Telling Uneasy Stories: El Negro of Banyoles #2

I continue where we left off last week with the story of El Negro, a Motlhaping man who was eviscerated and stuffed like a trophy animal and exhibited in Spain for the entertainment of Europeans. To first recap, we established a freak as “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature.”

El Negro was exhibited as a tactile example of the Other. Along the same vein, this Other was not introduced in an egalitarian fashion: a power dynamic was also determined between Spain and Africa. Spatially, El Negro was exhibited in the same room as tree-trunks and crocodile-skin. But while the crocodile skin had captions underneath them of how certain species crocodiles growled and some snapped when the naturalists attempted to capture them, El Negro’s caption simply said, “El Negro,”which
translates to “The Black Man.”

Effectively, the narrative his remains and manner of exhibition tell here is one devoid of agency, behavior and humanity. We can see here how the tone was established that the African is inferior to the European because his exhibition was not intended to be in conversation with the viewer. It was just to be seen without it being able to return the curious gaze not even in a simple caption denoting behavior. In actuality, thiscollective Other that El Negro represented by being called “The [Definitive] Black Man,” would have been just be as curious about the Verraux brothers when they settled in that dusty village between the Vaal and Molopo rivers in 1829. The Batlhaping would have spilled sorghum-beer on the ground to ask the ancestors for answers about these “albinos” who befriended the ailing king and spoke gibberish through their noses. But as the saying goes,until the lion can speak the tale will always glorify the hunter. That is the tone of inequality that was struck. Perhaps this is the sort of inequality that Dr. Kwame Nkrumah had in mind when exactly today in 1957 he declared that we need “a new African in the world” who “can fight his battles.” Permit me to digress here and wish the Republic of Ghana a happy 55th independence anniversary.

Back to El Negro, of course in the Banyoles context El Negro was the ultimate freak. Standing stark in the middle of a Banyoles museum with unnaturally dark skin (the Verraux brothers darkened it with chemicals for dramatic effect), clad in animal-skin loincloth and bearing a frozen stare through the glass marbles that were installed in place of his eyes, El Negro was the definitive black ethnographic freak. More interestingly, his high entertainment value as a freak derived
from his perceived hybrid nature: he was partly human and partly animal. Author Rachel Adams once wrote that, “It is an important historical lesson to recognize that freaks were not always understood as the flip side of normality; at one time, their bodies were read as figures of absolute difference who came from elsewhere…” It is this “elsewhere”(this Africa, incomprehensible continent of jungles and darkness) affirmed by his props that despite his physiologically human form, El Negro possessed the mystical animal quality in the fascinated European imagination.

Therefore, due to the white-supremacist 19th century definition of “human,”another long-lived narrative was constructed: the black African is a less evolved species of man that never entered human-ness. Or as President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said in Senegal in 2007, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has never really entered [human] history.The African peasant has known only the eternal renewal of time via the endless repetition of the same actions and the same words [like an animal]. In this mentality, where everything always starts over again, there is no place for human adventure nor for any idea of progress.”

I bring up President Sarkozy’s speech not because of his impressive imagination but rather to underscore the perdurability of the 19th century savage-African narrative as constructed by such storytelling tools as El Negro’s exhibition.

I look forward to next week, to further discuss the stories/narratives that El Negro was used to create. And indeed enforce. May we all continue to have the courage to excavate our painful histories and re-humanize ourselves. It is time for a “new African in the world.”