Constantino on our Black-and-Blue World

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Filipino columnist Renato Redentor Constantino, in a return to Tomdispatch, offers a quick whirl through the bruising backstory of imperial history — from Haiti to the Philippines — on his way to today’s Iraq, and he does so in black and white as well as in color. Constantino is something of a man for all seasons: writer, columnist, and Greenpeace activist, he reminds us that out there in the world so much is happening just beyond the bubble we live in. As a thinker, he connects. As a writer, he displays the strange and wondrous connections that can exist, across so many thousands of miles, in our instant world. After all, the writer of which his work most reminds me is that Uruguayan man-for-all-seasons, Eduardo Galeano — journalist, novelist, historian, cartoonist, activist, archivist of the people. Constantino not only has something of Galeano’s sense of imagery, politics, whimsy, and anger (not to speak of his writing rhythms), but, as you’ll see if you check out his footnotes, he’s a Galeano fan.

So I thought I might take a moment to urge you to brighten and deepen your lives by trying Galeano’s work. If you don’t already know his books, don’t sit there… stand up immediately; reach for your wallet; head for your nearest independent bookstore; look for the section marked, “Eduardo Galeano, troubadour of resistance to global domination and injustice”; and begin stocking up. Galeano first became well known for his fierce book about American imperialism, Open Veins of Latin America (still available from Monthly Review Press with an introduction by Isabel Allende). He has written a remarkable three volume history of the Americas from the first native myths to late last night (at least on the night when I published the first of these books in the U.S. back in the 1980s), a trilogy so idiosyncratic and beautiful it could only be true. We’re talking here about the Memory of Fire threesome, which is history the way we should have been taught it. Try the first volume, Genesis, and you’ll never turn back. Probably there’s nowhere better to start in on Galeano, though, than his most recent book, Upside Down, A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, a real gem — a series of Alice-in-Wonderland “lesson plans” for teaching how the world actually works when viewed with horror and bemusement from the south of the planet looking northwards.

My apologies to Renato Redentor Constantino for shifting the spotlight from his fifteen seconds of infamy at Tomdispatch elsewhere — but I think he’ll understand. Tom

The Colors of Memory
Black-and-Blue World
By Renato Redentor Constantino

1. Memories of Black and Blue

We live under one sky — and the sweep of a past painted from the palette of a bruise.

Until the 20th century, pale was the pigment of wealth and privilege. To be called blue-blooded was to be recognized as a member of the aristocracy: those who did no manual labor and as a consequence possessed skin pallid enough for blue-tinged veins to show through.

Work for the aristocracy occurs once in a blue moon, which is close to never, if ever. Why work when you can own the labor of others? Or own others.

“Economic Section: Sales of Animals,” announces an ad in Havana, Cuba in 1839. For sale, for the sum of 500 pesos, “a Creole negro woman, young, healthy, and without blemishes” along with “a handsome horse of fine breeding, six spans and three inches.”

“Leeches – superior quality, just arrived from the peninsula,” goes a smaller advertisement — under the heading, “Domestic goods for hire.” Preceding the announcement for segmented worms, another commodity is marketed: “Negro women for service . . . and for any work.”[1]

Blue is the swelling, limitless expanse — the ocean on which Tacuabe travels on his way to France. The year is 1834 and the cavalry of the Uruguayan General Fructuoso Rivera has just completed their civilizing operation with high efficiency — not one Indian remains alive in Uruguay.

With colored fates, four remaining Charrua Indians are transported to Europe and donated to the Natural Sciences Academy in Paris, including Tacuabe. “The French public pay admission to see the savages, rare specimens of a vanished race. The scientists note their gestures, clothing and anthropometric measurements.”

Within two months, the Indians die. “Academicians fight over the cadavers. Only the warrior Tacuabe survives, and escapes with his newly born daughter, reaching the city of Lyons.” From there they vanish; nothing more is heard of them, yet their story endures.[2]

Colored natural perspective: Besides humans, black lemurs are the only primates with blue eyes. Colored human perspective: Slavery is the White Man’s primal black eye.[3]

Which country was the first to abolish slavery and when? Encyclopedias and textbooks attribute freedom to England, which decreed slavery’s abolition in 1807. Yet history demurs — three years earlier, in 1804, Blacks in Haiti had already accomplished the great deed.[4]

Sadness and madness, happiness and emptiness — from whose point of view? Good question. It’s all about perspective. In the 19th century, blue-tinted spectacles were used to treat insanity and for depression the perceptive used pink lens, “hence the expression looking at the world through rose-colored glasses.”

