What does it mean to you to be black?
By KHALILA NICOLLS
Nassau, The Bahamas
THE other day I stumped a politician by asking him a simple question: What is Africa? The question emerged because he responded to another question I posed, are you African, by saying, "No, I am a Bahamian with African heritage." So naturally, I pressed, and asked, well what does it mean to have Africa heritage?
He fumbled for a response, claiming that regrettably, he had not done the research to know which tribe in Africa he came from. He said if he were asked the same question by one of his children, he would say, let us go and research it together.
Being perturbed by my unbridled dissatisfaction, he gave it another go. This time, he responded with the politically correct answer, speaking to Africa's wealth, in terms of her beautiful and bountiful natural resources and the many venerable world leaders she has given birth to.
The reason I was perturbed by his response was not because I felt he gave a poor answer initially, which he did, or that I was unsatisfied with his answer in the second instance, which I was not. It was because he seemed not to have understood the question.
What does Africa mean in the context of your identity? The question completely went over his head. I was not totally surprised, because when it comes to questions of identity and the study of meaning, many Bahamians seem to be uninterested or simply clueless.
As a street scholar with a professed love for questions of identity, I am often starved for engagement on these questions. It is a challenge arriving at a common understanding of Majority Rule, because without an interrogation of meaning it is difficult to arrive at a full understanding of one's identity or a consensus of worth.
As a Bahamian, I feel personally slighted, not having had the opportunity within the framework of my state-mandated educational career to interrogate the meaning of Majority Rule or any number of other concepts that are central to my identity.
Needless to say, engaging in the process of inquiry is part of the reason for creating my own platform, and of great interest to me is the idea of blackness and its relationship to the concept of Majority Rule.
The last time I wrote about Majority Rule, I argued that its assumed meaning, a symbol of black liberation in the Bahamas, failed to stand up in the face of scrutiny. That Majority Rule represented an expansion of our democratic system; the shattering of a glass ceiling for black Bahamians seeking political office; a milestone in political progress, but not a transformation in black consciousness or an ideological awakening of black people.
Evidence suggests that at the time of its coining, our nation's leaders were conflicted in the concept of their own blackness, and the real worth of that identity. Certainly, our leaders recognised the political power of the black association, but they also accepted that blackness was a political liability. It was something they were willing to bargain with.
All in all, I suggested, our collective vision of a black nation was ideologically tame, and so too was the impact of the black majority government on the progress of black Bahamians as a collective body.
So what is left to be said? Lots, because when it comes to understanding our own blackness in a country that celebrates Majority Rule and recognises itself as a majority black nation, I feel our nation's leaders, when they led us into the era of self-governance, failed to set the record straight on a number of important race issues.
First, racial solidarity is not a form of discrimination against white people or some kind of reverse-racism.
Second, blackness does not have meaning only where racial discrimination exists.
Third, to speak about white racial prejudice and how it was used to justify genocide, to disfranchise and dehumanise indigenous people across the globe, and to enrich white people and their generations yet to come is not an act of denigrating white people; it is basic world history.
On the first issue, I need to reflect on another interview I recently conducted. When I asked the person the meaning of being black, his first instinct was to say, let me see how to answer this without sounding like a racist. He then fumbled on to answer the question in line with the politically correct things to feel and say.
I had a similar encounter when listening to Freddy Munnings Jr on the radio programme Matters of the Heart. He recounted a time when he asked the Minister of Education (he did not specify which one) why Bahamians do not learn African history in school.
The minister replied by saying he did not want to teach racism. Mr Munnings rightly asked what is racist about teaching our children that their ancestors brought the world astrology, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, among other great contributions to world history.
I am with Mr Munnings on this one: what is racist about African pride? What is racist about affirming a black identity? Why have we chosen to accept the view that racial solidarity is somehow a destructive and divisive concept; that affirming a connection to one's blackness is somehow racist? It is an apologetic view of being black that black people would be better served to reject.
In January, the Arizona State legislature won its battle to outlaw the Tuscon Unified School District's Mexican American Studies (MAS) programme, on the grounds that it "promotes activism against white people, promotes racial resentment and advocates ethnic solidarity".
Best-selling classics like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire, and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, by Bill Bigelow, were banned from the curriculum.
It seems white people still fear that blacks and other subjects of white oppression might one day turn the tables and exact bitter revenge. In a school district where 60 per cent of the students are Latino, the fears must run high. But quite frankly, I find this fear to be arrogant, delusional, self-absorbed and downright ignorant, but completely unsurprising.
It is on the same basis of Arizona's objection that a black man would find it uncomfortable to give meaning to his own blackness. Not wanting to sound racist is a euphemism for not wanting to make white people uncomfortable; not wanting to evoke their misplaced fears.
Whether a black man's racial resentment is real or perceived, warranted or not, he should have the right and the space to feel as he may, and process his own experience, without having to be politically correct about it.
Denying him his right to feel does more to promote racial resentment than allowing him his space to heal. I think that is worth repeating (and I hope people at Arizona State are reading):
Denying him his right to feel (which includes inquiring into and processing his own experience) does more to promote racial resentment than allowing him his space to heal.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire states: "Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence," and a "violation of their humanity". When I spoke earlier about feeling personally slighted, it was this violation I alluded to.
For all of our accomplishments, blacks are still negotiating the right to think, speak and feel for ourselves about our experience of being black.
As a society, we do not have a humanising pedagogy in which students of the former oppressed and oppressor classes can deepen their consciousness of their situation and be responsible for their own liberating process.
The failure of inquiry is one of the primary racial dilemmas of the 21st century, and our blind longing for a post-racial world only exacerbates the problem.
Race is an important means by which people in a post-1492 world are able to recognise, understand and celebrate their collective identity (an identity I must note that predates 1492 by millennia); race has been a great source of pain and is now the basis on which there is need for great healing; race was the mode in which white people established their position of superiority and wealth, and it is the basis on which the former oppressor class must now humble itself.
For all of the post-racial idealism of the Obama age, race is far from being an irrelevant concept.
This leads me to my second contention: The suggestion that blackness only has meaning as a means of political organisation or as an object of someone's oppression, whether in a state of subjugation or resistance.
Basically, the argument goes like this: because we do not believe there is any longer racial discrimination, or because we no longer believe we have to fight for our rights, we no longer need to hold on to a black identity. It is the "we are one" argument.
The problem is, black people are not mere objects of someone's oppression, and seeing blackness solely as such is a shallow way to conceive of one's identity. Sadly, this is how we have been taught: to identify with each other based on struggle. That is why, typically, those who feel the struggle is over, celebrate the good fight, but feel little to no need for race association. They see no fallacy in the concept of One Bahamas. On the other hand, those who feel the struggle continues, see the world more pronouncedly through a racial lens, and experience dissonance in the concept that we are one.
The black identity does not exist only because white people once were the authors of our oppression. The experience of the Maafa (a term used to collectively describe the history, effects and legacy of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and the various atrocities on African people as a collective) has no doubt shaped how we understand race, but prior to the perverted introduction of the post-Maafa racial construct, there was still a black identity to which black people are inextricably linked.
The reason I say the black consciousness of our leaders, and our nation as a whole, in the era of Majority Rule was skin deep is because it was not an affirmative ideology that defined our blackness; it was a concept of our biological likeness, otherwise known as skin colour, combined with a common experience of oppression under white control and a common political objective. It was around that identity that black political leaders were able to carve out a black constituency and mobilise the masses.
Many black Bahamians to this day still find it difficult to answer the question, "What does it mean to be black?"
Many black Bahamians still cannot reconcile the concept of being Bahamian and African. It pains them to assume that identity unless it is qualified, as in Bahamian with African heritage or Bahamian who is a descendant of Africa.
The black experience of the Maafa created in black people such a hatred of Africa and all things African, but to this day, blacks who claim to be liberated have yet to reclaim their mother. I am no Bible scholar, and usually I avoid Bible quotes, but I make an exception to cite Exodus 20:12, a verse Bahamians are well familiar with: "Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the lord thy God giveth thee."
What about restoring the love for our earth mother? Despite our discomfort with claiming a "one (Bahamian or African)" identity, there is no conflict of identity or need for a dichotomous relationship. Think, after all, about our mothers who marry - they take on a new legal name (Bahamian), but they never lose their maiden name of birth (African). My birth mother, for example, has every right to claim her Gage identity as she does to her Nicolls identity. Her being a Nicolls does not negate her being a Gage. Her being a Gage does not deny her being a Nicolls.
The main point in all of this is how we understand our blackness as black people. I maintain that Chinese people do not hold a concept of being Chinese because they have been caricatured as having slanted-eyes. An Indian's concept of being Indian is not because of an accent. The recognition of their Chinese or Indian identity is based on a shared understanding of heritage, language, food, culture, history, geography, legacy and the likes.
Black people do not have a consensus of identity, not because no commonality exists, but because we have chosen to deny our very existence. To this day, we identify with a very shallow concept of self that goes only skin deep. It is a very lose concept that can be easily manipulated to serve political objectives, which is what happens most often when politicians play “the race card”.
Given the complex legacy of slavery and colonialism, it is apparent that skin colour is highly problematic as a mode of identity. As inter-racial realties continue to shape our world, skin colour will be more and more an irreconcilable mode of identity. But none of this negates race.
There is still a desperate need for the black world to coalesce around an affirmative ideology of blackness. Not a political concept of black power, but a soulful concept of blackness that is rooted in its source of power, Africa.
Any concept of blackness that lacks a consciousness of Africa lacks its primal essence and true source of power.
In the Bahamas and across the globe, black people as a collective community are in a dire state. We need to piece ourselves back together and heal our wounds in order to secure the progress we wish to see.
Paulo Freire once asked the question: “How can the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, participate in the pedagogy of their liberation?" Real progress of the mind, body, spirit (and pocket book) must entail growth in an understanding of our very blackness. It must entail inquiry into understanding who we are. In African tradition, to know thyself is one of the most noblest callings.
In 1967 our leaders, already enculturated into the new world order, were unable to champion this calling. In 2012 our leaders are in no better position. Humbly, I issue the call.
* Pan-African writer and cultural scholar Noelle Khalila Nicolls is a practising journalist in the Bahamas. Her column Talkin Sense explores issues of race, culture and politricks.
February 09, 2012