Monday, December 31, 2007

An Advanced Diploma in Mumbo Jumbo

As part of what's been heralded as 'new Southern Studies', a number of critical texts have been focusing on the unacknowledged inheritance of African values in the American South. These texts have something to offer not such for an understanding of American culture, but for cultures like Australia that have been influenced by the dominant force.

I've just finished Keith Cartwright's Reading Africa Into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2004). It's a fascinating analysis West African roots. Cartwright covers the Uncle Remus stories, Creole languages, second-sight and Senegambian values. Especially interesting is his analysis of the way literate Muslim slaves were treated. While early in the history of the south, their education was respected and many were freed, in a later more racist time their learning was demeaned. A product of this 'mumbo jumbo', which is still alive as a denigration of African learning. The inscrutable Arabic text became a symbol of primitive mystification:

The question here is what happened when the growing racial ideologies behind American 'Samboism' clashed with the reality of a literate Muslim slave presence in America. The presence of literate, black African Muslims as slaves in American often caused moments of doubt, challenge, and embarrassment to supports of a racial justification of slavery. (p. 160)

Threaded throughout Cartwright's book is a series of Africanisms - words from Senegambian culture that have become part of the American idiom. He ends the book with a call for a recovery of these African roots:

As we work to read Africa and Africanist ideologies into their long-standing core position in American identity, culture, and literature, we are taking a step toward finding historical truth and needful balm for festering, long-ignored wounds. And as we come to respect some of the energies of action channeled through the pharmacopoeia of the Senegalese mocho'o (medicine worker), we make return to the vital work of treating the foundational 'mojo' of transatlantic chattle slavery, a 'mojo' that is (in its ever-rippling causes and effects) a source of the nation's most enduring curses and simultaneously a source of our peculiarly American genius. (p. 229)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Official: Australia is not the 'biggest in the Southern Hemisphere'


Image from recent demonstration to keep North Melbourne football club in Victoria. 

In Australia, we are keen to boast our various claims to be the 'biggest in the Southern Hemisphere.' Googling this phrase in English reveals 3,840 instances on the Internet (by comparison, ‘biggest in the Northern Hemisphere’ is only mentioned 8 times). The subjects of this claim include cultural activities (Scottish Highland Festival, temple and casino), sports (rodeo, triathalon and marathon) and man-made structures (desalination plant, drive-in and telescope).

With the aid of Google, it is possible to test whether Australia’s boast is the most common in the Southern Hemisphere. To search for the equivalent phrase in Spanish produced only 1,530 hits, however the Portuguese had 4,690. A sampling of country references in the three languages, weighted by the frequency of language, reveals the following table of claims in order of percentage frequency:

Brazil 44%
Australia 21%
South Africa 16%
New Zealand 6%
Argentina 4%
Multinationals 4%
Chile 2%
Pacific 2%
Other African 2%


Given the population and economy of Brazil, it is no surprise that it has twice as many claims as Australia. While putting Australia in its place, this table does prompt us to consider Australia as part of a community of nations inhabiting the South. But what do they share in common apart from this aspirationalism?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is there a South for Rudd?

image The first days of the Rudd government have revealed an interesting exclusion. In discussing the appointment of West Australian Stephen Smith as Foreign Minister, Rudd claimed:

This nation doesn't just look east, it looks north and it looks west.

That's three directions. Is there another direction missing?

Then in 12 December, Rudd greeted with the world with a stirring declaration of the new government's commitment to global cooperation over climate change.

As our host, President Yudhoyono, said to me when we met yesterday, there can be no North or South, given the dimensions of this challenge. Together we are custodians of the planet.

It seems an important and inevitable gesture to take a united perspective. And it's a wonderful role for Australia play as a mediator between North and South. But this role can only be successful if Australia is sensitive to the history of the South and its suspicion of the North.

Someone, somewhere, decided that there would be a North and a South. And that North would be above South. It doesn't mean that they can't work together. But can we deny the difference?