Miss Uganda, Miss Gay Ekasi – constructions of African beauty

                  Miss Gay

Written by Lwando Scott 

I was recently asked to be a judge at the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant organised by the Desmond Tutu Aids Foundation. You can imagine my excitement when I was asked to be a judge at the pageant. The competition took place at the Delft Community Hall in Delft. After giving the crowd a Queen Elizabeth wave as I was introduced as one of the judges, I took my seat and waited for the contestants to come on stage in their casual wear. When I arrived at the competition I was under the impression that Mr Gay would be women in drag, as in dressed up as men to compete for Mr Gay and the Miss Gay would be men in drag. To my surprise both the Mr and Miss contestants were men. I suppose the Mr “Gay” and Miss “Gay” tittle should have been the first clue, but that will teach me to assume the gendering of gay pageants. Although after the pageant I couldn’t help but think about whether there are any Mr and Miss Lesbian pageants? I don’t ever remember attending one, or hearing that it’s taking place, which brings up a number of questions about gender in LGBTI pageants.

As soon as the competition began I realised that this was going to be a tough job, but I was ready and willing with my scoring sheets. The contestants strutted on stage trying to impress us in the second round with “wild life” themed outfits. The contestants came out in swimsuits and other “wild life” interpretations including what looked like goatskin. This round was followed by eveningwear, which was the last round the contestants could use to impress the judges. Throughout the competition the crowd was really not shy about whom they thought should win, and became more aggressive about it by getting closer to the stage towards the end of the completion.

After much debate and deliberation we, the judges, chose the top five Miss Gay and top three Mr Gay and after questions and answers we came to a conclusion of who should win.

The Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant is community centred. It is an annual celebration of young LGBTI people who are living their lives, the best way they know how, under extremely harsh social conditions. In the participants I saw young people who are brave, who challenge their communities gender expectations and defining for themselves what it means to live free. In the participants I saw a determined spirit that I hope burns on in other areas of their lives. I was inspired to be in the company of black LGBTI people who are marvelling in each other’s presence. The energy in that Community Hall can’t be described it had to be felt.

I am not new in the world of beauty pageants. My fascination with beauty pageants began in the mid 1990’s when I still a primary school going little boy. I used to watch Miss South Africa every year and then watch Miss Universe and then conclude the holy trinity of pageants with Miss World. I used to have a note pad and a pen and I would closely watch the scores and write them down so I could predict the winner. I became very good at predicting the winners because after watching religiously I picked up on the patterns of the competitions. I think maybe these were the first signs of my interest in social science.

As I grew older and began to have a more nuanced understanding of the world, I began to see beauty pageants in a different light. Pageants are not divorced from the racialized ideas of beauty. The politics of apartheid ensured that black women were excluded from entering the national beauty pageant but after apartheid fell Jackie Mofokeng was crowned the first black Miss South Africa in 1993. The following year Basetsana Khumalo (Makgalemele back then) was named Miss Africa 1994.

It is important to note that the black women who win Miss South Africa in the post-apartheid era are women who closely resemble white ideals of beauty. These ideals include slender figures, relaxed hair or hair extensions, etc. By saying this I am not condemning black women who choose to straighten their hair and wear weaves, but what I am saying is that beauty pageants seem to ONLY accept this style of black women to enter and win. This was largely replicated in the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant, although the woman who won Miss Gay Ekasi had a shaved head, which was refreshing for the judges.

The racialized politics of beauty continue as we have seen with the crowning of Leah Kalanguka as Miss Uganda 2014/15 and the amount of abuse she has received because she is seen as “ugly.” On social media platforms Ugandans and other people have called Leah Kalanguka all kinds of derogatory names and have said that she does not deserve the crown because she is not beautiful. People often talk about beauty as if it is something that is “natural” but society is actively involved in the process of constructing beauty. The ways in which beauty is constructed in society, including African communities, does not take place outside of the notions of white supremacy. I would argue actually that current constructions of beauty are based on white supremacist foundations.

We live in a world where black people are obsessed with “yellow bone” beauty. I have written about the white supremacist foundations of the term “yellow bone” and I think calling Leah Kalanguka “ugly” is a manifestation of “yellow bone” narratives. I don’t think Miss Uganda 2014/15 is “ugly” she has dark skin and it is her dark skin that people are equating with ugliness. In a world of “yellow bone” beauty, where beauty is measured by proximity to whiteness, of course people will find her “ugly.” The statements made by people on social media platforms about Leah Kalanguka do not shock me. This is not a surprising at all. Actually, sadly, it’s quite expected.

This story about Miss Uganda speaks to the desperate need for black people to deprogram themselves of white supremacist notions of beauty. Although there are many platforms like magazines, books, websites, twitter accounts, Facebook pages that celebrate African beauty, the venomous colonial narratives of beauty persist. We live in postcolonial times on this continent, and post-apartheid in South Africa, and the possibilities of constructing African beauty according to our own ideals is infinite. As people who are working towards the realisation of an African Renaissance it would do us good to shed the limited conceptions of beauty, of love, of sexuality, of the good life, of success, of gender, of Africa-ness, left behind by colonialists.

