Boston Police Officer/National Guardsman Fired for Calling Gates, “banana-eating jungle monkey”: A Historical Perspective
Justin Barrett, a Boston police overseer and solider in the National Guard, recently sent a mass e-mail to his colleagues referring to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a “banana-eating jungle monkey”. Not that we needed any confirmation that the enforcers of the state’s repressive agenda were inherently racist (Gates’ arrest in an of itself is evidence of this) but this particular instance resurrects a scathing legacy racist iconography that I feel needs further investigation. That, of course being, Black man = monkey. Let’s look historically.
Part of the ideological justification for the Black Holocaust was the fundamental belief that Black people were not human. Consider this excerpt from 19th century actress Frances Ann Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1838). She’s writing about an enslaved field hand of the “deepest dye” named Issac,
“By-the-by, this individual does speak, and therefore I presume he is not an ape or orangutan, chimpanzee, or gorilla; but I could not, I confess have conceived it possible that the presence of articulate sounds, and the absence of an articulate tail, should make, externally at least, so complete the only appreciable difference between a man and a monkey, as they appear to do in this individual ‘black brother.’ Such stupendous long thin hands, and long flat feet, I did never see off a large quadruped of ape species. But, as I said before, Isaac speaks, and I am much comforted thereby.” (quote from Amiri Baraka’s Blues People.)
Frances Ann Kemble’s notion that Isaac was not human may seem ridiculous today, but it was common knowledge just a few decades ago. My grandfather used to tell me stories about how curious Europeans who had never seen an African American would check to see if he had a tail, while he was stationed abroad during World War II. The systematic characterization of Blacks-as-simian has been perpetuated through the media for hundreds of years through churches, universities, minstrel shows, cartoons, newspapers and even anti-Obama campaign T-shirts with a picture of Curious George holding a banana. Why monkeys/guerrillas..? Well, they are less intelligent, more violent and belong in a cage – coincidentally, the same stereotypes that racists attribute to Black people. The suggestion that people of African descent are sub-human, heathonous, savages was absolutely fundamental to the institutions of Slavery and Jim Crow and continues to be an ideological l(y)nchpin, in the oppression of Black people in the 21st Century. Just look at Justin Barrett – in order to rationalize discrimination and racial profiling, he resorted to dehumanizing Gates by saying,
“If I had been the officer (Gates) verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC (oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray) deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.”
Belligerent non-compliance with what!?… being accused of breaking into your own house? Why should that merit macing a 60-year old man? Barrett’s argument only holds weight when you include his racist characterization of Gates as sub-human. Who wouldn’t want to subdue a belligerent, crazy-ass banana eating monkey!? Barrett may have intended this to be an insult, rather than to be taken literally like Frances Ann Kemble, but his word choice reveals a deep-seeded prejudice and shows Bartlett’s general opinion/perception of Black people. It’s easier to enslave, segregate, imprison, kill, disenfranchise, arrest, pull over, profile or mace a monkey, than it is to do the same thing to a college professor or, say, a human being. Bartlett defended his innocence:
“I’m not a racist but I am prejudice towards people who are stupid and pretend to stand up and preach for something they say is freedom but it is merely attention because you do not get enough of it in your little fear-dwelling circle of on-the-bandwagon followers.” Barrett’s comments were taken out of context, said his attorney, Peter Marano. “Officer Barrett did not call professor Gates a jungle monkey or malign him racially,” Marano said. “He said his behavior was like that of one. It was a characterization of the actions of that man.” (from CNN.com)
Marano claims that the phrase “jungle monkey” was not used as a slur, yet in Bartlett’s email he used it four times, three times referring to Gates and once referring to African American journalist Yvonne Abraham’s writing as “jungle monkey gibberish.” Bartlett is currently on administrative leave, pending the outcome of a termination hearing. Who cares if he gets terminated – there are thousands of other officers and National Guardsmen who will carry the torch.