[Cry, This Beloved Country]
Paul Mooney once jokingly, not jokingly said, and I’m paraphrasing, “White people don’t create or invent. They steal. The only thing they invented was the copyright and patent office” which is for them to claim, register and take credit for all the ideas, items and properties, intellectual or otherwise from which they’ve stolen. Be it music, as with Rock & Roll, fashion, art, land or actual people, white folks will steal and take ownership.
“Be careful there. That’s my property you’re handling there.” –Massa Boss Charlie, circa 1853 excoriating his overseer cracking his bullwhip regarding his property –his field enslaved African. In my previous essay I spoke about the movie Black Panther and I’m reminded of the character Killmonger and his exchange at the London Museum of Great Britain with the curator about several African artifacts behind glass. After inquiring about a third item and correcting the curator of place of origin, Killmonger informs the nice lady that he would be taking the artifact “off her hands.”
She replies that it’s not for sale to which Killmonger asks, “How do you think your ancestors got these? You think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it like they took everything else?”
I guess Paul Mooney can add museums to that short list of Caucasian inventions. I’ve seen more ancient Egyptian and Nubian sculpture, statues and artwork in American and European museums than I can count. It wasn’t until 2002 that the French senate voted to release Saartjie Baartman, also derisively know as Hottentot Venus remains from the backroom shelves of the Musé de L’Homme.
In death, in 1815 Ms. Baartman’s body was carved up by Napoleon’s surgeon, made a cast of her body, pickled her genitals and brain, and put her skeleton on display at said Musé de L’Homme. Before then, Ms. Baartman, the alive and breathing person, was displayed publicly in London after being lied to and lured from her native South Africa by a visiting English surgeon, William Dunlop who was convinced Londoners would be willing to pay a nice shilling to ogle at Ms. Baartman’s pronounced body differences.
Then after the exploitation and interest there waned, Ms. Baartman was sold to a French animal trainer, S. Reaux who for fifteen months further exploited Ms. Baartman in Paris, suffering her the same circus fate, and again, as with London, after public interest abated, Ms. Baartman abandoned, and further descending her, this time into prostitution and alcohol abuse. She died only five years after her initial abduction and horrific time spent on European lands at age 26. Almost 200 years after such abduction, Ms. Baartman arrived back on her native soil on May 6, 2002. She was properly buried during a modest and respectful ceremony, and her name now iconically used to symbolize several women’s rights organizations worldwide.
American enslaved African, Nathan “Nearest” Green, aka, Uncle Nearest as he was affectionately known, can also testify to white thievery. Nearest was an enslaved African who after being sold to Tennessee from Maryland, was then rented out by his master to a Reverend and distiller named Dan Call. Nearest most likely learned his craft and recipe of distilling liquor from his African father or maybe it was one of his plantation comrades. One may never know, what with being enslaved and all, and familial record keeping not something an enslaver would busy himself with outside of the accurate account of just how many Africans he enslaved and their appropriate duties; Nearest’s father, like him, could have been sold down river to another random plantation for profit, audited off massa’s list and never heard from again.
The time being the 1850’s and all. Juxtapose that to the concurrent trajectory of a young white man orphaned age of 16 named Jack Daniel and hired to work as a chore boy for the same Dan Call at the same plantation distillery. Over time, the good reverend, after being conflicted, or rather confronted by his congregation about being a so-called man of the cloth and making moonshine on his property, (I guess enslaving Africans was sanctioned by God) decided to stop serving two masters, and instead turn one operation over to, not the master distiller, the one responsible for producing such fine spirits, the former enslaved African, Nathan Green, but to the former chore boy, but more importantly the Caucasian chore boy, Jack Daniel. And Nathan, I guess, just a negro grateful enough to be employed and kept on even if only a master distiller, the times being the brutal Reconstruction Era and all.
Nearest became Jack Daniel’s mentor and teacher, showing Jack the painstaking methods of how to perfect the maple charcoal mellowing of whiskey which became the signature process for brewing the eponymous product. Over a hundred and fifty years later, as recent as 2016, the yearly average of about 275,000 people would tour the Jack Daniel’s museum (is museum becoming a pejorative?) in Nashville, Tennessee without ever coming across a single mention of Nathan “Nearest” Green. A hundred and fifty years later, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is a billion-dollar company. It’s current private owners are listed as #20 on the Forbes list of wealthiest families.
