A couple of months ago I interviewed Nkosinathi Biko the CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation, for The Daily Maverick. In an unreported part of our conversation, we discussed black consciousness and its place in post-apartheid South Africa. Biko said, “If under the old dispensation being black meant being oppressed, what does it mean today?”
It has since occurred to me that I took this matter of blackness for granted — as something that needed no examining. To me, it was always an issue of skin colour, and nothing more. That is not true, obviously. As Biko indicated, the concept of blackness was predetermined for those it applied to, whether they wanted it or not. To be black meant to be subservient. The effect that this had on the black collective was profound and deeply tragic, and will continue to live with us for generations to come.
But this column is not about the past. As much as what came before is important, we are not completely prisoner to history. It is around that thought base that I pick at my thoughts, sorting and discarding as they come to me. I do not believe that history is the only determinant to how we think today. We can define for ourselves what blackness means. I believe that my generation — too young to have lived through much of apartheid, but not so far removed that those dark days are but a faded memory — is at a critical juncture. We are uniquely poised to determine and write a new narrative of blackness, our memories still fresh but unburdened by the emotional scars that our parents and past generations carry.
It is in this regard that I find the life of Barack Obama very illuminating (The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick is required reading for anyone who cares about the man). Obama is more than just a political miracle; he’s a self-made man in every sense of the word. Born in Hawaii in 1961, brought up by a white mother in the complete absence of his Kenyan father, he spent his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, far removed from the turmoil of post-civil-rights America. Obama’s path to the White House was that of a black man, precisely because he had to “become” black. He had to learn what being a black man meant, adopt the cadence, frame of thought and place in the world. The isolation from the civil-rights movements and the bitter fights that came afterwards gave Obama the emotional distance he needed to approach the issue academically (much like our generation should today) and to thus be able to cast off the negative qualities that blackness had donned over the years.
For instance, young Obama read many black autobiographies. For black Americans under slavery and afterwards, writing was a journey of self-discovery: a way of asserting their identity and sense of worth. Obama carefully studied, among many other works, Dusk of Dawn by WEB Du Bois, The Big Sea by Langston Hughes and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. It is to the latter that he finds himself drawn, admiring the masculine strength of Malcolm X. But he is simultaneously repulsed by the brokenness that he sees in many of these black authors. “Obama’s reading of black memoirists when he was still living in Hawaii was the ‘homework’ of a young man trying to ‘reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth’,” Remnick writes in The Bridge. “And yet, in all the books he reads, he keeps finding authors filled with depressing self-contempt; they flee or withdraw to varying corners of the world and to Obama they are all of them ‘all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels’.”
Obama then sets out to write out a new narrative for himself, adopting the parts of black history that make him a better man, and discarding those that hold him back. Today, there is no doubt that he is a black man. We, the young blacks of South Africa, must in the same way reach into our past to help construct a new narrative, but must also be willing to shed the things that will hold us back.
We seem to struggle a great deal as black people to free the black individual to think and write as he or she pleases. The legacy of collective oppression lives on in our habit of criticising anyone who from “within the ranks” fails to affirm the accepted norms of blackness. We feel as if we must move and think as a bloc, we must all think in the same way, and have each other’s backs, as it were. This mode of thinking reflects in our constant harkening back to some pre-colonial Africa, where the group trumped the individual. We yearn back to “African culture”, an abstraction far removed from how pre-colonial societies organised themselves or worked. So profound is our sense of displacement.
However, we cannot save ourselves by going back. It is forward that we must look. This African group-think is going to cripple us. The individual must be freed. I want to be able to write whatever I like without being criticised by other blacks for “selling out”. I want to be able to critique black leaders without being told that I have adopted a white frame of thinking. I don’t want the seething rage that comes with having lived in oppression under apartheid. I don’t want to flinch every time someone throws a racial barb at me. Most importantly, I want to be able to construct a new meaning of blackness for myself without needing to lean against the “African culture” fetish.
I understand the fear of letting each other go that haunts so many blacks. But until the black individual is free, we cannot say that we have fully reaped the benefits of post-apartheid South Africa. I want to be able to think and write what I like.
This column was first published in JucyAfrica.