Fabian White Humour

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W.E.B. Du Bois Institute White Humor Author(s): Johannes Fabian Source: Transition, No. 55 (1992), pp. 56-61 Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2934849 Accessed: 14/01/2010 08:28 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless y
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  W.E.B. Du Bois Institute White HumorAuthor(s): Johannes FabianSource: Transition, No. 55 (1992), pp. 56-61Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois InstituteStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2934849 Accessed: 14/01/2010 08:28 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=iupress.Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.  Indiana University Press and W.E.B. Du Bois Institute are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve andextend access to Transition. http://www.jstor.org  TR ANSIT ION Position WHITE HUMOR JohannesFabian The ideaofthebarbarousNegroisaEuro-peaninvention.-LeoFrobeniusWestillcarryhe markofthemastern ourmindsandspirits,ikeaformof tattooingar-riedoutin theinitiationceremoniesfthe sa-credgrove.-LeopoldSedarSenghoron LeoFrobeniusWhatI amgoingtoreportis neithergreatnews norvery entertaining,andcertainlynotfunny.Intheend,itmaynot even beilluminating.Still,itissomethingIhavebeen unabletoconsigntoacademic stor-ageto beanalyzedlater,calmlyand ob-jectively.Isimplyneedtotellaboutanextraordinary passageIcameacrossinabook written morethaneightyyears ago(ImSchattendasKongostaates,LeoFrobe-nius,1907).Two reasonsmake me believe thatIshouldtrytoexpress publiclytheprivateoutrageI feltwhenIread this extraor-dinarydocument.First,Iassume thatIam not aloneinmyconvictionthatWest-ernimperialismand the atrocities of co-lonial dominationultimatelyneedto beunderstoodby askinghow it was(howitis?)thatintelligent,sensitivepeople(likeyouandme)came toacceptthe en-terpriseas,onthewhole,justifiedandnoble.Second,Iassumethattheauthor,the eminent German Africanist LeoFrobenius(1873-1938),isknownwidely,notjust amonghisfellowan-thropologistsandotherspecialists.Manythinkofhimaspreciselythetypeofintelligentandsensitivestudent ofAf-rican culture who should make one won-der howitwaspossiblefor him to iden-tifywithcolonialism.Often citedwithapprovalandadmi-ration,Frobenius conductedhis firstfieldexpeditiontosouthwestern Zairebe-tween1904and1906.Onlyayearafter-wards,in1907,hepublisheda460-pagereport,titledIm Schatten desKongo-Staates(Inthe Shade(ortheShadow?)ofCongoState).The book ispackedwithinformation,notonlyethnographicbutalsohistorical,political,and,aboveall,economic.ItshowsFrobenius asasci-entist drivenbyadesire to know and un-derstand;he comes across ascritical,hu-mane,and oftencompassionate.Themodern reader is under thespellof this 56TRANSITION ISSUE55  powerfulpersonalityandwillingto at-tributetothespiritof the timesanoc-casionalexpressionof hisracism,pater-nalism,andrepeatedepisodesofactualviolence toward hisAfricanhelpersandthevillagersheencounters.Leavingthestark contradictions unresolvedratherthanselecting outrageous passagesforcheapeffect seemedto meamorepro-ductivewayofreadingthis documentofcolonial discourse(areadingwhich,atanyrate,was undertakenforaprojectlargerthanexposingasingleAfricanistasacolonialvillain).AtleastthatwasmyresolveuntilIcame tothesixteenthchap-ter, AmongtheConquistadorsoftheKasai. Theconquistadorsinquestionare theagentsoftheCompagnieduKasai,thesemigovernmental tradingcompanyspecializinginrubberandivory.Frobe-nius accusesthiscompanyofarrogatingtoitselfpowersthatbelongto theState.Hepilesoneexampleofthe atrociousconductof itsEuropean employeesonanother. Thenhebringshisstory-quiteconsciously,asisclear from thecontext-toaclimax(mytranslation):However,the mosterrificndthe saddestn-cidentweweregoingowitnessourselves.OnOctober,duringoursecondtopatKabeya,asixthunfortunateickaninny,KaloshiUa-tobelle,wascaught.HetoowasaKapita[arubberbuyer]who had notquitecoveredhisadvance.Hewassupposedohavebeen anexcellentfellow,aChristianeducated t theMission inLuebo.Hearrivedn theeveningand nextmorninghewasthrown tothegroundand held there.Acapitatoodononeside,aEuropeanon the other.Eachwieldeda cane.It