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Who is black?

In the late nineties I participated in the drafting of government policies including the policy: The White Paper on Affirmative Action for the Public Service. Part of the challenge in developing this work was the definition of the term “black”. As the White Paper now stands, the term black embraces Africans, coloureds and Indians. I am not certain as to when exactly the term black was employed worldwide to refer to a people or peoples but I am certain that the term gained its prominence within history’s dispensations of slavery and colonialism.

Within the South African type of colonialism, apartheid, the term black was interchangeably used with a number of other terms such as “non-white”, “Bantu”, “ethnic black” and the “K-word” of course. Of late I have seen the term “black-African” used in documents related to the discourse of broad-based black economic empowerment. The use of these different inferences in reference to the so-called black demonstrates changing forms of conscience and changing levels of consciousness of users of these inferences towards the so-called black.

Sadly, the term black is now over-used to the extent of being acceptable even to the so-called black. Its users seem to be without any significant consciousness and sensitivity to what its essential definition and to what its intellectual and psycho-spiritual implications and impacts are on both the so-called black and so-called white.

The truth is that the term black and its usage is morally and historically derogatory. According to the South African Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2002, the term black means, inter alia, “darkest colour due to absence or complete absorption of light; deeply stained with dirt; humans with dark-coloured skins; majority of South Africans; characterised by tragedy; disaster or despair; presenting tragic or harrowing situations in comic terms; full of anger or hatred”. In other sources the term black refers to inferior; dishonourable; evil; unfortunate or seriously bad; hopeless; funny and macabre. Further, it is associated with other terms which denote negativity of different forms and degrees. Such terms are black magic; black market; black spot and black sheep.

Part of my cautioning in this article is that the adoption and continued use of the term black in reference to the so-called black, impacts on them psychologically and spiritually in such a manner that they turn to behave according to the content and character of the term black as defined above. In the Bible, Proverbs 18:21 states that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof” and Matthew 12:37 states that “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”. Attesting to this, a Sesotho proverb states: “bitso lebe ke seromo”.

What these Biblical scriptures and the Sesotho proverb mean is that words possess power related to their respective meanings and the usage of words imparts their respective powers to actualise and fulfil their respective meanings. In this sense, there is a vicious cycle between the use of the term black in reference to the so-called black and the actual spiritual, moral, intellectual and emotional behaviour of the majority of the so-called black. Interestingly, the so-called black did not name themselves black but they were named by “others”. It is apparent that the others sought to subjugate the so-called black through, inter alia, psycho-spiritual and intellectual forms of subjugation. It is morally incorrect to be named by others at the expense of your actualisation, sustenance and destiny. The closest the so-called black came to using colour to name themselves, is in naming themselves “Sotho” and “Tswana”. The term Sotho means brown and the term Tswana is derived from the term “tshwana” which means darker. Between these two terms the latter is closest to black but even itself, does not mean black. It could mean dark brown or dark of any other colour. The term darker or dark is employed in the Bible in Songs of Solomon 1:6 wherein it is stated: “Don’t stare at me because I am dark, because the sun has scorched me. My mother’s sons were angry with me. They made me keeper of the vineyards. I haven’t kept my own vineyard.” It is important to note that the Bible qualifies as to why the term “dark” is employed. It is not to define content and character or even intellectuality or emotionality of a person but it is to describe the skin colour.

Further, the Bible explains that the skin is dark because it has been exposed to and scorched by the sun. The use of the term dark is certainly not purposed to relegate one to inferiority and dirtiness and elevate the other to superiority and purity. Besides for the Sotho and Tswana, other groups named themselves Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tlokwa, Lobedu, Ndebele, Tsonga, Venda, etc. These names which are the majority of names among the so-called black have little or nothing to do with colour. Going back to the Bible, people’s names were derived from their geographical or historical placement. The Bible, for example, refers to a people as Ethiopians and Egyptians. Alternatively, the Bible makes reference to a people by deriving their name from the name of their founding ancestor. For example, the Benjamite are referred to as such because their founding ancestor is Benjamin. Therefore the inference and reference of a people as black or as any other colour is unbiblical and intended for evil. It is another debate if the so-called black are wholly black even with reference to their skin pigmentations. Some and very many are brown and lighter brown than black. Steve Biko was once asked in the courtroom by a so-called white judge: “Why do you call yourself black, when you are clearly brown?” to which Biko replied: “Why do you call yourself white, when you are clearly pink?”

Speaking about the so-called white, the South African Concise Oxford Dictionary, 2002, defines the term white as, inter alia, colour of milk or fresh snow; due to the reflection of all visible rays of light; very pale; refined; humans with light skin; especially of European ancestry and morally or spiritually pure. Bringing the dictionary meanings of both terms, black and white, into the same equation, we are bound to see the conclusion that the use of the term black is meant not only to oppress, suppress and repress the so-called black but, at the same time, it is meant to create, establish and maintain a false and permanent consciousness within the so-called white that they are superior, brighter and purer than the so-called black. In other words, the term black is relative.

