Friday, 20 January 2012

The day the Klan came to Italy

Recently we've been talking about race at home. And today a blog posted by a friend made me remember a particular incident that in its warped way became educational.

My kids grew up on the old Gold Coast, today's Ghana, a country where slavery has a lengthy and even current history. I mentioned the slave forts in my last post, and while not wanting to linger in those cold dungeons I will mention standing in the pit, looking up to where it was said the governor had a wooden walkway installed, so as to look down for the prettiest captive. It was said that a woman who became with child became a freed woman: she did not have to crouch and grovel along the tunnel called 'the gate of no return'.

One of the things about being white in Ghana, apart from sunburn and never being able to be invisible, nor wear swishing local fabrics with any sort of stylishness, was that one often felt one represented the evil conqueror, the culture of the slavers, the scramble for Africa, the whole school of European thinking about the 'noble savage', the many wars of independence, today's neo-colonial wars of mineral wealth and mercenaries...

A heavy burden. But it was my fault. I studied Lenin's Theory of Imperialism in university, where I learned that capital sought new markets in order to refurbish its greedy mechanisms. I also studied African and Asian Independence Movements and in my innocent way fell in love with Isak Dinesen's beautiful opening words, 'I had a farm in Africa' (years after I went to her homestead - not the one used in the film - with a hostile guide who made me feel every bit the Dane handing out sticking plasters and paracetamol).

But back to my educational incident. For I could go on endlessly about the friction between cultures, the discomfort of history, the stories, the stories. The ancestors of today's Ghana were sent off in slave ships to the Americas. Somehow, my half-Ghanaian kid hasn't seriously studied this in school yet, Italian school I might add. They do the Civil Rights Movement, but history, which he fortunately loves, is seriously euro-centric. Perhaps that is why he made this discovery in a school friend's bag he brought home by mistake. It was around Halloween time, everyone was thinking parties, pumpkins. Masks.

My kid pulled out a triangular white cone of cloth with three holes in it. The rest of us, his older siblings, sat there staring. My youngest called out What is it? What's wrong? Slowly, we explained to him. About the raids in the bush. About the men and women chained together, families broken, never to see each other again. About the long congested journey over the oceans with the stench of death.

What type of mother handstitches a child's Halloween mask from this type of terror and cruelty? What type of idiotic being?

I used to fight battles verbally. Charge up to people. Seek justice. Rant and rave. In Africa I learnt how to fight. But strangely, my older kids calmed me. Told me how dumb these people were, how rich. That didn't stop me going to the school and having them labelled, showing my outrage. Seething.

God knows that ignorant woman had better never cross my path.


  1. Good for you for posting this Catherine ... you never know, it might just raise someone's consciousness that some masks just aren't appropriate no matter how scary they might be for Halloween!

    1. Dear WG,
      Thanks for your article the other day - a topic that is still so relevant. Although the historical background is completely different I have Ghanaian friends here in Italy who are treated as though they are invisible. They are not allowed to exist!

      And there is (unfortunately in nearly every country it seems the same) a vigorously anti-immigrant political party here that actually collects votes.

      Things will change, but it will be a long and bumpy ride.

  2. OK maybe I'm hopeless naive, but I'm seriously hoping that it was a very poorly made ghost costume by a Euro-centric (and thus not thinking about what could be interpreted by the pointed top, say, over here in the U.S.) sewing-challenged mother. That would be the only acceptable (albeit regrettable) explanation for this. If someone really intended to make a kkk hat for their kid, then I'm completely disgusted.

    1. Hi Sara and thanks for your comment. I think the mother in question must have seen the pointed hat in a film and thought 'hmm, that looks easy for Lornenzo's Halloween hat', without thinking twice about the subject matter, nor wishing to understand what these hats mean. I really think it was plain, inexcusable ignorance.

      What remains to be said is, What if the kid's bag wasn't taken home by mine by mistake, and he had worn this hat to the school party? Then what?

  3. Thanks for pointing me here - though it makes for painful, uncomfortable reading.
    I grew up in a poor working class council estate in a poor (materially, spiritually) forgotten village in the Scottish Lanarkshire hinterland. An almost wholly white macho culture. Hard lives leavened by hard-drinking or hard church-ery (sometimes both).
    I had two Asian friends. Their parents owned a small shop. They were permitted limited entry to white homes - becoming 'honorary whites'. I remember another friend's father saying 'as Pakis go, they're alright'. The sense of outrage I felt was real but I was too young to articulate it.
    I worked in the local Mental Hospital (yip, that's what it was officially called back then) and met the Phillipino and Mauritian nurses who suffered a rank discrimination that thought itself benign - to Amba it was said, "I don't even see your colour now Amba" and the speaker clearly thought that she had said something good.
    The first black African face I saw was at University in 1985. I was 18. I wanted to stare at the beautiful man with that ebony sheen - and was suddenly ashamed of myself and overwhelmed with guilt for objectifying and being so curious. I know that I have a strong sense of race-guilt - and that I will spend my life feeling I must make amends. As I've aged I've wondered how to do that without my efforts offending or being another painful and patronising example of white power.
    My own children have been raised with consciousness of the evil of discrimination - in all its various forms. Their innocence is to assume that everyone sees the world the way that they do. Recently I've noticed that they come home more and more often with tales of race-hatred.
    Perhaps it is the recession and an increasingly anti-immigrant press which transforms innate suspicion into active outwardly expressed hate.
    I wish for a different world for them. I do not want to have to tell them the stories of genocide or slavery or apartheid or...
    That mask. There is nothing innocent about that mask.