I've never seen The African Queen but now I know who this Alan Quartermain dude is supposed to be, and I can see how much better we had it with Indiana Jones. But this review is about a black thing. A small one, though.
It happened Sunday on Continental 665 with the crew from Houston. I swiped my one remaining card with credit and got the little 7 inch screen (smaller than an iPad, larger than an iPhone) to connect with Dish Network. It actually turned out to be a pretty good deal for 6 bucks. And so the film of the day was on Turner, King Solomon's Mines.
I once wrote that the true test of one's own liberation from the mental shackles of black American peasantry could be found in the ability to eat watermelon and fried chicken without shame. I don't know how long, if ever, that benchmark will make any sense, but I'm sure it did to me at some distant point. I thought about that matter of liberation while watching a film I can imagine undergraduates at Brown squealing at in disgust on three levels of deconstruction. But it only took a little bit of doing, or so it seemed to me. I happen to be in the throes of my addiction to the portrait of Victorian England, step one Sherlock Holmes. As such, I am de-presentizing myself and coming to grips with history - devaluing those trinkets we are so easily seduced by and trying to determine what it is a truly free man does on a day to day basis. And so let me take that tangent for a moment.
It occurs to me in a trifling way from KSM (Not the terrorist, the film) but in a grander way from The Man Who Would Be King (although I didn't watch the film to its conclusion - I did read the entire book) how it is that men become leaders of men. They pay them for honorable work. This is so very fundamental that I am astonished we don't all know it better. It speaks volumes about our decrepit public values that such things must be learned from study. Now one only need look to Haiti to find in our public consciousness something other than the ennobling matter of contract employment; it is the pursuit of charity over that of honorable work. It is done in the exorbitant self-righteousness of those dedicating themselves to such a cause, viz Katrina. Charity is the chance for the peasant to drop a superior dime, and the politics of such matters lure the whole peasant world towards the swamp of socialism. Why? Because when it is considered morally superior to rescue a man than to employ a man, we grow a nation of slavers. Yes I said it.
Let us recall Toni Morrison's insight on Robinson Crusoe.
'At last he lays his head flat on the ground, close to my foot, and sets my other foot upon his head, as he had done before; and after this, made all the signs to me of subjugation, servitude, and submission imaginable, to let me know how he would serve me as long as he lived.' -- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
'The problem of internalizing the master's tongue is the problem of the rescued. Unlike the problems of survivors who may be lucky, fated, etc. the rescued have the problem of debt. If the rescuer gives you back your life, he shares in that life. But if as in Friday's case, if the rescuer saves your life by taking you away from the dangers, the complications, the confusion of home, he may very well expect the debt to be paid in full.' -- Toni Morrison, 1992
Now I read that "master's tongue" stuff as just antipathy to modern life in a Republic, as if raffia ennobles. There's a crowd Toni plays to that doesn't get out much. They like to think that English itself is a prison. They may be onto something, but I doubt it. Nevertheless, the question of debt is not a trifle. When you save a man's life - the sort of distended belly, flies on the face, life we here is Sally Struthersville get all moony about - then you have a rather hefty debt in your annoying condescending favor. This is the same sort of debt that makes liberal jaws drop when they encounter Mexican American Republicans and Africans who say no to aid. The other side of that same coin gives debt forgiveness to college students who join whatever Obama is calling the Peace Corps these days - you know the sort who minister to Mexican American migrant farmworkers and starving Africans of all sorts. Quid pro quo in the socialist circle of life, all centrally managed and planned from a singular set of humanist values to the best of our scientific ability. Just don't step outside the line, comrade.
Why? Because we made you.
That is the difference between charity and employment. The donor expects respect forever. The employer doesn't call you when the contract is over. The man with honorable work, makes his deal, does his share, and moves on. The rescued slave must sing the praises of his liberator for generations. It's a problem we have here in America. "Legacy of slavery" is a familiar phrase. If people could have just gotten paid, we'd be over all this.
Which brings me back to Alan Quartermain and his train of native porters, spear handlers, cooks and bottlewashers. Or PDiddy and his entourage of press flacks, personal shoppers and weed carriers for that matter. It's not exploitation. It's work.
In the genre of "wow check out these weird African animals and tribes" flicks, I'm not very savvy. And for the sake of stating the obvious, you can clearly see why the African nations involved did their best to get whole villages decked out and put all in frame for the sake of the whiteys on and off camera and in posterity. Pictures of elephant are a dime a dozen, but native dance on that scale just doesn't play very often here in the States. I was flat mesmerized, especially for the final shindig. I actually got into that sentimental zone where I'm thinking - maybe we've lost something extraordinary here. I don't know. Have we? It does get back to the question of what a free man does on the daily. After all, it's the Left who wants everyone to have a state guaranteed minimum wage, affordable housing and a small, fuel efficient car with airbags. The Watusi don't want that, do they? So who is going about destroying indigenous culture? It's the socialist, because he can't leave anybody alone. Not in Darfur, not in Somalia, not in Haiti. Everyone must be rescued. Everyone must have health care. Everyone must have instant citizenship in the comfiest nation on Earth. You know, before it warms over.
In my newest favorite podcast, Philosophy Bites, our hosts entertained a guest who talked about cannibalism. We have lost the cannibal. But the cannibal, and the very idea of the cannibal, elevated our thinking about the true natural nature of man. What would we be without civilization? What is it about civilization that helps? What hinders? And similarly in this global economy I ask about the very idea of the peasant, the urban peasant I know very well. Does he work and having done his work can he be left alone or is he rescued and indentured to that act of charity?
Watching King Solomon's Mines says a lot about what 5,000 Pounds Sterling might do and how negotiation over the value of work goes directly to our souls and what may or may not be troubling them. Watch the first encounter with Mrs Curtis and Alan Quartermain closely - everything else, aside from the separate and distinct journey of the Watusi, circles around that exchange. It is in the end, the fate of the Watusi that seals the fate of the questing whites. They are rescued. Then again, homegirl had the Dosh from square one.
I could observe the native Africans from my psychological and temporal distance neatly contextualized in that dated bit of filmmaking. I could see the strengths and weaknesses of the film qua film, and imagine what the directors had in mind. I like the idea that once there was a thing called 5000 pounds and for this one might be set for life, instead of the fact that we are three weeks from starvation if the power goes out in our half million dollar suburban raffia. I look at that Africa and that England and I see that they were once full of free men, and so I am sentimental.