I first encountered Steve Biko’s collection of Black Consciousness articles via the book titled ‘I Write What I like’ in 1997 at the Dzivaresekwa District Council Library in Harare, Zimbabwe. I was initially drawn to it on the basis of its somewhat stubborn title. Being young and looking for some sort of intellectuality to my personal existential circumstances, I took to it like a duck to water. And as is now generally known, one of the striking lines in an article in which Biko writes, “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed.” This was probably as borrowed from Franz Fanon.
Biko was writing within the context of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa but spoke for many people of colour on the African continent and beyond.
By the time I got to understand the intellectual writings of other luminaries such as Cabral, Nkrumah, Gramsci among many others on not only African liberation struggles but also the psycho-social perspectives on ‘blackness’ Biko still rung through my mind. Especially because he sought to assert a specific understanding of how being black should not be defined by the ‘white’ liberal gaze.
In the contemporary, we are now oddly and unexpectedly faced with the dilemma of having to discuss and re-understand racial inequality based on events that are occurring in the United States of America (USA). As mainly led and framed by the #BlackLivesMatter nascent movement and the attendant counter narratives seeking to re-affirm some sort of ‘white’ supremacy or ownership of humanity.
The question that emerges in the now is, “What does it now mean to be Black, globally?” The easier answer would be that being black is always to be ‘bodied’ and ‘othered’. In a Fanonian sense. Hence the shootings and in most cases killings with impunity of multiple black men by the police in the USA. It is almost a throwback to the times of looking at the black African body as an aberration and as something to be harnessed/ controlled or eliminated.
From a contextual African perspective however the more difficult answer points to a return to the Biko argument about that metaphoric greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor. This being our minds, perceptions and aspirations.
And this is a somewhat complicated argument to make. Being black in the contemporary remains an historical construct. Especially in Africa. Colonialism, post-colonialism, neo-imperialism, neo-liberalism are essentially about putting us, as black people, in our inferiority complex ‘place’.
The primary challenge is the extent to which we counter the narrative of being put into the same said “inferiority complex place.”
What has been a problem with this is that we have a false admiration of societies in the global north. Even as they implement policies that point at exclusion and discrimination against us as black immigrants. We would still want to cross the treacherous Maghreb and drown in the Mediterranean Sea in order to reach Europe. While at the same time, the Europeans do not want us there at all.
What we probably need to understand is the fact that there is no ‘Jerusalem’ in the global north. Though the latter perpetually present themselves as the same.
But the more important question remains. What does it mean to be black today? I have four relatively casual perspectives on this.
Firstly, being black means being perpetually ‘othered’. To be seen as an aberration as opposed to the norm. Hence we are generally expected to be the harbingers of disease and violence. That’s why it is morally easy for global corporate media to show our dead bodies. With the added complexity of the fact that a majority of us accept this perspective and narrative. Including our inexplicable desire to be recognized as citizens of the global north. Hence we are easier to shoot or at least have our deaths accepted as run of the mill.
Secondly, being black now also means that you should essentially have special physical prowess as derived from a the mystical ‘dark continent’ that Africa entered global discourse as. From our sports stars through to our mythologized physical prowess, we remain unique in what is physically and mentally expected of us by our ‘white’ others. Where we demonstrate intellectualism we are presented as unique and the exception, not the rule.
Thirdly, being black in the contemporary, means that to get to any point of recognized success, we have to do mimicry. And this is essentially to mimic what ‘white’ people do. In this our psychological dilemma has been the fact that we want to not only mimic but also claim legitimacy on the basis of a false reflection in the mirror.
Fourthly and finally, being black in the now should mean that we understand the global political economy. Even though we generally, based on point three, in the majority of cases choose not to. And this is where Biko and Fanon’s ghosts return to haunt us. Global financial capital is fundamentally racist based on its history of slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, neo-imperialism and neoliberalism.
Our racial identities should not have had to come to matter this much in the contemporary. But as events in the global north show, they regrettably do.