By Muyiwa Adetiba
Those who came into this world from the 80s upwards and are not into music, may not know who James Brown was.
He was the quintessential musician and showman; one of the best performers of his generation. I can almost imagine the nostalgic smiles on the faces of those of my generation as they remember JB- the ‘hardest working man in showbiz’ as he liked to call himself – and his many hit songs.
At a point, almost all his songs became hit songs and youths of the 60s and 70s avidly collected them irrespective of colour. Even then, there were hits within hits.
And a song like ‘It’s a man’s world’ will always be an evergreen. He was more than a musician however. He was also a black icon who tried to use his enormous influence to awake the consciousness in Blacks all over the world but especially in America. His song ‘Say it loud, I am black and proud’ was about the ‘loudest’ of the songs he used to send his message of black awareness.
I was probably caught up in the black consciousness of the sixties and seventies when I wrote a poem titled ‘White is for leprosy’.
I was in my teens. The poem was about kids playing outside in the park. The black kids were so proud of their luxuriant black skin that they saw the ‘paleness’ of the white skin as a disease. They jokingly and derisively pointed to the white kids and asked a parent if the white kids had leprosy. I had never seen a leper before I wrote the poem.
All I knew was how the Bible described a leper. The Good Book said his skin was ‘as white as snow’. Hence the title of the poem. In my young mind, I was hoping for the time when our melanin rich skin would be seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage; when those of the black skin would pity rather than envy those with the white skin. It was a futuristic poem which envisioned such a time when Blacks would have come to their own in the affairs of the world and be more confident of their skin colour.
The poem was written about fifty years ago. It is sad that nothing much has changed in the way the black skin and what it covers is regarded. It is even sadder that people of my generation are not likely to witness any significant change.
The dream for the future that the poem was wrapped around is still a pipe dream. Last year marked another watershed in the battle over race discrimination with the killing of
George Floyd. Sports that had significant black representative forced the world to pause and acknowledge the injustice Blacks face on an everyday basis. This led to some multinationals making sympathetic noises and effecting cosmetic changes.
But nothing fundamental has changed as the recent shootings in America have shown. In my mind, nothing fundamental will change until Blacks get more comfortable in their own skin – forgive the pun- and stop chasing the White calendar and milestones. The narrative that white is good and black is evil has to be changed. The notion that only Whites can define what civilization is has to be expunged. The mindset that Blacks are inherently inferior to Whites has to be adjusted. None of these assumptions is based on truth and so must be challenged. The lie that some White explorers discovered Africa is just what it is; a lie. The history of the world has always been written by Whites. It is time for Blacks to visit the past and begin to write their own story.
We are told that civilization started from Africa. What happened to that civilisation? Blacks had learnt to fend for themselves according to the dictates of the time. They learnt to feed themselves; they learnt to heal themselves; they learnt what herbs to use for difficult child births; they learnt to defend themselves by ‘fortifying’ their bodies against the weapons of their time – knives, machete, arrows and Dane guns.
They developed their own recreation and their art forms. But it was in the area of spiritual prowess that our forefathers had an edge. They learnt the power of the spoken word and used the power to magical effects. They could speak to the elements and be obeyed. Some could disappear from a dangerous scene and reappear elsewhere.
Our ‘masters’ didn’t understand these powers. And because they didn’t understand, they feared them and labelled them evil. We believed them just because they said so. So we lost our knowledge, we lost our mysticism, we lost our potency, we lost our spirituality, we lost our edge. We allowed them to define good and evil on their terms.
Despite the passage of time, our leaders still look up to the West. It must stop. Despite past marginalisation and manipulation, some of our people still believe in the goodness of the West. It is wishful thinking. We have to stop relying on the West for our every need. It is a beggarly mentality. We must look inwards and develop those things that are unique to us.
Like a good chess player, we must objectively appraise our strengths and deploy them. We must look at our assets and seek to develop rather than exploit them. We must seek to feed ourselves and educate our minds. All other forms of ‘civilisation’ will follow.
The earlier we can wean ourselves off age-old attachments, the better for the Black race. The first battle to be won is the battle of the mind – our minds have to be at the right place – and we desperately need the set of leaders who can help us achieve this. For Blacks all over the world to be respected, Africa as a continent must earn respect.
One can imagine for example how Blacks all over the world would feel if the most efficacious Covid-19 medicine or vaccine was developed in Africa by Africans. It would have been a defining moment. Instead, we are typically waiting for the West to heal itself and send the left-over crumbs to us. Or worse, we are waiting for them to tell us why we have survived the worst of the virus when it has brought the rest of the world, especially the ‘mighty West’, to its knees. Why can’t we tell our own Covid-19 story?