Bongo, Bongo, Bongo: The Other as Cartoon and Caricature
By Walter Cummins
Now that we live in a time of 24/7 news and video from every nook and cranny of the planet, we’re constantly exposed to the sinister side of human civilization, the hearts of darkness in cities, villages, and countrysides—beheadings, bodies in mass graves, suicide bombings, conflagrations of all sorts. But I recall the seeming innocence of a much less informed time, when news reports were scarce and the world out there could be regarded as an amusing phenomenon.
Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, most recently in the news because of a disputed presidential election, those in power apparently awarding victory to a man who may have received fewer votes. In a larger context, that’s a mild disagreement for a land where 6 million people have died from the ravages of civil wars and diseases like Ebola, where the potential of rich mineral wealth makes internal corruption rampant and a lure for the manipulations of multinational corporations seeking riches like rare earths for digital devices. A form of neo-colonialism has replaced the original colonial occupation, including gleaning profits from selling the munitions the caused the deaths of many of those millions. This Congo is the setting for Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s grim 1979 novel, A Bend in the River, and decades before that, in 1899, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
I first read Conrad’s haunting novella in the 1950s with no real knowledge of the country nor of the brutal history of Belgian occupation. For me, the story took place in an African somewhere amid an impenetrable tangle of jungle, where a brilliant white European went mad and put severed heads on poles. The horror. My reading took place during the time of duck and cover in America, kids crouched under desks as feeble protection from a nuclear explosion. The atom bomb was the terror of the time, not machetes.
It was also the period of the song “Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo)” written in 1947, two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
So bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, I’m so happy in the jungle, I refuse to go
Don’t want no bright lights, false teeth, doorbells, landlords, I make it clear
That no matter how they coax me, I’ll stay right here
They have things like the atom bomb, so I think I’ll stay where I ahm
Civilization, I’ll stay right here!
The song’s Congo was, of course, a comic book escape from the civilization in which our most brilliant scientific minds had produced a heart of darkness potentially looming over our heads. And so popular songs gave us the fantasy of an unthreatening innocence out there.
Managua, Nicaragua, what a wonderful spot
There’s coffee and bananas and a temperature hot
Of course, today Managua is a city to avoid, where the country’s violent unrest leads citizens to rush to the passport office in hope of fleeing.
And back in 1945, the calypso song “Rum and Coca-Cola” promised that if, instead, you ever went down to Trinidad:
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time
Back then, when the little-known world—other countries—wasn’t being portrayed as ripe for naïve escape, it embodied comic foolishness, as in 1946’s “The Coffee Song,” which gave us the line “They grow an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.” In one stanza:
The politician’s daughter
Was accused of drinking water
And was fined a great big fifty dollar bill
In another song of the period, “The Maharajah of Madagor,” from 1948, the maharajah is willing to give up his rubies and pearls and loveliest girls for dance lessons because, he was rich, “But he didn’t know how to do the rumba.”
Not only were Americans in the years of these songs fearful of the atom bomb, they were still recovering from World War II, overwhelmed by news of devastated Europe, suffering deprivations at home, and seeing reminders of American war deaths in gold star windows. (War poster at right shows the star given to war widows.) The framing of the world beyond our borders as exotic playgrounds or lands of folly was a new way of minimizing the significance of others, especially non-Europeans.
This dismissal of others grows from the belief in American exceptionalism and its roots in the assumption of Anglo-Saxon superiority. Of course, even though nations and cultures share a long history of belittling outsiders—and this has included making those in neighboring countries the targets of ethnic jokes—that’s a step away from denying their humanity.
Colonialism—and now neo-colonialism—has assumed the inferiority of the native population, people of different skin tones, clothing, diets, customs, and belief systems. If they were too ignorant to live according to right and proper standards, they must be inadequate, existing only to serve the more advanced civilization as workers and sources of wealth. In fact, accepting their worth would undermine the essential premises of colonialism and the right to exploit those who were not like “us.”
