Queen Nzinga and the Quest for Freedom from Victimhood
This amazing African monarch should be a role model for feminists, but isn’t
I unabashedly confess this article was inspired by Extra Newsfeed and Medium author Timi Olotu and comments I have made on his pieces. Thank you, sir, for the fire to speak about this topic.
It is Black History month, and those of you on Medium who have seen my comments might have heard me mention a fascinating African woman who I believe deserves more attention on this side of the Atlantic. This is an excellent time to honor her, since we are honoring so many amazing black heroes this month.
Her name was Queen Nzinga, and she ruled over part of modern-day Angola during the Atlantic Slave Trade. You have never heard of her, most likely. If you have, it was probably because the lady lived to be 81 and kept a harem of men, allegedly having sex on a nightly basis all her life. That’s how I heard of her, and while I almost just typed how shameful that was, I am grateful she was brought to my attention at all. I want to bring her to your attention because she should be a role model of both feminism and black equality — not only a woman, not only African, but both, and a queen in her own right!
The problem is, she does not fit a narrative which states that women are powerless victims and Africans did not aid in the Atlantic Slave Trade. So even though she should be a feminist icon and an inspiration to racial equality, it is likely that the first time you are hearing of her is from me, and I first heard of her as a novelty in a comedy article.
Nzinga Mbande was born in 1583 to the ruler of the Mbundu people, whose nation of Ndongo saw the settlement of the Portuguese in 1617, the early days of the Colonial Era and the Atlantic Slave Trade. At first the Ndongo tried to resist the Portuguese, but at the death of Nzinga’s father Kiluanji, her brother Mbandi took over and tried to negotiate with them. To accomplish this, Mbandi sent his sister Nzinga in 1622 to Luanda, the Portuguese settlement (and current capital of Angola).
In a famous story, the Portuguese governor, Joao Corria de Sousa, only set a chair for himself in the office where the negotiations were taking place, trying to force Nzinga to stand and thus appear at a disadvantage. Nzinga responded by ordering one of her servants to become a chair by getting on all fours and letting her sit on her back. This seems to have earned her the respect of the Portuguese governor, because upon her conversion to Christianity she was baptized Ana de Sousa, and Governor Corria’s wife was her godmother.
The tenuous peace would only last until 1626, at which point history is a little unclear on what happened to Mbandi. Either he committed suicide because of the pressures from the Portuguese, or he was murdered by Nzinga herself as a consequence of his capitulations to them. Leadership of the Mbundu kingdom was in flux at this point, but Nzinga formed a coalition of Mbundu, other local ethnic warriors and freed runaway slaves to seize power over the regions of Ndongo and neighboring Matamba, becoming a thorn in the side of the Portuguese until her death in 1663 at the age of 81. Even after her death, Ndongo and Matamba retained formidable commercial powers that allowed them to negotiate with the Portuguese as equals, despite occupation.
She is remembered in Angola to this day and her history helped spur the nation’s eventual revolution from the Portuguese in the 1970s. Statues of her adorn the capital and other places throughout the country.
As not only a woman, but a black woman, one would think Queen Nzinga would be celebrated in feminist and liberal circles everywhere. The propaganda spread about this woman during her time made her sound ruthless and fierce, but definitely feminine. Here are some samples:
· She supposedly maintained a harem of men. She would have two of them fight to the death, sleep with the victor, then murder him and start anew.
· Remember the servant who became her chair? She supposedly slit her (or his) throat too, proclaiming, “I do not sit in the same chair twice.”
· The colonists had a trick they used against the African nations. They would exploit political conflict between two nations, then buy the prisoners of war from the victor. Nzinga turned this strategy against them, exploiting conflict between the Dutch and the Portuguese to set them fighting one another.
· She not only had women in her military, but she would dress in armor and lead her warriors herself.
· She was rumored to have eaten the hearts of her enemies.
This is a woman from a subjugated era, when women were valued more for what they could do at home than how they could lead or strategize. Whether she was ruthless and violent or a force of unity and cultural identity for her people (or both), that she remains largely unacknowledged as a heroine for feminism and racial equality is a travesty. Where are the Hollywood or blockbusters premium cable network miniseries about her reign and her resistance of the patriarchal and racially prejudiced forces of her day? She may not be American, but she prevented thousands of Africans from being dehumanized and enslaved in the United States via the Atlantic Trade Triangle. Why is she not a more revered hero worldwide?
* * *
The problem is, Queen Nzinga didn’t only fight Portuguese slavers. She fought African ones as well. Modern neoliberals do not like to admit that Africans engaged in the slave trade because that doesn’t fit into the narrative that white people were the only propagators of it. Black people are supposed to feel like wronged victims who are unable to fight for themselves and need powerful white people to do it for them. The fact that militant and wymynist feminists also push this victim mentality on women is along the same vein. In our desperation to cling to these victim-making narratives, however, we eradicate the very people we should emulate.
This African heroine queen should be celebrated by the element of our discourse on the left that claims to fight on behalf of social justice and racial and gender equality. That she is not is a sign that these movements, as co-opted by the Democratic Party and hashtag revolutions, do not really represent the people they proport to. They see us (women, racial minorities, religious minorities, etc.) as victims, but if any of these minorities ever got the equality they ask for, social justice warriors would be out of a job. What do you protest when there is nothing left to protest? We have to stay victims, or they become irrelevant.
