in the the Zulu-language aphorism, “Umuntu ngumuntu nga bantu”. A person is a person through others. It is a philosophy of ethical personhood that extends across time and space: we are through those who have come before us, those who have come with us and those who will come after us. [1]

 In African Philosophy Through Ubuntu (1999), Mogobe Ramose elaborates: “to be a human being is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others and, on that basis establish humane relations with them”. This is where Western philosophy constructs the “rational” subject against the “non-reasoning” Other, who, according to the likes of Hegel, Kant, Hume, and even Nietzsche was situated outside of history, moral law, and consciousness. From here, we come to see racism, is an organizing concept related to a debate or contest concerning the quality and universality of humanness – which racists doubt and anti-racists assert. In other words, racism is best understood as the systematic doubt of the humanity of certain people. By systematic we mean the corralling of social, economic, and cultural institutions to enforce the sub-human, or less human than others, status of black people globally. Where, on one hand conservative thought has outright rejected the possibility of the humanity of the Other. On the other, liberal humanism has asserted that the Other can “theoretically” acquire human status through assimilation into European culture, and quote unquote “civilisation”.[2]

And herein lies the problem: Many descendents of Empire continue to see slavery and colonialism as a “civilising mission”, which they may admit had some unfortunate “excesses”. And so, Germany, like other Empires now facing the demons of their colonial and slave-holding afterlives, can only give full recognition to the gross human rights violations they committed during the Herero-Nama genocide (and crimes) if they recognise both descendants and the ancestors as equally human. After all, it is only a crime against humanity if they were and are seen as humans.
Empire’s Bones tell us that in continuing to fail to recognise the humanity of Others, Empire continues to undermine its own humanity. And that is why, for us Others, the Wretched of the Earth, who have borne the brunt of the mutual dehumanization that is not incidental, but rather integral to its rise and maintenance of Western Civilisation, the crisis following the wave of the “Trexit” moment has not been much of a surprise. This is why we find ourselves without much to say.
Bones are rattling.
I might have more to say about “future” of “our” “civilisations”, if we were willing to listen to the bones that have built it.
If we were to listen to Empire’s Bones, their rattle would disrupt our faith in teleological time, blind proclaimations of faith in history moving forward in a straight line of progress, the belief in the moral arch of the universe bending toward justice.

If we were to listen to Empire’s Bones, they would tell us that history is like water – it lives between us, and comes to us in waves, carrying us all within them. As we experience as much political turbulence we have generations, finding ourselves swept up by waves of massive historical transformations that ripple across time and space, it is easy to become overwhelmed, but instead it is an openness to history as a series of waves, always moving, always in a state of flux, always a site of discovery in the past, present and future, that will ultimately set us all free. Each generation’s freedom is only guaranteed by the understanding that freedom is never secured by the previous generation’s struggles, instead we are to remain ever vigilant, ever attentive to what is washed away, what alters and what holds in the sands of time. History continues to wash up our ancestors’ bones on the shores of Empire whose future lies in facing its colonial past and its colonising present.

Bones are rattling.


[1] see These Bones Will Rise Again, Panashe Chigumadzi, Indigo Press (2018)

[2] see table: A history of the philosophy of race in South Africa, Ndumiso Dladla, (2016)

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