Striving for Frantz Fanon’s Universal Human Emancipation

The relevance of Peter Hudis’s Frantz Fanon: philosopher of the barricades on Frantz Fanon’s revolutionary ideas to achieving universal human emancipation cannot be overstated. Hudis has been instrumental in helping me make sense of the current student politics, amongst other things, in South Africa because he writes Fanon for our times. Hudis sees it as a matter of extreme importance that Fanon is read in context. Fanon mostly writes in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During this time the Algerian revolution is underway, African countries are “receiving” independence from Europe. The word “receive” independence is deceiving and therefore problematic. Firstly it’s as if Africa’s independence was Europe’s to give, and secondly wars were fought for independence, it was not given. Nonetheless … In 1960 alone 17 countries gained independence from Europe, most of which were French colonies in West Africa. The African national movements were instrumental to ensuring independence. A very specific time in history, with very particular politics, and all of that has to be considered when discussing Fanon’s thoughts and how they are applicable to the South African context in 2016.

This is not a book review. I am pulling out three sections from Peter Hudis’s book that are helpful in making sense of the current student protests in South African universities. Of course the philosophies of Frantz Fanon are applicable to life in South Africa beyond the academy. The three sections I take from the book, for me, speak to the complexity of the current political moment, but also how we can think through this moment. The sections I have decided to highlight and write about in thinking through our current political climate are: the lack of ontology of blackness, the necessity to engage colonialism as a genesis of where we are, and lastly Fanon’s ideal of achieving universal human emancipation. The selected sections from the book, I write about them insofar as they are relevant for us in South Africa.

The philosophies of Frantz Fanon have been part of the current student movements in South African universities. Lines like “we can’t breath” have become part of the vocabulary of the movements. This was a statement screamed out by Eric Garner in NYC when he was being strangled by white police officers. Before Garner popularised this powerful line, it was a much-quoted Fanonism: “When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Fanon has been heavily invoked in the student movements in university campuses all over South Africa. The current political climate at university campuses across the country necessitates a close, contextual reading of Fanon. It necessitates an engagement that asks, what does Fanon mean for us in the current South African political climate (which universities are part of), because surely what it taking place at the university is linked to wider social issues.

Peter Hudis’s book is invaluable in helping us think through the current political moment using Fanon’s philosophy as a guiding light. Fanon’s philosophies are powerful, and they contain within them the roadmap to liberation, but they require immense intellectual labour. We need a meaningful engagement with Fanon’s theories if they are to aid us in grappling with the current political moment. It is this considered engagement that will potentially aid us in formulating an appropriate response to the moment. This is why I think philosopher of the barricades is a necessary read for ALL of us interested in the current political moment. Firstly, this book helps us understand Fanon’s preoccupation with the lack of ontology (existence) of “blackness” – which I see at a point of departure in our engagement with the South African political moment. Hudis writes:

“Unlike the Jew, who (as Sartre discusses in ‘Anti-Semite and the Jew’) is over-determined by the view of themselves that they have interiorized from gentile society, blacks, Fanon contends, are ‘over-determined from the outside’ – that is, they are ‘slaves to their appearance.’ Colonial domination, a rather arbitrary social construction, creates over time a certain way of ‘seeing’, in which skin colour is presumed to have determinative importance. The individual becomes fixated on the supposed ‘fact’ of the person’s blackness. This defines not only the colonisers view of the colonized, but also the colonized view of themselves; they are ‘fixed’ and defined by the ‘gaze’ of the Other. Their ‘being’ is defined by the other – not by themselves. The black comes to see themselves as ‘black’ because of the distorted gaze of the white – who is unaware of the peculiar nature of colonial and racial domination. And since white society tends to associate ‘blackness’ with every negative trait imaginable – again, as a result of its need to justify its domination over them – blacks come to view themselves as inferior to whites. For this reason Fanon writes, ‘the black man (people) has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man (people).’ Ontology refers to the nature of being – it is the study of what constitutes the real. Fanon contends that there is no ontology of blackness, since ‘blackness’ is not a ‘natural’ reality – it is not a form of being that just ‘is.’ Blackness is instead a construct of specific social relations. It is produced, fabricated, not simply given. The black ‘exists’, as black, only in relation to the white: there is no pre-existing black essence that a black person can fall back upon. In other words, blacks ‘exists’ and are defined in negative self-relation to what they are NOT.” … Understanding this is a crucial starting point to understanding and genuinely engaging what’s going on around us.

Linked to the first point about the lack of ontology for “blackness”, a major problem with our analysis and discussions of the current political moment is the lack of historical context. Discussions about why we are where we are are often without any historical considerations. Racism as we have come to know it developed under very specific economic conditions of domination and exploitation such as slavery and colonialism. In South Africa colonisation is something we seem to skip over when we talk about our current political milieu, but it is the genesis of the struggle against white racism. It is the current student movements that have brought the issue of colonialism to the fore by demanding a decolonisation of higher education institutions. When the black students at campuses around the country are talking about economic hardships, having no access to residences, bringing a shack to campus to demonstrate the lack of housing not only on campus but in their communities, they are highlighting (intentionally or not) that the inferiority that plagues the black psyche has it’s origins in economic subjugation, but obviously thereafter “takes on a life of it’s own that surpass that of the economic.” So the socio-economic problem is not divorced from the psychological problem. In South Africa the phrase “human dignity” is often loosely thrown around without any real considerations on what it means for everyday life of black South Africans. This is something the ruling party is very guilty of doing. There is no dignity in poverty. There is no dignity in not having proper sanitation. Poverty is often wrongly framed as a personal failing, ignoring all the colonial history that created the social structure that enables poverty and sustains it. As Hudis demonstrates racism can only be overhauled by dealing with it on both the socio-economic and the psychological level. Hudis notes:

“Fanon adopts a socio-genetic approach to a study of the psyche because that is what is adequate for the object of his analysis. For Fanon, it is the relationship between the socio-economic and psychological that is of crucial import. He makes it clear, insofar as the subject matter of his concerned, that the socio-economic is first of all responsible for the affective disorders: ‘First, economic. Then, internalization or rather epidermalization of this inferiority.” Fanon never misses an opportunity to remind us that racism owes its origin to specific economic relations of domination – such as slavery, colonialism, and the effort to co-opt sections of the working class into serving the needs of capital. It is hard to mistake the Marxist influence here. It does not follow, however, that what comes first in the order of time has conceptual or strategic priority. The inferiority complex is originally born from economic subjugation, but it takes on a life of it’s own and express itself in terms that surpass the economic. Both sides of the problem – the socio-economic and the psychological must be combatted in tandem: ‘The black man (people) must wage the struggle on two levels; whereas historically these levels are mutually dependent, any unilateral liberation is flawed, and the worst mistake would be to believe their mutual dependence automatic.’”