Lunacy is relative.

“The Filipinos have chosen a bloody way to demonstrate their incapacity for self-government . . . in the insane attack of these people on their liberators,” snarled the New York Times in 1899, the year the United States annexed the Philippines — Asia’s first republic.

The Times is horrified: having thrown off the yoke of Spanish rule after centuries of struggle, why are Filipinos resisting their new invader?

Memory is a bomb. Memory is a balm.

Said a soldier of the First Idaho Regiment during the Philippine-American War, “It kept leaking down from [our officers] that the Filipinos were ‘niggers,’ no better than Indians, and were to be treated as such.”

“With an enemy like this to fight,” wrote a soldier with the Utah Battery of his Filipino adversaries, “it is not surprising that the boys should adopt ‘no quarter’ as a motto, and fill the blacks full of lead before finding out whether they are friends or enemies.”

“I will rawhide these bullet-headed Asians until they yell for mercy,” roared Col. Frederick Funston as American troops slaughtered Filipino combatants and civilians alike. Savages are savages. After the war, huffed the fulminating Funston, “I’ll warrant that the new generation of natives will know better than to get in the way of the band-wagon of Anglo-Saxon progress and decency.”

Advancement and civility measured: Armed resistance against America would go on for over ten years and yet as early as 1901, an American general had already projected the number of Filipinos killed or felled by disease as a result of America’s occupation at around 600,000.

Over the entire colored breadth of the Philippines, wrote the late poet Alfredo Navarro Salanga, flowed the helix of the American dream of conquest: “Deep in its coiled death were more coils, more deaths to be sprung, from the brown coiled souls, from the brown coiled throats of brown men screaming brown screams snaking through streams.”[5]

2. The Color of Memory

Blue is the color of heaven. A long time ago, it was more expensive than gold and “used only for the holiest parts of paintings, usually the Madonna’s robes.” Legend has it that Marco Polo brought ultramarine, a luminous, deep blue whose very name means “from beyond the sea,” to Italy from Afghanistan, where the color was derived from powdered lapis lazuli.

The Afghan lapis mines have been all but exhausted, which is a shame. According to the writer Victoria Finlay, who visited the mines in 2001, the mineshafts were like “a whole art history in one little pathway.”[6]

But history has hardy hues, and blue memories are not easily depleted.

Perry O’Brien is from blue-eyed, blue-state Maine. In January 2003, as a medic for the 82nd U.S. Airborne Division, he was deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Coming from an initial Peace-Corps-with-guns perspective, Perry soon confronted hard questions. Really hard questions. [7]

One day, Perry heard of reports that up to 3,000 Afghan civilians had been killed by American bombs. He found the figure striking: 3,000 was “about the number of people that were killed on 9/11.” He asked himself — “Were we getting even?” Perry “started to feel like an Army mechanic, fixing things that my comrades in the Air Force and Infantry had broken. But they weren’t ‘things’ of course, they were people, and after they left our clinic they were going home to their families.”[8]

In June 2003, Perry filed a case with the U.S. Army to become a conscientious objector. Months later, his case was approved. Perry recounted how he asked himself what they were doing in the foreign country: “I used to accept the idea of a war on terrorism, but isn’t war a form of terrorism? Are we just laying the groundwork for another attack, and another war, and on and on?”

Brown is the skin of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia.

Originally from Nicaragua, Camilo moved to the U.S. in 1994 and soon became a permanent resident and green-card holder. In 1995, at age 19, lured by, among other things, the offer of a free college education, Camilo joined the Army.

As he entered his final semester of college in January 2003, Camilo’s army unit was activated. By April, Camilo and his unit were in Iraq — where even children carried long arms and everyone appeared to have an ugly stare. Soon they were killing gunmen, civilians, and children.

The “fear of dying has the power to turn soldiers into real killing machines,” said Camilo. In Iraq, it was “almost impossible for us to consider things like acting strictly in self defense or using just enough force to stop an attack.” Camilo commanded an infantry squad which never failed to accomplish its mission. Thus did he see first hand “the suffering of a people whose country was in ruins and who were further humiliated by the raids, patrols and curfews of an occupying army.”

