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Author: Doug Crees
Title: Mummy in museum stirs racial dispute
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Mummy in museum stirs racial dispute
Doug Crees

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 16, 1992

EXHIBITIONS OF CULTURE The Excarceration of "El Negro"

The articles republished below from El País and The New York Times offer two viewpoints of the controversy surrounding the display of an apparently preserved and mounted body of a man from southern Africa in the natural history museum of Banyoles, a municipality near Barcelona. We hope others are able to contribute to uncovering more about the origins and consequences of this event.

Reprinted from The New York Times, February 5, 1992

Mummy in Museum Stirs Racial Dispute

DOUG CRESS—Special to The New York Times

BANYOLES, SPAIN—In the late 19th century, a Spanish scientist plundered a freshly dug grave in southern Africa and made off with the body of a man.

Back in his laboratory, Francisco Darder skinned the body, stuffed it and placed it upright in a glass booth with a spear and a shield in its hands. El Negro, as the stuffed man came to be called, was unveiled as part of the Barcelona world exposition in 1888. A few years later, it was donated to a small museum here and forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until now.

With the start of the Summer Olympics in Barcelona less than six months away, the presence of El Negro in the nearby Darder Natural History Museum of Banyoles has sparked a firestorm of racial controversy and debate that has already involved top Olympic officials and has the International Olympic Committee president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, promising to investigate personally. Representatives of the African embassies in Spain are expected to meet this week in Madrid to discuss the situation, and could suggest a call for the first African Olympic boycott since 1976.

Banyoles, 70 miles northeast of Barcelona, will be the site of the Olympic rowing competition from July 28-August 3. But El Negro's presence here alongside stuffed monkeys and pickled fetuses is considered by many to be dehumanizing at best, racist at worst.

"Humiliating" for Blacks

"For black people, it's humiliating," said Dr. Alfonso Arcelin, a Haitian-born physician who 10 months ago began the campaign to have El Negro removed. "It's not just because he's a black man, either. If it were a yellow man or a white man or a red man, my sentiments would be the same. But myself being a black man, it's worse. This is a human being. He should be at rest."

Arcelin mounted a massive letter-writing campaign several months ago to elicit support, targeting prominent black Americans like Magic Johnson, Mayor David N. Dinkins of New York and Mayor Maynard Jackson of Atlanta. In addition, he has written to former President Jimmy Carter and the United Nations.

But there's a problem: Banyoles doesn't want to give El Negro up. In fact, the City Council voted overwhelmingly last November 29 to keep El Negro on display, and T-shirts and buttons supporting the decision are now on sale here. One upscale home accessories store even worked a silhouette of El Negro into its logo.

"El Negro is our property," said Carles Abella, a member of the Banyoles City Council. "It's nobody else's business. And all of this talk about racism is absurd. Human rights only extend to living people, not dead."

Mayor Joan Solana of Banyoles agreed. "We have mummies and skulls and even human skins on display in the museum," he said recently. "What is the difference between those things and a stuffed African?"

Plenty, according to Jeune Afrique, a Paris-based magazine for Africans that first issued the call for an Olympic Boycott in mid-January. And it was a visit to the Darder Museum late last month by a member of the Nigerian Embassy in Spain that prompted this week's meeting in Madrid, although embassy officials will not divulge details such as precisely when the meeting will be held.

The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church of Catalonia are expected to condemn the presence of El Negro when they convene on Saturday in Montserrat, Spain, and Olympic officials are waiting to see what happens next.

"Nothing Worth Boycotting"

But an I.O.C. consultant, M. Fekrou Kidane of Ethiopia, recently told Spanish reporters that an African boycott will not happen. "There exists nothing worth boycotting over on the part of the African nations," Kidane said. "I don't find anything humiliating about the existence of this black man."

Most Olympic officials aren't sure what can be done about El Negro. "It's out of our jurisdiction," said Caradad Reixa, a spokeswoman for the Barcelona Olympic Organizing Committee. "The problem is not our problem. The museum does not belong to COOB." COOB is the acronym after translation of Spanish for the Barcelona organizing committee.

Nor is FISA, the world governing body of rowing, certain what to do. "This is well and truly outside the realm of our experience," said the rowing body's general secretary, M. John Boultbee. "I've never heard of anything like it."

Politically Correct Overnight

At the center of this controversy is whether Spain, an insular nation for most of the last 500 years, can become politically correct overnight. Blacks—or foreigners, for that matter—are scarce here, and racial tolerance has not come easily. Ironically, Banyoles is home to approximately 500 Africans, one of the largest per capita ratios in Spain.

But many Spaniards consider the whole El Negro controversy overblown; one television variety show even jokes about it.

Arcelin, however, is not kidding. A general practitioner and part-time politician who has lived in Spain since 1979, he tried to have El Negro removed quietly last May after stumbling upon a photo of the former Kalahari bushman, found in what is now Botswana, in a tourist brochure. But when Banyoles refused to budge, Arcelin went public.

On January 12, Arcelin was awarded the Martin Luther King Prize for his efforts by the Center for Inter-African Cultural Initiatives, even though he is largely regarded as a troublemaker here. Yet Arcelin admits he has no idea where it will end. "I don't want a boycott of the Olympic games," he said. "I hope it won't come to that. But if I am forced to go that far, I will. Something must be done."

This article first appeared in the Sports Section of the February 5, 1992 issue of The New York Times, within coverage of the Winter Olympics.

Copyright © 1992 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

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