The Power of the Invisible – Paula Moreno

 

The author, Paula Marcela Moreno with Gilbert Shang Ndi during book signing.

Published by Penguin Random House, The Power of the Invisible: Memories of Solidarity, Humanity and Resistance (2018)[1] is a stunning memoir that takes the reader through the dramatic trajectories of a young Afro-Colombian woman, ‘on trial for her country’ as Minister of Culture. Inscribed within the tradition of memoirs from minoritized communities, one could say that Paula Moreno uses the self only as a pre-text to tell the story of a community, nation and possibly that of the African Diaspora: “I know that my story is not only mine; much of its passages are common to those of people from excluded communities that break with established roles and assert their power to occupy spaces in society which they deserve” (12). Her appointment in 2007 by the then Colombian president Álvaro Uribe Vélez as Minister of Culture at the age of twenty-eight is not only a test of her own personality and character, but also a challenge to youthful steadfastness and to her Afro-Colombian community, which has been invisibilized throughout Colombian history as the alienable and even undesirable other. In a nation that is slow to slough off its colonial heritage of racial hierarchies, the appointment of Paula Moreno raises many eyebrows and she is precociously (mis)judged by detractors as a failure in waiting.

Though her spectacular rise to power is a source of anxiety and nervousness to the protagonist, she is not wholly unprepared, to say the least. Her educational trajectory, her strong family bonds and her proven sense of dedication to her society constitute unfathomable assets with which to face the Herculean task ahead of her. By the time of her appointment, Paula holds a double degree in Italian Culture from the Instituto Italiano di Cultura and Industrial Engineering from the Autonomous University of Colombia. After her undergraduate studies, she undertakes a series of internships in the UK and Switzerland, later on graduating from the University of Cambridge with a Master of Science in Management Studies. Her educational profile, teaching experiences and grassroots research expose her to the world of international diplomacy and transnational civil society, while at the same time connecting her to the aspirations of the underprivileged margins of her society. These nourish her zeal for patriotic service and most importantly enable her to define her dreams and priorities on communal and not merely egoistic terms. Family also constitutes a pillar to the protagonist’s psychological stability. Her mother, a trained lawyer, is a reliable supportive force in the same way as her grandmother, aunts and cousins. With regard to her grandmother, she says “My grand mum had never dreamt it, but she built it …” (49) while Aunt Cecilia was “The silent force that forged a basis of affect centered on the village and the family, something that binds us till today” (54). With these figures around her, the absence of her father, divorced from her mother when the protagonist is still too young, does not affect Paula in considerable ways. On the contrary, her close-knit maternal family build a strong tradition of which Paula is determined to be an unflinching flagbearer. Family thus constitutes the invisible power, the strong galvanizing force for Paula in her incessant battles to assert herself in a society pitted by structural discrimination and racism.

Paula’s appointment is however a reality that none of the family members could imagine even in their wildest dreams. The unexpected nature of this eventuality is vividly captured in an episode in which her aunt Cecilia, in ecstasy upon learning the news of her niece’s ministerial appointment, screams out “Paula has been appointed”. Nonetheless, her daughters instead understand that “Paula has been assassinated”! (32-3). This confusion does not seem fortuitous. Rather, it underlines the horizon of possibility for a young girl of African descendancy in a racially unequal society like Colombia where she is more liable to be a character of a story of victimhood than a success story. The family members gradually come to terms with the new reality and afford their illustrious daughter the best support they can, including accepting a secondary position during those three years in order to enable Paula dedicate time and energy to her new function.