“On these grounds he (Fanon) argues that the problem of racism cannot be solved on a psychological level. It is not an ‘individual’ problem; it is a social one. But neither can it be solved on a social level that ignores the psychological. It is small wonder that although his name never appears in the book (black skin, white masks), Fanon was enamoured of the work of Wilhelm Reich. This important Freudian-Marxist would no doubt feel affinity with Fanon’s comment, ‘Genuine desalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most material sense, have resumed their rightful place.’” … In South Africa things are far from resuming their “rightful place” – The uprisings on campuses across the country are indicative of this. They are also symptomatic of a larger socio-economic and psychological national problem.

Fanon 2

Lastly, Fanon’s ultimate goal was to create a roadmap to achieving universal human emancipation. Although he endorsed nationalism in Algeria and in other African states, Fanon understood that nationalism had limitations. In South Africa and in other Africa states we are very aware of the shortcomings (mostly downright failure) of national movements post-independence. The big question then becomes how do you achieve universal human emancipation, while endorsing nationalism? It is clear that Fanon’s wants us as black people, as Africans, to move us towards what he called New Humanity. Not the European kind of “humanity”. According to Hudis “Fanon’s central philosophy message is that instead of trying to copy or catch up with Europe, it is time to leave it behind – not because all of the values and ideas that arose from it were necessarily wrong, but because they remained unrealised by a Europe which speaks of “man” (humanity) while slaughtering man en masse. Europe has failed humanity; but humanity is not a failure. Its renewal IS possible.” So how do we achieve the New Humanity set out by Fanon while straddling nationalism and full emancipation? Hudis through Fanon seems to think that the seeming contradiction is a necessary one, a contradiction that we need to think through. This contradiction did not come about because of Fanon. “Rather, the contradiction is endemic to the revolutionary process itself.” Hudis states:

“‘Fanon’s commitments revealed a contradiction in his position that he, in effect, never fully resolved, between the wholehearted endorsement of nationalism, and his hope that it would nevertheless produce a nation prepared to transcend its limitations of nationalism.’ This is questionable, since in the Rome speech Fanon does not issue a ‘wholehearted endorsement of nationalism.’ He wholehearted endorses the struggle for national culture and national liberation, which is not reducible (at least in his eyes) to nationalism. Nor does it appear that in the Rome speech he ‘remains divided between the genuine commitment he had to the Algerian movement on the one hand, and the continuing concern he felt for the predicament of black men and black society.’ Fanon plunged into the Algerian movement not because he moved away from concern for ‘the predicament of black men and black society’ but because he viewed the Algerian struggle as the vanguard force in weakening French colonialism and leading to the liberation of black Africa. He did not embrace Algeria’s fight because he became won over to Arab nationalism, but rather because he saw it as a catalyst to the liberation of Africa as a whole. From the start of his career he understood that ‘blackness’ is a creation of colonialism and that embracing any ontology of ‘blackness’ buys into the very logic of racism. [It is crucial then, as we talk about blackness in the current student movements in South Africa, that we don’t get trapped in the very logic of racism we are fighting against] To transcend the fixation associated with racism it is necessary to posit, as an absolute, a particularity that is not fixed or essential but which is the conduit to a new humanism. By the late 1950’s Fanon had wagered that he found that in the national liberation movement.”

“Still, is there not a contradiction between supporting a national struggle, which clearly has a nationalistic component, and seeking to achieve universal human emancipation, which transcends any form of nationalism? There certainly is a ‘contradiction’ here but it is not one that is a mere product of Fanon’s making. Nor is it a matter of him being ‘ambivalent’ about his commitments. Rather, the contradiction is endemic of the revolutionary process itself. Any effort to achieve emancipation entails a development through contradiction – a development from posing particular demands and perspectives to reaching for universal human emancipation. As Marx once put it, ‘the transcendence of self-estrangement follows the same course as self-estrangement.’ There is a tenuous, contradictory relationship between means and ends, and there is no guarantee that it will be successfully navigated – whether we are speaking in terms of struggles over race, class, or gender. An automatic, predetermined teleology is out of the question here. It is not possible to reach the goal except by certain means, but there is no guarantee that the means will be universally recognised as but a step to something else. It is always possible to fall prey to fixation, even in the struggle to liberate oneself from it. This problematic defines the very project of emancipation. One can wish the contradiction away, but it will not disappear. One can seek to deny it by skipping over the particular in order to leap to the universal, or one can ignore the universal in favour of the particular. But in either way case the contradiction is unresolved and remains to haunt us.”

It is my hope that as we strive to achieve a universal human emancipation that we do it in the Fanonian way. Because as Hudis so beautiful put it: “A movement is ‘Fanonian’ not because it consists of peasants, lumpenproletarians, or shackdwellers, any more than it is ‘Fanonian’ because it consists of the working class, students, women, gays and lesbians or blacks and other national minorities. A movement is ‘Fanonian’ insofar, and only insofar, as it ‘re-examines the question of humanity’, rejuvenates it, and actualises it.”

