Becoming an African

2012-11-17 09:40

They have been called “negro” and “coloured” before.

They lived 200 years in bondage in the US, after having been captured on west African shores and shipped across the Atlantic.

During the 1960s, when the struggle for black civil rights was raging in the US, when police and state troops were cracking skulls and shooting on college campuses to disperse anti-Vietnam-war protesters, these people called “negroes” and “coloureds” insisted they be called black Americans.

For “negro” or “coloured” had long developed a bad odour. “Negro” brought to mind a picture of a black man standing hat in hand and shuffling his feet in the presence of a white person, not even daring to look him in the eyes.

Today, even whites would not want to be heard saying “nigger” out loud in public. Along with “black American” the name “Afro-American” came into use, the latter appearing more frequently in print to describe the literature, the arts, history and life of the blacks.

We Africans have been called many more names: k****r, Native (with a Capital N), non-Europeans, then Bantu (since 1948), then plurals.

Since the Black Consciousness Move-ment emerged, Africans insisted that the media use “black” instead of the negative “non-white”.

Ironically, both the government and the mass media were quick to seize upon the word “black” and used it to refer only to those of us who have been traditionally called Africans, a deliberate distortion of what our people intended “black” to collectively signify, i.e. Africans, “Asians” and “coloureds”.

Some people call themselves “Afrikaners”. The name appears everywhere in print and is on everyone’s lips, like it or not.

Because, as a conquered and colonised people, we are given an education that is planned for us by the political authority, we are forced to call ourselves what the “master race” has labelled us in the textbooks.

Otherwise the student fails his exam or the worker is dismissed.

I have two points to make in presenting these two parallel situations: the US and South Africa.

One is to demonstrate how cruel people can be when they are in power: themselves, their government, their media.

And they are absolutely sure nothing will change that status. Happily, the term “Red Indians” has fallen out of use in the US.

Today, in “civilised circles”, they are referred to as “Native Americans”, the continent’s earliest known inhabitants.

Similarly, liberal-minded whites, including those who would prefer to be considered radical or militant, look at you accusingly or sadly when you speak of “our African people”, “a university that is predominantly African” and so on, to distinguish between blacks and whites.

Because they consider themselves “white Africans” and us “black Africans”.

Even a white-settled country like Zimbabwe does not talk of “black Africans”. They are all Africans as Zimbabwe nationals.

My second point is to highlight an event that took place earlier this year in the US.

Reverend Jesse Jackson, who tried to run for the presidency in 1988, took the bull by the horns by declaring at a public gathering that black Americans would from that day forward call themselves African-Americans.

This was heart-warming to me, especially because I had begun to be saddened by the distance that had widened between black America and Africa after the 1960s and 1970s.

Also, throughout my travels in Africa and the US, I had become a fanatic believer in the pan-African ideal, starting with the basis of what already exists: the unity of African cultures which justifies our use of the concept “African culture”, and the ongoing struggle in nation building across the continent.

During those decades, Afro-Americans were identifying with Africa as their mother continent.

They felt proud to see African statesmen sweeping into the halls of the United Nations premises with dignity to represent their countries, newly emerged from colonialism.

Blacks clamoured for Afro-American and African studies.

Since those critical years, “African-American” has been used side by side with “Afro-American”.

The former is now on the lips of millions.

What about us, the oppressed in this country?

Are we always going to be labelled and defined by the government and the media with names that are meant to humiliate us, to neutralise our African cultural heritage?

“Black” does just that, the way whites use it: a shade of colour that dismisses the fact that there exists a unity of African cultures on the continent which we have shared for centuries.

Those officially referred to as “coloureds” share this culture as well, in spite of every effort successive white generations have made to isolate them from us as “bruin mense”.

Indians came here in the mid-1800s as sugar plantation labourers.

To the extent they were violated by Europeans in the same way Africans across the continent have been, in the same way the Khoisan and the “coloureds” were violated since 1652, the Asians have earned the name “African”.

So have the “coloureds”.

It is a name that we can all live with till the end of time.

It shows a regrettable political short-sightedness on our part to ignore the pan-African spirit sweeping over the continent and given concrete form by the Organisation of African Unity.

Several of our youth are even ashamed of their African heritage.

Whites who want to be called Africans have to work hard to earn the name.

They have to demonstrate their commitment to liberation.

This means, among other things, they need to cure themselves of the “master race” disease.

Most white people in South Africa do not know or care how or where we live.

They should learn to feel diminished whenever and wherever we, the oppressed, are excluded by the country’s laws.

They should boycott facilities from which we are excluded.

They should think seriously how to boycott the parliamentary system as it stands today.

White people should pressure their educational authorities to create programmes of African studies in their schools, universities and colleges as a compulsory branch of the curricula.

Because they carry some weight in their school system which we do not in ours, they have a greater chance of success.

This is only the beginning of a long process of becoming African that we prescribe for the whites, including the radicals.

And by “radical” I mean one who actively supports total change now, or soon, under the leadership of Africans and on our terms.

Their responsibility also includes teaching their fellow whites to accept and work for full democracy.

Whites who have been teaching as servants of our people in schools and colleges, and working intimately with us in any other capacity with a sense of commitment, have a head start in the process of Africanising their minds.

These are tough, bitter and painful lessons, but without which none of them has any right to claim to be African.

Teaching an African language in their schools is but a token gesture.

It does not even begin to approach what these profound lessons have to teach.

It is much like erecting many church houses for a sick and racist society.

This article is being run in recognition of the 10th anniversary of the Es’kia Mphahlele Institute.

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