Achille Mbembe articulates quite successfully the essence of what we should be striving for when he states “we need to reopen Africa to the circulation of ideas and mobility, against models of post colonial, internalised boundaries.” We need to break the narrow confines with which we work with to define African beauty and identities.

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.

iLifa lezithutha lidliwa ngabahlakaniphileyo

Uyazi ngelinye ixesha andibaqondi kakuhle abantu bakuthi banjani. Yintoni lento yethu yoku kholelwa yonke into esuka kumntu othi “ndingumfundisi?” Kutheni abantu bakuthi bangakhe baphikisane nomntu onguMfundisi ozokuthi yena uyayazi inyani ukoqgitha abanye abantu. Sonke siyayazi into yokuba ibhayibhile yingcwadi eyabhalwa kudala, yayibhalelwe ukubonisa abantu indlela yokuphila ngoko. Ezamini ibhayibhile yayibhalwe ngazo zohlukile kwezi ntsuku siphila kuzo namhlanje.

Masikesithethe nge ndlela ibhayibile efikengayo eMzantsi Afrika. Ingcwadi yokuqala ye bhayibhile eyaguqulwa ngesi Xhosa yayi ngo 1833. Ngamanye amazwi akukho kudala ikhona ibhayibhile yesi Xhosa. Ithetha ukuthi lonto ibhayibile yesi Xhosa ineminyaka angaphantsi ku 200. Apha eMzantsi Africa ibhayibhile ifika nabantu abamhlophe besuka phesheya besithi bangama “Protestant” (andiyazi yintoni iProtestant ngesi Xhosa) nama Roma. Abantu bakuthi baafundiswa nge bhayibhile kwathiwa mabalahle amasiko nezithethe zabo ngokuba azibabalwanga and azingqinelelani nemfundiso zebhayibhile. Abantu bakuthi bazilahla izithethe zabo abanye bengafuni uzilahla izithethe zabo. Namhlanje siphila elizweni elunguMxube abanye bayathandaza, abanye bayaxhela, abanye baxhela be thandaza, bazenza zonke mntasekhaya. Andithi ukuthandaza kungcono kunoxhela okanye ukuxhela kungcono kunokuthandaza, into endiyithethayo kukuba kutheni abantu bangakhe baphikisane nomfundisi xa eshumayela, okanye xa esithi abantu mabatye ingca, okanye xa esithi abantu maba sele i-petrol? Wenamntu ukhonzayo awuyiboni ingathi isnaks into yokuba uhamba usela i-petrol okanye ukutya ingca? Kutheni abantu bangavuli amahle babone ukuba ayikho lento ithethwa ngababa fundisi.

Kukho lento abantu ba kholelwa kuyo ye Jerusalem entsha. Masike sincokole ngale Jerusalem intsha bethuna. Indaba ye Jerusalem entsha isuka ebhayibhileni. iJerusalem entsha ezofunyanwa ngabo bathe ngokubephila emhlabeni bazinikela ku Yehova. Abantu abozofumana iJerusalem entsha ngabo bathe bavuma uYesu. Into abantu ingathi abayiqondi yinto yokuba iJerusalem yindawo ekhoyo KwaSirayeli apho abantu abamnyama bangafunwa khona. iJerusalem endala yile iselizweni elicinezela amaPalestina. AmaPalestina namhlanje acinezelwe nje ngabantu abamnyama babecinizelekile nge ntsuku zo calucalulo apha eMzantsi Afrika.

Abantu ingathi abayibali into yokuba le Jerusalem intsha bathethangayo izayo abanye abantu, ngakumbi abantu abamhlophe, bayitya apha emhlabeni iJerusalem entsha. Njengokuba abantu bakuthi besithi balindele iJerusalem entsha, abanye abantu badla iJerusalem apha eMzantsi Afrika. Abantu bakuthi bayithatheli phezulu indaba ye bhayibile nezinto ekufuneka bazenze ba bakuzofumana indawo ezulwini. Ithi kaloku ibhayibhile abantu mabangagcini ubutyebi babo emhlabeni, mabagcine ubutyebi babo ezulwini. Into endixakayo yinto yokuba sithi bantu bamnyama eMzantsi Afrika abangenabo ubutyebi emhlabeni, siyalamba, and silamba nje abantu basebambelele kwi Jerusalem entsha ngeloxesha abanye abantu bakha ubutyebi emhlabeni, bakha ubutyebi obuzodliwa sisizukulwana sesizukulwana.