The slow violence of Jesus and the narrative “waiting for the New Jerusalem” for black people

Pecola is the little black girl who yearns for blue eyes in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. You will remember the gut wrenching yearning for blue eyes exhibited by Pecola. Pecola prays to God, every night for a whole year, to give her blue eyes so that she also could be beautiful. She prays for blue eyes so that she could also see beauty. She makes her plea to God every night for a whole year because something so beautiful, like blue eyes would take a long time to come to pass.

In the novel Toni Morrison writes: “Each night without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that would take a long, long time.”

After praying very hard for a whole year for blue eyes, Pecola does not get her blue eyes. She then turns to a Psychic Reader for help and this is what the Psychic Reader says:

“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… a little black girl who wanted to rise out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. For the first time he (Psychic Reader) honestly wished he could work miracles.”

In my initial reading of the book, The Bluest Eye, I was struck by the intersection of race, beauty, and gender. The violence of Eurocentric beauty ideals is something I already had been familiar with at the time. A visit to the magazine section of Exclusive Books will quickly show you what is considered beautiful in our society. In reading the book I didn’t labour much to be able see the psychological effects of white supremacy on Pecola and how it affected the way she saw herself and how she saw the world she was navigating.

The psychological violence of white supremacy on the black psyche is something that has extensively been written about particularly in the 60’s and 70’s in America with black American’s fighting against American racism and the negative depictions of black people. Figures such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and particularly Angela Davis spotting her Afro would become a popular image that even today evokes Black Power sentiment. Out of this movement came slogans like “black is beautiful” and “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” And currently the psychological violence of white supremacy has also been talked about extensively in the Rhodes Must Fall movement, to substantiate why the Rhodes statue Must Fall, at my current institution, the University of Cape Town. The students in the Rhodes Must Fall movement argue that the statue is a constant violent reminder and glorification of Rhodes and his colonial crimes.

Going back to Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel, while I could point to the troubling effects of gendered white supremacist notions of beauty, I was blind to the slow violence of the “fervent praying” that even when she was discouraged, she continued to pray. Even when she wasn’t getting blue eyes, she continued to pray. It would take me years before I could see what Rob Nixon (2011) calls the “slow and lasting” violence and make the link between Jesus and prayer and slow violence. You see the slow motion butchering of Pecola by praying every night for a year for blue eyes, ironically I was sluggish in picking this up. So my sluggish, my own slow realisation of the slow violence of white Jesus and of prayer is indicative of the very imperceptible nature of this form of violence. My own negation of this particular violence reveals the way in which this is not considered violence but just the way things are. Jesus and prayer is what people call upon when they are distressed.

So the character of Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel was instrumental in shaping my thoughts on the slow psychological violence of Jesus, and prayer on the black psyche. The pain conveyed by Toni Morrison is slow and immense and pushes me to critically evaluate the idea that Jesus and prayer are violent. I couldn’t, I still can’t get over the psychological destructiveness of how she prayed for a whole year for pretty blue eyes, blue eyes she will never attain. You have to appreciate the fuckery of it all: here is a black girl praying for blue eyes from a white God – it is the epitome of white supremacy – a black girl asking to be saved by a white God by making her white. Because lets face it asking for blue eyes is to ask for whiteness.

When I was in school and when I attended church, I was taught that I should try to be more like Jesus. There are multiple scriptures in the bible that call on black people to be more like Jesus. John 13: 15, John 15:4, John 15: 10, First Peter 2:21, First John 3:24, and the list goes on. Now in my Sunday school books Jesus had long golden and sometimes brown straight hair with blue eyes. In the many black houses I have visited, the pictures of the last super or of Jesus and his disciples are of European descent. This is the Jesus that black people must pray to and want to be like. There is no escaping the calamity of the relationship between black people, Jesus, and white supremacy.

You see reading this book I understood Pecola because I was Pecola. I too grew up in a church going household. The first church I ever went to was the Don Bosco Roman Catholic Church in Port Elizabeth. See as a little boy I also used to pray, I used to pray for a deeper voice because mine was allegedly too girly, I used to pray to stop lusting after other boys, I used to pray that I played better soccer, because being a black boy in the township and not being able to play soccer is social suicide. I prayed to be more butch. I prayed to be normal. As a young boy I was aware that yearning after other boys is playing with my chances of accessing heaven. I was experiencing ridicule for my gender non-conforming tendencies.

Of course like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel I prayed to no avail, I still have an allegedly effeminate intonation, I still had dirty thoughts about other boys and I developed an aversion to sport.

When I think of Pecola praying and I think of my young self-praying, I am held captive by the slow production of self-hate. For both Pecola and my young self, prayer and in turn Jesus are an active participant in the slow production of self-loathing. The double effect conundrum is that Jesus is the reason for the self-hate, and he is also the fixer of the reasons you self-hate, which is why you pray. There is a slow violence in the promise of prayer; there is a slow violence in living life in the hope that things will be better once God decides to intervene. The slow violence is in the constant nature of prayer; it is the everydayness of prayer that is destructive; it is the constant need to feed the beast.

Currently in black South African communities God, Jesus, and prayer have a very strong hold in the way people live their lives. When I think of black churches, black funerals, and other black spaces like a moving bus, it is common to hear songs and preaching about the New Jerusalem. I want to focus on the narrative of the New Jerusalem, the coming of the New Jerusalem to be exact, because this narrative plays a crucial role in the construction of black people’s lives. The New Jerusalem narrative filters through black lives, and determines the ways that black people respond to life. You must understand that the New Jerusalem is more than a geographical location, it is an ideology.

Now you must imagine that people go to church almost every Sunday. These messages about the New Jerusalem they hear on a weekly basis. Some people go to church more than once a week. The New Jerusalem narratives mostly function on a subconscious level. These New Jerusalem narratives manifest gradually, what Rob Nixon (2011) terms “a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space.” This is what I am trying to demonstrate here. These narratives are quite alive in reality, they manifest in black people’s lives.

