Tuesday, February 22, 2005

[Rachel Tenney] Response to Steve Biko and Lewis V. Baldwin

Response to Steve Biko: “I Write What I Like” and Lewis V. Baldwin: “Soaring on the Wings of Pride: Martin Luther King Jr. and the ‘New’ South Africa”
Rachel Tenney
21 February 2005

In reading Steve Biko’s selections in “I Write What I Like”, Black Souls in White Skins? and Our Strategy for Liberation, it is clear to see how the ideas of black consciousness are present even in more “mainstream” literature, including the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as interpreted by Lewis V. Baldwin in “Soaring on the Wings of Pride: Martin Luther King Jr. and the ‘New’ South Africa.” Though in some circles Biko is presented as more similar to Malcolm X than King, Baldwin presents evidence of the “beloved community” that both King and Nelson Mandela work towards that is congruent with the ideal society Biko saw coming from true equality and understanding.

Biko describes what he sees as the best country in response to an interview, saying “We see a completely non-racial society…We believe that in our country there shall be no minority, there shall be no majority, just the people. And those people will have the same status before the law and they will have the same political rights before the law.” (Biko, 149) This is very similar to King’s belief “that the beloved community, “an inclusive and interracial society characterized by ‘freedom and justice for all,’” could find fulfillment in South Africa.” (Baldwin, quoting Kenneth L. Smith, 12) He also believed that the South African community would be “one in which ‘the individual soul’ is not ‘shackled by the chains of conformity.’” (Baldwin, quoting King, 12) Mandela’s Government of National Unity (GNU) was some part of this vision of King’s and Biko’s, but there were always problems effectively sharing power. The GNU was never able to rise above party politics to individuals speaking for themselves.

Biko is clear though about the position of white liberals in the time before this ideal state is achieved; they must not take the lead on black rights nor speak on behalf of blacks. In “Black Souls in White Skins?” he talks about how “white liberals always knew what was good for blacks and told them so…It is only at the end of the 50s that the blacks started demanding to be their own guardians.” (Biko, 20) Any compromise on this was seen as detrimental to the ultimate goal of true equality. Whites inherently had their privilege, and would be only working to preserve it; “the integration they talk about is first of all artificial in that it is a response to conscious manoeuvre rather than to the dictates of the inner soul.” (Biko, 20) Blacks and whites cannot work together in some respects as “it is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master’s son to remove all the conditions leading to the former’s enslavement.” (Biko 20-21) He sees white liberals as desiring to remain “in the good books with both the black and white worlds” failing to realize that “no white person can escape being part of the oppressor camp” because of “the colour of his skin-his passport to privilege.” (Biko, 23)

He may be misinterpreted as against integration, and he is, if it takes the form of blacks fitting in to the white society. The integration he desires “shall be free participation by all members of a society, catering for the full expression of the self in a freely changing society as determined by the will of the people.” (Biko, 24) This ties back well into the position of King and Mandela, as seen by Baldwin, of the “beloved community.”

It is not clear where those of mixed or Indian heritage fit into Biko’s conception of black. I think he, like Strini Moodley, intends that black stands for all those oppressed and all those not white. Moodley would have been classified as Indian under apartheid, but calls himself black. (Moodley lecture, 22 October 2004) Racial classification, a human creation, is confusing in the creation of a “non-racial society.” Baldwin talks about how Mandela had to balance the needs of oppressed groups, and the fear of whites. King also faced similar issues “while meeting demands for peaceful coexistence between all racial and ethnic groups.” (Baldwin, 16) How does this fit with individual rights being recognized? So there is also an understanding that these are just constructed groups, not a reality if one chooses to see this disappear. Even so, Biko and Mandela (and King) see that there is a need to, at the very least, make up for the economic injustices of white domination, along these racial lines.

It is in the economic issues that accusations of communism and socialism come up. The FBI was always trying to link King to communist sympathizers, highlighting the past work of his associates. This is not a threat in South Africa, as much in the United States. And yet there are compromises “with capitalism as much as with democratic socialism” (Baldwin, quoting Egan, 16) in the GNU’s objectives. Biko also had to fight suggestions of communist agitation used to undermine the movement, retorting that unrest was primarily “a simple lack of patience by young folk with a government that is refusing to change…” (Biko, 147)

I think at the heart of similarities between Baldwin’s interpretation of King, Mandela and Biko is the ultimate end they desired. All wanted rights and liberties extended to all individuals, regardless of race. Though they would disagree on who should be involved and how it might come about the goal of a non-racial society was the same.