There can not be any person or people called black if there is no person or people called white. Worst, the terms black and white are not employed to differentiate one people from another in a neutral or equal manner but they are historically employed to polarise, imbalance and conflict the so-called black with the so-called white and vice versa. The universal truth is that in terms of skin colour, the so-called black are more brown than black and the so-called white are more pink than white. In terms of content, character, intellect and emotions, all of us, the so-called black, the so-called white, even the so-called yellow, are subject to and subjugated by one common human sin manifest in different forms at different times and spaces of human development.

It is neither possible nor sustainable to avert or subvert this common human sin through tactics of suppressing one another on the basis of any colour we attribute to each other. The acceptance of the use of the term black even by the so-called black has been contested and within that contest, it has been responded to in four if not five different ways. The first response is characterised by the spiritually anesthetised, the conscious-less and the insensitive to the adoption and use of the term black. In this category there are more of the so-called black and the so-called white using the term black on a daily basis in the media and everywhere else than there are in any of the subsequent categories. The second response is represented in some parts of the world including South Africa. It has strongly been expounded by the black-conscious philosophies. It is somewhat sarcastic. It does not deny the attribution of the term black to the so-called black but it seeks to ridicule the conventional use and users of the term. It seeks to do so by radically redefining the term and redefining the content, character, intellectuality and emotionality of the so-called black. The redefinition is meant to re-orientate the so-called black from perceiving, believing and behaviourally perpetuating themselves as being bad and inferior to perceiving, believing and behaviourally perpetuating themselves as being good and godly.

The following two quotations are examples of a Protestant and yet sarcastic response to the use of the term black in reference to the so-called black: “Merely by describing yourself as black you’ve started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.” Biko, I Write What I Like, 1978. “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation — being black is a reflection of a mental attitude.” Biko, 1978. The third response is neither concerned with acceptance nor the rejection of the use of the term black. It is primarily concerned with the equation of the term black with the term white. In the equation of this position, the terms black and white are emptied of their vile impact. Those who advocate for this position do not see challenges with the separation of identities of the terms black and white, they only see challenges with the destructiveness that the imbalance of this separation has on both the so-called black and the so-called white. The following quotation is representative of this position: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Nelson Mandela, 1964.

The fourth response to the term black and its historic use seeks to nullify not only the content and character of the term, but it seeks to do the same even to the term white. Further, it seeks to nullify their labels or identities as black and white. This position seeks to terminate and exterminate all these, the content, character and labels or identities in reference to peoples. The following is an example of a proponent of this position: “It is our responsibility to break down barriers of division and create a country where there will be neither whites nor blacks, just South Africans, free and united in diversity.” Oliver Tambo, 1987.

The fifth response assumes that we are now so intrinsically transformed to the extent that we have transcended the politics of the term black and even the politics of the term white. In the US, in the seventies and eighties, history registered the transition of many of the so-called black-Americans into adopting and using the term African-American. In South Africa, since the second half of the 2 000 decade, we observed a gradual re-independence of the Indian people from being embraced by the term black. Although Indians have never traded off their Indian identity with that of being black, in the second half of the nineties and early 2 000 they did submerge it under its affirmative action shadow. The independence of the African-Americans in the US and Indians in South Africa from the term black is indicative of the consciousness of these groups about the blasphemous and heretical nature of the use and meaning of the term black in reference to who they are.

This fifth response to the use of the term black assumes that we are convicted in our hearts and convinced in our heads that God has invested Himself equally in all of us. This fifth response assumes that we have now anchored our cause and course beyond the brink of being backward-looking and inward-looking and now we are geared into being synergistic and futuristic global players. It assumes that we are glued to a greater vision that embraces us all. It assumes that we have come to the realisation that we share in one and the same destiny. It assumes that we have learned our lessons and as a result we have taken heed of the admonition by Martin Luther King Jr that “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. This fifth response assumes the orientation of the Bible ie it does not associate our name with our skin colour but with our geographical and historical placement at this moment in time. This response does not bedevil our content, character, intellectuality and emotionality but without reservation, it liberates them into oceans of the world’s opportunities and confirms and affirms our God-given grace as relevant, appreciated and anticipated by the world. The following quotation is representative of this:

“All this I know and know to be true because I am an African! Because of that, I am also able to state this fundamental truth that I am born of a people who are heroes and heroines. I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression. I am of a nation that would not allow that fear of death, torture, imprisonment, exile or persecution should result in the perpetuation of injustice. The great masses who are our mother and father will not permit that the behaviour of the few results in the description of our country and people as barbaric. Patient because history is on their side, these masses do not despair because today the weather is bad. Nor do they turn triumphalist when, tomorrow, the sun shines.” Thabo Mbeki, 1996.