The weekend before last, the Belgian government returned a gold-capped tooth to the family of Patrice Lumumba, an independence leader and the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Belgian government is also in the process of returning looted art. But the tooth is an especially gruesome and heart-wrenching artifact. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was murdered by a firing squad backed by Belgium and the CIA, and his body was later desecrated: hacked apart, thrown in acid. Pieces of his burned flesh were kept as souvenirs. Gerard Soete, then the Belgian police commissioner, kept the tooth.
In the United States, it took nearly a month for newspapers to report that Lumumba, a leader for Black activists who was admired around the globe, had been killed. The response was immediate. Protests were mounted in major cities. In New York, the demonstration at the United Nations included celebrated activist writers Maya Angelou and Amiri Baraka. But the group largely comprised everyday Black people, native born and immigrant, who were outraged. They carried signs that read “Congo Yes, Yankee no!” Police responded to them aggressively by dragging protesters out. The protesters fought back. A riot ensued. Ralph Bunche—one of the most well-known African American leaders and the then-undersecretary of the U.N.—referred to the protesters as “misguided misfits,” and then astonishingly, as if he were some sort of spokesperson for Black Americans, apologized to the country on their behalf.
James Baldwin contextualized the event this way in an essay for The New York Times: “My immediate reaction to the news of Lumumba’s death was curiosity about the impact of this political assassination on Negroes in Harlem, for he had—has—captured the popular imagination there.” He went on to describe how Bunche and others diminished the protesters by saying they had been put up to it by either Soviet-backed Communists or Muslims, and how the civil-rights movement in the South was similarly blamed on “outside agitators.” No, he said, this protest was a reflection of Black people’s convictions in that moment, writing:
The time is forever behind us when Negroes could be expected to “wait.” What is demanded now is not that Negroes continue to adjust themselves to the cruel racial pressures of life in the United States, but that the United States readjust itself to the facts of life in the present world … The Negroes who rioted in the United States are but a very small echo of the black discontent now abroad in the world. If we are not able, and quickly, to face and begin to eliminate the sources of discontent in our own country, we will never be able to do it in the world at large.
Lorraine Hansberry, Baldwin’s good friend, was outraged as well, and published a letter in The New York Times shortly after Baldwin’s essay. “Mr. Baldwin’s gift for putting down the truth in his celebrated ringing essay style prompts me to remark that I too was profoundly offended by the effort to link the Lumumba demonstrations at the United Nations with Mecca or Moscow inspiration,” she wrote. “We may assume that Mr. Lumumba was not murdered by the black and white servants of Belgium because he was ‘pro-Soviet’ but because he was, unlike the Kasavubu-Tshombe-Mobutu collection, truly independent which, as we seem to forget in the United States, was at the first and remains at the last an intolerable aspect in colonials in the eyes of imperialists.” Bunche enraged Hansberry. She felt he had no mandate from Black America to issue such an apology. In her characteristic sarcastic subversion, she hastened “to publicly apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.”
Despite popular perception today, historically, Black American politics—fueled not only by political organizers but also by a robust Black press—had strong internationalist threads and deep debates over to whom and what Black Americans ought to be aligned. For some, like Angelou, Baraka, Baldwin, and Hansberry, there were clear connections between the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow here and colonialism in Africa. This shouldn’t be surprising. In the Congo, King Leopold’s control of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908 was effectively a brutal slave system of forced labor (many historians have also described it as genocidal). This regime coincided with the establishment of Jim Crow and the height of lynching in the United States. Structures and systems of racial domination were shared across the globe.
Lumumba’s tooth was a macabre souvenir not unlike the fingers that were preserved as artifacts after lynchings in America. The violence of racial domination was evidenced by dismemberment the world over. And the return of Prime Minister Lumumba’s tooth reminded me of the Senate’s passing of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act in March. Both are horrifyingly belated gestures that have no power to remedy the destructiveness of the past. History is a powerful teacher. But ceremonial gestures do not correct its devastating impact.
For me, this is also the cautionary message of Juneteenth. The weekend before last, we celebrated its second year as a federal holiday, one that comes with beautiful celebrations but no mandate to address how apparent the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow are in the contemporary United States. They are, at present, toothless remedies.