biko

A while back i shared a number of passage from the Steve Biko book: I Write What I Want. Which are all well worth checking out, as is the whole book if you get the chance. i found one more i would like to share with you which is an example of Steve’s conduct while under hostile examination as well as his ‘perceptive understanding of the difference of black and white uses of language’. This comes from Chapter 15 which asks ;What Is Black Consciousness?’:

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Soggot: Now, I think that that brings us to the 1971 second General Students’ Council?

Biko: Yes

Soggot: Now I do not propose to take you through the whole of that in any way, I merely want to refer you to certain aspects of the Resolutions passed at that GSC. If you look at paragraph 1: “SASO is a black student organisation” – have you got that?

Biko: Yes.

Soggot: Would you just read that please, paragraph 1?

Biko: “SASO is a black student organisation working for the liberation of the black man first from psychological oppression by themselves through inferiority complex and secondly from the physical one accruing out of living in a white racist society.”

Soggot: Now, the concept of Black Consciousness, does that link up in any way with what you have just read?

Biko: Yes, it does.

Soggot: Would you explain briefly to His Lordship that link-up?

Biko: I think basically Black Consciousness refers itself to the black man and to his situation, and I think the black man is subjected to two forces in this country. He is first of all oppressed by an external world through institutionalised machinery, through laws that restrict him from doing certain things, through heavy work conditions, through poor pay, through very difficult living conditions, through poor education, these are all external to him, and secondly, and this we regard as the most important, the black man in himself has developed a certain state of alienation, he rejects himself, precisely because he attaches the meaning white to all that is good, in other words he associates good and he equates good with white. This arises out of his living and it arises out of his development from childhood.

When you go to school for instance, your school is not the same as the white school, and ipso facto the conclusion you reach is that the education you get there cannot be the same as what the white kids get at school. The black kids normally have got shabby uniforms if any, or no uniform at school, the white kids always have uniforms. You find for instance even the organisation of sport (these are things you notice as a kid) at white schools to be absolutely so thorough and indicative of good training, good upbringing. You could get in a school 15 rugby teams. We could get from our school three  rugby teams. Each of these 15 white teams has got uniforms for each particular kid who plays. We have got to share the uniforms amongst our three teams. Now this is part of the roots of self-negation which our kids get even as they grow up. The homes are different, the streets are different, the lighting is different, so you tend to begin to feel that there is something incomplete in your humanity, and that completeness goes with whiteness. This is carried through to adulthood when they black man has got to live and work.

Soggot: How do you see it carried through to adulthood, can you give us examples there?

Biko: From adulthood?

Soggot: Yes.

Biko: I would remember specifically one example that touched me, talking to an Indian worker in Durban who was driving a van for a dry-cleaner firm. He was describing to me his average day, how he lives, and the way he put it to me was that: I no more work in order to live, I live in order to work. And when he went on to elaborate I could see the truth of the statement. He describes how he has to wake up at 4 ‘o clock, half past four in order to walk a long distance to be in time for a bus to town. He works there for a whole day, so many calls are thrown his way by his boss, at the end of the day he has to travel the same route, arrive at home half past eight 9 ‘o clock, too tired to do anything but to sleep in order to be in time for work again the next day.

Soggot: To what extent would you say that this example is typical or atypical of a black worker living in an urban area?

Biko: With I think some variance in terms of the times and so on and the work situation, this is a pretty typical example, precisely because townships are placed long distances away from the working areas where black people work, and the transport conditions are appalling, trains are overcrowded all the time, taxis that they use are overcrowded, the whole travelling situation is dangerous, and by the time a guy gets to work he has really been through a mill; he gets to work, there is no peace at work either, his boss sits on him to eke out of him even the last effort in order to boost up production. This is the common experience of the black man. When he gets back from work through the same process of travelling conditions, he can only take out his anger on his family which is the last defence he has.

Soggot: Are there any other factors which you would name in order to suggest that – to explain why there is this sense of inferiority, as perceived by you people?

Biko: I would speak – I think I have spoken a bit on education, but I think I must elaborate a little bit on that. As a black student again, you are expected to competition with white students in fields in which you are completely inadequate. We come from a background which is essentially peasant and worker, we do not have any form of daily contact with a highly technological society, we are foreigners in that field. When you have got to write an essay as a black child under for instance Joint Matriculation Board for example, the topics that are given there tally very well with white experience, but you as a black student writing the same essay have got to grapple with something that is foreign to you – not only foreign but superior in a sense; because of the ability of the white culture to solve so many problems in the sphere of medicine, various spheres, you tend to look at it as a superior culture than yours, you tend to despise the worker culture, and this inculcates in the black man a sense of self-hatred which I think is an important determining factor in his dealings with himself and his life.

And of course to accommodate the existing problems, the black man develops a two-faced attitude; I can quote a typical example; I had a man working in one of our projects in the Eastern Cape on electricity, he was installing electricity, a white man with a black assistant. He had to be above the ceiling and the black man was under the ceiling and they were working together pushing up wires and sending the rods in which the wires are and so on, and all the time there was insult, insult, insult from the white man: push this you fool – that sort of talk, and of course this touched me; I knew the white man very well, he speaks very well to me, so at tea time we invite them to tea; I ask him: why do you speak like this to this man? and he says to me in front of the guy: this is the only language he understands, he is a lazy bugger. And the black man smiled. I asked him if it was true and he says: no, I am used to him. Then I was sick. I thought for a moment I do not understand black society. After some two hours I came back to this guy, I said to him: do you really mean it? The man changed, he became very bitter, he was telling me how he wants to leave any moment, but what can he do? He does not have any skills, he has got no assurances of another job, his job is to him some form of security, he has got no reserves, if he does not work today he cannot live tomorrow, he has got to work, he has got to take it. And if he has got to take he dare not show any form of what is called cheek to his boss.

Now this I think epitomises the two-faced attitude of the black man to this whole question of existence in this country.

Soggot: The use of the word “black” in literature and as part of western culture, has that figured at all?

Biko: Sorry?

Soggot: The use of the word “black”, what does black signify and how is it used in language?

Judge Boshoff: Is it a comprehensive term?

Biko: If I understand you correctly, the reference I think of common literature to the term black is normally in association also with negative aspects, in other words you speak of the black market, you speak of the black sheep of the family, you speak of – you know, anything which is supposed to be bad is considered to be black.

Soggot: We have got that, now in that context… [Court Intervenes]

Judge Boshoff: Now the word black there, it has nothing to do with the black man. Isn’t that just the idiom over the years because darkness usually, the night was a mystery for the primitive man? I mean I include the whites when I talk about primitive man, and when he talks about dark forces, he refers to forces that he cannot explain, and he refers to magic, black magic; isn’t that the reason for this?

Biko: This is certainly the reason, but I think there has been created through history and through common reference – all the attitudes which are associated with exactly that kind of association – also go in regard to the black man, and the black man sees this as being said of magic, of the black market, precisely because like him it is an inferior thing, it is an unwanted thing, it is a rejected thing by society. And of course typically (and again in the face of this logic) whiteness goes with angels, goes with, you know, God, beauty, you know. I think this tends to help in creating this kind of feeling of self-censure within the black man.

Soggot: When you have phrases such as “black is beautiful”, now would that sort of phrase fit in with the Black Consciousness approach?

Biko: Yes, it does.

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And there is more, but you need to go and read the book. This is such eye-opening stuff and worth sharing with your friends and then having deep conversation over. We need to really start to understand these things before we can hope to move forwards well.

What stood out for you from this extract? Share some thoughts with us in the comments section.

[For more extracts from Steve Biko’s ‘I Write What I Like’, click here]

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