What is distinctive about this memoir is that it is far from a jeremiad of self-heroisation. Rather, the author paints her modest but spectacular trajectory with sheer humility and naturalness. She details her anxiety in the face of apparently unsurmountable challenges, her fears in the face of the unknown, her sorrows in moments of loss of loved ones, including her intimate worries over dressing codes and her self-image in her new role as minister. But above these anxieties and apprehensions, the character does not compromise her work ethic, and her desire to prove her worth as minister, not to her critics, not even to the president who appointed her, but rather to her conscience and to the Colombian people in all their diversity.  Paula’s appointment strikes the racial chord of the country as seen from press coverage that caricatures her figure and puts to question her capacity to handle a position of that magnitude. Many consider her appointment only as a form of décor, the desire of the president to have a black face in his cabinet as a mere token. When she is introduced to a famous Colombian artist, the latter asks in sheer astonishment, but also with a measure of derogation: “’Minister of Culture, from where? From which African country?’ He had to repeat twice that I was from Colombia’” (21). However, the protagonist is unimpressed by such ignorance and subsequent biased criticisms from some members of the establishment and rather focuses on the demanding task that her new function entails.

Far from a political memoir about the self, as one would expect, this text is a text about the denied humanity of a people. It is a Fanonian cry for recognition in the everyday life of a racially regimented society. The entire text seems like an appropriate textualisation of the anecdotal cry of the black (wo)man in a world of entrenched racial difference:

What? While I was forgetting, forgiving and wanting only to love, my message was flung back in my face like a slap. The white world, the only honorable one, barred me from all participation. A man was expected to behave like a man. I was expected to behave like a black man – or at least a nigger. I shouted a greeting to the world and the world slashed away my joy. I was told to stay within bounds, to go back to where I belonged (Black Skin, White Mask, 114-15 italics mine).

If there is any message in Paula’s text, it is that of resistance to be assigned a place by those who believe in the delusion of racial superiority/inferiority. This text is thus the materialization of the desire of the subject for equality, in order that s/he can assume responsibility towards humanity and engage in the ethical act of giving a la Franz Fanonian and Emmanuel Levinas.

This is a memoir about being out of place (to borrow the title of the memoir of the Palestinian postcolonial critic Edward Said) and how the marginal character converts his position as an outsider into a force for deconstruction of racial and social stereotypes. Let us juxtapose two passages by the two authors in order to show the proximity of their positionalities:

I occasionally experience myself as a cluster of flowing currents… These currents … are “off” and may be out of place, but at least they are always in motion, in time, in place, in the form of all kinds of strange combinations moving about, not necessarily forward, sometimes against each other, contrapuntally yet without one central theme. A form of freedom, I’d like to think, even if I am far from being totally convinced that it is. That skepticism too is one of the themes I particularly want to hold on to. With so many dissonances in my life I have learned actually to prefer being not quite right and out of place. (Edward Said, Out of Place, 640-641)

…To have the permanent sensation of being out of place, to learn to consign myself to the margin, to be and not to be, to look but not to look, to keep a distance that would permit me not to be affected by the outside. I only felt at home with the local communities, on the field. (Paula Moreno, The Power of the Invisible, 133)

Most often, Paula is considered out of place mainly because of her racial background. During political meetings, many do not hide their surprise at her being minister. Once in the lift of a hotel, she is mistaken for someone offering massage or other auxiliary services. At other times, she is singled out for police control and profiling meanwhile others simply pass unchecked. The most touching of all is when, on a holiday trip to Cuba as a teenager, she is being asked by the police to step down the city tour bus, taking her for a prostitute. The wanton denial of recognition experienced by the young-female-black minister is a metaphor of the larger picture of exclusion in her society. Paula deconstructs the entrenched stereotypes attributed to the Afrolatino female subject, refusing to occupy the space assigned for her by a history of oppression and dehumanization.

The racism faced by the protagonist sometimes takes more subtle means, disguised as love and affection for an exceptional negro, who unlike others, almost in a manner reminiscent of the prototypical good negro in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She is considered a negro with a “but” – “You are black, but…” (150). She perceives such a statement as implicit denigration of the bulk of her people, a people from whom she cannot delineate herself in favour of any form of social enlistment. She refuses to be tokenized, to use an expression by Gayatri Spivak with regard to the representation of marginalized voices. Like Edward Said, both in the above-cited text and his life practice as a critic and political activist, the only space where Paula finds coherence with herself is in service of the underprivileged. Her ministerial duties as well as her community service thereafter, such as the creation of Manos Visibles (Visible Hands), are mainly tilted towards capacity building of subjects from underprivileged backgrounds to enable them play leadership roles in the Colombian society and beyond.