The “New Jerusalem” first appears in the Book of Ezekiel as a prophecy. It also appears in Revelations 20-21. As with most bible scriptures, what the New Jerusalem narrative means varies from church to church. I would imagine the white English interpretations of the New Jerusalem might differ from white Afrikaans interpretations; just as both of these would differ probably from the black Xhosa congregations’ interpretations of the narrative. I am really only concerned with black interpretations, particularly Xhosa interpretations.

iJerusalem entsha ezofunyanwa ngabo bathe ngokubephila emhlabeni bazinikela ku Yehova. Abantu abozofumana iJerusalem entsha ngabo bathe bavuma uYesu. Silindile iJerusalem entsha. Translation: Those who have given themselves over to God while on earth will inherit The New Jerusalem. Those who will inherit the New Jerusalem are those who have accepted Jesus. We are waiting for the New Jerusalem.

The question of Jesus is a pressing matter for black people’s liberation because the construct of a white Jesus is one of the strongest ways black people are held captive. Here I am NOT concerned with the issue of whether Jesus is real or not, whether he lived or not, whether he is really blond or not. I am interested in interrogating the slow violent construct of Jesus and the New Jerusalem narrative as real in the ways that black people experience it and live it. I find the narrative of “The New Jerusalem” and what that ideology represents a slow motion butchering of the black psyche. It impedes self-realisation and it hinders the rejection of inferiority complex that plagues the black self.

Firstly the Coming of the New Jerusalem narrative is closely linked to the narrative of “storing your wealth in heaven.” This is amongst the most popular bible quotes, that one should not accrue wealth whilst on earth, they should rather go to church and store themselves illusive “heavenly treasures.” This narrative is troublesome because is promotes complacency in black people. It promotes the idea that people need not try and be wealthy, while wealth would improve their lives. It paints the idea of wealth in a negative light for black people, while others; predominantly white others are enjoying wealth right here on earth.

The irony is that it is people who used to worship ancestors before the arrival of Europeans who are now obsessed with the construct of Jesus. You have to appreciate the peculiarity of it all, that although black people have been “emancipated” from colonialism and in South Africa also from apartheid, they continue to be enslaved to a Jesus that was an instrument in their colonisation.

The storing of wealth in heaven narrative is connected to my second point, which is the construction of poverty as virtue. Black people aided by the church often couch poverty and struggling as virtuous things. That it is noble to be poor, that it is better to be poor, and all of this is captured of course in the bible verse that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye a needle than it is for a rich person to inherit the kingdom of god.

The narrative of the New Jerusalem linked with the issue of storing wealth in heaven and then paired with the construction of poverty as virtuous has destructive manifestations for black people. These narratives ensure that the cycle of poverty is entrenched in black families because generations of black people do not leave inheritance for their children. These narratives create self-loathing black people, and then exploit that self-loathing to sustain systems of exploitation. The New Jerusalem narrative pacifies black people from demanding more in this life; demanding more from their relationships, their work life, their communities, and their government. To echo Karl Marx, these narratives encourages black people to believe that the afterlife will be better which lulls them in the current life, which renders them incapable of demanding a decent material life.

Black Consciousness pioneer Steve Biko was very much attuned to the issue of Jesus as a black problem. Biko asserted that “because the white missionary described black people as thieves, lazy, sex-hungry etc, and because the missionary equated all that was valuable with whiteness, our Churches see these vices not as manifestations of the cruelty and injustice which blacks are subjected to by the white man but inevitable proof that after all the white man was right when he described us as savages.” Frantz Fanon also issued warnings about Jesus in Concerning Violence when he said, “The church in the colonies is the white people’s church, the foreigners church. She does not call the native to god’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few are chosen.”

The narrative of “the new Jerusalem” is an ideology that has been slowly slaughtering the lives of black people. The relationship between black people, Jesus, and white supremacy is psychologically damaging and warrants critique. We need to question the concept of Jesus and the things black people do in the name of God. The systematic structure of white supremacy, which is part and parcel of the construct of white Jesus, needs to be challenged and even if God is not willing, it needs to be overhauled.

Jesus is destructive for black people

There are two times in my life that I started to think critically about Jesus and all that he represents. The first moment was when I was in school and my friend NomaA said to me that she thinks Jesus is horrible and hates black people. NomaA said that God hates black people because he gave black women ugly hair and they have to go to so much trouble to get their hair as silky as white women’s hair. NomaA said that if God loved black people he would have given black women straight, beautiful, flowing hair and not the type of hair that needs to much labour to make it beautiful. I remember this conversation because it was the first time someone had spoken so openly to me about dissatisfaction with God.

The second time my young mind had to critically think about Jesus (I use God and Jesus interchangeably, they are after all the same person) was when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. You will remember Pecola in the book and the sadness of her yearning for blue eyes. Pecola, a black girl who prays to God to give her blue eyes so that she could also be beautiful. I remember reading the following passages and weeping:

“Each night without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that would take a long, long time.”

After praying very hard for a whole year for blue eyes, Pecola does not get her blue eyes. She then goes to see a Psychic Reader and who said:

“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… a little black girl who wanted to rise out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. For the first time he (Psychic Reader) honestly wished he could work miracles.”

As you can imagine I’ve had other experiences that have made me question the concept of Jesus, but these two stand out because I was so young and both of these encounters have stayed with me. What also made these encounters special is that when I read about Pecola in The Bluest Eye, I immediately thought of NomaA and how she must have felt about black women’s hair.

Now I am a little older and I have sat through many Sociology classes that have enabled me unpack these events in retrospect. There is much to unpack from the statements made by my friend NomaA and by Pecola about the intersection of race, religion, gender, and beauty. In this piece I want to concentrate on religion, on God, on Jesus and why it is destructive for black people to believe in this construct.

The statement made by NomaA back in school about her black hair and Jesus not giving black people flowing white people hair was problematic because it relies on white supremacist concepts of beauty. What NomaA believed about Jesus on the other hand was correct to a large extent, because it is clear that if there was such a thing as a Jesus, then he really doesn’t like black people, women, disabled people, and LGBTI people. The important question then becomes why would black people want to worship a God that doesn’t seem to like them? Back in school both NomaA and I didn’t have the analytical tools to help us understand the way South African society was shaped and how race, God, and white supremacy are linked. Even though we didn’t have well developed analytical skills NomaA already felt that there was something wrong with the Jesus picture.

