El Negro and Me
On the boundary between civilization and barbarism
In december 1983, Frank Westerman, a 19-year-old student of tropical agriculture, visited a museum in a small Spanish village and found himself eye to eye with a stuffed black man in a glass display case. It was an experience that would remain with him for ever. Twenty years later, by then a well-known journalist and author, he set out to identify the man known simply as El Negro. The Negro. Who was he? When did he live? Where did he come from?
Westerman’s painstaking research yielded answers that encompass more than a century and a half. The first reference to El Negro dates from 1831, when he was exported to Paris from Africa, ready stuffed, part of a shipment of exotic animals and birds. He turns out to have come from South Africa and lived to be 27. But even more fascinating for Westerman were the underlying questions that arose. How did he end up in this part of the world, preserved like a prized animal? And what kind of thinking led to his bizarre fate? Westerman became captivated by the broader history of colonialism and racism, the story of Europe’s imagined superiority to the rest of the world. It was a history in which he would later play a brief role himself, in a more enlightened period, as a young idealist whose dreams were quickly shattered by the realities of aid work in developing countries. The book describes this experience as well, hence the title, El Negro and Me; two stories on the same theme, intriguing biography and candid autobiography, travel literature and historiography combined.
The clever way these strands are woven together makes El Negro and Me read like a very personal history of the civilization of ‘old Europe’, answering many old questions while subtly suggesting incisive new ones. Are we really so certain where the boundary lies between civilization and barbarism? Does Europe, in an era of development aid, not continue to place itself above other civilizations? El Negro’s ‘life after death’ ended in 2000, when ‘Europe’ tried to do him justice after all by interring him in African soil. Both storylines lead inexorably to post-apartheid South Africa, where the subjects of race relations, culture and civilization are examined in the harsh light of today’s reality.