One crucial point raised by the author is the fact that as an “other” in a racist society, the tendency to confront each and every materialization of a racial attitude in daily life runs the risk of draining one’s energy and diverting focus both from more urgent tasks and long-term projects towards changing the structural imbalances of the society. The question she asks herself, which is by implication that of many discriminated people in many parts of the world, is the following: Would she continue to justify herself and to defend her humanity at every moment she is confronted with racism instead of focusing on building a society where such racist worldviews would be outdated? This is a fundamental question in the text that underlines the constant challenge of life in every racist society. Thus, Paula decides to choose her battles wisely and not to be entrapped by pointless polemics about race with people who are pegged behind racist positions and bigotry.

What is of uttermost importance in the text is the way in which the author redefines the whole notion of culture as a minister. Culture is considered beyond custom or folklore and is rather defined by the author as the emotional infrastructure of the nation and the vertebral colon of its self-imagination. It is viewed as a crucial aspect in the inclusive redefinition of Colombianness, a harnessed melting-pot of diverse practices and imaginaries of numerous constituent ethnic groups. Her approach underlines the relation between culture and other spheres of life such as the economy, politics and education. Cultural diversity ceases to be an impediment to nation-building in a nation where many are poised to stress the European heritage to the detriment of the African and indigenous contributions to society. The author’s redefinition of the notion of culture both through her discourses and projects brings the ministry closer to the people, building partnerships with communities and working together to redefine priorities of community development. Her approach constitutes a radical break with a patriarchal perception of power where communities are imposed projects from above. Her willingness to learn, to work through teamwork and to consult others prove to be invaluable resources for her as a minister.

An important aspect of culture that is laid out exquisitely in this text is the contribution that culture can bring to the quest for peace in a country like Colombia that has been pitted by a sixty-year civil war. The author emphasizes the fact that, in a context of forced disappearance, rampant killings and massive displacement, culture can be a strong pillar in the difficult task of self-constitution and national reconstruction. Culture provides a deep spiritual anchorage to the individual and to the community. With regard to the Afro-American community’s physical uprootedness from Africa and continuous marginalization in the Americas, culture (music and dance in particular) has often served as a binding element, both socially and spiritually. Thus, the new minister commits herself to move the ministry of culture from a marginal position amongst other portfolios to a central position in government action and nation-building, especially at a time when the new president Manuel Santos, was to make the peace process the trademark of his mandate.

One of the passions of the protagonist that constitutes a linking thread throughout her memoir is that of education. In a way that is similar to Ngugi’s Dream in a Time of war (2010), education is seen as a source of belief in the future and a crucial assert that transforms the subject from a position of subalternity and obscurity onto the limelight as voice of the voiceless. Though in different contexts, the childhood of Ngugi and Paula are marked by the dire realities of violence and war. In Ngugi’s case, the defining political events are the Second World War and the Mau Mau uprising, while in Paula’s case, she puts it succinctly in the following paragraph: “Afterwards, I realized that, as a matter of fact, mi childhood coincided with the highest presence of the guerilla in my village; that my adolescence would coincide with the height of drug trafficking and my youth with the era of the paramilitary, all in a row” (56). In both cases, the zeal for education in the midst of distressing violence is what accounts for the narratives of resilience in which both memories can be inscribed.  Paula’s desire for learning surpasses her zeal for power. This partly explains why she declines the request by the president-elect Manuel Santos to continue as Minister of Culture in his in-coming government in 2010, rather preferring to take up a course in Urban and Regional Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.

