i finally finished reading the Voices of Liberation series book on Steve Biko by Derek Hook.
And i can highly recommend it. i honestly believe that if you are a South African [especially if you are white] then you really need to read ‘How can man die better?’ [by Benjamin Pogrund] which is the story of Robert Sobukwe, and either one of ‘I write what I like’ or this version of Biko’s writings and thought.
To be honest, for some reason i enjoyed this version more than ‘I write what I like’ – perhaps because i read it a lot later in my life and have been processing a whole lot of things, but also i think because it has a wider perspective on his voice and writings. i really felt like a lot of his thinking was unlocked to me in this book. This is why it took me so long to get through – after one chapter or even section sometimes, it was impossible to rush on to the next one.
You can typically tell how much i think about a book by how man of its page corners are turned over [huge shriek from the traditionals] and this book is littered with them.
So as much as i am very excited about moving on to Layla Saad’s book, ‘Me and White Supremacy’ which i just bought, it felt like it was necessary to share some of the gold.
And please see this as just a trailer, a starter dish that ends with you going out and buying this book [and the rest of the series – have Albert Luthuli standing by and then i will have read four of the six but each one – Chris Hani, Ruth First, Steve Biko – has been so eye-opening and educational for me.
These are a few of the passages that really jumped out at me and challenged or inspired me or gave me a little bit more insight.
i have shared some of these before in a previous post and so i am going to focus on folded page corners from the second half of the book.
This first one stands out with the reminder of the ‘superior white’ and ‘inferior black’ complexes that were such a vital part of enforcing apartheid both externally and even more damagingly internally:
National consciousness and its spread in South Africa has to work against a number of factors. First there are the traditional complexes, then the emptiness of the native’s past and lastly the question of black-white dependency. The traditional inferior-superior black-white complexes are deliberate creations of the colonialist. Through the work of missionaries and the style of education adopted, the blacks were made to feel that the white man was some kind of god whose word could not be doubted. As Fanon puts it: ‘Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the Native’s brain of all form and content; by a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.’ At the end of it all, the blacks have nothing to lean on, nothing to cheer them up at the present moment and very much to be afraid of in the future.
Step away from the mic
This next passage is such an important one for white people in particular to hear. We are used to having our voices listened to and we are used to leading. We are used to all the people on the panels and in leadership being white. In a country where we make up around 8% of the population. And we seem to be so resistant to that changing and for once being in the minority in terms of representation. This needs to change:
In the editorial introduction to the 1972 edition of Black Viewpoint, Biko referred to the great vacuum of black writing in the media. ‘So many things are said so often to us, about us, and for us, but very seldom by us.’ He also referred to the dependency created in blacks, as well as their depiction by the white press. He called for the deconstruction of the implicit interpretative connotations, underlying values, attitudes and interests of both the financial supporters and readership of the white press. Biko articulated a general insight into conquest – that defeat for the losers always means more than physical subjugation. It means, as two historians of the Soviet Union have described in other circumstances, ‘that the conquerors write the history of the wars; the victors take possession of the past, establish their control over the collective memory’. In short, the conqueror’s definition of reality becomes the dominant explanation.
What do we mean when we talk Integration?
For many years, i used to speak loudly about ‘diversity’ as if that was the end goal of all of this, but i have come to realise that it is not. You can have a very diverse-looking crowd where all the leaders are still white and so all the decision-making and money-spending and authority and power rests in the hands of white people. And at best black, coloured and indian people can assimilate into spaces of whiteness and try and do their best at white. Which is so far from being okay, unless you’re a white person and can’t understand why everyone else would not like to be more like you.
We need integration and belonging so that the spaces start to be shaped by the people in them and new definitions and styles and practices and discovering of what it means to be African [black, coloured, indian, white] together looks like.
Steve Biko speaks to that problematic idea of integration over here:
And as if intimating a critique of post-apartheid society, he argues that the liberal’s idea of integration…
‘is an integration in which black will compete with black, using each other as rungs up a stepladder leading them to white values. It is an integration in which the black man will have to prove himself in terms of these values before meriting acceptance and ultimate assimilation, and in which the poor will grow poorer and the rich richer in a country where the poor have always been black.’
Returning to this point, Biko’s 1970 essay ‘Black Souls in White Skins’ further argues that the kind of integration that white liberals talk about is ‘artificial’ and would only perpetuate the ‘in-built complexes of superiority and inferiority’ that ‘continue to manifest themselves even in the “non-racial” set-up. Echoing Cone, Biko then asks, ‘Does this mean that I am against integration?’ He answers…
‘If by integration you understand a breakthrough into white society by blacks, an assimilation and acceptance of blacks into an already established set of norms and codes of behaviour set up and maintained by whites, then YES I am against it… If on the other hand, by integration you mean there shall be free participation by all members of society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the wll of the people, then I am with you.’
In other words, for Biko, mutual recognition can only come from a rejection of the other’s definition. Insofar as ‘liberal’ is understood in terms of a discourse of mutual reciprocity and dignity, of equals facing each other in an equal situation, Biko would have no problem. But to be a ‘true’ liberal in this sense, the situation has to change in two ways: in its structure and in its values. Lewis Gordon makes this point in his foreword to Biko’s ‘I Write What I Like’
‘Liberalism offers a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is ‘conservative’ liberalism, where the goal is to be colour-blind. The problem with this kind of liberalism is that it changes no structures. Thus, the liberalism expects us to be colour-blind in a world of white normativity, a world where whites hold most of the key cards in the deck. Another kind of liberalism focuses on bringing blacks ‘up’ to whites. Blacks would then fail here on two counts. First, they would fail simply by not being white. Secondly, why must it be the case that what whites have achieved constitutes the highest standards that humanity can achieve?’
Voice of Liberation
There are so many more turned over page corners but flip just go read the book already.
Rereading passages and choosing quotes for this post i am just deeply challenged and inspired by Steve Biko’s words. i don’t know what life would have been like if i had been alive when he was and how i would have responded to him. But i do know that now, where i am in my journey of anti-racism, that there is so much to learn from him and just the importance of listening and trying to really hear what he and others like him had to say.
i cannot say it enough how valuable i believe it is for all South Africans – but especially white South Africans – to read Steve Biko [in ‘I Write What I Like’ or this Voices of Liberation book] and to get to know Robert Sobukwe through ‘How can man die better?’ There are more books and resources and people and voices, but these two feel specifically key in terms of unpacking both the past and even giving us insight into the present and the future.
For some more Steve Biko from ‘I Write What I Like’ click here.
For a taster of some Robert Sobukwe, click here.