The Violence of Language

“[…] or the primitive roots sprout again.” When a Belgian aristocrat spoke these words in “Lumumba: The Death of a Prophet,” I felt my stomach flip, in the way it has during every book (thus far) in this class. The theme of our class is violence, and we’ve spoken in depth about the stereotypical violence that is too often portrayed with African men and AK-47s. But the violence of language has a subtlety that makes it even more dangerous.

Just think of the last line of Things Fall Apart—we were never given the chance to read The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger, but we can only imagine the violent thoughts, words, and implications of that book. In Nervous Conditions, the trend continues. When Tambu begins speaking in English around Anna, she is separated by her as a friend, and adopts a superior position in the household. The disparities between what their languages represent violently separates them into different categories of perceived intelligence.

Circling back around to my initial scene of white men deliberating (over the fate of a country they didn’t live in), I was struck by an example of this linguistic violence: the word “primitive.” Obviously, it’s not a nice word. But the weight of “primitive” in this situation is just as great of a violent juxtaposition to me as were the opening frames of the film. What is more primitive—be put in shackles to be sold, or profiting off the buying and selling of human beings? What is more primitive—not having land to farm on, or being the one who took that land to exploit its resources?

If “primitive” describes anything, it would be the people who used the word the most. But as the violence of language prevails, these offenses have been—and still are—hidden behind the rhetoric of what we want to believe.

About Deb Carey

Princeton in Africa Fellow living in Musanze, Rwanda. | Living to see a world with more economic freedom, community-driven change, and peace. | Interests include: mobile innovations | supply chain management | trade facilitation | business development | community-led initiatives | macroeconomic trends | This blog is a compilation of the above - enjoy and drop me a line to join in the conversation!

Posted on September 18, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Whenever there is a change, transfer, or vacuum of power, it always seems that groups are accused of being primitive, that someone is ruining the human condition because of the actions they are taking and the general loss of control that happens in those situations. However, I think that the actions people take when there is a question of is in power or power is lost is a damning look into the human condition.

    Humans are predisposed to holding onto power when they are loosing it, shown when Okonkwo takes actions to fight colonial holders of power when he looses his own influence and position. We can also see this in Nervous Conditions, as Babamukuru takes on his own daughter when he feels that she is out of his control.

    The human need for power is primal. The human condition is to fight for control and to keep it at all costs (at least to some philosophers). So, it is only natural that people will go to primal lengths when they are losing control of something, especially when they have held it for a long time, as was the case with Belgian Congo.

  2. It’s interesting that you mention how the Belgian’s were the real primitive actors in this movie, because I think that really gets at the real nature of colonialism/neocolonialism. It was shrouded as noble work, as civilizing the teaming masses of primitives, as carrying the white man’s burden. Yet in reality, those who lacked humanity were not the colonized but the colonizers. I think that is made really apparent in “Lumumba” due to the director’s use of juxtaposition. In the Brussels scenes, we alternate between conferences of the black Congolese and the white Belgians discussing the possibility of independence. The Belgians are accusing the Congolese of being nothing but warring, primitive tribes who will tear the Congo apart as soon as they leave behind Belgian supervision. Meanwhile, the Congolese are shown intelligently discussing the ins and outs of eventual independence. They debate over government structure, but ultimately unite around a common goal – an Independent Congo. In fact, Lumumba and Kasavubo even agree to join parties in order to sustain the United Front. These scenes of solidarity are intertwined with the Belgian party plotting to destroy and take back independant Congo as soon as possible. While the Belgians accused the Congolese as being incapable of building anything good on their own, the thoughtful film editing reminds us that is in fact the black people who are doing the building and the white people who can do nothing but destroy.

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