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Race in the Congo: The Colonial Construction of 'Darkness' and Its Consequences

(34) Race in the Congo: The Colonial Construction of 'Darkness' and Its Consequences - Kara Skora, Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology

Colonialism was justified by an elaborate ideology, embodied in everything from Kipling’s poetry and Stanley’s lectures to sermons and books about the shapes of skulls, lazy natives, and the genius of European civilization… the impact lingered long after the system itself (colonialism) officially died.” Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost

To what extent does the ghost of Belgium's imperialist King Leopold still lurk in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire?  This interdisciplinary seminar will explore that question guided by scholars of African religions and philosophy, journalists, artists, historians, and novelists, both insiders and outsiders.  Congo’s land contains the richest natural resources in the world, yet it is home to the poorest of people.  The Congo is haunted by the tragic—from over ten million people killed in the late 1800’s during King Leopold’s extraction of its rubber, through fifty years of harsh Belgian colonial rule, to over three decades of relentless corruption under Mobutu Sese Seko, and recent civil wars with over five million killed to date.  Gross constructions of race initiated, justified, and perpetuated this span of horrors as documented in various genres created by explorers, journalists, and novelists.  We will read Henry Stanley's missives back to the West as he searched for Dr. Livingston, as well as the insights left by social critics from Mark Twain to Malcolm X.  Additionally, we will consider works such as Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness alongside a recent novel by the Congolese Ngwala brothers.  We will also learn from the heroes who resisted, from indigenous chiefs, to the local Christian prophet, Simon Kimbangu, to African-Americans led by George Washington Williams, aghast at what he found there in the late nineteenth century.  Continually, the Congolese people themselves have shaped their own identities and experience through artistic, creative, and emancipatory responses to social oppression—the indigenous forming and reforming of meaning from pre-colonial religious sculpture and graphic writing (which we will recreate in a hands-on art exploratory) to the most complex woven textiles known.   A field trip to "Fragments of the Invisible" exhibit on Congo sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art and participation in the Forum on Race are integral to this course.