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Race and metaphors of COVID-19

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Shakespeare’s Othello is a sad metaphor on race and colour. The portrait by the bard of the Moor in the 17th Century play plumbed the depth of race and etches a typical Shakespearean tragedy from what could have been a tapestry of ideals.

The military talent and genius of the character, Othello earns him fame and epaulettes in Venice, a white society. They also earn him the attention of Desdemona, the delectable daughter of a rich Venetian. Genius and talent lock white Desdemona to black Othello and the mortal contempt of two white rivals that cannot bear the sight of a lily-white girl in bed with “the Moor.” Othello’s enemies could not bear the thought of the “old black ram” bedding a “white ewe.”

The Shakespearean character is at once admirable for his stellar achievements and pitiable for total lack of self-awareness. Othello evinces pity for his sightlessness in the face of danger. He is in total darkness as mortal foes tightened the noose around his neck. The black general, the toast of the Venetian court, is manipulated by jealous racial adversaries into believing that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful prodding him to kill her in an epic denouement.

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Shakespeare’s Othello has been a synonym for inordinate rage and delusion of spousal infidelity since it debuted in 1604. In contemporary times he is also a metaphor for an uppity black man that does not know his bounds. The Shakespearian tragedy is a useful tool to plumb the depth of race; especially the place of black in a white world. What right does Othello have to Desdemona despite his vaunted station in a white world? What right has a black, even one with exemplary gifts of talents, to the good life in the face of a rabidly racial world that determines entitlements by colour?

I often find the perspective of John Quincy Adams on Othello particularly interesting. The sixth president of the United States was perhaps the most literary-minded personage to have ever occupied the White House. Quincy Adams was sired by a mother who made him a poet and art critic while he was still in diapers and Adams was an ardent protagonist of William Shakespeare. He was also touted as a most ardent liberal of his time; a custodian of the most redemptive ideals in the American age of slavery.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 25: A discarded bottle of hand sanitizer is seen on the sidewalk during the coronavirus pandemic on April 25, 2020 in New York, United States. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world claiming over 202,000 lives lost with over 2.9 million infections reported. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images/AFP


Quincy Adams pondered magisterially at the apogee of slavery in 1821 that the American Declaration of Independence was a new epoch in history, “in which conquest and servitude had no part.” By that statement he meant no man or woman ought to be owned by another human being, that slavery should be anathema, especially to the nation that loved to tout itself as the beacon of freedom. The Quincy Adam’s statement was in contention with the scholarship of the period; certainly, a novelty to his compatriots sired and raised in the bigotry of the American south.

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But race played differently for Quincy Adams on Othello, the tragic character of the Shakespearian epic. Adams found no pity in his heart for black Othello, manipulated and conned out of love by jealous white rivals because the ‘uppity’ man had married a white girl.

Quincy Adams reserved the greatest contempt for Desdemona, the white lover smothered in a jealous rage. In an opinion piece to The New England Magazine in 1835 on the play, the sixth President of United States wrote:” The great moral lesson of the tragedy of Othello is that the black and white blood cannot be intermingled in marriage without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature, in such violations Nature will vindicate her laws… (Desdemona) takes from us so much of the sympathetic interest in her sufferings, that when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and pity (in the audience) subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her just deserts.” Quincy Adams was not done on his malice against Desdemona. He ruled on Desdemona’s tragic end as “a very just judgement for having married a nigger” in a conversation with Fanny Kemble, a British actress, in 1839.

It is interesting how contradictory even a white liberal in every age could sometimes get on race. Highly urbane Quincy Adams could bear the sight of the black General in a white army but not the thoughts of the Moor under the sheets with Desdemona. Quincy Adams seemed to be saying the black man deserves his laurels only if he does not get uppity about them; that Othello is fit for the purpose only if he recognises his colour naturally confers some eternal limitations.

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John Quincy Adams’ liberal voice in that sense sounds as dankly guttural as that of Adolf Hitler, the German Fuhrer and arch race monger who also would not have granted a quarter to Othello. Undoubtedly, Othello’s epaulettes would have agitated Adolf Hitler to no end, even if the “Moor” did not as much as lust after Desdemona. Remember how Hitler stomped out of in spite of Jesse Owens’ spectacular victory the Berlin Olympics in 1936? The Fuhrer pointedly refused to give the black athlete his justly-earned medals in defiance of protocols. Jesse Owens earned the ire for being the best and beating all the white opponents against all permutations. Sadly, the world still oscillates between Quincy Adam’s quisling liberalism and Adolf Hitler’s open extremities. Of course, racism is still a popular global currency. It lurks in the coded language of contemporary power; it was barely concealed the other day in the language of power in support of some racist rioters at Charlottesville. It also featured in the not-so-coded diction of power about citizens from “shit-hole” countries that needed to be kept out of America. In the last 400 years or so, the world is at once tentative and obnoxious about racism. It especially loves to paint blackness with a single brush and discern poverty on every black face.

