The art of the black eye

2014-09-11 13:45

There is only one word to express a feeling of affection – or like and love – for someone else in modern isiXhosa.

Ndiyakuthanda means I love you and I like you.

There is no isiXhosa word that equates to the English language and culture’s analytical and incremental process of liking somebody first and gradually learning to love them over time. In isiXhosa, these emotions are the same.

Similarly, in Jamaican culture, a simple goodbye or “it was lovely to meet you” does not suffice. When the time has come for two people who have recently met to part, they say “now we are no longer strangers”.

This got me thinking about the role that language plays in the way one thinks about oneself. To what degree does a culture’s lexicon influence our understanding and approach to life? Much to my father’s dismay, I think, dream and speak in English more than I do in my native isiXhosa.

It’s something I’m self-conscious about because I know the daily effect it has on how I approach situations and people.

A relative of mine recently whined, in a Kardashianesque accent, about how “annoying” her mum was, which had me giving her side-eyes because 20 years ago, when we didn’t speak English, those words wouldn’t have been able to string themselves together in isiXhosa and dare to be spoken aloud.

She may have thought it, but her proficiency in American English gave her the cheek to say it.

English remains the dominant culture and language that sets the parameters of thought, understanding and approach to life in our increasingly monolithic world.

Writer and critic James Baldwin, in his renowned essay Stranger in the Village, says the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.

‘Negro’, one of my least favourite words, comes to mind as a good example of Baldwin’s assertion. It was created to describe everything the West was not, about the same time scientific racism was being used to justify the slave trade.

European scientists gave themselves the power to name plants, animals and other human species, but did not create an equivalent of the word ‘Negro’ to describe themselves.

This mammoth task was arbitrarily volunteered by a German physician and anthropologist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who in 1795 introduced the word ‘Caucasian’ to describe white Europeans in general.

He believed that the most beautiful European species came from the slopes of the Caucasus Mountains in eastern Europe.

To paraphrase art historian Kobena Mercer, it is the first example of how the West’s narcissistic delusion of superiority was validated.

And what have we done? We have tried to appropriate a positive use of the word ‘nigga’ and it has failed, dismally, to rescue the way black people actually see themselves.

How does “that nigga Biko is the truth” sound? How do we expect to walk tall if we trip ourselves up with every attempt to improve ourselves?

While there is an artistic and cultural power in the double consciousness that comes with being black, art and language that reinforces the traditional narrative around blackness, that of degradation and entropy, needs to evolve.

Enter Afro-futurism, a global trend that seeks to reimagine a future in which blackness is primarily associated with intergalactic levels of novelty.

I can’t run away from my blackness, try as I might. And I shouldn’t, so I won’t. Instead, to adopt an Afro-futurist way of thinking, I can embrace my black skin as a symbol of what I know because I’m black and have experienced the world in a particular way.

I can use that knowledge as a currency not simply to invert negative qualities to positive, but to create whole new ideologies about blackness.

This is what Afro-futurist curator Nicola Vassell calls The BlackEye – a tool that black artists can use in their artistic expression, “but at the same time, a blackeye is the document of having been bruised”. If we can create new language that describes our experiences, we can control our universe.

As movements like Afro-futurism and the other existing yet unnamed ones seek to reimagine blackness, we have the opportunity to infuse in it some positive experiences that freedom, at least in South Africa, has birthed.

Generations of black theorists, artists, writers and freedom fighters fought and died in their dedication to tell us the truth about our self-worth.

They have left their songs and ideas for us to cultivate. The equation of our black skin to a figurative blackeye won’t change in this generation.

But it can start to shift into a less wounded and more healed understanding of who we are. We are at a point in history where we have the audacity to be black and happy about it.

How is this knowledge going to be cultivated into a new lexicon of self-love?

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