So in 1963 President John Kennedy began the Art in Embassies Program. It is a public-private partnership that promotes cultural diplomacy through US embassies around the world. In 2002 they began an artists abroad program where artists can apply to travel to US embassies around the world and perform or display their art.
This week a jazz band is being hosted by the US embassy here in Cotonou. I posted about it on Facebook and Instagram and have received an amazing amount of hate from it. Everyone says the same thing: pardon me…but…uh…shouldn’t African Americans be playing jazz to represent America in Africa? I responded to a couple people but then had a huge lot of what I can only guess are African American Social Justice Warriors begin attacking me and calling me a racist, a colonizer, and some other extremely not nice things. For the first time I was brought to block several people and report several more. The hatred was pretty intense.
Well…something tells me the application for your band getting to play in a US embassy doesn’t have a check box for race. It’s a damn band. If you want to bring your American racial politics into a world traveling jazz band then let’s talk about what it’s like here.
First off, I’m no colonizer. I’m a wanderluster. Since I was 14 I’ve never lived in the same place more than 4 years. I’ve traveled in 47 of the States and 39 countries, I’ve lived on 3 continents and in 4 countries so far. I have no plans of stopping. After spending 3/4ths of my life in poverty and just a decade ago being sick and homeless on the streets of Atlanta I hit the proverbial jackpot, I have found my calling and it’s traveling and teaching. I’ve never been so happy since the day I was born. While I’m traveling I observe, I study, I write, and I try to do what little good I can for the world. I’m no missionary and I’m sure as hell no white savior. I just want to travel and see the world. I want to learn and I want to do it in the real world. While you’re calling me a racist on Instagram for watching some white guys play music I’m actually living in a foreign country, learning the language and learning the culture. Far more than you’re doing scrolling through the Internet from your cushy chair in Starbucks.
You wanna talk race relations in Africa? You wanna talk about how fucking stupid it is to say bringing 3 white guys here to play jazz music is a problem? You remind me of meat eaters that get grossed out by hunting or slaughter houses. You’ll eat your meat but it has to come in the neatly wrapped plastic packages in the supermarket. You can’t dare be faced with the reality that your dinner was once a living breathing being. Heck, you can’t even eat a fish with the head still on it. You wanna talk reality? Let’s talk.
Benin is the 16th poorest nation on earth. Literacy rates are below 40% for the total population and 20% for women. Slavery is still a very real part of day to day life here. People commonly sell their children for about the equivalent of $60 USD. People on the street approach me with their baby and try to get me to take it. They beg me to take their kid back to America with me. The teen girl that runs the small shack selling food attached to the wall of my house lives in that shack with her 3 year old little girl. There’s no water. They shit and piss by the tree across the street. My gardener almost died a few weeks ago because he didn’t have money to buy some antibiotics and was too ashamed to ask us.
Education here is depressingly abysmal. Last year, for my World Geography class I thought I had done something really awesome. Through a few people I had met I arranged for a local university professor to come lecture my class on life in Africa. This man, this African man, this African university professor, proceeded to tell my students that the white man had to come here to get slaves because white men can’t work in the sun. They needed slaves to work their fields. Then he moved on very casually to the next topic. Here in Benin there is very little understanding of chattel slavery as it was in the US. Because slavery is still common practice today. I was flabbergasted and didn’t really know what to do or say. This is a guest speaker I brought in to lecture my students! A history professor from a local university!!! Telling my students that the white man just had to come here and get slaves because his poor white skin couldn’t take working in the fields. Even members of the elite here are extremely uneducated compared to the average 6th grader in the US. I recently taught a wealthy man with a very respectable job that owns two large homes that plants need sunlight to live. Our American ideals of education simply do not transfer here.
I find myself constantly struggling debating coworkers on their insistence upon calling me ma’am. I don’t like it. They tell me they are raised to respect white people and address them with honor. I explain it’s racist and they say huh? what? I explain if you are supposed to respect me simply because of the color of my skin am I supposed to disrespect you because of the color of yours? Don’t call me ma’am just because I’m white. It’s gross.
I live in a place where people don’t have money to send their children to school or to feed them so they sell them off as slaves. Hundreds of people die in the hospital daily not because their illnesses are all that difficult to treat but because there’s no money. Almost no one I interact with on a daily basis can read or write. I could continue this list all day to explain to you the horrors I see.
Is it sad? Yes. Did I have to struggle with some pretty tough depression when I moved here? Yes. When beggar children ring my bell at home or crowd around me on the street do I still get emotional? Yes. When I go to the pharmacy and the man with the horrific tumors all over his face is there begging me for anything to feed his children do I ask myself wtf is wrong with this world? Yes. But I am in a very REAL situation and very, REALLY, have come to grips that I can’t save the world. I’m not trying to tell anyone how white people do things right and how if they’d just do it my way they’d get out of this poverty. That’s what missionaries like to do. That’s not my place. Not my role, and I have no interest in being that person. I’m not here to save the world. I’m here to observe, write, and learn and hopefully help a few people along the way.
If you think seeing 3 white dudes playing jazz music is going to have any kind of a negative effect on the minds of the local people then you have no idea what you’re talking about. You are far out of your league and you are part of the problem.
Do you want to help the world? Do you really want to help the world? Become a teacher. Get off your high horse trying to imply I’m a racist for wanting to hear some music.