Thursday, February 18, 2016


 By Biko Agozino
The art of Chris Ofili causes offense to powerful interest groups the way that his historical subject, The Virgin Mary, caused and still causes offense to the non sensibility of certain communities of interpretation. The idea of a virgin mother was abominable in her historical era and she would have been stoned to death had the New Age man, Joseph, not accepted to play the role of a surrogate father to the child of his fiancee.

This is why we should avoid religious sectarianism and political posturing in our reading of what seems to be a historical excavation by Ofili for the purpose of recovering a lost tradition that is threatened with extinction. This work by Ofili seems to argue that The Virgin Mary was black. There is anthropological evidence in support of this argument. For example, Frazier's classic comparative anthropology, The Golden Bough, documents evidence that ancient Egypt was the first to develop the mythology of the Virgin Mother of the Sun God whose birth day was celebrated on the 25th day of December many centuries before the birth of Jeso Christi.
If Mary was blonde and blue eyed the way that Western artists portray her, it is impossible to understand why the Roman army and owners of Motels could have turned away a heavily pregnant blonde and blue eyed mother on the pretext that the motels were full. Such a treatment is reserved for black couples in racist cultures although racism would not be the same in those days as it is today. Even with a husband, the pregnant virgin could not find lodging in any hotel because she was a Black Madonna. Toni Morrison narrates this painful aspect of the black experience in her latest novel, Paradise, where even heavily pregnant black women were refused rest and forced to trek for miles to virgin land. The Black Madonna was turned away with the familiar excuse, 'No blacks, no donkeys, no bullshit'. And so, we are told, the holy Bambino had to be born surrounded by sheep, donkeys and, of course, smeared with dung!
If this was not enough indication of the lowly origin of the beloved Christ, we are told that the Virgin Mary was chosen because she was a maid, not a princess or a queen. Those who deny her African ancestry are forced to agree that the Wise Men came with gifts from Africa. The star that guided them was an Eastern Star, right? They had to be in Africa in order to follow an Eastern Star to Jerusalem. If they were from Persia in the European continent, as some white supremacists would have us believe, then the Eastern star would have led them to Moscow. They were from the East, not the Middle East and not from the Far East. Geographically, that East is Africa because Jerusalem is to the East of Africa and so travelers who follow an Eastern Star to Jerusalem must have started their journey from Africa.
Historically, there is evidence that the young family fled to Africa to save the life of the young Christ. Mary fled home to her kinsmen and kinswomen in Africa and she was taken care of, no questions asked, because Africans have had a longer tradition of belief in the ability of virgins to have Divine children. This is similar to the story in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo had to go to Mbanta, his maternal kindred, when he was forced into exile by calamity. So the thesis of Ofili's essay is not as strange or as offensive as it seems. The Virgin Mary was and could only have been black.
Chris Ofili is not only a Catholic but also almost a Christ by name! His essay is challenging Modernist ideas of progress and increased human happiness to acknowledge that the Virgin Mary is a sad figure today due mainly to neglect and ridicule. He seems to have demonstrated, indirectly, that King Herod is still in power in New York and that he is still ordering the massacre of innocent creations. The controversy over the work reminds us that in spite of the posturing to being an enlightened age, we still clamor for the dung-smeared virgin to be excluded from respectable Guest Houses and confined to the manger once more. The same people who are chanting the rosary in condemnation of a homage to the Black Madonna would have been the first to chant, 'Crucify him, crucify him!' when Pilate gave them a chance to parole the innocent lamb.
Ofili seems to be arguing that the true origins of the Black Madonna have been hidden, downtrodden like dung; but that the Black Madonna is far from being a waste product. Rather, the dung represents manure, fertility, a source of life and a source of fuel, energy and strength. Blackness signifies dung to white supremacists except when it says that their bank account is in the black - an obvious reference to slave-holding measures of wealth and worth.
Do you know that in Scotland, there is a mythology of the black foot? If the first person to step into your house after the New Year is black, that is an omen of affluence or in plain English, an indication that you will have your own house slaves to wait at your own great table. John Dunn, the Scottish poet illustrates this with a poem about 'One Blackamoore' in which a French merchant gave the king of Scotland a gift of an African Princess. The black woman was so beautiful that the king decided to organize royal battles in her honor. The prize for the winner was that they had to kiss her black ass. Of course, the king always won the battles! This is probably why many European cultures have cults dedicated to the worship of the Black Madonna in the spirit of capitalism, hoping to be made rich and prosperous at the same time that they were using a ship called The Jesus to engineer the African holocaust.
Jesus Christ once told his disciples that if no one believed his gospel, he would turn rocks into his obedient followers. Chris Ofili seems to be saying that Westerners no longer believe in virginity, period. Anyone who remains a virgin until marriage today in the West is to be pitied and ridiculed rather than admired or venerated. Similarly the elephant was, once upon a time, a venerated being around the world. Indians worshiped it and tamed it to transport them to war, Hannibal used it to carry his strong army to Europe, the Igbo of Nigeria sing a victory song that compares them to a community of elephants (Enyi Mba Enyi) - suggesting strength, fearlessness, intelligence, resilience, respect for elders and egalitarianism all at once.
But the elephant has since become a laughing stock. Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, laments this in his elegy to Ajanaku, a dead elephant whose skeleton and yam pounding mortar-sized molars are awesome and whose spirit seemed to be imploring humanity to celebrate the living elephant and not the dead one. Today, the elephant is more to be remembered for such laughable metaphors as a white elephant or an ivory tower. The French came to West Africa and did not see the elephants, how much less their mountainous dung. All they saw was ivory in a place that they tried to name the Ivory Coast! That was a better name, however, compared to the British who called the coast a Slave Coast long before it occurred to them that Gold Coast sounded better.
Ofili seems to be saying that the miracle of the elephant dung (how could one being do such a mountain of poo?) has been ignored, denigrated, marginalized for too long. He goes on to show that some cultures still value the dung for fertility and energy reasons. The lesson of his work of art is that Africans should take this to a higher level of technology. Africans should re-learn the culture of taming the elephant for transportation, agricultural and energy purposes.
The wider lesson from Ofili's essay is that we should try to see the beauty in things that are different. We should be more tolerant of diversity or we will continue the genocidal culture of massacring the innocent just to keep a clique in power. You do not have to be a Catholic or a Rocket Scientist to know that the vilification of Ofili is ill informed. Let us join him and chant the rosary, 'Hail Black Maria'!
First Published in 1999           'Ofili’s Black Madonna', October 26, also published in The Guardian, October 31,