And as for the descendants of Nearest Green? Well, less just say they’re not as well off. Not even close. Claude Eady, 91, who worked for the Jack Daniel distillery from 1946 to 1989, said he was related to Green on his mother’s side, but didn’t know much about Nearest other than to say, “I heard his name around,” and “the only thing I knew was that he helped Jack Daniel make whiskey.” Well, that’s an understatement.
Claude Eady did not retire a millionaire. And the paternal side of Nathan Green who fathered 9 children and their descendants are also today not millionaires. And that, too, is an understatement. History books would credit white Tennessean, Alfred Eaton with inventing the charcoal brewing technique in 1825. The very same technique known only to African slaves when brewing their illicit alcohol on southern plantations throughout the south. History would reward Eaton and Daniel’s legacy quite well. And the Green lineage could testify to cultural appropriation most unrewardingly.
And that brings me to my main modern-day feature because this type of theft and misconduct didn’t stop with Saartjie Bartman in Paris, France in the early 1800’s, or Nearest Green in Nashville, Tennessee, circa 1860’s. This continuum happens in 2017 and happened on the soil of the original source of creative Black genius, the motherland herself: Africa. And South Africa to be exact. The very place where skeletal remains of hominins (early humans) were discovered. The fossilized skull of a young child who lived about 2.8 million years ago in Taung, South Africa, the Taung Child being one, and Lucy, Australopithecus afarensis, being another.
If true, 24-year-old South African, Nkosinathi Nkomo could claim them, along with his fellow South African sister, Saartjie Baartman as members of his earlier ancestry. Nkomo could make such a claim if he were still alive to do so. In 2016, Nkosinathi was a 23-year-old student struggling to stay enrolled in the University of Cape Town, tuition being such a universal challenge and all. Nkosinathi thought to invent something that could earn him a financial leverage to remain registered at UTC and alleviate his burdens. And boy did he.
By October of 2017 Nkosinathi publicly announced and launched his invention, AquaRenu. A pioneering water purification system making use of the home’s otherwise useless greywater, and recycling it to flush toilets, water lawns and/or small gardens and wash cars, thus helping to lessen his hometown of Cape Town’s recent drought crisis. Two months later Nkosinathi was dead. Allegedly having accidentally fallen from the balcony of his 5th floor apartment. It was ruled an accident and not suicide buoyed by his father’s claim that Nkosinathi had no known enemies, didn’t suffer depression, and was on top of the world with his invention, burgeoning business and continuing college education.
The future was his. Yes, Baaba Nkomo. Most people would not jump to their death off a 5th story balcony, but only jump up and down in celebratory joy, and do it far away from any balcony elevated five stories above ground as humanly possible. Fast forward another two months after Nkosinathi’s untimely death to February 2018 and Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille tweeting congratulations to Retief Krige, a white industrial designer for creating Waterloo, a greywater home filtration system, much like, no, exactly like Nkosinathi Nkomo’s. Imagine that?
Family, friends and South Africans have called on Police Minister Fikile Mbalula to look deeper into this matter of Nkomo’s death. I call for the same. I call for the same from all those of those diaspora, lending prayers, spiritual support and voices of outrage towards this brother’s death being solved. Nkosinathi Nkomo, may your spirit never rest and only haunt those responsible. May it guide us towards revealing the truth. May all responsible never find peace and prosperity because we take heed to Paul Mooney’s warning that “White people don’t create. They steal.” And have been known to kill in the process. Ashé.
*ps. The Jack Daniel’s company has created a premium aged whiskey in honor and tribute to Nathan “Nearest” Green titled, Uncle Nearest 1856, 100 poof, and Uncle Nearest 1856 Silver, 90 proof. Don’t know if 90 or 100 percent of all proceeds go to the Nearest Green Foundation, or his descendants, or, better a check written, making them instant millionaires, written against future sales of the conciliatory creation, I don’t know. But as previously mentioned, you can still read all about Nathan “Nearest” Green at the Jack Daniel’s museum, and quite possibly his distillation methods at the US Patent Office. Don’t know if you’re to search under his name or some white man’s name for that either. I don’t know. But I do know it’s 2018 and white folks are still stealing: ideas, properties and lives.
–Bless ji Jaja is an author and playwright living in his semi-native Brooklyn, New York.