Yesterday (Friday) I decided to simmer down after a busy week so I got two movies. The one was titled Mama Flora’ Family (1997) and the other The Help (2011). Both movies are about the American south and the plight of the ”Negros”. They trace the personal trials of the protagonists within the larger suppressive environment. The picture they paint mirrors accurately the pain, suffering, embarrassment and inhumanity endured by blacks during slavery, colonialism and apartheid.
Then it happened halfway through the second movie. I felt a sudden gush of anger so strong, so unexpected, that I wanted to bury my head in my pillow and scream. I wanted to tear down the walls of my apartment. I wanted to strip naked and roam the streets for the world to see my blackness. Then I felt sharp tingle in my nose and my eyes started to burn. My heart sank so deep I couldn’t breathe. I wept uncontrollably for a while. I tried to hold back the tears but their wetness on my face was therapeutic.
I woke up in the morning and looked at the mirror. My eyes bloodshot and my face was generally unpleasant. I was mortified. It was this unpleasant encounter with my own anger that made me realise two things. These two things are impertinent for the evolution and survival of black people everywhere.
The first realisation was that the world has moved on from the terrible wrongs committed against blacks, and has not looked back since, to see if blacks were doing alright. Many have forgotten the pain and suffering: those who recognise black resentment see it as a plaintive burden rather than an opportunity for redress. The world generally expects blacks to be grateful for freedom. Our inherent dignity was initially accepted only as political correctness and as a necessity to end violence.
On freedom blacks did not inherit a place next to the master’s house. Instead we inherited ghettos and shantytowns. Freedom did not mean black children get desk space at Grey College or Harvard. If anything, those of us who make it through the door are hailed as exceptions to mediocrity.
But my realisation goes further. As a young black man living abroad I have many sincere white friends. These friends had little or nothing to do with the injustices committed against blacks. They treat me with dignity and accord me the respect I’m worth. I have also many white colleagues who look at me and see an equal, and teachers who look at me and see potential. I meet many whites who engage my ideas and not my skin. So why should I burden them with the heavy load of an ugly past?
This was the rub that drove me into a fit of rage. I realised that my wounds were mine to lick. That I should not expect from the world the sensitivity that I believe I am entitled do. The world has moved on to its next victim — possibly gays and Arabs. Black pain, anger, embarrassment and powerlessness has been reduced to pus under bloody bandages.
The second realisation was how much others endured to create opportunities for blacks today, and how often blacks take these opportunities for granted. I thought of the men and women who braved the barrel of a gun in hope that future generations would not. Today these men and women have been wiped off history and our ignorance prevents us from reviving their memory. We now take our freedom for granted.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the movie protagonists kept repeating the phrase “our children will get an education, they will never be like us”. This was the mantra that drove them on. I realised that even uneducated slaves, supposedly the scum of the earth, knew that freedom would not come with taking a gun and shooting the master, but picking up a book and feeding the black mind.
Even slaves understood that to break free from the stereotypes, blacks need to pick up a pen and rewrite their own history. We need a lot of pens.
Therefore to the black person reading this, I cannot tell you how to heal your pain. If you have healed, I congratulate you. But to those who are lingering in denial, I implore you to introspect. Look within and be willing scrape the walls of your heart; cry if you must and let it out. Pick up a book about slavery or apartheid and read. When you’re done take a deep breath, chin up, roll up your sleeves and start building a better legacy.
To the white people reading this, I want you to know my anger was not directed at you. If was, I would be misled. I was angry at our past. I am, as I have always been, your brother.