It is my belief that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Our lives are made possible by those who birthed us, and those who fought so that people who look like us can live, and we must always remember this.
I was recently asked why I am no longer as vocal as I used to be about issues I am passionate about on my Facebook/Twitter pages. Nowadays, I’ll mostly talk about the music I’m listening to or how I’m feeling, and some have felt that this is shallow compared to what I shared before. I agree – I could continue doing the same, but I will not, at least not for a while, because I am tired. Of saying the same thing. In different words. All the time.
It felt as if I (and many of my allies online) was going to die of exhaustion due to repeating myself to an audience that did not seem to want to learn. I spoke to a columnist I admire about why her column had gone from weekly to fortnightly, and she said “I feel that I am repeating myself. I’m getting tired of saying the same thing over and over again, just about different things.” Conversations online, due to our culture of outrage that has no doubt been fueled by the internet, tend to be in reaction to a stimulus, leaving little time and energy for people who want to create originally to do so. We are left reacting to our nemeses – sexism, racism, corruption – and it feels like there is a force, a group of people who stand to benefit from our busy-bodied reactionary nature. Whoever they are, they need us to stay distracted long enough.
I had been unable to find the best way to frame this until I came across a lecture given by Toni Morrison in 1975 at Portland State University on race, politics and art. It became very clear to me what I had to do after I read the transcript of this lecture, and the lessons were applicable to most, if not all, forms of oppression. Parts of the lecture are in italics, with my annotations interspersed.
More important, accurate scholarship and free, dedicated artists would reveal a singularly important thing: that racism was and is not only a mark, a public mark, of ignorance; it was and is a monumental fraud. Racism was never, ever the issue. Profit and money always was. And all of those quotations from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune, the threat was always jobs, land, or money. And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you must have a reason for despising your victim. Where racism exists as an idea, it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. Its purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. Its hoped-for consequence was to define Black people as reactions to White presence.
This gives me pause. Should we replace the word racism with sexism, homophobia, class prejudice, tribalism or any other form of discrimination we have institutionalized, this still makes sense. It has been proven that attacks on women increase when the men of that society feel that women are becoming more prosperous in relation to them; thus their sex is not the issue, profit and money are. Profit and money equal power – power is the issue, sex is merely a façade. The same applies to class divisions. We keep the poor entangled in their poverty, such that they have little time or strength for anything else. They are unable to awaken to their true power because their poverty is so consuming, they can think of little else. Which is why people will sell their votes for as little as KES 50. Black people serve as a backdrop to white people in such a society; women as a backdrop to men; the poor as a backdrop to the rich, and so on.
Nobody really thought that Black people were inferior. Not Benjamin Franklin, not Mr. Byrd, and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way. They only hoped that Black people would hear coon songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign, or become one. They never thought Black people were lazy—ever. Not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions. And they never, ever thought we were inhuman. You don’t give your children over to the care of people whom you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason that you work or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switchblades. They were only and simply and now interested in acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor. Everybody knows that if the price is high enough, the racist will give you anything you want.
This was like a revelation to me. It is not that the people I was trying to communicate with did not know that gay people were people too; that women and men deserve equal rights; that the poor must have their dignity. They know these things. They just do not want us to believe these things. There is a heavy reliance by purveyors of the status quo on our low self-esteem. They demand that we participate in our own disparagement. Of course gay people are people too – they are birthed by human beings. Of course women are equal human beings, otherwise men would not date/marry them. Of course black people are people too (in fact, the invention of whiteness has been well catalogued, and it was created to retain wealth in certain circles).
It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary.
The same can be said of sexism – it keeps women from doing their work – as well as class prejudice, homophobia, tribalism and other strata along which we choose to divide ourselves. It keeps the oppressed on the defensive, forever justifying their humanity, and responding to the aggressions of the oppressor. When someone tweets online that women who are unmarried over thirty are doomed, hours are spent proving otherwise. Tomorrow another idiot comes online and says women who do not cook are not real women. The process is repeated. We end up distracted from our cause, which is usually the purpose of the inanities spewed by those in power.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say, not to be confused, [sigh] not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power. And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me.
What is the disease? Greed and the struggle for power. Behind every sexist/homophobic/tribal/racist slight, this is the enemy. Even corruption itself is not a disease, but a symptom of greed and the struggle for power. When we see this, everything changes. We can spend our entire lives fighting acts/statements by fools who exhibit these symptoms. And in the process, it can feel like we have done a lot of work, for we will surely be tired by the end of the day. But we do not have to. This is not the best way. It is not up to us to educate our oppressors. They know exactly what they are doing. So, what can we do?
To avoid the prison of reacting to racism is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. Where the spirit hangs limp in silk cords of the racial apologists who want soft and delicate treatment for the poor victims is a very dim place. And where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day, day by day, by consistent assaults from racists, then the will just settles into a little tiny heap of sand, and you just have a second-rate existence, jammed with second-hand ideas. Racial ignorance is a prison from which there is no escape because there’re no doors. And there are old, old men, and old, old women running institutions, governments, homes all over the world who need to believe in their racism and need to have the victims of racism concentrate all their creative abilities on them. And they are very easily identified.
