The (mixed race) bastards of our colony {reading notes}

A new book -- "The Bastards of Our Colony: Hidden Stories of Belgian Metis" -- is now in circulation; and it concerns the policies and cultural protocols surrounding the forcible removal and isolationist socialization of the “mixed race” Congolese children in the former Belgian Congo. That such policies existed is hardly a surprise –- films like “Rabbit Proof Fence” and Baz Lurmann's latest “Australia” both offer sobering visual accounts of how colonizers often systemically dealt with so-called “half-castes” in an attempt to impose some sort of corrective socialization. The former managed to engineer a haunting quote that, at once, described the disconcerting mental state of the colonizers and the precarious position and social standing of the colonized: “In spite of himself, the native must be saved.”

My readings of Dr. Carina Ray, history professor at Fordham Univ., whose work covers Modern African History (particularly Ghana) and the racial and sexual politics of colonial rule internationally, allow me to examine an additional perspective. As she noted in a New African article in 2005 in response to a seemingly myopic view on the origins of mixed-race populations, "Our understanding of the origins of mixed race populations is ultimately best served when we widen the lens beyond one causal factor, be it rape or something else. If one truth is not to obscure the other, we need to consider the multitude of different political, economic, demographic, and social factors that created the historically specific circumstances which led to the emergence of mixed race people in Africa and the Diaspora."

Like the aforementioned works, co-authors Sibo Kanobana and Kathleen Ghequière aim to provide a free space for mostly unknown testimonies of two dozen mixed-race Congolese.

From Kano: “They were all people born during colonization from one black and one white parent. Some of them grew up in their families but most of them weren’t recognized by their fathers and were taken away from their mothers at a very young age. The colonial authority separated these children from their mothers to raise them in schools only for ‘mulatto children’. At independence, the colonial authorities decided to deport the younger ones (between 2 and 16 years old) to Belgium to be adopted into Belgian families. The circumstances are still unknown, which children were sent over and why is still a mystery. Even the exact number of children deported is hard to tell.”

In order to get a better sense of the scale, I considered the findings on the mixed-race issue from “The Memory of the Congo: The Colonial Era,” a selection of exhibition texts under the scientific direction of Jean-Luc Vellu:

"Statistics for the mixed-race population of the Congo are rare, which itself bears witness to the quandary the issue represented: As late as 1958, official sources classed them together with ‘persons of black race from non-border countries of the Belgian Congo’. Estimated at some 10,000 in 1956, the mixed race represented only a tiny fraction of the total population (0.075%), a proportion that was fifteen times less than that in neighboring Angola. Even though the ‘mixed-race issue’ was not significant at a quantitative level, it was the source of deep uneasiness in the colonial period: far beyond the Congo, there was a long history of prejudice against persons of mixed race, from both sides of the ‘color bar’."

And, of course, “privilege” and oppression are often not strange bedfellows:

"From 1952 onwards, the ‘civil merit card’ was meant to give certain Congolese a status that was close to that of Europeans, although few actually received these ‘cards’. Until then, only those that were registered enjoyed that status. By 1958, such privileges, more significant in the judicial sphere than in the social sphere, were enjoyed by no more than 2,500 Congolese."

A final note from the authors of "Bastards" on language and usage:

"In French, neutral terms such as ‘metissage’ and ‘metis’ define these people in a positive way. But Dutch lacks this kind of vocabulary, mostly because the Dutch-speaking people lack any knowledge about this part of their history. The Dutch language lacks emotionally and politically neutral terms for mixed race people (generally the Dutch and Flemish use English or French to express these terms for which they don’t have their own words). Journalists in progressive newspapers in Belgium refer to Barack Obama as a ‘mulat’, a word perceived by many Dutch speaking blacks as offending. We decided to take a provocative and colonial title with a more explaining subtitle in which we introduce a new word in the Dutch language: 'Metis.'"

The book will be translated in French soon.

Related: "The dilemma of the metaphorical mulatto"

{ exclusive feature}

Originally Posted 12/14/2010

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