As a result, we get a lot of fake condescension from the politicians and pundits representing these causes, but when push comes to shove, the agendas they are supporting actually do more to harm the minorities they are seeking to protect and reinforce the ideas they supposedly stand against. For those of us who actually represent these ideas, this creates friction with people who claim to share them and provides ready-made labels for others who think they understand our stances.
It also releases the victims from responsibility. When we make the claim, for example, that only men rape or abuse women, we are not only doing harm to subjugated men, we are releasing abusive women from responsibility. Thus, we are doing a disservice to both genders by pretending that only one is capable of bad behavior. When we immerse a group in the role of victim, we also absolve that group of committing the same type of victimization. And courageous heroines lose accolades they certainly deserve, because they were living proof that women can be powerful, and that Africans traded slaves.
The most insidious aspect of this embrace of victimization is that it creates a mentality that there is more of a handicap than there actually is. The existence of sexism does not mean that all women necessarily have to be victims; the existence of racism does not mean that all minorities need to succumb to it. But it’s not the misogynists and racists that are continually telling us that we are the victims of misogyny and racism, and it isn’t always our own observations. We are told we are victims by the people purporting to defend us, then gaslighted into accepting victim roles.
I’ve been told, for example, that because I’ve had a few #MeToo experiences, I should feel violated, be outraged at men, and ready to impeach the President for his “grab ’em by the pussy” comments. I am supposed to be a victim, but I’m not. I choose not to be. I choose not to allow these events to be anything more than bad events that happened in my life. I’ve been a victim of other things that were just as common (most frequently bullying), and I’ve been the deliverer of grievous wounds that have left long-lasting scars on others. Men have been as hurt by me as I have been by them. As for the President, his comment was preceded by the phrase “they let you,” and his description implied informed consent. I hold informed consent in very high regard, and my #MeToo experiences have only heightened that value.
Most importantly, I’m not going to be told how I should feel about my experiences, either the good ones or the bad. That’s not up to someone else to tell me. It is not up to some elitist wymynist to tell me that I should feel a certain way about what has happened to me as a woman, but it makes me no less proud to be a woman, no less aware of the sexist undercurrents of society, and especially no less aware that said currents travel in both directions. My judgment of the things that happened to me are on the individuals that hurt me, and I would hope any karma I’ve incurred has been solely on my own behalf, and not my gender’s.
I firmly believe that’s how it should be. Neither gender actually created a specific Patriarchal Society; it emerged out of a tapestry of interactions that reinforced gender roles on both sides. It is not even patriarchal because it benefits men; it is patriarchal because it benefits a certain male archetype, which men of any race can fit. In fact, the one group that should be allowed to embrace victimhood is the one group it is denied to, and that is all those men who endured beatings in high school and even beyond, who were emasculated not directly by women but by other, more patriarchal men, and their women. These are the victims who truly suffer in silence, because the same society we say is unfair to women denies men the voice to weep.
No race created racism, either. European culture did some heinous things to the world, but it wasn’t because they were white. Not only were white people doing heinous things to one another long before they met any other races, but all races had and still do have individuals that commit racist acts. Normans killed Saxons, African inter-nation warfare was there for the colonists to exploit, and to this day there are ethnic struggles all over the world that occur between people within the same race. It happened that the landmass that had the most advantageous conditions for subjugating the others was filled with white people; if it had been filled with black people and Africa with white, we’d be having a completely different discussion right now.
The problem with demanding the embrace of victimization is that it paints all victims with so broad a brush that they become faceless, thus dehumanized. We identify them as groups, rather than individuals, and groups are not human. The whole reason victims need attention is because they are individuals who are suffering, but there is very little individuality, autonomy, or accountability awarded victims of sexism and racism, and certainly if they form their own ideas outside of the social justice norms, they are “incapable” of critical thought.
The entire philosophy of the mainstream feminist and racial equality thought is, “You can’t help yourself, so we have to do it for you. Aren’t you glad we’re here to do it for you, since you’re too weak to do it yourself?” And that, friends, is the exact opposite of empowering race and gender in society. When you tell someone something enough times, they believe it, because it is familiar. The message we send to women is that we are always going to be damsels in distress who need special treatment from men to have the same opportunities, and that is the mentality we have to change. The message we send about race is that white people are evil slavers and black people are their innocent victims, and that too has to change. Everybody has saints, and everybody has assholes, and even worse, saints can become assholes and assholes can become saints, but none of these qualities are limited by race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, or any other metric by which so-called “social liberals” divide us more finely with. The need for this thinking to take place is even more urgent for the people who actually are the victims of these prejudices, because with the waters so muddied, they have no voice at all.
Queen Nzinga could have succumbed to the Portuguese, like her brother. She could have taken the easy way out and turned a blind eye to the activity of the slavers trying to control her world, could have maintained some semblance of peace, even at great disadvantage. She could have embraced her victimhood. No one knows how things might have turned out if she had. Maybe better, maybe worse. But the fact that she didn’t is an important statement about both women and race — that being a victim does not mean one is forced to embrace it.
http://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/nzinga-mbande Double shout-out here to a website that is full of awesome history and folklore. If you’ve got the time, you should definitely browse through the collection of bad-ass broads that stood tall in the history of our world, only to be forgotten to time, bigotry, just general smearing. The artwork is beautiful, and I hear there’s even a book!
* * *
If you like what I am writing and want to help support it, clap for my story to have it featured more prominently! I also now have a Patreon page https://www.patreon.com/JennyAsencio and Paypal.Me paypal.me/jennyasencio, where you can support my writing yourself!