Monday, 16 February 2009

Obama - part of a long journey from slavery to the White House

“I Barack Hussein Obama” … with these words US President Obama was sworn in on 20 January 2009 – and this completes in striking manner the long journey of African Americans from slavery to the present. Or as Rev Jesse Jackson was wont to say, the long walk "from the outhouse to the White House".

That arc of truth – the long journey of pain and mini successes and the slow meander through the wilderness – stretches from former slave Frederick Douglass to Obama.

Homage must be paid to a several leading lights in-between, including Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King. [In addition, although he is not in the same league, we should not forget the role of Jesse Jackson who paved the way for Obama by running (unsuccessfully) for President in 1984 and 1987.]

Douglass, who lived in the 1800s and was born of mixed parentage, physically resisted his master’s beatings, escaped, dodged recapture and went on to campaign in his own country and abroad for the abolition of slavery. Douglass riled the liberals when he pointed out that once free, the former slave encountered unjust restrictions and racist controls – and the struggle for emancipation was as real in the liberal North as in the hardcore South.

By far the most radical and subversive, Marcus Garvey became an icon to millions. In his short life (from 1887 to 1940), he rejected the notion of integration and urged black people to go it alone. He campaigned tireless for some kind of mass return to Africa. Garvey made errors of judgment and drew criticism from certain quarters, but – especially to radical groups such as the Black Panthers – become a powerful symbol. Garvey is also remarkable for his view that all black people, given racist oppression, should unite globally, and that a common movement for liberation should be built.

Martin Luther King’s pivotal contribution is well known and frequently cited. Appealing to a broad range of people, he led with fervour, moral authority and vision, and his drive for civil rights found potent linkages with the anti-war movement of the 60s.

Malcom X also made a singular historical contribution. Focused entirely on galvanizing the black community, he promoted black consciousness, self assertion for black people, militant action and armed resistance. His movement did not take off on a significant scale, but his ideas live on. X’s ideas fed into, among others, the Black Panther movement. (Some members of this movement are still in jail and there is speculation as to whether Obama will secure the release of these men.)

The experience of all these leaders – and the stages of struggle they represent – raises many questions about African Americans and their preferred strategies for freedom. Do they prefer a ‘blacks going it alone’ agenda or is integration more appealing? Will they support militancy and confrontation, or are they generally more comfortable with incrementalism and peaceful requests for change? In what ways do they see themselves as connected to black people in the rest of the world – or do most regard themselves as essentially and primarily ‘Americans’? Did Garvey have some hope of success in promoting a ‘back to Africa’ movement, or is this idea alien to rank and file African Americans? In South Africa, the thinking of all the major US black leaders has had some influence, although some would say that the King approach (inclusive organization coupled with non-violent action) had greater traction. It is also said that Thabo Mbeki reflects a more militant approach towards racism whereas Mandela is associated with strategies of inclusiveness and non-confrontation (although this is certainly not true of the early Mandela who embraced armed struggle).

Obama has achieved outstanding success, his inauguration a crowning moment that follows centuries of resistance to racism. His election is a powerful blow against racists and racist discrimination. But for many African Americans, it’s 'wait and see' time – will his rise to power significantly advance the battle against racism and inequality?

What is your view? In what way does Obama reflect or not reflect the history of black people in the US? Feel free to add your comment.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Matthews & Abrahams shine as Coyaba Chronicles and Quartet provide great reading

There's always superb reading available about and from Mzanzi, and older voices can be as engaging as the new, demanding that they be revisited and even 'reread'.
One of my best current reads is Peter Abrahams' Coyaba Chronicles: Reflections on the Black Experience in the Twentieth Century. It is part autobiographical and part commentary, narrating the major issues in a way that spans many decades (Abrahams was born in 1919) and throws a beam onto the charged and turbulent present.
Abrahams writes with passion and insight: he takes on the issue of race and racism with deft words and an incisive pen. He weaves these views together with his real life experiences in South Africa, Britain and in France. In the course of the book, he touches on the dilemma – if one can call it that – of being Coloured. While he accepts the notion of colouredness, along the way remarking wryly about the in-between state, he also disputes the notion of a 'pure' race. He tells engagingly of the ups-and-downs of choosing a writing life, and of the challenges of making love relationships work.
He canvasses a range of topics. The emergence of the Non-aligned Movement is traced, helped along by wonderful vignettes about Nkrumah, Nyerere, Mboya, etc. (or younger versions of themselves). The cold war and its influence are dissected (and Abrahams notes, with flickers of anger, that Africa's interest frequently died on that battleground). Abrahams explains the intellectual sparring between black voices such as Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Baldwin, showing from his own unique perspective the intersections and divergences among these great thinkers.
Abrahams has done a fair bit of shoulder rubbing with important people in his time – he has enjoyed a drink with various emerging African leaders and with writers that range from Richard Wright to Baldwin to Langston Hughes to Jean-Paul Sartre. He marvels at how (some) leaders change (and adversely so) once they assume power. Leaders who were previously accessible and able to interact, he notes, easily become unreachable and insulated from anyone accept those keen to bow and sing praises. When Abrahams visits an erstwhile friend and a struggle leader that has assumed a national presidency, he is dismayed by the airs and graces and by the reluctance to openly discuss challenges, let alone listen to feedback.
His life constitutes a remarkable adventure, his views on race, democracy and imperialism is illuminating and his writing is replete with intelligence, feeling and style.
Another great read is a collection by James Matthews and associates Richard Rive, Alex La Guma and Alf Wannenburgh. This time the angle is fiction, contained in a publication entitled Quartet: New Voices from South Africa
Matthews himself is continuing his eventful life. Rising from poverty and a poor education, he carved his name in the annals of both journalism and literature. His contributions via the pen were complemented by activist work such as the establishment of a gallery and a publishing house (called BLAC), the latter reaching a zenith in the seventies. He has launched a new publishing house, Realities, which is the platform for the republication of this anthology which features the work of the four.
This text, originally published abroad in the sixties, was banned and not released here. The stories in Quartet depict with flair, wit and often understatement the lives of ordinary black people as they struggle with, get knocked around by and sometimes rise above the day to day grind in racist South Africa. Quartet: New Voices from South Africa: Alex LA Guma, James Matthews, Richard Rive, Alf Wannenburgh (African Writers Series 14)
Shebeens feature, as do witty conversations, transport woes, money problems, male/female encounters and bristling interaction between black and white people. The stories weave a tale less of heroism than of everyday tenacity; at times the characters discover a sense of co-operation amid the desperation, sometimes they make personal shifts, at other times it all ends on a much more open-ended note. Another day will dawn, another story will unfold, all part of the fabric called life. The four writers complement each other powerfully. Matthews weighs in strongly with powerful pieces such as Azikwelwa, The Portable Radio and The Park. These pieces are matched by the immense writing acumen reflected in, inter alia, Wannenburgh's Echoes, La Guma's Glass of Wine and Rive's Rain.
This book is a classic. The writing is evocative, inventive and powerful. Although an aspect of the apartheid system informs many of the plots (that is how the book was curated), the writing is not just a reflection of the thing it describes. It becomes a thing (of beauty and truth) in its own right. As all good writing does, the writing operates on more than one level, conveying something deeper about the human condition, about ourselves. This is why Quartet is being republished: it is writing not just for that time (the good-old bad-old sixties), but for now.