The character of Pecola was instrumental in helping me see the violence of Christianity on the black psyche. The way Pecola prays to white Jesus for blue eyes made me weep. I couldn’t (still can’t) get over the destructiveness of how she prayed for a whole year for pretty blue eyes, blue eyes she will never attain. Here is a black girl praying for blue eyes from a white God – it is the essence of white supremacy – black people asking to be saved by a white God by making them white. To think that black people continue praying to Jesus so that “they can be more like (white) Jesus.” You have to appreciate the wackiness of it all, that although black people have been “emancipated” from colonialism and in South Africa also from apartheid, they continue to be enslaved to a Jesus that was an instrument in their colonisation.

The question of Jesus is a pressing matter for black people’s liberation because the construct of white Jesus is one of the strongest ways black people are held in captivity. I have already written about the dangers of the concept of “The New Jerusalem” and “storing your wealth in heaven” while others, predominantly white others are enjoying wealth right here on earth. The concept of Jesus is the biggest scam on the African continent and the only people who do not seem to see this is black people. It is a scam because the very people who brought Jesus here do not give two shits about him. It is people who used to worship ancestors before the arrival of Europeans who are willing to die and sometimes kill for Jesus.

A friend of mine recently sent me a video from Stan The White Guy who has some interesting things to say about black people and about Jesus. Stan says a number of things that are true including:

“We use white supremacy and religion to mind fuck brown people.”

“If you believe in a God of your enemy, you are an idiot.”

“We gave you this God because we knew by worshiping a white God you will be worshipping us (white people).”

“You will never fight against us because subconsciously you will be fighting God.”

 Watch the video here.

The relationship between Jesus and white supremacy is destructive for us not to pay attention. The relationship black people have with Jesus is psychologically damaging for us not to critique it. We need to question the concept of Jesus and the things black people do in the name of God. The construct of white Jesus is part and parcel of  the systematic structure of white supremacy and it needs to be challenged and even if God is not willing, it needs to be overhauled. I would rather black people worship dead grandmothers and dead grandfathers a.k.a ancestors than to worship a white, blue eyed Jewish guy who was born from a virgin.

Written by Lwando Scott 

“Respect your elders” – critiquing older black people

A couple of months ago I went to a conference on African development and the presenters at the conference were talking about the possibilities of development in different parts of Africa. As the conference proceeded with dignitaries from different African countries and representatives from different developmental agencies I asked a few critical questions about development, which were left unanswered. Developmental agencies have the habit of speaking about development without saying anything. At some point during the conference after expressing concern about the motives of development in Africa I was shushed by an older black man who said, “you need to respect your elders.” This statement shocked me because I was really not expecting it in that setting, but there it was. Now, this is not the first time I have been shushed by someone using this statement, in fact I here it almost too often.

When I ask difficult questions to older people, particularly black older people, I am told that I should not speak to elders “that way.” I have learned that “respect your elders” means that do not be critical, it means do not ask questions that are potentially embarrassing for older people, and do not contradict older people. This can be really tricky for us young black people who want to question the ideas of older people in our communities, who want to ask difficult questions about our cultures, and who want to hold older people accountable for their actions. Without being disrespectful.

It is easy to understand that people who are older have gone through life and have accumulated experience and can make sound judgement because of that experience. But it is also true that young people might have a different vision of the future and that future vision can contradict the current ways of doing things. I do not think however silencing young people by saying, “respect your elders” is a productive way of dealing with dissenting voices.

Of course “respect your elders” can easily be translated to “do not question your elders” and I find this problematic on many levels. The big fallacy behind the “respect your elders” statement is that older people, or more precisely older people in positions of authority, know better. We know this is false because history has shown us that older people sometimes do not know any better. Just as history has shown us that young people, like the recent 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, do sometimes know more than older people. Age is not a barometer of good or bad ideas. Age should not be used to silence people with opposing ideas. There has to be a free flow of ideas, even when people disagree on those ideas.

Of course the idea of “respect your elders” is not unlinked to the ubiquitous belief that black people must agree on everything and they must stand by each other no matter what. The idea that older black people can’t be critiqued is unsound and it is a destructive way of living our lives and building a better South Africa. Even when people are related they sometimes disagree. We can’t be afraid of critiquing each other as black people for fear that you are going to be regarded to be as a traitor. We need to have dissenting voices and we need to be able to call each other out and hold each other responsible in order to build great communities. Critiquing another black person is not an automatic solidarity to whiteness; on the contrary I think being able to critique each other strengthen us as communities.

The idea of being able to ask difficult questions, and critique each other also has to do with our ability to be honest with each other. It is a way to keep each other accountable to each other as community members. If we aren’t able to call each other out, who will? If we can’t set each other straight, who will? How are we supposed to build a strong society with functional communities if we can’t be honest with the critique we give each other? This is not to say that the critique can’t be given in a respectful manner, but it has to be given. It is necessary to critique the current structures of society like the government and/or our current cultural practises that are unhelpful in the building of a functioning and healthy society.

I think it would be helpful for all of us to understand and function under the philosophy that no one is above criticism. No one is above being called out particularly if they are engaging with people in a public forum. This is even more so for individuals who represent people in any government office. Ward councillors are not above criticism, professors at university are not above criticism, radio presenters are not above criticism, religion in all its varieties is not above criticism, President Zuma and his ministers are not above criticism, and even my mother is not above criticism.

After understanding the idea of everyone being open for critique, particularly people in public office, South Africans need to cultivate a culture of critiquing each other’s ideas without attacking the person who presents the idea. For example, there is a difference between critiquing the idea of assisted suicide from attacking and vilifying the person who believes in assisted suicide. It is possible to critique the idea of assisted suicide without talking about the personality or what you personally think of the person who is arguing for assisted suicide.

