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Unpacking “The Coolest Monkey” in The Donald’s “Shitholes”

Last week, Africa and the Diaspora suffered two highly public attacks on “the content of our character”: one from the economic sector and one from the political sector of the western world.

First, Swedish fashion retailer H&M put out an ad featuring a beautiful chocolate brown boy wearing that now-infamous “coolest monkey in the jungle” sweatshirt. While the boy’s Nigerian momma said the people expressing outrage were tripping because her son is a model and that was just one outfit, another group of Africans decided to show H&M how they really felt, and trashed one of its South African stores.

Meanwhile, “The Donald” aka the U.S. President asked a group of lawmakers why are we letting people in from so many “shithole nations”, meaning Haiti and countries from Africa and Central America. Only his diehard followers believe his day-late denial. The African Union has demanded a retraction, while South Africa, Ghana, Haiti, Botswana, and Senegal have requested explanations from the American ambassadors to their countries.

Let’s keep it real: plenty of Americans, including some Black people, actually do see these places as shitholes, even if they’re mad and embarrassed that “The Donald” was so rude and offensive in pointing it out. Even overseas, the 2016 “Brexit” vote was said to be largely motivated by a British public that did not want any more immigrants from poor, non-white countries.

It’s sad but not surprising considering what we are taught about these places in our schools and in the media: these mostly tropical places are physically stunning (like the image of Haiti in this article’s featured photo) yet so financially disadvantaged that a hurricane or an earthquake can devastate them for decades.

Many people would easily believe this picture of devastation post–Hurricane Matthew represents Haiti, but would be amazed to know the lush hills above come from the same country.

We mostly hear about them in connection with disease epidemics, war, terror attacks, corruption or shocking spiritual practices. We may donate to them, but we don’t visit unless they have a reputation for tourist-centered fun in the sun (e.g., Jamaica, Costa Rica, the DR). France, on the other hand, has a reputation for treating Americans like crap, but everyone still wants to see the Eiffel Tower.

But let me get to the point: The tropics weren’t shitholes when Europeans first showed up.

The tropics are the warmest part of the Earth, where people of color naturally thrive. Yes, there are also plenty of jungles and monkeys, too.

Why did Europeans choose to conquer and colonize these areas (along with all of North America) even though tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever nearly wiped them out? To control the fabulous and abundant minerals, precious metals, natural resources, delicious vegetation, aromatic spices and strong, skilled, often hospitable people they “discovered” when they sailed away from their filthy, war-torn and diseased shithole continent to escape religious persecution and economic exploitation (which they promptly inflicted on every group of people they ran across).

Promoting “childlike-monkey-jungle” stereotypes was a strategy to justify stealing the resources, enslaving and exploiting the people without feeling conflicted, since white-skinned folks also portrayed themselves as the pinnacle of human morality and decency. These stereotypes supported the ludicrous arguments that God put whites in control to civilize the inferior monkey children and cultivate the jungles.

But even with their superior firepower, Europeans could not have colonized the tropics without help from within. The political corruption in many of these so-called shithole nations has been caused or made worse by American and European politicians who supported, funded and armed dictators and thugs in these so-called shithole nations so long as they protected those foreign business interests against socialism and any other mass resistance among indigenous people who wanted control of their own resources rather than being exploited so Americans and Europeans could have cheap (or even very expensive) coffee, chocolate, rubber, diamonds, bananas, sugar, electronics, clothes, and so on. If this is new to you, Google Papa Doc, Baby Doc, UNITA in Angola, the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Contras of Nicaragua, and United Fruit Company to start researching for yourself.

If there is a TL;DR at the end of this history lesson, it’s this: the waves of immigrants coming from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa into the US and the UK are fleeing the economic and political problems that these powerful nations not only helped to create but profited from. The US and the UK would not be as advanced or desirable if they had not developed by exploiting the so-called shitholes.

So to quote another black leader from the 60s, “the chickens are coming home to roost.” These images and rhetoric show that a large number of Europeans and white Americans are fighting to remain dominant in their own countries and in the world economy. The question is, what will we do to prevent history from repeating itself?

Deidre R. Gantt is the former Associate Editor of Face2Face Africa. Prior to that, she served the Greater New Orleans community as a Program Associate with Foundation for Louisiana, where she managed leadership programs, grant opportunities and communications support to drive civic engagement and policy change. Her communications background includes a lengthy freelance career as a writer and editor, grant writer, and college writing instructor. Between 2007 and 2010, Deidre covered the rebirth of the cultural arts community in her hometown, Washington, DC, for the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. Her professional writing career began in the 1990s as a contributing editor for Rolling Out urban style weekly. Deidre is also an accomplished poet and performer who has appeared on stages throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania and Ghana. Deidre holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California.

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