While usually unstated, that assumption may be seen in Victorian novels, where characters like Jos Sedley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair return from colonial service with a financial hoard but little acknowledgment of the foreign places in which they had lived. That’s especially evident in Dickens’ Great Expectations, when Pip, shattered by disappointment in love and self-regard, and deep in debt, spends eleven years in Egypt employed as a clerk and then partner in a mercantile firm. Those years don’t matter. The two paragraphs Dickens gives them summarize an absent blank, life outside of England being meaningless.
At the same time, readers were curious about what lay out there in the midst of remoteness. Thus, the many works that described travel to foreign lands where the climate, customs, and people were bizarre and strange, oddities worth knowing about but certainly not as destinations for living, unless one was a transported convict or a penniless son far down in the family line.
That curiosity led to the fabrications of the exotic, which particularly involved a fascination with “Arabia,” after the great popularity of the tales in One Thousand and One Nights. Genies, magic carpets, and talking serpents, along with fantasies of Tahitian lushness and the like, offered an antidote to the mundane.
Yet while reading about the antics of these distant characters might have been amusing, you certainly didn’t want to bring such people home. One disturbing example found in a novel by a Dickens contemporary is the mixed European and Caribbean heritage of Bertha Mason, whom Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre married in Jamaica. Bertha turns out to be “gross, impure, depraved” and a lunatic to be locked away on Rochester’s Thornfield estate, the archetypal madwoman in the attic. As if contact with the Caribbean isn’t bad enough, at the end of the novel, Jane’s hyper-religious cousin, St. John Rivers, is dying in India, marked by his failure to convert and civilize the natives.
Charlotte Brontë’s sister Emily created a more central and strangely compelling character in the threatening otherness of Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, whose origins are never explained, only suggested through his dark hair and dark skin color, with this ominous description: “half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire.” Whatever he is and wherever he came from, Heathcliff is certainly not a normal Englishman. (1943 wood engraving by Fritz Eichenberg at right.)
Today, with the DNA analysis of ancestry.com and 23andme, Heathcliff—like the rest of us—could have his genetic makeup specified in the various percentages of multiple sources. Little is hidden. Not only is ethnic heritage pretty much of an open book today, few corners of the world have escaped filming, their landscape, architecture, and inhabitants uploaded to YouTube. And when they experience some manner of newsworthy upheaval, it’s available on cable in real time.
We’re no longer able to discuss those others as simple and laughable in their remoteness from atomic bombs or their desperate desire to learn how to rumba. Certain commercials do still promise sunny pleasures on white sand beaches where smiling people of color pamper vacationers with food and drink, although increasingly some of the pampered paying guests are turning out to be themselves people of color.
But now for many the reaction to the other is fear of threats, the ferocious black fire of dark-skinned people—Islamic suicide bombers, Chinese hackers, Donald Trump’s rants of invasion across the Mexican border by Hispanic rapists, sex slavers, and M13 murderers. “Make America Great Again” translates as “Make America White Again.” If you can’t find an attic large enough to lock away all those dangerous foreigners, lock them out by building a wall.
Bongo Bongo Bongo, keep ’em in the Congo, keep ’em in Iraq, keep ’em in Nicaragua. Any place but where I ahm.
Walter Cummins’ most recent publications appear in Broad Street, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. He teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s graduate writing programs.
Links lead to YouTube recordings
“Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo),” 1947; written by Bob Hilliard and Carl Sigman. At least five recorded versions have made the Billboard magazine charts—those by The Andrews Sisters and Danny Kaye, by Louis Prima, by “Smilin’” Jack Smith, by Ray McKinley, and by Woody Herman.
“The Coffee Song,” 1946; written by Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles, first recorded by Frank Sinatra.
“The Maharajah of Madagor,” 1948; written by John Jacob Loeb, Lewis Harris, recorded by Vaughn Monroe and Ziggy Talent.
“Managua, Nicaragua,” 1946; written by Irving Fields, the lyrics by Albert Gamse; the recording by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra reached the Billboard best-seller chart on January 31, 1947 and lasted 11 weeks on that chart, peaking at #1.
“Rum and Coca Cola,” 1945; written by Lionel Belasco with lyrics by Lord Invader. The song was copyrighted in the United States by entertainer Morey Amsterdam and became a hit in 1945 for the Andrews Sisters, spending ten weeks at the top the Billboard Pop Singles chart.