Tram 83 and Anti-Blackness Inside and Out

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Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila concisely explores the issues brought about with postcolonial rule over The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in his novel, Tram 83. Though it shines the spotlight very brightly on issues such as poverty, corrupt government, capitalism, and the exploitation of women, one must read in between the lines to notice another topic that Mujila tries to bring to the reader’s attention: internalized racism, specifically anti-blackness. Despite the novel being written in the context of DRC’s society, many who struggle with racial identity would find this to be a resonant theme, and therefore, be able to catch what Mujila tries to tell the reader but does not blatantly state.

References to internalized anti-blackness manifest in the behavior of the baby chicks, who exist as a metaphor for the people of Africa, as I have written before. They use “foreign-sounding names, such as Marilyn Monroe, Sylvie Vartan, Romy Schneider, Bessie Smith, Marlene Dietrich, or Simone de Beauvoir, to make their mark on the world” (10), demonstrating that there is this belief that in order to climb higher, one must adopt white names (though, Bessie Smith is actually a black woman, but could anyone have guessed from the name alone?).

This idea persists even in American culture. Famous black actress Uzoamaka “Uzo” Aduba cites that when she was younger, she wished to change her name to Zoe to make it easier to pronounce, reflecting a sort of self-hatred towards a name that is African in origin. A name that is not difficult to say makes one seem like less of a foreigner, and in a country that has always had a controversial stance on foreigners, a whiter name would make it easier for one to be more successful.

The idealization of whiteness is not just represented through the baby-chicks. There is a constant repetition that it is perceived as something that entails intelligence. The narrator notes that many people “consider reason to be always Hellenic [Greek, and by extension, white] and emotion eternally Negro” (172). German shepherds that are brought into the DRC can “count from one to ten… walk on two legs… switch on a television… make coffee… read, and write” (166). Compare that to dogs native to the country that are constantly slaughtered and eaten and pair it with the reading that dogs in the novel also serve as an allegory for the people in the DRC (what other significance could the Save the Dogs foundation have, if not to liken the people to animals, considering the amount of African charities that bear similar titles?).

There are two things to get out of the two passages: One, both people who are European and things from these countries are seen as better than what is in the DRC. Two, the people of the DRC, and to a greater extent, Africa, are seen by both the rest of the world and themselves as savage and unintelligent. Whiteness is perceived as better, more valuable by many. The fact that it exists in both America and the DRC illustrates that this may be a global issue, rather than something that is solely tied to one country. Perhaps Mujila wrote the novel knowing that it would reach audiences outside of his native country and sought to challenge anti-black sentiments that many hold. If anything, Tram 83 should reveal to people that literature written in other countries can be applied to our own society.

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