In March 2004, Camilo speaks out against the war and refuses to do further service. He surrenders himself to the military to take the consequences of his decision and is imprisoned soon after for “desertion” — for not deserting a higher calling.

“Behind these bars I sit a free man, because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience,” writes Camilo in prison. In his letter, Camilo apologizes to the Iraqi people: “To them I say I am sorry for the curfews, for the raids, for the killings. May they find it in their hearts to forgive me.” [9]

White is the skin of Mike Hoffman. Hoffman has a red goatee and moussed dark hair; he is American.

When Hoffman arrived in Kuwait in February 2003, his mission was explained to him by his commanding officer in vivid terms: “You’re not going to make Iraq safe for democracy. You are going for one reason alone: oil. But you’re still going to go, because you signed a contract.”

It was evident that “we couldn’t force democracy on people by force of arms. After being in Iraq and seeing what this war is, I realized that the only way to support our troops is to demand the withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq,” said Hoffman, who returned to the U.S. in August 2003 with an honorable discharge.

Soon after, Hoffman forms the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and emerges as one of the most visible members of a small but growing movement of soldiers who openly oppose the Iraq war. [10]

“Boys are dying in Vietnam for something they don’t believe in,” said the great Muhammad Ali in 1970 as he rejected the American military draft. “What’s wrong with me going to jail for something I believe in?”

Conscience knows no color. Right and wrong is black and white.

3. The Blood That Binds

Black is the blood of pipelines, the preferred shade of Washington’s flammable mural called the Middle East — an oil painting that combines the high art of irony with the science of spontaneous combustion. [11]

Trace the blood and connect the dots.

Pale memory, full of grace, the Lord is with you.

“I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight,” confessed the corpulent U.S. president William McKinley in 1898. Long tired of a pesky prickle, the United States decides it’s time to scratch the itch: America covets new territories. America annexes the Philippines. What a relief.

“I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance. One night it came to me. First, we could not give [the Philippines] back to Spain — that would be cowardly and dishonorable; second . . . we could not turn them over to France or Germany — that would be bad for business; and third, we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government . . . There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all . . . and uplift and civilize and Christianize them . . . And then I went to bed, and went to sleep and slept soundly.”

The god of empire grants McKinley’s wish — for god is empire and empire is god. Less than a decade after McKinley’s entreaty, America’s benevolent rule sends hundreds of thousands of Filipinos towards Jesus and the afterlife.

Blessed is the imperialist among he-men and blessed is the vile fruit of his genius.

America’s annexation of the Philippines contains many firsts. Many say it was America’s first imperial adventure. Certainly it was Asia’s first republic that the U.S. slew. [12] It was also “the first time Black troops were ordered to fight a colonial war in Southeast Asia.”

Niggers versus Negroes. Brilliant.

From 1899 to 1902, “an estimated two thousand Black women, men, and children” die from racial attacks in America’s deep South. From 1899 to 1901 — a mere three years after U.S. troops began firing on Filipino revolutionaries — an American general estimates the death toll of Filipinos at the hands of their U.S. liberators to number well over half a million.

“To the colored American soldier,” implored a public communiqué issued in the Philippines on November 17, 1899 and penned, some say, by the crippled, colored Filipino revolutionist himself, Apolinario Mabini: “It is without honor that you shed your precious blood. Your masters have thrown you in the most iniquitous fight with double purpose — to make you the instrument of their ambition, and also your hard work will make the extinction of your race.”

Fight for the flag! Under what colors? One African-American resolves his moral impasse. David Fagen, colored beacon, bless his soul — Fagen leads twenty other Blacks who desert the U.S. Army. Many join Fagen and enlist with the Filipino guerillas, an act “unprecedented in Black military history.”

“I fear that the future of the Filipino is that of the Negro in the South,” commented U.S. Gunnery Sergeant John Galloway, a soldier-journalist who wrote in his journal the sentiments of Filipino civilians regarding independence and their relations with Black and white troops. A short period later, Galloway joins the ranks of the Filipino resistance. [13]

One fate. One blood.

