#4 Orientalism vs. the Old Jim Crow

When I first started writing about African Americans who participated in orientalism, a professor of mine said that orientalism was a discourse of colonizers; African Americans were colonized; and so therefore African Americans could not be orientalists. Would that life were so cut and dried, or that movements for social justice were so pure. In fact, African Americans were orientalists, but they very often used orientalism against racism. In the hands of blacks in the US and abroad, orientalism became a form of antiracist racism, you could say.

This might seem contradictory, but in fact it is more often than not the way the world works; oppressive ideologies are so total that we swim in them like fish in water, and when the fish need to organize another path they redirect a stream of the dominant discourse for their own purposes rather than reject it wholesale. Ok, maybe there are a few flying fish who can catch brief glimpses above water, but even they invariably slip back into familiar tropes when they are trying to get the schools of fish below water to follow them.

Now this may sound fishy, but in fact it was right there at the start when Michel Foucault theorized discourse and wrote that discourses contain counter-discourses that threaten to grow into challenges to the main discourse itself. Edward Said omitted that part when he wrote Orientalism in 1979, but admitted as much a few years later: even orientalism could have romantic and emancipatory streams, and shifted valences when used by the colonized as opposed to the colonizers.

There are countless examples of people using discourses to double back and counter those very discourses; Black Christians may have been taught a milquetoast form of Christianity during slavery, but they soon figured out how to use Christianity to make claims for more humane treatment and emancipation. When Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. Du Bois wanted to protest lynching at the turn of the twentieth century, they did not reject the discourse of civilization, which was a deeply racist discourse, but rather they used that racist discourse against the most grotesque form of racism, when they condemned lynching as uncivilized and barbaric. And so on.

By embracing the Islamic Orient then, even in essentialist ways, African Americans could implicitly  critique what we now might call the Old Jim Crow. For Black Americans, the Orient could represent a subversive heterogeneity and stood as a rebuke to the sterile segregation of the American Jim Crow system.

Under the heading, “All Races Found in Cairo City: Great Metropolis on River Nile is Now Very Cultured,” the Defender reported:

"Cairo is a living kaleidoscope; its colored fragments are tumbled into place not merely from east and west, but from north and south as well. White-robed Bedouin, ill-called fellah, shiny-black Soudanese and Central African Negro, swarthy Turk, Persian, Hindu, Mongolian, dusky Moor, Italian, Greek, Armenian and the white folk from Europe, America and their antipodes—all are jumbled together in Cairo, their various tongues making a babel that can hardly be duplicated at any other spot on earth.”

By asserting that Cairo was “cultured” in addition to being racially heterogeneous, the Chicago Defender was implicitly rebuking racist American ideas of civilization that asserted that racial mixing were a symptom of a society not having attained an advanced level of civilization. Implicitly, the Orient’s heterodoxy stood as a wonderful reminder for Black Americans of how bizarre, juvenile, rude, and uncultured the Jim Crow segregation system truly was. Images of the Orient suggested not simply the marvelously strange, but hinted at the potential for radically different ways of ordering society.

Black Americans who attended the circus with its numerous orientalist displays of "the Mystic East" would have seen Africans denigrated and degraded while Arabs, Muslims, and sub-continental Indians were stereotyped and celebrated. Given that P.T. Barnum's “missing link” was obviously specious, a melancholy spectacle of a "Negro" man in a monkey suit, the notion that Black Americans could have been descended from noble, romantic, dashing, and dangerous dark-skinned African Muslim Moors was far less insulting and indeed far more plausible than many of the other ethnographic ideas circulating in the popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century.