Being black

2013-09-08 14:00

Xolela Mangcu bemoans the state of black unconsciousness today

Other than the precipitous loss of the intellectual and moral high ground by black leadership over the past 20 years, what explains the idea that there is no such thing as black identity?

What does it actually mean to be black when others deny your self-identification? What does this mean for those millions who routinely refer to themselves as abantu abamnyama or abantu abantsundu or batho bantso?

Can anyone convincingly say they suffer from false consciousness, or that they do not really understand the implications of their self-identification?

I can understand and accept the argument that, as a concept, race has no scientific basis. But surely that cannot be taken to mean it also has no social basis.

There are many identities that have no scientific basis in our lives, but we adhere to them religiously – if you will pardon the pun, because religion is one of them.

National identity is yet another example. In his book Peasants Into Frenchmen, Eugen Weber writes that for more than a hundred years after the French Revolution, the majority of people in France did not see themselves as French. They saw themselves as such only at the beginning of the 20th century.

To paraphrase Benedict Anderson, identities are imagined, but that does not make them any less real.

Let me try to explain by means of an anecdote. A few years ago, I was in Geneva for one of those interminable UN conferences.

I hopped on to a bus from my hotel and noticed there was only one person who physically looked like me. We nodded our heads in mutual recognition or identification of the fact that we were people of a particular historical background. Our fathers could have been brothers for all I care, were it not for the dispersal of African people throughout the world because of slavery.

Of course, that common social identity does not mean we share the same political or cultural identities. The guy on the bus could have been a raving Marxist or an arch conservative, whereas I tend to see myself as a middle-of-the-road kind of guy.

Despite having a black skin, he could still have believed that Europeans were superior to Africans, whereas I am a student of black consciousness.

Asserting a common historical identity also does not mean that all black people will want to be identified as such, just as I know many Afrikaners who do not want to be identified as such.

This issue of identity, of course, raises other issues. Suppose black people were to give up that particular identity, what then? Should they go by Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and all the dangers that come with tribal identities?

Failing that, should black people abandon any sense of group identity and just go by the category of human beings, which would ironically make them quite unusual in the history of humanity. Another case of marking out, perhaps?

But if I maintain that black social identity is marked by such plurality, how can we possibly implement a policy of affirmative action?

Would such a policy not open itself up to opportunistic manipulation by those who would identify themselves as black as a ticket to get into the university even if they do not identify themselves as black in the rest of their lives?

This is quite possible, indeed. But it also would not be the first time that black people would have faced such a problem.

The black consciousness movement had a way of dealing with this contradiction.

The movement differentiated between those black people who identified themselves as black – mainly through their identification with the struggle – and those who identified themselves as existing outside of that vision by collaborating with the apartheid regime.

At the heart of this approach was that skin colour was necessary but not sufficient in the definition of blackness. Something more was needed – consciousness.

This is the consciousness of one’s blackness as a social identity that would be part of the criteria that are considered, say, in a university’s admission policies.

In short, applicants would be evaluated on the basis of their potential to make a significant contribution to the university on the basis of their consciousness, not just their genetic make-up.

This would be consistent with black consciousness, which never saw blackness in purely biological terms.

What criteria then would a university need to determine such consciousness without falling back on apartheid-era practices such as whether one can get one’s comb through one’s hair or not?

Knowledge of black history, cultures and languages, and a demonstrable commitment to community would be measures of such consciousness and thus be legitimate criteria for admission.

This could easily be ascertained by getting applicants to submit reference letters and letters of motivation.

I am not sure why we find this synthesis between the physiological and psychological aspects of black identity so elusive these days, when we have this precedent for it from black consciousness.

Yet another precedent comes from debates in the 1980s between black consciousness activists and Neville Alexander on race and class. Alexander criticised black consciousness for putting race before class and the black consciousness guys criticised him for putting class before race. The synthesis was the concept of black working class leadership.

Would this mean that black middle class children would not be considered a priority? Not necessarily. Some black children do bring important cultural perspectives despite their middle class backgrounds, but others are free riders.

The free-rider problem would be dealt with by moving away from seeing race merely as a biological identity to seeing race as a social construct. It would also mean moving away from race as equity to race as transformation, with consciousness as the main criterion.

To move away from race completely would be nothing short of a denial of a historical experience that is unique to those who live their lives and go by the identity of being black.

Without such an identity, there might as well have been no South African history to speak of.

» Mangcu is the author of Biko: A Biography and a prominent academic

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