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.