The issue of being able to critique elders is not easy because South Africa’s past of colonisation and then apartheid, in that many people feel African practises like the rule of “respect your elders” are not adhered to because they are destroyed by the previous oppressive regimes. This is a legitimate point of contention, and needs to be discussed at length on its own. I understand the complexity of living in 21st century Africa where traditional values are jostling with western culture for the dominant narrative. But in the same ways we critique and reject western ideas of normality that dominate our lives, we need to have space where we call into question African traditional cultural practices that are problematic and sometimes destructive. I refuse to participate in the charade where African traditional cultural practices are used as a way to escape accountability by silencing dissenting ideas.

Reflections: Memoirs of a Born Free

                                               Malaika

Author: Malaika Wa Azania

Written by: Lwando Scott 

When I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. I have a thing for clever book tittles and I love smart book covers. There’s even a book covers archive that I visit more often than I should. Memoirs of a Born Free touches on subjects that almost every black South African will have experienced. Reading this book I could see myself and I could remember the experiences I’ve had navigating South African society. I could see the lives of thousands other young black people who have travelled a similar road as Maliaka Wa Azania.

Firstly I love how Setswana is peppered throughout the book. The use of the African language in this book is reminiscent of the way we speak; it is the way black people converse in everyday life. The code switching between English and multiple vernacular languages that is present in my everyday conversation with other black people is very much present in this book. Malaika Wa Azania succeeds in translating everyday reality, the everydayness of her life into paper and it is such a pleasure to read. She also tries to convert certain vernacular phrases like “njengamathe no lwimi” into English “inseparable as a tongue and saliva” and obviously it doesn’t sound as punchy in English as it does in the vernacular, but the message is sent.

Malaika Wa Azania’s battles with navigating white spaces and white culture is a recurring theme in the book. She addresses her dealings with white supremacists culture when she talks about how when she attended Melpark Primary School, which is a former Model-C school with predominantly white students and white teachers, and felt like part of her was left in the township of Meadowlands Zone 8. That part of her was not welcomed in this white establishment.

What connects me to this book is also what frustrates. On the one hand I am glad that I have someone who understands what it means to be young and black in South Africa, but it also means that there’s something horribly wrong with social structure of South Africa that young black people are experiencing similar racial and class problems. Black people navigating predominantly white spaces are constantly complaining about the need to assimilate in order to be taken seriously, or seen as part of institutions in South Africa. The irony of-course is that assimilation often results in just as much alienation and humiliation as non-assimilation.

Reading this section of the book reminded me of three studies that have been conducted at the University of Cape Town about black students struggling to navigate the former whites only university. These are the studies:

  1. Like that statue at Jammie stairs”: Some student perceptions and experiences of institutional culture at the university of Cape Town. By Melissa Steyn and Mikki van Zyle (1999).
  2. Not naming Race: some medical students’ perceptions and experiences of ‘race’ and racism at the Health Sciences faculty of the University of Cape Town. By Zimitri Erasmus and Jacques de Wet (2003).
  3. Coming to UCT: Black students, transformation and the politics of race.” HUMA Seminar presented by Dr. Shose Kessi (2014).

All of these studies point to the alienating and humiliating nature of former whites only institutions that are refusing to transform and culturally embrace the post 1994 student body. What Malaika Wa Azania’s experiences growing up as a “Born Free” is indicative of the experiences that black students on different schools and campuses around the country.

The alienation depicted in this book is worsened by the humiliation of poverty. Although Malaika Wa Azania writes about “drawing strength from poverty”, it is painful to be reminded about one’s poverty on a daily basis at predominantly white schools by whites and sometimes black kids from middle class homes.

While reading the book I had a laugh out loud moment when Maliaka was insensitive to a school teacher who was crying in front of her class over her dog that had recently died by laughing at the woman’s tears. Malaika couldn’t understand why someone would cry over the death of a dog, so different the worlds that Malaika and her teachers and fellow students lived in. The relationships white people have with their pets was humorous to a township kid who grew up with stray dogs. In the township even yard dogs never reduced their owners to tears when they died.

I personally identified with the struggle for education in Malaika Wa Azania’s memoir. She passionately discusses the impossible task of trying to get a decent education in this country if you are poor or from a working class background. The odds are against you in every possible way, and reading this book, I couldn’t help but think of my own quest for education which has not been easy, particularly when I was finishing matric and about to starting university. Just like Malaika Wa Azania, my mother lost her Pick n’ Pay job in my matric year, and the future was so uncertain at that time. I was anxious about a future that could possibly never be because all my hope was in getting a decent education in order to escape poverty. And in this country, a decent education requires a decent income.

Not having money to register at her first choice high school, Malaika ends up going to another school, and she was grateful that the school had proper facilities unlike the townships schools. The poor education and poor infrastructure that is common in townships schools inhibits the success of black pupils. In the past 20 years township schools have only deteriorated and some have shut down. Where I grew up in Kwazakhele, Port Elizabeth, about three schools close to my house have closed. The ones in operation, including the one I went to as a kid, are falling apart with toilets not properly working and sometimes with no running water.

Malaika’s mom valued education and she does whatever is necessary to ensure that her kids go to school, to the point where she worked herself into a psychiatric hospital. Whoever said hard work doesn’t kill, has never met black South African single mothers. It would seem that Malaika’s mother, just like my mother, took Nelson Mandela’s words to heart that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words have propelled me to aggressively pursue my education even in the hardest of times.

The one aspect in the book that left me feeling a little ambivalent was when Malaika Wa Azania was talking about being taught about apartheid by her family. I imagine that white young people are also getting a version of apartheid from their parents, and I am interested in how the white telling of apartheid would be similar or different from the black telling of apartheid. Although I think that apartheid history is important to teach and to be talked about, I am concerned about one-sided stories about the past from families. I wonder what this “family education” does because we need to be mindful of transforming South African society, and not create another generation of people who think along apartheid lines.