When America enters the Second World War, the great nation calls on its people to close ranks under the Star-Spangled Banner. The war accepts Blacks, writes Eduardo Galeano, “thousands and thousands of them, but not the Red Cross.” [14]

Just before the U.S. joins World War II, Charles Richard Drew makes a historic discovery. While conducting research at Columbia Medical School in New York, Doctor Drew discovers that when red blood cells are removed from whole blood, “the remaining fluid — plasma — could be stored un-refrigerated for many months.”[15]

As the first director of the American Red Cross Blood Bank, Drew ensures that shipments of liquid plasma are sent to combat zones where Axis bombs and bullets are spreading death. Thanks to Dr. Drew, who has made it possible to save blood, “Plasma banks are reviving thousands of dying men on the battlefields of Europe.”

At first, the Red Cross and the military refuse the blood of Blacks in the plasma banks, “so as to avoid the possibility that races might mix by transfusion.” But later they relent — provided Negro blood is separated from Caucasian blood. Charles Drew resigns. Charles Drew is black.

What flows in your veins?

In a rousing speech delivered in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. denounces the American invasion of Vietnam. The Black leader speaks “with heart-rending eloquence about the cruel irony of the TV images of black and white boys burning the huts of a poor village in brutal solidarity, killing and dying together for a nation that wouldn’t even seat them together at the same tables.” [16]

Are we talking of today?

The Reverend’s words cut like a knife. He is accused of treason. He is condemned by “former allies and attacked viciously by the American press.” Red, white, and blue; stars over you. Georgie said, Condi said, I love you.


[1] Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Faces and Masks, W.W. Norton and Company. The work of Galeano just soars and soars and soars …

[2] Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire.

[3] Jane Szita, “The colour of heaven,” Holland Herald, November 2004.

[4] Eduardo Galeano, “The White Curse [Haiti],” The Progressive Magazine, June 2004.

[5] “4 February [1899],” Alfredo Navarro Salanga, in Vestiges of War, The Philippine-American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream 1899-1999, ed. Angela Velasco Shaw and Luis H. Francia, New York University Press, 2002.

[6] Jane Szita, “The colour of heaven,” Holland Herald, November 2004. Blue paint first appeared “around 3,000 BC in ancient Egypt, nearly 400,000 years after humans first began using pigments.” Anthropologists believe that blue was one of the last colors to be named in any language.”

[7] Justin Ellis, “Objection sustained: Maine soldier home from Afghanistan as Conscientious Objector,” Portland Press Herald, posted by on January 3, 2005.

[8] “Pro-soldier, Anti-war: My Experiences as a Conscientious Objector and the Launching of,” Perry O’Brien,, February 8, 2005.

[9] Camilo Mejia was the first American veteran of the 2nd Iraq war to publicly refuse service. He was released in February 2005 . He has been actively campaigning against the war ever since he was incarcerated. The website is a great resource place for peace initiatives taking place in the US. Camilo Mejia’s letters are particularly moving. See also “Sgt. Camilo Mejia: First Iraqi War Veteran to Refuse Further Service.”

[10] David Goodman, “Breaking ranks,” MotherJones, October 11, 2004.

[11] Robert Fisk, “Iraq invasion reverberates across the Middle East,” The Independent, March 22, 2005.

[12] Renato Redentor Constantino, History Lesions: The Language of Empire,” February 19, 2004.

[13] All sections quoting Mabini and Galloway and delving into Fagen are from Rene G. Ontal, “Fagen and other Ghosts: African-Americans and the Philippine-American War,” in Vestiges of War: The Philippine American War and the Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999, ed. Angel Velasco-Shaw and Luis H. Francia, New York University Press, 2002.

[14] Eduardo Galeano, Memory of Fire: Century of the Wind, W.W. Norton and Company.

[15] Elizabeth St. Philips, “Dr. Charles Richard Drew (1904-1950): The Pursuit of Excellence,” February 11, 1997.

[16] Arundhati Roy, “Instant-Mix Imperial Democracy, Buy One Get One Free,” transcript of audio address in New York, May 13, 2003. See the original speech by Martin Luther King, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” delivered on April 4, 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer based in the Philippines. Constantino is also a full-time regional campaigner for Greenpeace in Southeast Asia. Previously, Constantino managed the energy campaign team of Greenpeace in China. His work includes documenting the impact of global warming and dirty energy as well as securing beachheads for the massive uptake of renewable energy in Asia. He can be reached at [email protected]. His work can regularly be viewed by clicking here.