Messenger This article is a foundation essay. These are longer than usual and take a wider look at a key issue affecting society. In the history of European cultures, the comparison of humans to apes and monkeys was disparaging from its very beginning. When Plato — by quoting Heraclitus — declared apes ugly in relation to humans and men apish in relation to gods, this was cold comfort for the apes.
It transcendentally disconnected them from their human co-primates. The Fathers of the Church went one step further: In the Middle Ages, Christian discourse recognised simians as devilish figures and representatives of lustful and sinful behaviour.
As women were subject to an analogous defamation, things proceeded as one would expect. In the 11th century, Cardinal Peter Damian gave an account of a monkey that was the lover of a countess from Liguria. The jealous simian killed her husband and fathered her child.
She eagerly reciprocated and became helplessly hooked. From then on, the sexist manifestation of simianisation was intimately intertwined with its racist dimension. Already Jean Bodin, doyen of the theory of sovereignty, had ascribed the sexual intercourse of animals and humans to Africa south of the Sahara.
He characterised the region as a hotbed of monsters, arising from the sexual union of humans and animals. The history of a narrative by Antonio de Torquemada shows how in this process Africans became demonised and the demons racialised. His intellectual contemporaries knew well that the stage for this transgressing love-and-rape-story was Africa because, according to the wisdom of the time, drills lived in Guinea.
In the following centuries, simianisation would enter into different sciences and humanities. Anthropology, archaeology, biology, ethnology, geology, medicine, philosophy, and, not least, theology were some of the fields. It popularised its repellent combination of sexist and racist representations. The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers accused of having raped two young white women.
The rest of the picture was filled with a monstrous black simian figure baring its teeth and dragging off a helpless white girl. The artists fully understood the interplay of racist ideology, reactionary reporting and southern injustice. They recognised that the white public had been thoroughly conditioned by the dehumanising violence of animal comparisons and simianised representations, as in the reel racism of King Kong.
Labelled with disease Animalisation and even bacterialisation are widespread elements of racist dehumanisation. They are closely related to the labelling of others with the language of contamination and disease. Images that put men on a level with rats carrying epidemic plagues were part of the ideological escort of anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese racism. Africa is labelled as a contagious continent incubating pestilences of all sorts in hot muggy jungles, spread by reckless and sexually unrestrained people.
AIDS in particular is said to have its origin in the careless dealings of Africans with simians, which they eat or whose blood they use as an aphrodisiac. This is just the latest chapter in a long and ugly line of stereotypes directed against different people like the Irish or Japanese , and Africans and African Americans in particular. To throw bananas in front of black sportspeople is a common racist provocation even today. Why are blacks abused?
What explains this disastrous association of black people defamed as simian? A combination of factors might be the cause: Large scale chattel slavery required reducing people to objects. Precisely because of that it also required the most thorough and systematic kind of dehumanisation in the theorisation of that reality. Take midth century America in circles in which polygenesis separate origins for the races was taken seriously.
Leading scientists of the day Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, in their Types of Mankind , documented what they saw as objective racial hierarchies with illustrations comparing blacks to chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.
As Stephen Jay Gould comments, the book was not a fringe document, but the leading American text on racial differences.
Social Darwinism, triumphantly monogenetic, would become the new racial orthodoxy. Global white domination was being taken as proof of the evolutionary superiority of the white race. The average American layperson would be unlikely to have been reading scientific journals.
But they were certainly reading H. Africa and Africans occupied a special place in the white imaginary, marked by the most shameless misrepresentations. Burroughs would become one of the bestselling authors of the 20th century. Not just in his numerous books, but in the movies made of them and the various cartoon strip and comic spin-offs, of his most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes.
Tarzan would embed in the Western mind the indelible image of a white man ruling a black continent. It is a world in which the black humans are bestial, simian, while the actual apes are near-human. Rather, it consolidated a Manichean iconography pervasive throughout the colonial Western world in the first half of the 20th century and lingering still today.
In this conflict between light and dark, white European persons rule simian black under-persons. In his Independence Day speech, Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba blasted the oppressive legacy of Belgian colonialism to the astonishment and outrage of the Belgian king and his coterie, who had expected grateful deference from the natives. He is reputed to have concluded: Nous ne sommes plus vos macaques! We are no longer your monkeys The story seems to be apocryphal — no documentation has been found for it — but its widespread circulation testifies to the decolonial aspiration of millions of Africans.
Alas, within less than a year, Lumumba would be dead, assassinated with the connivance of Western agencies, and the country turned over to neocolonial rule. From now [on] I shall address the blacks of South Africa as monkeys as I see the cute little wild monkeys do the same, pick and drop litter.
The internet has overflowed with ape comparisons ever since Barack and Michelle Obama moved into the White House. Even a social-liberal newspaper, like the Belgian De Morgen, has deemed it kind of funny to simianise the First Couple. Cross-class alliances against declassed others are a hallmark of racism. Animalisation remains a malicious and effective instrument of such a form of desocialisation and dehumanisation. Simianisation is a version of this strategy, which historically manifested a lethal combination of sexism and racism.
Together with Silvia Sebastiani, Wulf D. Hund and Charles W. Mills edited a volume of the Racism Analysis Yearbook on Simianization. Apes, Gender, Class, and Race.