If you thought that racism against blacks is restricted to the West you must be thinking again by now because of the recent happenings in China. A little while ago, Chinese authorities went hunting for blacks because they suspected them as harbingers of the dreaded COVID-19. Copious footages made rounds on African men and women lined up like slaves being manhandled by Chinese cops. They were reportedly hounded from various hotels and apartments and forcibly subjected to contrived tests. China treated them as common criminals, not for any discernible crime except that they are black.

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The Chinese are yet to come up with any rational response to the obvious acts of racism but African diplomats in Beijing, led by the Nigerian Ambassador surprisingly rose to the occasion. This time the Nigerian embassy in Beijing refused to play the ostrich and there is an impressive clip out there on the Ambassador standing up to some Chinese officials on racism against the Africans. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs here had also reportedly lodged a formal protest with the Chinese authorities and most impressing, a collective of African diplomats in China have written to Beijing protesting the incidents. We wait to see where it is all headed in the weeks ahead; if they are no mere bluffs for the cameras.

Sadly, it appears that Africa still fits the John Cary inscription as The Heart of Darkness even in the eyes of China. It also appears Beijing has bought into the views on the continent as a place where the sun still never rises, a place bereft of power and any ability to fight back.

Truth be told, Nigeria especially has no one to blame except herself if those are the real views of Beijing on her and the continent. Look how we run ourselves six decades into self-rule. Our own emperors roam naked in the comity of nations and seem unashamed of their nakedness. Look at the opportunity we have wasted; the talents we still flush down the drains, the future of our young we daily sacrifice on the altar of puny thoughts. Look at how every new government promised Eldorado and they sunk us lower than they met us. See how we carry on neglecting to learn from our chequered past, doing things the same way as we always did and thinking they somehow will yield us different results.

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Regardless of the self-inflicted woes that had handed us the short end of the racial stick, this time we seriously must engage with China to stanch the rising racism against African in the East. We should do by engaging hard diplomacy with a clear head if we are not to make such ugly attacks against Africans a permanent sight in the years ahead. African states should serve notices on China they would not brook racial epithets or endure insults from the East. We should open formal channels to monitor agreements arising from the efforts.

Despite the past credentials of China on decolonization in Africa, it is instructive that Nigeria and African leaders should know that Beijing will not be offering free lunch this time, at least not in the long run. China did not arrive at the pinnacle of the world by making pretensions to biblical mores or priestly precepts. It dared the Soviet Union and run its own communism on a different track. It manoeuvred the United States to run this peculiar strand of capitalism on communist ideals and will manoeuvre Africa to achieve its aims if and when necessary.

Our politicians, therefore, need to fasten their belts and get serious on the game, bearing in mind that China is neither a missionary state nor on a civilizing trip. It is here to further feather its own nest. Beijing barely conceals its aims in Africa are to corner as much of the continent’s mineral resources as possible and find space for some of its huge population on African soil.

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What do we want apart from the importation of cheap imitations from China? Why are we turning eastwards apart from hope for easy loans and fancy projects; like bogus airports, sleek bridges and rail lines that lead nowhere? Beyond the slogans and poise for the cameras, how do we wean our technicians and engineers from their crammed theories and embed them in Chinese projects, to learn to construct our airports, bridges and rail lines without supervision? How can we incorporate our universities and make them relevant in such projects so they can be research-focussed and train useful graduates? Succinctly, how do Nigeria and Africa intend to use the unfolding opportunities in ways that would develop more Othello and keep them at home to enable us utilize their talents?

Jesus spoke about how things would eventually pan out for Jerusalem and advised his followers to look out for the signs of time. The signs in China are here. The rumbling racism there now is a sign of a new power getting comfortable with its new position. The furore on 5G and the unusual benevolent reaction from Washington on the plight of Africans in China are hints that the shift is getting closer that we imagined. The world barely noticed the last time the power locus shifted from London to Washington. There was no much ado then as the sun set on the British Empire and the American Age came into full bloom. We did not notice because Big Ben and Uncle Tom speak the same language and we understand their language.

The Star-Spangled Banner also looks like the Union Jack. This time a shift from Washington to Beijing may not be that smooth because there is a bigger sea to cross, besides the Chinese flag do not look like the Star-Spangled Banner and the language in Beijing actually reads and sounds foreign. It is understandable why there should be much scoffing, huffing and bluffing. More metaphors on race will be on full display as we move along and no one is better suited to look out for Othello than Othello in the game.

For Nigeria, failure to read the signs of time, prepare and negotiate a better future for itself would leave it with a shorter stick than it is currently holding in the world order. As demonstrated in the recent events in Beijing, it will be better Nigeria aligns with the rest of Africa to collectively engage China. Assuming good intentions of the rising power from the East would be a tragedy of a Shakespearian scale.

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