The racist Roseanne Barr tweet implying that Valerie Jarrett is an ape revisits the hard to die trope of Africans as apes. But, underneath the slur is something profoundly diabolical. It not only suggests that Blacks are inherently inferior to Whites, but also implies that since they are animals, unlike regular human beings, they have no history — recorded or otherwise.
Evolution suggests all humans descended from apes, but the racist rationale behind Blacks as apes or monkeys suggests that, unlike the supposedly superior White race, the Black race did not just descend from animals, they remained animals — in this case, simians.
Simians have no written or oral history. And needless to say, if one has no history, then it is only reasonable to assume that one has not made any contribution to the advancement of civilization.
There are those who have tried to dismiss Barr’s reference to Jarrett as just a joke, but few things are less funny than this cruel and calculated lie, which was used to continue to justify the enslavement, neo-enslavement and, later, the second class status conferred on Black people.
This lie opened the door for the thievery, rape, murder and terror that was visited upon Black people to maintain White Supremacy and its handmaiden capitalism.
The history of Blacks as apes or monkeys owes its start not to poor, unlettered, backwoods rednecks, but rather refined, wealthy and highly educated White people who invented so-called scientific racism in which Europeans sought to prove the inferiority of Blacks, ostensibly to justify their enslavement of Africans.
In 1854, Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon published Types of Mankind which implied that Negroes were “a creational rank between “Greeks” and chimpanzees.” Their spurious theories were viewed as fact and became accepted as truth by the U.S. public which was mired in a debate over slavery. The book seemed to tip the scales in favor of slavery, which, as the propaganda implied, was the Blacks’ natural state.
In 1851, Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright suggested that Blacks did not have sense enough to recognize that chattel slavery was not in their best interest but ran away to escape slavery because they were suffering from “mental illness.” Cartwright invented a term for it: “drapetomania.” He had a cure! He explained that, “with proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.”
Charles Darwin, who lent legitimacy to racist quacks with his book The Descent of Man wrote that, “the Negros are so distinct that similar differences found in any other animal would warrant their classification as a different species.”
According to the tenets of social Darwinism, the advance of industrialization by White ruling classes and European domination of much of the globe through colonialism was considered, as one social scientist put it, “proof of the evolutionary superiority of the white race.”
Paradoxically, the promulgators of this cruel myth claim that, despite being animals, Africans/Blacks have some history, but it began with their contact with Europeans/Whites.
In the U.S., the beginning of African American history is slavery. It explains why African history is seldom taught in public schools, which by its omission reinforces the idea of Blacks as animals and, thus, monkeys and apes — because after all, if they have no history, ‘what else could they be?’
Frantz Fanon, the famous psychologist and Algerian revolutionary, explains in his book Wretched of the Earth how European colonialists sought to consolidate their power by convincing the native that he/she is inferior to the colonialist and that colonization was the natural order of the universe.
In describing European colonialism’s efforts (which is comparative to the situation Blacks find themselves in capitalist America), he wrote, “Every effort is made to make the colonized confess the inferiority of their culture, … to acknowledge the unreality of their nation and, in the last extreme, to admit the disorganized, half-finished nature of their own biological makeup.”
Unsurprisingly, the Belgian colonizers of the Congo used the racist term “macaques” (monkeys) to refer to Blacks and “macacos” was the pejorative for Blacks in Portuguese Africa.
Incidentally, former President Barack Obama and his family were caricatured as apes, probably more than any Black couple in recent memory. Ironically, it was nearly impossible to disparage them socially.
The Obama’s were good parents, happily married, accomplished, learned and professional and their children were well mannered and cultured. In social standing, it would be fair to say that they were clearly a few notches above the average White person.
But, White Supremacy sought to level the racial playing field by asserting that even those who have nothing, even so-called “Poor White Trash” are better than the “apes” that resides in the White House. Theodore Allen explained it as “the reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, beneath that of any member of the oppressor group.”
A recent pyschologytoday.com article “What’s so wrong about Roseanne Barr’s tweet” pointed out that the idea of Blacks as apes is unconsciously buried in the psyches of Whites and non-Whites and is constantly reinforced in the culture.
According to the article, “Such unconscious associations likely exist because of subtle suggestions in our environment that come from jokes and comments (like Roseanne Barr’s), television, movies, and magazine covers (for example, see the controversy over LeBron James’ 2008 Vogue cover photo (link is external)). But wherever they come from, the point is that even though we are not consciously aware of these associations residing within us, they can still be activated outside of our awareness and subsequently, guide our behavior.”
As the great Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, murdered by U.S. and European imperialism’s drive-by killers (the CIA and others), said in his speech declaring the independence of Congo in 1960, while looking his former Belgian colonialists in the eye, “we are no longer your monkeys!” And, those willing to fight for a society devoid of these racists myths are going to have to be willing to pull them up from their roots!
justice, then peace
Mel Reeves was the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder until he passed away on January 6, 2022. He had a long and storied history working at the MSR.
Find more about Reeve’s life and legacy here: spokesman-recorder.com/category/remembering-mel-reeves.