Masivukeni emaqandeni abolileyo! Masiyibone lendaba ye Jerusalem entsha iyasibophelela. Lendaba ye Jerusalem entsha yenza abantu bangazilwelwi iimfanelo zabo apha emhlabeni ngokuba abantu banethemba le Jerusalem entsha. Bayavuya kakhulu abantu abamhlophe abantu xabethetha nge Jerusalem entsha ngokuba ithetha ukuthi lonto abantu ababufuni ubutyebi basemhlabeni, ubutyebi obuse zandleni zabantu abamhlophe nanamhlanje. Lendaba ye Jerusalem entsha idodobalisa ingqondo zabantu. Abantu abayiboni ukuba le ndaba ye Jerusalem entsa iyasibophelela. Inzima le ndaba ye Jerusalem entsha ngokuba abantu abazanayo lendaba ye Jerusalem entsha, abantu abamhlophe ngamanye amagama, abayikhathelelanga le Jerusalem entsha, ngabantu bakuthi abathe phithi yi Jerusalem entsha ezayo.

Kukho i-joke yayithandwa ngu Archbishop Desmond Tutu ethi abantu abamhlophe beza e-Afrika bephethe ibhayibhile abantu abamnyama benomhlaba. Bathi abantu abamhlophe makuthandazwe, nabantu abamnyama bacimela kwathandazwa. Ekuvuleni kwabantu amehlo abantu abamhlophe ba nomhlaba, abantu abamnyama bane bhayibhile. Uyithetha nje ngento ehlekisayo u Desmond Tutu kodwa le joke yakhe igcigciza inyani. Abantu bakuthi ngabo ngoku abazimiseleyo nge cawa. Lento yethu yokuthanda ibhayibhile ifikele kwinqanaba lokuba singazazi nobuba singobani. Isibhidile into ye cawa ne bhayibile kuba ngoku asikwazi noyibona into yokuba siyabhanxwa ngabantu ngale Jerusalem intsha.

Ndiyibonile mna indlela abantu ababopheleleke ngayo ngenxa yoku linda iJerusalem entsha ezayo. Mna ndithi masiyiphile apha emhlabeni iJerusalem entsha. Masiyitye ngoku sisaphila iJerusalem entsha. Mna ubomi bam ndibuphila nje ngomntu ongalindelange obunye. Lento yokulindela obunye ubomi obuzayo. Ikwenza ungonwabi ngoku usaphila. Lento yokulindela iJerusalem entsha yenza abantu bangazityhali ekuzameni ukwakha ubomi obuphucukileyo. Lendaba ye Jerusalem entsha yenza abantu bangazilweli imfanelo zabo kuba kaloku kukho le ntetho ithi abantu maba gcine ubutyebi babo ezulwini and mabalindele iJerusalem entsha.

Inzima into yokuba abantu kufuneka bagcine ubutyebi ezulwuni kodwa abefumndisi banemali apha emhlabeni. Abafundisi baqhuba iimoto ezinamagama, iimoto ezinamavili emqolo. Abafundisi bahlala kwizindlu ema sababs ngeloxesha abantu bebandla bayasokola, kodwa ngababantu basokolayo abafuneka bakhuphe imali ecaweni. Umfundisi k‘qala uphila ubomi base Jerusalem entsha phambi kwebandla lakhe. Iphi lonto umntu athi gcina ubutyebi bakho ezulwini athogqiba yena azithengele iBMW?

Lentetho ye Jerusalem entsha yenza abantu bangaphuhlisi ubomi babo ngoku be phila. Uyayiqonda phofu into yokuba abantu bakuthi babhubha benganazinto, abantu bakuthi bayafa bengashiyizinto, abawashiyi amafa azodliwa zizizukulwana. Ingathi kum abantu bakuthi abakayiqondi into yokuba uMzantsi Africa lilifa lethu sonke, funeka sonke singcamle ubomi obumnandi base Mzantsi Afrika. Into yoku ngcamla ubumnandi eMzantsi izokwenzeka xa sikholwelwa nyani ukuba ziimfanelo zethu iziqhamo zase Mzantsi Afrika. Izokwenzeka lonto xa siyiphila apha emhlabeni iJerusalem entsha. Ukuba asikayiboni into yokuba ilifa lethu bantu bamnyama kwelilizwe siphila kulo lidliwa ngaba-hlakaniphileyo, soze siphinde siyibone lento. Njengokuba silibeleke kukulala siphupha nge Jerusalem entsha, abanye abantu, ngakumbi abantu abamhlophe, bahleli bantya iJerusalem entsha apha emhlabeni. Into engazokwenzeka ebomini bam, andizomisa ubomi bam ndilindele iJerusalem entsha endingayaziyo, iJerusalem eyaza nabantu abamhlophe apha ekhaya, iJerusalem entsha ke phofu engakhathalelwanga ngabantu abaza nayo. Ndiyifuna apha eMzansti Afrika, ngoku ndisaphila iJerusalem entsha.