Interpreting the legacy of Biko for these, our troubled times

In answer to Nkosinathi Biko’s plea that his father be remembered for his ideas, not the circumstances of his death, what follows is my part one my thoughts on black consciousness and its applicability today. Part two, a separate post to follow in the coming days, deals with a question posed here in on white consciousness and whether Biko’s ideas are a natural precipitant of racial nationalism.

Stephen Bantu Biko is 35-years dead this week and, as he said he was prepared to die for, his ideas live on, although perhaps not quite as he might have imagined, or hoped. Earlier this week, on the anniversary of his state-sanctioned murder, I came across statements, speeches, columns and tweets where it was said, “Biko stood for…” or “To me black consciousness is…”

I found this curious because invariably what followed differed wildly, not only among those who expressed their interpretation of Biko’s ideas, but from his actual ideas, too.

Rewriting his story

To Helen Zille, “Biko’s singular contribution was his concept of “psychological liberation”, the need to free one’s mind from a sense of inferiority (or superiority) in order to create an equal and non-racial society.”

Others fashioned Biko in a similar way, as an Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian of sorts, concerned with individual agency, thus they redacted race from the message of black consciousness and ignored that its social tenets are rooted in collectivism and its economic tenets in socialism.

Others tried to locate multiculturalism, non-racism and, strangely, whiteness within black consciousness, while others perceived it (incorrectly, I might add) as being blatantly anti-white.

Some questioned whether the texts of Biko ever constituted a movement—“he was one man!”—while others questioned the weight of the intellectual contribution of his texts given how Biko borrowed from W.E.B Du Bois and Frantz Fanon.

Some wore their apparent understanding black consciousness as a mark of superiority and wielded it as a tool to denigrate, antagonise and demean others—certainly not what I am attempting to do here.

Delivering the 13th annual Steve Biko memorial lecture, Ben Okri said, “To me black consciousness means equality, freedom, community, grass-root transformation, but it also means excellence, humanity, foresight, wisdom, and a transcendence of our weakness and our flaws. Stripped of its specific context of apartheid, the core of black consciousness does not seem to me a polarising message. Rather it is a call for the awakening of the spirit, a call such as the ancestors might have made. Wherever a people are oppressed, the first thing they must remember is who they are. But once liberation has been achieved, the first thing they must remember is who they want to be.”

Blackness over knobkerries

I won’t address each of these varying interpretations of Biko. What I will say, though, is those who question Biko’s intellectual contribution overstate the importance of originality and underestimate the mental wizardry it takes to give general, pre-existing ideas specificity as Biko did with blackness in apartheid South Africa.

And I must add that while I love Okri’s lyrical and poetic interpretation of black consciousness, I’m afraid it imbues it an esoterism that might have perhaps been present in Biko’s but omits the tangibility and practicality of blackness as an organising tool against oppression.

Perhaps this is where my own subjectivity comes in. Where, in a time when we are reeling from yet another intersection of physical, psychological, social and economic violence; where the victims of the said violence are, with minimal exceptions, black, I spurn abstraction. Instead I yearn for the immediacy of concrete ideas that will displace guns and knobkerries from the hands of the oppressed and result in real and meaningful differences in their lives.

Biko foresaw that the current sad state of affairs would be probable should blacks abandon their collective responsibility to unite to achieve their own, particularly economic, liberation.

He said, “Any form of political freedom which does not touch on the proper distribution of wealth will be meaningless. The whites have locked up, within a small minority of themselves, the greater proportion of the country’s wealth. If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions, what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor and you will get a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie and our society will be run almost as (though) yesterday.”

So even before it became trendy to compare the present day to apartheid, Biko was doing it. The cause, he diagnosed, of the enduring legacy of colonialism and apartheid was affording political freedom without the attendant economic freedom.

Just as the social ills plaguing black America disproportionately today can be traced back to abolishing slavery without awarding former slaves rights to land and other economic assets they’d been yoked and treated so grotesquely to create, the ills we see in South Africa today stem from the misguided belief that the poor black masses would be happy with freedom piecemeal. This idea says that poor blacks should be made to wait while their other material freedoms are progressively realised.

Fade to white

In 1994, following the attainment of political freedom, blacks fractured. Neo-whites—blacks who got their 40 acres and “transitioned” from blackness and found a place in white privilege—and the new ruling black elite broke from poor blacks. Whereas the latter were co-opted into preserving white interests, the latter asserted their individuality and claimed to (or pretended not to) perceive interconnectedness in the privilege they enjoy, the sacrifices made by those who came before and the suffering of poor blacks today.

Thus the contemporary conceptualisation of black consciousness, I believe, is the realisation by black men and women that they are not free until their brothers and sisters are free—free today, not at some future date subject to resource constraints. It is also the realisation that the other, softer elements to liberation—pride, reclaiming humanity, healing, cohesion—are, for poor blacks, the ruling black elite and neo-whites alike, are predicated on the attainment of this, what Biko called total freedom.

I appreciate that there are sensitivities around race and labelling people, and some might take issue with my use of apparently charged and divisive words such as black, white, neo-white and such. However I believe it is only in interrogating and picking apart our racial past and present that we might chart a path toward a kind of future where new ways of being could be found. Any attempt at superimposing some kind of artificial identity over history is bound to fail. See ‘Rainbow Nation’.

Said another way, in response to the questions, “why must we be black, or white? why can’t we just be people?”, I’d say we can’t because we aren’t all presently being treated humanely, as people, owing to this racial past. The only people asking these questions are those enjoying the full rights of being a person, and they pose the questions to preserve the rights for themselves, only.

Update:
So I thrashed over part two of this post for a while until I realised I can do no better to answer the questions posed above than to allow Biko to speak for himself. Black souls in white skins?

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One thought on “Interpreting the legacy of Biko for these, our troubled times

  1. […] try to reverse engineer the legacy of the socialist, collectivist Steve Biko in an attempt to claim black consciousness as a liberal value. They do this to win over the prince, the black […]

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