You know the story. A mom – identified as Kenyan – hawks her black boy to H&M, the Swedish multinational clothing retail giant, for a racist and grotesque ad. The world explodes in fire and fury. Black parents everywhere are fit to be tied. People of all races and creeds vent their anger on H&M. H&M stores are trashed by angry mobs – most prominently in South Africa. At first, H&M bloviates, and then pulls the ad. The giant conglomerate apologises. It vows to recycle the “Coolest Kid in the Jungle” hoodies. But damnation doesn’t stop there – customers plan a boycott. Soon thereafter, Donald Trump speaking from the White House calls African states “shitholes.”
As the furor reaches a fever pitch, the mother of the aforementioned black boy tells the enraged world to “get over it.” For clarity, she tells everyone to shut up because she “doesn’t think that way.” I am dumbfounded. Then – predictably – parents of all races and creeds pile on the now notorious Kenyan mother. They denounce her. Others hurl the vilest insults against her. Yet others tell her she has abdicated her responsibility as a mom. One person excommunicates her from the black race. Most declare her a total disgrace. In the meantime, she laughs all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, the black boy is all but forgotten. Methinks he isn’t old enough to digest the mess.
The Coolest Monkey in the Jungle ad isn’t the first case where black bodies have been used in racist ads to sell goods and political candidates. In the 1988 presidential campaign, George Bush’s campaign ran a most racist ad.
The ad played on white racist fears by demagoguing Michael Dukakis, the Democrat, as weak on crime. It charged that he had furloughed a menacing Willie Horton, a black felon who raped again. In a Chinese ad, a black jumps into a washing machine and comes out white. The Quaker Oats Company still markets the Aunt Jemima pancake mix despite its racist connotations. I could recount ad infinitum the cases of racist ads. Be assured the Coolest Monkey ad won’t be the last.
The Coolest Monkey Kid interests me because of the historical moment and the incredulous reaction of his mother. One explanation is that the mother is simply a crass commercialist who doesn’t give a hoot how she makes money – even if it means exploiting her minor children. This type of sick abuser who has no conscience is a sorry creature. She would be no better than those Europeans and Arabs who captured and sold Africans into enslavement. Or those Libyan Arabs who are selling black Africans today. Slavery takes many forms. Simply because a black body is being sold in an ad for a product doesn’t mean it’s not slavery – especially if the black being sold is a minor.
If the mother “sold” the kid to H&M in a racist ad for a buck, then we must ask if she’s fit to be a mother. You know my answer. There’s another, equally troubling, explanation. What did the mother mean when she said “get over it” and “I don’t think that way?” Was she accusing those offended for being unwilling to accept the reality of racism? In other words, was she saying that racism is here to stay and we should “deal with it”? If so, she’s asking us to be silent and complicit in the norms and power structures of racism. Would she “get over it” if a white person spat on her in the street?
If, as she says, she “doesn’t think that way,” what does she think of Mr Trump’s “shithole” comments? Would she agree with the Kenyan government spokesman Eric Kiraithe that Trump’s comments are fine? Who is she accusing of thinking that way? Is she attacking the legacy of the Mau Mau and Dedan Kimathi Waciuri? Is she repudiating Malcom X, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr? Is she saying that the black struggle for racial equality and liberation from white racism and control was a “shithole” struggle? Those who rather live on their knees rather than die on their feet may not deserve to live. Why should others feel obliged to respect you if you disrespect yourself?
I am disgusted by African immigrants in the West who trash African-Americans by claiming that they are too sensitive on race. This mom’s response – although in Sweden – fits this class of African ignoramuses. We – the blacks who live in the West – are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of African-Americans. We stand on their shoulders. I wouldn’t have become the first African-born dean of an American law school were it not for Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, and countless African-Americans.
Prof Makau is a Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua