It’s unofficially national Black Consciousness Month, the month when we commemorate the brutal and untimely death of Steve Biko on September 12 1977, and what an interesting month it has been thus far. Until Steve Biko’s “I write what I like” landed on my lap, I had been living in oblivion to how abnormal my normal was. Spending my entire life moving towards what was white; to get to what should have been my human right had not struck me as odd. My mother sent me to a white school, in a white suburb, to get a decent education; my mother moved us to a white suburb to be closer to school and work and to get a decent quality of life; I had to learn a white language to prove that I was intelligent enough to get into a white university. I, along with my fellow peers, unconsciously and subconsciously labelled and celebrated everything “white” as good for us. We left black to be better; those who could not get out of black-black schools, black neighbourhoods, black languages — were left worse off.
The damage inflicted on a black child’s mind when an official school rule is “black children are not allowed to speak their home language among themselves during school hours” cannot be quantified. When I entered into a model-C school, I was proficient in English, but my teacher found my accent so offensive, she instructed my mother to only speak to me in English so it could improve. My legendary mother discarded the advice, but I spent the rest of my school years quite shy, afraid to speak to my peers. My black accent was not beautiful.
Stripped almost bare of my heritage and language, my first encounter with Biko’s ideas was a shock to a spiritually empty system. I resisted Biko’s definition that Black Consciousness “seeks to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the ‘normal’ which is white”, and I branded his ideas border-line. I promptly gave the book back to its dreadlocked owner, vowing never to be that kind of black. I sang the unified rainbow song and carried on with life.
But I was already changed. I began to notice how often I would speak English to my own mother, even as she replied in Zulu. I realised that I had not read a single Zulu book, in all the years I had been in high school. I knew no Zulu writers, and I did not know a single book store that sold Zulu books. I finally admitted to myself that I had spent my life being subliminally told that my natural state was not good enough, and I had accepted that message.
It shocked me that the unofficial theme for Black Consciousness month became: “Is Black Consciousness still relevant today.” I didn’t know that the relevance of the Black Consciousness Movement was up for discussion. Accusations that black youth are adorning themselves with the image of Biko as a fashion statement while having little or no knowledge of the man are being thrown around by those who claim to know the “black youth” so very well. They failed to understand that a person, who had spent their entire lives having their identity affirmed, can never understand the void created by having no real identity, having your identity branded as not good enough.
For this, and for many reasons, Black Consciousness is still relevant today. The process of redefining me within and beyond my blackness is not a political one, it is very much spiritual. Stating that black is beautiful remains an academic exercise for the mind. The real tests are in everyday life. To live consciously as a black person requires more than simply speaking one’s mother tongue and knowing a few things about one’s history. Living consciously requires vigilant patrol over one’s thoughts and feelings on all things black. The other day I caught myself saying “these BEE companies all useless!” I had to gently remind myself that all labels I attach to blackness, I attach to myself.
The Black Consciousness Movement’s “obsession” with whiteness can only be understood from the point of view of a black person. I did not spend my life being groomed to chase the life resembling that of coloured or Indian peers. I spent my life, being told that white was the benchmark, and it this mental slavery that I must consciously unshackle myself from.
So I cannot take any discussion on the relevance of Black Consciousness seriously. I will no longer take the time to apologetically explain myself as a black person, as I have done all these years. Until I can fully accept that the sins of the world against my pigmentation may define my experience, not me, the country will just have to wait. This process is not up for discussion. The very thought that there’s probability of the movement being found to be irrelevant in some academic discussion would be humorous if it were not so offensive.