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Identity ‘Formation’: Beyoncé’s Cultural Revolution

By Biko Agozino

A brilliant undergraduate student of Sociology at an Ivy League university has written to ask me to explain how anyone could see the performance of Beyoncé during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show as revolutionary when she was apparently celebrating her privileged light skin color and fake white women’s long hair while flaunting her husband’s ‘Jackson Five nostrils’ just to make more money for herself in a capitalist economy but she did not mention that the backlash to boycott Bee is growing.

The mother of the student, a family friend, also wanted to know how the lyrics that talked about taking a lover to eat at a seafood restaurant after making love and about sporting designer labels could be conceived as revolutionary just because she took advantage of the iconic Black Panther Party clenched fist salute and used her dancers to invoke the revolutionary image of Malcolm X in their ‘formation’. What is revolutionary about that?

I responded by saying that Bee is a cultural revolutionary who is helping to redefine what an African American woman is capable of getting away with in a world where people still need to be reminded that Black Lives Matter – the backdrop of her representations of police brutality and the neglect of Hurricane Katrina survivors due to racism in her song, ‘Formation’ in which a sign was raised demanding "Justice 4 Mario Woods".

The use of the X formation during the dance and the choice of black leather bikini costumes to honor Michael Jackson, who wore the X across his chest during his own 1993 Super Bowl performance but no one noticed the reference to Malcolm until now, and also to remind us of the Black Panthers who rocked serious fashion themselves and stressed the importance of reproducing the next generation of freedom fighters. Mayor Giuliani picked up this message quickly and tried to condemn it because he mistakenly saw it as an attack on police officers to express love for black people.

Bee is a performance poet in the sense that all songs are poems although all poems are not songs. Therefore, we should not read the allusions in Bee’s performance literally because she was obviously using her poetic license to address messy current events and add her powerful voice to causes that she believes in.

Although she is a role model to many young women, I do not think that she has the power to legislate how parents should dress their children nor was she dictating what every woman should do to her lover after being freaked out. Bee is a grown donkey woman who is a married mother with the right to dress as she pleases, to speak her truth to power, and to treat her lover as she pleases without taking permission from anyone.

Just because this singer of ‘Independent Woman’ and ‘If I Was A Boy’ also used phrases and sang songs that some may consider sexist-racist-classist does not mean that we should remain blind to her revolutionary transformation of the opportunities that a black woman with a global stage has to address serious politics. No revolutionary is perfect and Bee may yet regret allegedly accepting a one million dollar performance check from a corrupt state governor and later president Jonathan of Nigeria who was said to have taken the funds from allocations meant to fight poverty. Bee could make it up by extending her famed philanthropy to poor Nigerians.

Those who do not like the lyrics of the popular songs that Bee sings should see it as an opportunity to write better lyrics for her to sing since she does not write all her own songs. But those with privileged elite education who may despise the low cultural expressions in pop music should know that almost all the new musical genres originated in the world in the past 200 years came from poor people of African descent with little education and hardly any from came those with Ph.Ds.

I sympathize with those who may be offended when Bee boasts about her flawless skin because they may see it as a reference to her light skin color and straight hair the way that Eric Williams boasted that having good grass (hair) may have helped to make him more successful than his brothers with kinky hair. But the prosecution of people for lewd dancing in Trinidad and Tobago (homeland of Eric Williams) should not be the standard of morality for judging the performance of Bee in the US.

Moreover, being flawless has nothing to do with skin color given that there are many white people with unsightly skin and there are many black people with flawless skin. People of African descent come in many different shades of color and for that reason Africans do not tend to love or hate based on color alone but based on the character of the person or the inner beauty. After all, we name our children after white people, dress like them, eat at their restaurants, send our children to predominantly white colleges, speak their languages, and affiliate with their religious beliefs. It is white people who appear to have problems with others that they need to get over.

Perhaps being teased that she was too light-skinned to be black may have contributed to the bouts of depression that Queen Bee suffered as a young lady. That may be part of the reason why she publicly campaigned for the election of President Barack Obama who was then considered to be too ‘white’ to be African American by many.

Let me end with a quotation from a lecture on ‘The Origin of Cultural Studies’ in which Stuart Hall (2006) clarified why we should take popular culture performers like Bee seriously by reminding us that:

‘The violence, aggression, hatred implicit in racist representation is not to be denied, but we understand very little as yet about its double-sided nature, its deep ambivalences. Just as so often the cultures of the West, the representation of women has currently appeared in its split form, the good-bad girl, the good and the bad mother, Madonna and whore…. Sexually available, half-caste slave girl is still alive and kicking, smoldering away on some exotic television set or on the cover of some paperback, though she is no doubt simultaneously also the center of a very special covetous aspiration and admiration in a sequin gown supported by a white chorus line. Primitivism, savagery, guile, unreliability, always just below the surface, just waiting to bite.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech.