Steve Biko’s anti-apartheid campaign became widely known as the Black Consciousness Movement and Steve Biko expressed his thoughts on the meaning of Black Consciousness in a series of articles published under the pseudonym Frank Talk.
Murdered in Police Custody in 1977, his ideas on the meaning of Black Consciousness have been ery influential.
Steve Biko On The Meaning Of Black Consciousness
In the following essay, We Blacks, Steve Biko explains the meaning of Black Consciousness by painting a portrait of the Black man’s condition in Apartheid South Africa noting the relationship between material and spiritual poverty that disempowers Black people in Apartheid South Africa.
He proposes the meaning of Black Consciousness as something that can be found in an inward focused approach meant primarily to address the spiritual poverty of Black people in order that they may muster the courage to respond to their oppressive condition.
Born shortly before 1948, I have lived all my conscious life in the framework of institutionalised separate development. My friendships, my love, my education, my thinking and every other facet of my life have been carved and shaped within the context of separate development.
In stages during my life I have managed to outgrow some of the things the
system taught me.
Hopefully what I propose to do now is to take a look at those who participate in opposition to the system—not from a detached point of view but from the point of view of a black man, conscious of the urgent need for an understanding of what is involved in the new approach—“black consciousness”.
One needs to understand the basics before setting up a remedy. A number of the organisations now currently “fighting against apartheid” are working on an oversimplified premise.
They have taken a brief look at what is, and have diagnosed the problem incorrectly. They havealmost completely forgotten about the side effects and have not even considered the root cause. Hence whatever is improvised as a remedy will hardly cure the condition.
Apartheid—both petty and grand—is obviously evil.
Nothing can justify the arrogant assumption that a clique of foreigners has the right to decide on the lives of a majority. Hence even carried out faithfully and fairly the policy of apartheid would merit condemnation and vigorous opposition from the indigenous peoples as well as those who see the problem in its correct perspective. The fact that apartheid has been tied up with white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, and deliberate oppression makes the problem much more complex.
Material want is bad enough, but coupled with spiritual poverty it kills. And this latter effect is probably the one that creates mountains of obstacles in the normal course of emancipation of the black people.
One should not waste time here dealing with manifestations of material want of the black people. A vast literature has been written on this problem. Possibly a little should be said about spiritual poverty. What makes the black man fail to tick? Is he convinced of his own accord of his inabilities? Does he lack in his genetic make-up that rare quality that makes aman willing to die for the realisation of his aspirations? Or is he simply a defeated person?
The answer to this is not a clearcut one.
It is, however, nearer to the last suggestion than anything else. The logic behind white domination is to prepare the black man for the subservient role in this country. Not so long ago this used to be freely said in parliament even about the educational system of the black people. It is still said even today, although in a much more sophisticated language. To a large extent the evil-doers have succeeded in producing at the output end of their machine a kind of black man who is man only in form.
This is the extent to which the process of dehumanisation has advanced.
Black people under the Smuts government were oppressed but they were still men. They failed to change the system for many reasons which we shall not consider here. But the type of black man we have today has lost his manhood. Reduced to an obliging shell, he looks with awe at the white power structure and accepts what he regards as the “inevitable
Deep inside his anger mounts at the accumulating insult, but he vents it in the wrong direction—on his fellow man in the township, on the property of black people.
No longer does he trust leadership, for the 1963 mass arrests were blameable on bungling by the leadership, nor is there any to trust. In the privacy of his toilet his face twists in silent condemnation of white society but brightens up in sheepish obedience as he comes out hurrying in response to his master’s impatient call. In the home-bound bus or train he joins the chorus that roundly condemns the white man but is first to praise the government in the presence of the police or his employers.
His heart yearns for the comfort of white society and makes him blame himself for not having been “educated” enough to warrant such luxury. Celebrated achievements by whites in the field of science—which he understands only hazily—serve to make him rather convinced of the futility of resistance and to throw away any hopes that change may ever come.
All in all the black man has become a shell, a shadow of man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery, a slave, an ox bearing the yoke of oppression with sheepish timidity.
This is the first truth, bitter as it may seem, that we have to acknowledge before we can start on any programme designed to change the status quo. It becomes more necessary to see the truth as it is if you realise that the only vehicle for change are these people who have lost their personality.
The first step therefore is to make the black man come to himself; to pump
back life into his empty shell; to infuse him with pride and dignity, to remind him of his complicity in the crime of allowing himself to be misused and therefore letting evil reign supreme in the country of his birth.
This is what we mean by an inward-looking process. This is the definition of “Black Consciousness”.
One writer makes the point that in an effort to destroy completely the structures that had been built up in the African Society and to impose their imperialism with an unnerving totality the colonialists were not satisfied merely with holding a people in their grip and emptying the Native’s brain of all form and content, they turned to the past of the oppressed people and
distorted, disfigured and destroyed it.
No longer was reference made to African culture, it became barbarism. Africa was the “dark continent”. Religious practices and customs were
referred to as superstition.
The history of African Society was reduced to tribal battles and internecine wars. There was no conscious migration by the people from one place of abode to another. No, it was always flight from one tyrant who wanted to defeat the tribe not for any positive reason but merely to wipe them out of the face of this earth.