Malaika Wa Azania says that “merely by being born black in this country you had problems.” Malaika speaks to the ways in which our society is structured; that your blackness ensures that you are positioned at a disadvantage is South African society. Transforming this country is harder than people anticipated it would be in 1994. Memoirs of a Born Free is a book I want all my friends, my cousins, and my professors to read. This book is a reflection of our country told by a young black woman who is trying to find her place in the world and South Africans have so much to learn from it. Malaika Wa Azania chronicles the everyday struggles of young black people in the “new” South Africa. Malaika is the embodiment of Nina Simone’s “to be young, gifted, and black” and I am super excited that I live in a South Africa where young people like Malaika are taking their place.

Queering Postcolonial Reality

Many of us who grow up intersex, lesbian, gay, or generally with a gender non-conforming way of being often have a difficult time in developing positive self image and self identity. Growing up is complicated further when you have to negotiate this non-gender conforming way of being and/or same-sex attraction with having an African identity. The now very famous adage “homosexuality is un-African” is a deeply held belief that has seeped into almost every segment of African society.

It has been repeated ad nauseam by different statesmen from different corners of the African continent people like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Jahya Jemmeh of Gambia, the Congress of Traditional Leaders in South Africa. This axiom has come to hold as much power as bible scriptures. It is used at once to denounce the sexual immorality of Western society that is supposedly infiltrating Africa while at the same time promotes the sexual morality of Africans. Growing up in South Africa I was very aware of the supposed contradiction of African identity and homosexuality and how these two things couldn’t and shouldn’t intersect.

The sentiment of homosexuality as un-African is a postcolonial phenomenon. Anti-colonial movements never really addressed the question of homosexuality. The ANC was forced to deal with the issue of homosexuality towards the end of apartheid. We need a queering up of postcolonial understanding of Africa through problematizing the logic used to discriminate against homosexuality. The recent anti-homosexuality laws that have been enacted in Uganda and Nigeria and the passive response, which I read as consent, from African leaders, including South Africa, speak to the narrow and limited interpretation of postcolonial existence in postcolonial Africa.

What does it mean to be an African in postcolonial times, a time that some argue is not as “post” colonial as we would like to believe? What do we do with a postcolonial existence that does not look like the postcolonial world imagined when independence was won and democracy instituted? The ongoing battle over the “authenticity” of the African homosexual is really a battle of what does it mean to be African in the fraught postcolonial existence. Who are we and where are we situated in history? These are really big questions. It is not the task of this piece to address African existential questions. I want to take issue with the ways in which homosexual discrimination is constructed, and then talk about the possibilities for self-invention that are created by a free imagination.

The complexity of postcolonial life needs to be negotiated carefully, and moving away from simplifying human experience in African is paramount. There are three main arguments that are often evoked against homosexuality in Africa. Firstly there is a fictitious Africa that we are often told about where homosexuality never existed. Secondly, religion is used to substantiate the arguments against homosexuality. Popular scriptures are used like the famous Leviticus 18:22 to demonstrate how it is against god to have same-sex attraction. Lastly I interrogate how African homosexuals are misguidedly used to snub supposedly Western imperialism.

Postcolonial reality is burdened with complexity that will not be solved in the near future. Complexity that is baggage from colonialism, the partition of the continent, independence/democracy with “development” loans, which has all lead to unstable economies, poverty, and civil wars. People underestimate the deep and long lasting consequences that colonialism, and in South Africa apartheid, has had on African states.

One of the ways in which Africans deals with the heaviness of a colonial past that paints the African as savage, with no history, hyper sexual, and with no contribution to the development of the world – there is a creation of what Africa looked liked, what Africans used to do with their bodies prior to colonialism. This fictitious Africa is without same-sex attraction, same-sex love, and same-sex marriage. It is an Africa without any homoerotic tendencies. This fictitious Africa is a place where homosexuality doesn’t exist. In this artificial pre-colonial Africa, same-sex love has never existed. It is seen as learned from Western colonizers upon arrival.

This argument makes me wonder what does it mean to learn, adopt, and/or copy from Western countries? The structures of many African universities, physically and philosophically, are modeled after European universities. Shouldn’t they be outlawed as well? Albeit sometimes reformed, the parliamentary systems and “democracy” are all systems of governance adopted from the West. The very constitutions governing African states outlawing homosexuality as a Western construct are rough drafts from Western countries. The “homosexuality is copied from the west” excuse is an ignorant and inconsistent excuse to discriminate against homosexuals.

Anti-homosexuality arguments are draped with concern over the disappearance or pollution of African culture. The many ways in which African culture can be preserved for future generations does not include the execution of homosexuals. The best ways in which African culture and traditions can be preserved is by writing books that chronicle African life, we should be writing textbooks and novels in isiXhosa and isiZulu and other indigenous languages. We should be building language institutes and cultural centers whose main goal is to document and preserve culture. We should be making sure that schools in townships, in rural areas, in far flung areas are well equipped to teach students in the vernacular and to teach the history of the very culture in which society is trying to preserve.

Preservation of African culture, African traditions, and African ways of being means that you incentivize people who speak, read and/or write more than two, or three or four African languages. Create and subsidize publishing houses that publish work in indigenous languages. This will go much further and will actually help in preserving some essence of culture, at least in archival form. Indigenous languages are only glorified in the constitution, and South Africans love boasting to foreigners that they have eleven official languages. In reality South Africans mostly use one language, English, all the other ones are basically ornamental, unless of course you live in Stellenbosch.

Now if government leaders were interested in the preservation of African culture, languages would be a priority because we know that culture is lived through language. This is more so for African communities because many of our cultures have not been written down like most of Western culture. Our cultures are passed down mostly orally which means they live and breathe only as far as people speak and practice them. What I have outlined here are concrete steps towards the preservation of African culture and traditions. The creation of laws that seek to prohibit two people of the same-sex from loving and sexually pleasing each other will not do much for the preservation of African culture and traditions.