The Power of the Invisible is a testimony of love, hope and dreams. The protagonist’s projects, both before, during and after her ministerial functions are motivated by the dream of a society of equal opportunities. It is a testimony of belonging to a marginalized community and the need to draw energy from the history, culture and memories of that community in spite of its oft-misrepresented history. Paula is a child of multiple worlds. Her identification with her Afro-Colombian culture does not entail foreclosure to other cultural horizons, as seen from her primordial interest in Italian culture and her love for music, arts, literature from other cultural spaces. The fact that she is a polyglot also testifies to this epistemic openness to the other. As Emmanuel Levinas posits, learning a new language ought to be a sign of love and this is clearly the case with the author. Language is culture and most importantly, people. It is therefore understandable when the author states that one of the greatest lessons from her family upbringing is the necessity of putting oneself in the place of others, to understand their dreams and frustrations, to see in the face of the other the very obligation of empathy and sacrifice to humanity.

The theme of connection in the overall framework of this memoir cannot be overemphasized. In one of her opening paragraphs of the book, she talks about the concert of the Senegalese musician Baba Maal in the Colombian city of Cartagena de Indias where the latter is astonished by the absence of the African people amongst the audience in a city that was one of the largest port of entry for enslaved Africans during slave trade. He is told the unfortunate truth: the Africans are on the other side of the walled city, as Cartagena de Indias is often called. This reality speaks volumes about the continuous plight of people of African origin in Colombia and many other parts of the continent. The desire for connection between Africa and her diaspora is mutual as can be seen from the synecdoche of Baba Maal and the author herself. Paula’s desire to connect with her mother continent is a clarion call that underlines the necessity for more intercultural and political exchanges between Africa and Latin America, two continents that share deep memories but whose limited levels of co-operations have become dark spots in the cartography of globalization. The protagonist’s expression of the necessity for a new transatlantic re-connection is vividly brought out in the following paragraph:

We are more than one billion three hundred and fifty million Africans and their descendants who have for centuries maintained this umbilical cord with our ancestral land and with a negritude which, no matter where we find ourselves, defines our being in the world. Africa and its lineage live in me and in the reality of more than ten million Afrocolombians and more than a hundred fifty million Afrolatinos.  This collective consciousness that traces itself to Africa accompanies us everywhere, even if we do not know for sure which specific part of the continent we come from.” (35)

Paula, like many of her compatriots, is “Colombian, but also Afro-descendant (37). The strengthening of ties between Africa and her diaspora is an urgent necessity that would bring spiritual enrichment to both Africans on the continent and the African diaspora. Symbolically, this connection can be idealistically imagined as the re-membering of the dis-membered body of Osiris, as represented in the novel Osiris Rising (1995) by the Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah, an author who cannot afford to think of Africa without its historical diaspora across the Americas. For Armah, as well as for Paula, building transatlantic ties between Africa and its (Latin American) diaspora is a historic necessity. This can be seen both from Paula initial intention during her Cambridge years to serve as a humanitarian aid worker in war-torn Sudan, her subsequent visit to Mali as well as her interest in African decolonizing tradition through figures such as Aimé Césaire and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, both of whom a cited in her memoir.

In conclusion, The Power of the Invisible is a tribute to Paula’s modest family whose sacrifices and inspiration constitute a solid background for her dreams. But it is also a tribute to the invisibilized people of Colombia and the world whose contributions to humanity are denied and obfuscated. It is a tribute to racial others and voices like that of Marielle Franco, the Afro-Brazilian activist killed in Rio de Janeiro in 2018, who are silenced for being considered different and for articulating a vision of human equality that threatens white supremacy and privilege. The Power of the Invisible is above all, a book on the audacity of hope for a world free from racial enmity, a world of a radical openness to a racial other in which “you are in me and I am in you, where ultimately we can find in the mirror someone just like ourselves” (192).

 

Dr. Gilbert Shang Ndi

Universität Bayreuth, Germany/Universidad de los Andes, Colombia.

[1] From the original title in Spanish: El Poder de lo Invisible: Memorias de Solidaridad, Humanidad y resistencia. All translations are mine.