soundedikeamill:whack-whack,whack-whack.Andwhenacanebroke,an-otheronewasquicklybrought,o that therefiitiutgennbertlumo-ritijfd?cn23etracftungbcslegers:Der30y zuiilntl?t, ba~Duil~n als(rwtad?fenenbe,kanmbelft. FromImSch-allevdesKongostaates,LeoFrobenius,1907.Thelegendfor thecartoonsays Exercises inthe humoristiccontemplationoftheNegro:TheBoywantsyoutotreathimasanadult. wasnointerruptionftheperfecthythm.Af-terthishad beengoingonfora while I stillheardanother3whack-whacks,hats,106blows. But there werecertainly150alto-gether.Whenthis hadinished,thepoorfel-low wasunabletowalk.He wascarriedaway, bleeding rom fiveserious wounds.Thatis whatwesaw withourowneyes.Af-terthemostsimpleand harmlesspunishmentit iscustomaryolet thepeopletakea bath.Inthiscase,thiswasnotpermitted.Uatobellereceivedhesamepooroodasthe otherpris-onersanddiedas aresultofthistreatmentnOctober5.Endofstory;not a word abouthisreaction-did he have theurgetointer-vene,tohelpthevictimafterwards?Not-ingafeelinghehadat least adaylater,Frobeniusdoestellsusthathefound La-bryn,theEuropean responsiblefor thekilling, disgusting, quicklyadding,however, Iwasinnopositionto inter-vene. This ishardtobelieve from some-one whocontinuallyreportshisinitia-tivesinmattersof nativepolicy andwhoacquiredareputation amongother WHITE HUMOR 57 -  Europeansasamost meddlesome nui-sance.But back to the text:Gruesomefactsare hereprofferedwith a detachmentborderingonserenity.It made me wantto retch.That Ireacted soviolentlywascertainlyinpartbecauseIsharewithFrobenius his nativelanguage.The literaltranslationIgavecannotconveysome ofthesignalsand connotationsthatmakeworsewhat,byitself,isadisgustingin-stance of objective reporting. Objec-tivity,likeanyother normativeconceptusedbysocialscientists,can become ab-surd,dependingon context and content(thinkof theledgerofaconcentrationcampasan objective record).Inciden-tally,the we thatseemstoadd credi-bilitytothispassageincludes Mr.Lemme,theexpedition'sartist,whopresentlywill assumeamajorrole.Lestmyreaction be dismissed as sen-timental andmoralizing,Ishall now of-fersuggestionsfortakingthisepisodeasa banal andthereforemind-bogglingex-ampleof theworkingsof thecolonialmind. Frobenius could not have reactedthewayhedid,nor could he have writtenaboutitthewayhedid-yethedid.Whathappenedinthis sortofwritingissomethingthattranscended and deter-minedwhat the authorperceivedaswellas the mannerinwhich he decided to re-late hisexperience.Ibeginwith some comments on thetext itselfandthenplacethepassageinthe context of thechapterandthe book.Placingthingsincontext often serves toexcuse them.Inthiscase,interpretationshallmake matters worse.Frobeniusappearsto use twostrategiesdesignedto makebearable the horrorin-spiredbyhisnarrative. The first one isclinicalpedantryinthe face ofdeath. Hisreportingseemsstrictly objective.Thereisaphraseinterjectedbetween the mainstoryandhisafterthoughtsthatmusthave soundedquaintand solemn when itwas written: Thatis what we saw withour owneyes. The observer deserves tobebelieved,even ifwhat he observesisunbelievable.Accordingly,thecompo-sition of the event asatableau-asanexhibit-isexpectedtoconvinceareaderwho isputinthejudge'schair. The vic-timisidentified,evennamed!-notausualcourtesyextended to Africans whoappearntravelaccounts. Facts aregiventhathaveabearingon the case:Kaloshi(Kalonji,we wouldwritetoday)was abuyerwhofailed to comeupwith aquantityof rubber deemed tomatch theadvance hehadreceived. That hewas ed-ucated andaChristianpresumablywasmentioned to make thepunishmentap-pearall themore cruel. Thebeatingisdonerhythmically,machine-like. Pun-ishment takes on animpersonal,measur-able character: Atleast 150 blows areserved,five serious wounds areinflicted(didFrobeniuscountalong silently;didhegetcloseenoughto the victim toex-aminehim?).Whilerealisticandobjectivereport-ing mayhave beenjustadistastefulchoice ofliterary genre,IfoundFrobe-nius's secondstrategy simply sickening.AnativespeakerofGermancannot failtorecognizeinthispassagetwoevocationsof folklore. Both areconspicuousviola-tions of the dominantgenre.PerhapsFrobenius committed thembecause hewasa badwriter;morelikelyhe usedtheminan effort toease the tension of hisaccount. 58TRANSITION ISSUE55
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