As Americans, we were born into the propaganda of empire. It is not our fault. Even as children most of us were taught that we Americans are the best and brightest of human beings. The idea that we should be shackled by international law seems ludicrous to many Americans.
Discoving our own humanity requires that we break from this shared narcissism and find a greater allegiance to our entire species. One of the best ways to break that trance is to listen to the voices from the margins of empire. It is the colonized people of the world, the ones Frantz Fanon called “the wretched of the earth,” who can guide us back to our own souls. For all their misery, it is the conquered people who have retained the humanity their conquers lost.
Those are the voices we do not hear in most news or in history books. Like a coward painting a portrait of a tyrant, American journalists and popular history writers know to leave off certain unpleasant details if they wish to remain credible. Even those who try to tell the other side of the story, usually know it is wise to never give face or voice to the victims. So most of us have never heard actual testimonies of our own enslaved people, much less the victims or our wars or those human beings who work in the hell hole of our foreign sweatshops.
Chinua Achebe has been called the father of African literature. He died Thursday and the New York Times had a wonderful article about his work. I was particularly struck by his story of awakening to the nature of the British empire:
Growing up in Nigeria, Mr. Achebe attended schools that were modeled upon British public schools. In his recent book of essays, “The Education of a British-Protected Child” (2009), he was eloquent about what it felt like as a young man to read classic English novels. They provided a cognitive dissonance he had to work through.
“I did not see myself as an African in those books,” he wrote. “I took sides with the white men against the savages.” He continued: “The white man was good and reasonable and smart and courageous. The savages arrayed against him were sinister and stupid, never anything higher than cunning. I hated their guts.”
Mr. Achebe grew up, and grew wiser: “These writers had pulled a fast one on me! I was not on Marlowe’s boat steaming up the Congo in ‘Heart of Darkness’; rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces.”
It is not our fault that we were born in a vast and brutal military empire, but it is our responsiblity to do what we can to lessen the violence of empire against our sisters and brothers of the earth. It begins when we can recognize their humanity. We may not have the answer on how to undo the violence of empire but, at the very least, we can get our minds and hearts free.