There are things we find on the Internet—memes, twitter threads, longform essays, videos, etc.—that produce instant pleasure and often times these lead to a rabbit holes, where we go in search of objects just that can replicate that pleasure in hopes of sustaining the ecstasy of discovery. The rendition of Betelehemu by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was, to me, one of those things. I found it years ago (second year of Uni. if my spotty memory is to be trusted) and it led to an evening spent watching choral renditions on YouTube.
Another peculiarity of the Internet is how it returns old pleasures when we don’t actively summon or seek them out, and sometimes even when we would rather not have them return. I know the joy I felt when I read The Bottled Leopard as a kid and teenager, and I’m currently stalling a return to that book as a young adult for fear that, viewed from my jaded oft-cynical adult eyes, it won’t match the reverence I have for it.
The Internet, however, doesn’t need my permission before it returns things that have once brought me pleasure. So, Betelehemu, which I watched on my dying laptop while lying on the bed waiting for the video to buffer in the days when broadband internet was still a Nigerian mirage, came back to me on Twitter in a video that loaded perfectly on my smartphone in seconds. I smiled, hit play, and sang along, then in the final movement of the song the choir started to make noises. I closed the app and returned to work, but the more I thought about the video, the more miffed I became by the needlessness of those noises at the end. For the first time, I realised it sounded like a chorus of monkeys.
There’s a way adulthood wakes us to the small injustices of life that the sheltered existence of childhood can blind us to. But this process, usually administered gradually by experience as we move into young adulthood has now become a more hurried process because of the Internet and its possibilities. Mobile phones now deliver the world, with all its joys and pains, to our palms in an instant. This makes us more informed than we would have been sans the ability to hit the search bar, type in whatever we want and be presented with multiple sources of information. But also that someone like me is now more sensitive to things like those noises at the end of Betelehemu, which I would have overlooked had I remained the Ogbomosho man I was growing up to become. Some argue that this sensitivity is bad, but is it?
The first thing I did after closing the video was to wonder why I was angry. No one has ever made monkey noises at me. But to see a choir of white people sing a Yoruba song and end it with the ooing and ahhing of monkeys was something that was now tied, in my mind, to incidences like football players in Europe and the taunts they have to face, and old comic strips with blackened faces and red bulbous lips.
Perhaps the choir was not thinking of mocking people who look like me when they chose to end the song with those noises, and it could have been added to their arrangement by someone who looks just like me. But none of these matter. They, and I, are now caught in a world of connected experiences, where the video of a man shot by policemen in the back in America feels visceral to me who has never been to the American embassy, because we share the same black body. The choir isn’t singing in vacuum, and their actions will be judged not just by their intent, but also what it contributes to the existing narratives around race both in America, and the rest of the world.
I still remember the day I read about the racist connotations of the scenes with the woman whose face is almost never shown in Tom and Jerry. She walks into view, her feet in flip-flops, shouts “Thomas, is that you Thomas,” and walks out of the scenes. I laughed as I read the essay, laughed about how it was too much of a reach, and then showed it to my brother. We were extreme Tom and Jerry fans as kids. I watched the VHS tapes of some of the episodes to the point where I could narrate them by sound. It sounded ridiculous to me that something so innocent, so funny could be interpreted as a reflection of racial stereotypes in America. I could easily understand the criticism of violence in the cartoon, but the racism took a while. But now that I’ve seen Viola Davis talk about how she said never again after her role in The Help, and after reading about the stereotypes woven around the lives of black women in America, that criticism of the racial connotations of Tom and Jerry doesn’t look funny anymore.
There are more instances like this, in popular culture, of people either ignorantly or intentionally reinforcing harmful stereotypes, like the perceived racial connotations of King Louie in Disney’s Jungle Book.. There’s a justification for monkey sounds in Lion King and Jungle Book, but none for humans singing about Bethlehem and the coming of the baby king just because they’re singing in an African Language. It’s like making gunshot sounds at the end of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’.
There are reactions I’ve noticed in myself when my blindness to certain social injustices are pointed out that I also see replicated daily in others as I watch interactions on social media. At first there is a defense. When my speech and actions are tied to misogynistic or otherwise bigoted ideas, the kneejerk response is to recoil, to say, “That’s not me. You’re saying I’m a bad person and I’m not a bad person, because only a bad person has such harmful thoughts.” That reaction comes from the false presumption that all our actions stem from an inherent goodness. I’ve never believed in the natural goodness of humans. The truth of this can of course be argued, but that belief does its job of preventing me from becoming too self-righteous and stupidly defensive.
The status of whoever is pointing out my blind spots is often my next thought. There’s a tendency to accept harsh illumination from people I respect. This, also, isn’t a bad thing. It’s a necessity developed as a way to easily wade through the many streams of information available to me, to determine what sources are to be trusted and those that are to be questioned at every turn. What doesn’t appear evident is that determining what source is to be trusted isn’t the product of an objective process. There’s a good chance that a man would think that men, like him, or older women are the ones with the right to offer, rebuke and chastise. But knowledge is rude. It has no respect for age or gender.
Once I spot these two elements—my defense and the consideration of the source—I can easily forestall my kneejerk petulance and give the other person a chance at educating me. But this all happens in an instant, between the time it takes to read a tweet and hit reply button.
Sometimes the need to constantly check and recheck prejudices can feel like a threat to who we are, but with growth comes responsibilities. We can’t afford to continue creating a world where we can engage in activities we consider benign, whereas they cause real evil in the world as they proliferate. A video with monkey voices might look like a little annoyance to me, but it’s not for that football player who works hard at his craft, and becomes successful only to be taunted on the field.
Like Baldwin says in a quote I found by the way of Teju Cole, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
We all yearn for these worlds where our beliefs are left unchallenged. But those worlds only existed because some voices were actively silenced, some people violently oppressed. It is nostalgia for a world that that can never come back. I’ll never return to the person I was almost a decade ago, listening to Betelehemu on the bed, marveling at the music as I replayed the song, without a thought for the sounds at the end. I now owe the responsibility to daily question my ways of movement and being, and ensure I’m ready to continue my education in how to be a citizen of this world whose future is neither racist, nor patriarchal, nor any of the things that my childhood naiveté took for granted.