No wonder the African child learns to hate his heritage in his days at school. So negative is the image presented to him that he tends to find solace only in close identification with the white society.
No doubt, therefore, part of the approach envisaged in bringing about “black consciousness” has to be directed to the past, to seek to rewrite the history of the black man and to produce in it the heroes who form the core of the African background. To the extent that a vast literature
about Gandhi in South Africa is accumulating it can be said that the Indian community already has started in this direction. But only scant reference is made to African heroes.
A people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine. Their emotions cannot be easily controlled and channelled in a recognisable direction. They always live in the shadow of a more successful society. Hence in a country like ours they are forced to celebrate holidays like Paul Kruger’s day.
Heroes’ day, Republic day etc.,—all of which are occasions during which the humiliation of defeat is at once revived.
Then too one can extract from our indigenous cultures a lot of positive virtues which should teach the Westerner a lesson or two. The oneness of community for instance is at the heart of our culture. The easiness with which Africans communicate with each other is not forced by
authority but is inherent in the make-up of African people.
Thus whereas the white family can stay in an area without knowing its neighbours, Africans develop a sense of belonging to the community within a short time of coming together. Many a hospital official has been confounded by the practice of Indians who bring gifts and presents to patients whose names they can hardly recall. Again this is a manifestation of the interrelationship between man and man in the black world as opposed to the highly impersonal world in which Whitey lives.
These are characteristics we must not allow ourselves to lose. Their value can only be appreciated by those of us who have not as yet been made slaves to technology and the machine. One can quote a myriad of other examples. Here again “black consciousness” seeks to show the black people the value of their own standards and outlook. It urges black people
to judge themselves according to these standards and not to be fooled by white society who have white-washed themselves and made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other.
It is probably necessary at this stage to warn all and sundry about the limits of endurance of the human mind. This is particularly necessary in the case of the African people. Ground for a revolution is always fertile in the presence of absolute destitution. At some stage one can foresee a situation where black people will feel they have nothing to live for and will shout
unto their God “Thy will be done.”
Indeed His will shall be done but it shall not appeal equally to all mortals for indeed we have different versions of His will. If the white God has
been doing the talking all along, at some stage the black God will have to raise His voice and make Himself heard over and above noises from His counterpart.
What happens at that stage depends largely on what happens in the intervening period. “Black consciousness” therefore seeks to give positivity in the outlook of the black people to their problems. It works on the knowledge that “white hatred” is negative, though understandable, and leads to precipitate and shot-gun methods which may be disastrous for black and white alike.
It seeks to channel the pent-up forces of the angry black masses to meaningful and directional opposition basing its entire struggle on realities of the situation. It wants to ensure a singularity of purpose in the minds of the black people and to make possible total involvement of the masses in a struggle essentially theirs.
What of the white man’s religion—Christianity? It seems the people involved in imparting Christianity to the black people steadfastly refuse to get rid of the rotten foundation which many of the missionaries created when they came. To this date black people find no message for them in the Bible simply because our ministers are still top busy with moral trivialities.
They blow these up as the most important things that Jesus had to say to people. They constantly urge the people to find fault in themselves and by so doing detract from the essence of the struggle in which the people are involved.
Deprived of spiritual content, the black people read the bible with a gullibility that is shocking. While they sing in a chorus of “mea culpa” they are joined by white groups who sing a different version—“tua culpa”. The anachronism of a well-meaning God who allows people to suffer continually under an obviously immoral system is not lost to young blacks who continue to drop out of Church by the hundreds. Too many people are involved in religion for the blacks to ignore.
Obviously the only path open for us now is to redefine the message in the bible and to make it relevant to the struggling masses. The bible must not be seen to preach that all authority is divinely instituted. It must rather preach that it is a sin to allow oneself to be oppressed. The bible must continually be shown to have something to say to the black man to keep him going in his long journey towards realisation of the self.
This is the message implicit in “black theology”. Black theology seeks to do away with spiritual poverty of the black people. It seeks to demonstrate the absurdity of the assumption by whites that “ancestor worship” was necessarily a superstition and that Christianity is a scientific religion. While basing itself on the Christian message, black theology seeks to show that Christianity is an adaptable religion that fits in with the cultural situation of the people to whom it is imparted.
Black theology seeks to depict Jesus as a fighting God who saw the exchange of Roman money—the oppressor’s coinage—in His father’s temple as so sacrilegious that it merited a violent reaction from Him—the Son of Man.
Thus in all fields “Black Consciousness” seeks to talk to the black man in a language that is his own. It is only by recognising the basic set-up in the black world that one will come to realise the urgent need for a re-awakening of the sleeping masses. Black consciousness seeks
to do this. Needless to say it shall have to be the black people themselves who shall take care of this programme for indeed Sekou Toure was right when he said:
“To take part in the African revolution, it is not enough to write a revolutionary song; you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves and of themselves.
In order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa.
There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity…”
Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like remains a seminal work on the evolution of Black Revolutionary thought that is still an invaluable and timeless addition to your Library.