They are the petulant ones who call themselves proud, and they are the disdainful ones who call themselves fastidious, and they are the mean-spirited ones who call themselves just. They thrive on the failures of those unlike them; they are the ones who measure their wealth by the desperation of the poor. They are the ones who know personal success only when they can identify deficiencies in other racial and ethnic groups. They are in prisons of their own construction: and their ignorance and their stunted emotional growth consistently boggle the mind.
It is rare that we will succeed in changing the minds of those who oppress us. They hold on so strongly to their false beliefs, and it has been proven that the more we argue with such people and present them with sound logic and facts, the more tightly they hold on to their flawed logic. Yet they manage to wear us down with these constant runarounds while they continue boldly with their erroneous beliefs. This leaves us unable to do our work, while they go forth and infect others with their choice brand of foolishness. As Ms. Morrison says, such people are easy to identify, and our efforts cannot, and must not, be wasted upon them. It is far better to use our efforts where there is hope for substantial change.
We are the moral inhabitants of the globe. And to deny it is to lie in prison. Oh yes, there’s cruelty, and cruelty, because it destroys the perpetuator as well as the victim, is a very mysterious thing. But if you look at the world as one long brutal game between “us” and “them,” then you bump into another mystery. And that’s the mystery of the tree-shaped scar, and the canary that might sing on the crown of a scar. And unless all races and all ages of man have been totally deluded, there seems to be such a thing as grace, such a thing as beauty, such a thing as harmony—all of which are wholly free, and available to us.
A question was asked to Ms. Morrison on how to eliminate racist rhetoric given white media ownership. She responded as follows:
There were several parts to your question. I think you were asking about methods, how was it possible for Blacks [the Black artist] to exercise any influence or control given the media is controlled by White people. Et cetera et cetera. I think there’s a layer underneath your question of assumption about what the media are and what its influence is. One has a tendency to have some enormous awe for it, as though it were some magic, television, play, or a book review. It really is of no consequence when it comes to doing important work. The media originates nothing; it simply digests what exists. It can enlighten, and it can distort, but it does not initiate and it does not create. The best analogy for that for Black people, I think can be found in music. I was talking to Dr. Harris earlier: Black people’s music is in a class by itself and always has been. There’s nothing like it in the world.
The reason for that is that it was not tampered with by White people. It was not “on the media.” It was not anywhere except where Black people were. And it is one of the art forms in which Black people decided what was good in it, what was the best in it; no one told them. And if you want to be a Black musician now, you have to do what the best have done. And all of the mediocre musicians (Black) were blown off the stage [inaudible] and ridiculed by Black—by other Black musicians. So what surfaced and floated to the top were the giants and the best. And it was done without “the media,” in spite of the control et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. That is true of any art form that is (a) not imitated, (b) it does not seek to justify or explain anything; it talks—artists—the Black artists must do what all the other artists do: talk to each other.
The same applies to all other oppressed groups. The only way to empower ourselves is to initiate. To create. Not to participate in the mindless reactionary cycle that the media (and those in power) so well initiates, be it on corruption, sexism, tribalism, homophobia or any of Kenya’s other ills. We support each other in creation. In building networks. In sustained action. And we listen to each other, and learn from each other. No one can speak for us but us. No one will fight for us but us. Which is why it is fallacious to imagine, for example, that the endless reporting of corruption in the media will somehow lead to its reduction. It won’t – because we are tired. We hear a new story almost each day, and pursue it with fervor, as we did the last, leaving us with little time and energy for follow-up, and most of all, distracted. Which is exactly what oppressors rely on.
Power structures have been built over decades, centuries even, and only sustained, organized efforts can bring them down. Thankfully, modern tools ensure that bringing them down happens much faster than how long it took to build them, but much work is still required. Which is why I will not drain myself online pursuing and discussing scandal after scandal, attempting to teach sexists and homophobes, or lambasting Kenyan leaders. They are counting on that. Instead, I am working to fight the disease at its roots. To teach younger people (for whom there is still some hope) much better than we were taught. To create better structures for the near (and far) future. To support others in their struggles.
This is not to say that there is no space for teaching others. Write your essays. Create your work. Send forth those wise tweets. Just do not waste any of your precious time validating yourself to the oppressor. Instead, speak to empower your fellow oppressed. That is where the room for empowerment lies. And only once we are empowered can we fight these toxic structures.
I have a bad habit when I, sometimes, meet people who are incorrigible racists. I like to leave them that way. I never do anything to change their mind. I want them to stay just that way. Ignorant. And I take great, great personal and private pleasure every time I run up against one. It never occurs to me to behave another way so they will not think X, Y, or Z. I want them to stay just like that. Always.