The Five Phases of Blackness: Why #WhiteLivesMatter

You are probably wondering about the title. I suspect that you are eager to get to the clever (perhaps desperate) twist. There is no twist. White lives matter!

You may even be wondering what I mean by blackness. Blackness is exactly that, suffocating darkness. Imagine being in a dark tunnel that is shut on both ends. Except, this tunnel is centuries long, the walls are drenched in blood and the floor has piles of black bodies. There is no light, maybe just a flickering candle that is seen only by a lucky few.

The first phase of blackness is innocence, oblivion. As an infant, a black infant, born to black parents, in a blank community, I was unaware of my blackness. I was oblivious to the curse that plagued me.

I imagine that I poo-poo-d like other children. I mama-d and dada-d, like other children. I guzzled milk formula and stuffed by face with Purity, literally.

As I crawled and then walked, I didn’t know that I had survived higher-than-average infant mortality, malnutrition and poor health care. In a rural village in South Africa, I drank water from a river (that also doubled as a toilet and a bathtub). However, just by staying alive, I passed to the next phase of blackness.

The second phase is confusion. Like most children, I woke and donned my khakis with long socks. I polished my shoes, combed my nappy hair, stuffed by face with yesterday’s leftovers and walked for about an hour to get to school. But even then, as a black child, at a black school, in a black community, there was a pervading sense of otherness.

The language and mannerisms enforced at school were alien and awkward. It felt as though the school was teaching me to become a different parson; a person I had never met. In each book I read, Africa, my home, was either a strange dessert roaming large elephants or a large forest roaming tempestuous baboons. The people were simple, hungry, diseased or just in need of salvation.

It was all very grotesque and unfamiliar. More so because my family’s kraal (a compound of houses) rested on a riverbank, surrounded by a lush green of rolling mountains as far as the eye could see. Every morning I woke up to the crackling of birds that nested on a bamboo forest across the river. As the village came alive, and the river fog cleared, there were neighbours shouting, dogs barking and roosters crowing, but never the stampede of elephants or grinding fear of wild lions that I read about in schoolbooks.

I listened carefully in every class – in history, geography, maths, and science. Blacks were either not mention or were mentioned only as subjects in the enthralling tales of European conquerors. Even in art class, the village patterns were taboo. I had to draw a car or a multi-storey house, never a village rondavel, a herd of cows or pack of hunting dogs.

So I started asking myself, “What is wrong with us?” I remember as a child asking my folks, “Why are we not white people?” I remember asking my mother – a very light-skinned woman who had to cover her face with red clay as she toiled the soil during the unforgiving summer sun – whether the clay (“ibomvu”) would make her a white person. She laughed as said, “If you want to be a white person, do your homework.”

An exam in IsiZulu is “ukuhlolwa,” which unfortunately translates to “inspection”. One morning, when I was about seven years old, I refused to go to school. When my mother asked why, I told her that inspectors (“abahloli”) were coming to check if we were white. She laughed and said, “You did your homework; you will be fine.” I cried and told her, “My skin is still dirty.”

Even then, at seven years old, just three years after democracy in South Africa, being “unwhite” felt like a problem, a curse and a mistake. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was not aware of the bigger picture. W.E.B du Bois asks the same question in his book The Souls of Black Folks, “How does it feel to be a problem?”

The third stage is the awakening and shame. If you’re lucky enough to pick up a book, your awakening will be delivered quickly by King’s dream, by Malcolm’s passion or by Garvey’s pragmatism. Perhaps your awakening will be through Césaire, Fanon or Biko’s sharp wit. They will bite and blow. They will tell you about the roots of black pain and disadvantage but still remind you to love yourself.

If, like me, you are not that fortunate, your awakening will be slow and excruciating. For me, it took watching movies portraying lynching and murder of blacks to loud cheers. I watched on television as black bodies were mutilated and burned for sport.

I watched in awe as every black man was portrayed as gun-wielding buffoon. Every black woman was portrayed as powerless and mindless domestic. If not that, black women were portrayed as prostitutes, like no other black woman I had ever seen. The village women, their strength, dignity and human spirit, were not portrayed on television.

First, my blood boiled and my heart was drenched in senseless hate. I cried myself to sleep. Soon, the anger morphed to shame. I felt naked. My very existence, it seemed, was a cruel joke. If there were ever any ancestors, if there was ever a God, how dare they let us suffer for so long? How had we allowed ourselves to suffer for so long?

I then looked around my own community. Families were crumbling as fathers left young children to search for work in city slums. They came back only once a year, for a week (or maybe less) in December. Rumours soon spread that, after years of loneliness in piss-reeking Durban or Johannesburg informal settlements, they took mistresses or raised clandestine families. As families drifted further apart, young teens, male and female, were forced to leave school to provide for the family thus completing the cycle of black disadvantage.

The fourth phase is anger. I became very angry about the past. Most of all, I was furious about the present. It did not matter how hard I worked or how many books I read, I would forever be an outsider. Where, with a mixture of chance and hard work, I succeeded — I did so only to become a token. “You are not like other blacks,” they told me.

I was angry because the facts are widely available. There are troves of garish books, documentaries, movies, and other art forms. There are museums, biographies and first-hand accounts of centuries of black pain. Yet, people (blacks included) appeared to be oblivious to the fact that we are suffocating and slowly self-destructing because of reminiscent oppression.

I was angry because I finally realized that the world hates slavery and colonialism, not because of the pain and suffering of million of black individuals, communities and nations, no! Leopold II killed between 8 and 10 million Africans, but, even today, monuments celebrate him in Brussels.

The media reported recently that white police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, beat up a black man. When he bled on their uniforms, they charged and jailed him for destruction of public property. In a similar vein, the world hates slavery because it is an ugly stain on the conscience of white folks; those who care enough to think about the subject anyway. This explains the doublespeak — Belgium and the United States denounce slavery but still celebrate slaughters like Leopold II and Columbus.

The fifth and final phase of blackness is survival. I am tired of being black. I am tired of the abuse, of being a victim, of the anger and shame. I do not want to run from the police, from poverty and diseases. I am tired of being hounded (physically, emotionally and psychologically) by whites and uppity blacks. I am tired of dodging bullets from hardened, angry and hungry black youths. I am tired of policing racism and bigotry.

I am tired of pleading just to be recognised as a human being. I am tired of fighting for, and then having to defend, my humanity – the most obvious bit of my existence.

I want out. Give a seat at the white table! I will be a good black. I will stop listening to hip-hop (just Iggy Azalea and Macklemore). I will never speak again about slavery, race or white privilege. I will work harder for half (or less) the reward given to my white counterparts. All I want, all I need, is just to live!

Black lives do not matter! From the bondage of slavery, to the bondage of nations under colonialism, to modern government-sanctioned corporate slavery, black lives do not matter! I am willing to shut up about that.

I am willing to validate my existence to the “Aryan race”. I will assimilate whiteness, if that is what it takes. I will “speak properly” and I will pull up my pants. I will apologize for black slaves that bled on white masters. I will apologize for King’s silly dream. I will apologize for Malcolm, Garvey, and Biko’s radicalism.

For all this, I ask just for one thing: the right to be alive!

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