Towards a Celestial Panopticon…

JERUZALEM, MIJN VADERSTAD

Jeruzalem, mijn vaderstad,
mijn moederhuis, wanneer
zal ik u zien zoals ge zijt,
de bruid van onze Heer?

Daar is geen pijn en geen verdriet,
geen afgunst en geen nijd,
en angst en armoe zijn er niet
maar altijd vrolijkheid.

[…]

David is daar met harp en al,
koormeester van de stad,

Maria, denken aan de stal,
zingt het magnificat;

[…]

De negers met hun loftrompet,
de joden met hun ster,
wie arm is, achteropgezet,
de vromen van oudsher.¹

These are a few verses of a Dutch church hymn by Willem Barnard (1920-2010) which still can be found in church service books today. The poem is intended to provide a glimpse of a heavenly city: no fear, anxiety, envy, poverty, but joy, wealth and lots of music – by David, Mary, Ambrosius, Gregorius, Luther, Bach, and… ‘Look, Negroes!’

Of course, the poem (first published in 1963) wants to include ‘everybody’, but in this ‘everybody’ still two specific groups are mentioned: Negroes and Jews. The poet’s intentions were probably good, but I can’t help thinking of a passage in Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks:

‘”Understand, my dear boy, color prejudice is something I find utterly foreign… But of course, come in, sir, there is no color prejudice among us… Quite, the Negro is a man like ourselves… It is not because he is black that he is less intelligent than we are… I had a Senegalese buddy in the army who was really clever…”‘

This including has a sense of ‘the black man is welcome, he can be like us‘. I think the heavenly Jerusalem in this poem still contains a racist culture of othering, covered by a devout inclusion rhetoric – just as Fanon posed in the quote above.

It is this kind of expressions (however well-meant) that maintain our culture’s desire for unity and purity, and maintain the gaze as felt by colored people. It is as if this heavenly Jerusalem is a Panopticon: the black men in the cells, the white men in the watch tower, shouting: ‘Come to the tower, you can be like us!’ – but even when everybody would be in the tower, there’s still one party which did the invitation. The other party’s still feeling the gaze… and the other party was stiller later in the tower.

So when a poem/hymn speaks of inviting Negroes, it implies that the singers are no Negroes, which implies whites invite blacks (‘Look, a negro!’) to their heavenly Panopticon. Whites are apparently closer to this destiny of time. 

According to Homi Bhabha, these are all facets of modernity: the idea that time is a linear path, a path of progress. It is this idea of linearity that gives all colonial (ex)inhabitants a time-lag: they’re just too late. Of course, they’re not of less value, they just arrived later… It is not because he is black that he is less intelligent than we are… He’s just later, but we – we – invite him to our present!

Giving this linear idea a christian vocabulary and destiny is no more than providing new signs to the same system of power relations (invitor vs. invited, etc.). Bhabha aims at

‘[…] not simply setting up new symbols of identity, new ‘positive images’ that fuel unreflective ‘identity politics’. The challenge to modernity comes in redefining the signifying relation to a disjunctive ‘present’: staging the past as symbol, myth, memory, history, the ancestral – but a past whose iterative value as a sign reinscribes ‘lessons of the past’ into the very textuality of the present that determines both the identification with, and the interrogation of, modernity: what Is the ‘we’ that defines the prerogative of my present?’

In the present of this poem this ‘we’ is obviously a white, christian, ahead-in-time ‘we’. It is a ‘we’, a present, which produces prayers like these:

PRAYER OF A NEGRO

When I arrive in your Kingdom, Lord Jesus,
I don’t mind sitting on a stool or thrown,

I don’t mind wearing pants or rich robes,
but please save my soul.
And, Lord Jesus, maybe…
give me soft hair 
and a thin white face.

[…]

One black hell is enough

[…]

So, Lord Jesus, maybe…
give me soft hair 
and a thin white face.²

It is a prayer, probably created by a white christian, in which all comes together: the idea of time as a linear, progressive concept with a heavenly ending, were all will be equal, and the same, that is, like us… ‘Welcome to our tower, here’s a prayer you can pray so you can be like us and sing this song…’


¹ An excerpt of the 21-verse song (Liedboek, 2013), which can be translated/paraphrased as follows: ‘Jerusalem, my home, when shall I see you? There’ll be no pain and sorrow, no envy, fear and poverty – but happiness forever. […] There’s David with his harp, and Mary is singing the Magnificat! […] There are niggers blowing their trumpets, there are Jews with their stars – all the poor, the despised will be honored there.’

² This is my translation/paraphrase of the text in the title image on top. I thank Tom Mikkers for providing me this example.


Bibliography

Barnard, W. ‘Jeruzalem, mijn vaderstad.’ Liedboek. Zingen en bidden in huis en kerk. ‘s-Gravenhage: Interkerkelijke Stichting voor het Kerklied, 2013: 1225-1227.

Bhabha, H.K. ”Race’ Time and the Revision of Modernity.’ Theories of Race and Racism. A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2000: 354-368.

Fanon, F. ‘The Fact of Blackness.’ Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967: 109-140.

Foucault, M. ‘Panopticism.’ Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison. New York: Pantheon Book, 1977: 195-228.

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