The issue here is not about African culture. If it were, other strategies of preserving the culture would need to be employed. Moving away from talking about a fantasy Africa is important because we need to be talking more about the Africa we want to live in, an Africa that Nelson Mandela hoped would be “at peace with itself.” An Africa at peace with itself will not be achieved by “correcting” African lesbians through rape or by imprisoning people that are suspected of being homosexuals.

In trying to understand the anti-homosexuality laws, discrimination, and violence I wonder how in the postcolonial narrative homosexuality is Western but Christianity is not branded the same. Christian fundamentalists do not even bother to engage with the arguments that Christianity is un-African. Africans who live according to the bible often act like they are better than people who don’t read the bible. It has been my experience that religious people are the most heartless and will maim people in the name of god.

When listening to the news, reading newspapers, or listening to friends talk, religion is always tip toed around. There is a double standard in our society on calling out religious fundamentalists about the ways in which they inflict pain, harass, and oppress people who are non-believers. African homosexuals have been heavily affected by the hatred of the church, and that’s what it is, hatred.

Religion is not unlinked to colonialism, and I would have imagined that as a society we would have reservations about religion, especially Christianity because it came to be a force on the African continent through missionaries. The missionaries saw the African way of life as barbaric, savage like, and in much need of civilising. The Christianity that is used to demonise homosexuality is the same Christianity that was used to demonise black people during apartheid. We often skirt around the horrible role that religion played in the construction of black Africans as other in colonialism and in apartheid South Africa.

The very people who orchestrated apartheid were reading the same bible that black South Africa were reading then, and continue to read. We are oblivious to the fact that the very notions that are used to lash out by the majority of black Africans on African homosexuals were used by white Europeans in rationalising colonisation of the African continent; indeed apartheid in South Africa.

When I think about colonisation, apartheid, and the bible I am reminded of Eugene De Kock’s confession that he really believed that he was carrying out the mission of God, that black Africans, particularly in the ANC were against God and the state and so should be killed. The bible that Eugene De Kock and many others in the South African Defence Force during apartheid carried the state issued bible with a message from P.W. Botha and it partly read: “The bible is an important part of your calling to duty. When you are overwhelmed with doubt, pain, or when you find yourself wavering, you must turn to this wonderful book of answers. …… It is my prayer that this bible will be your comfort so that you can fulfil your duty.” The “fulfil your duty” from P.W. Botha includes the mutilation of thousands of African bodies at the hands of the South African Defence Force written in a bible. The bible has now found new use, to oppress and to vilify people with divergent sexual orientations. So yes, I am extremely skeptical about the bible and I am vigilant on whom and how it is used to oppress. Religion can and has been used for the most evil of purposes. As Africans we need to be attentive indeed critical of religion because it is the very religion that was used to justify our enslavement.

The convoluted nature of postcolonial reality is revealed when draconian anti-homosexuality laws, which harken back at puritanical anti-sodomy laws, are being created by Africans to oppress fellow Africans in the name of a colonial Jesus. The messiness of postcolonial life is also revealed at burials where priests and church leaders preside over mutilated bodies of African lesbians in South Africa but fail to link the church’s hatred of homosexuality and the consent it generates for the murders of African lesbians. The Christian obsession with people’s sexuality and “how” homosexuals have sex knows no boundaries, to a point where gay pornographic videos are shown in church.

In the tirade against homosexuals many are oblivious or look the other way at African men and women who are not “gay” or “lesbian” but engage in what sociologist would call situational homosexual sex. This is the sex between people of the same-sex that would occur in prisons, in boarding school, in the mines, and in woman only spaces, not because these people necessarily identify as homosexual but the opportunity for same-sex sex presents itself. With this then I would echo Michelle Foucault’s assertion that people are not really affronted about homosexual sex per se but are unsettled by the audacity of people to actually love each other.

I advocate caution with the ways in which everything “African” is measured by “going against the West.” We need to interrogate the narrative that ALL that we are as Africans is what the West in not and vice versa. This is not to say that there aren’t differences between African cultures and Western cultures, there are, but we need to be vigilant of the simplistic rendering of acts, in this case sexual acts, as black and white. Human life is far more sophisticated than that. Human existence and world history provides a precarious and fraught colonial history that impacts on African life today. A history that is difficult to understand because it is ever shifting.

This reactionary business of always going in the opposite direction of the West, for the sake of moving in the opposite direction, just so we are not like them, is not helpful to the African Renaissance. It is not helpful in our journey of building a continent with people who are at peace with themselves. We cannot un-do colonialism; we cannot create legislation to govern people’s lives in 2014 with an invented pre-colonial existence. This is not to say that there was no pre-colonial African life, or that life should be ignored, on the contrary, we can write books about it. What I am suggesting is that, yes, we need to deal with the fact that what we are as Africans today is probably not what we would have been without colonization. But we also have to know and believe that even without the influence of colonization, what we were in 1652 we wouldn’t be the same people in 2014.

The insinuation that African homosexuals are only but a product of the West is really insulting and negates LGBTI people’s agency. It is misguided because the African homosexual has worked tirelessly to create a self without a model. The African homosexual has against horrendous odds claimed an identity that is demonized and relegated to the bottom of humanity. In spite of all of this, the African homosexual says I am here. It would seem to me that African homosexuals embody the spirit of the African Renaissance. They have taken the possibilities afforded by postcolonial reality and in South Africa by post-apartheid freedom and crafted a self, a sexual self.

Remember amongst many things taken from us by colonialism, it robbed us of a way to construct ourselves, but living in postcolonial times we have the opportunity to imagine and subsequently create the Africa and the African-self we envision. The African homosexual is probably one of the greatest examples of the prospects fashioned by living in postcolonial times, the opportunity for self-invention. Freed from the shackles of colonialism, the possibilities are endless and they include forming a sexual self that is different. There cannot put a limit placed on how we imagine a future Africa. We cannot cap the potential of human imagination in how people see themselves and their world and their future. So, instead of stoning, imprisoning, or maiming African homosexuals, I would advocate using them as examples of an uncapped imagination, of possibility, and freedom in a convoluted postcolonial reality.