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Black History Month Focus Month

Celebrating Steve Biko Ingeminating Black Consciousness

Bildergebnis für steve biko
Source: UjaamaAlive.Africa 2019

COMMENT Dr. Serawit Debele 18 February 2022

February is that time of the year when a whole month is dedicated to Black people to celebrate themselves and be celebrated by well-meaning, diversity and inclusion-sensitive nonblack denizens. The theme for this year’s Black History Month is “Black Health and Wellness”. Ironically, the pandemic has made apparent so much about the injustice Black people live (from death by Covid 19 to global vaccine distribution). The (in)ability to breath has been a rallying cry resulting in the intensification of the struggle for racial justice. Here I am also thinking about the murder of George Floyd, an African American man who the world saw being lynched due to the refusal to heed his plea “I can’t breathe”. Needless to state the global movement Floyd’s brutal murder reignited and the resurfacing of Fanon’s famous adage “we revolt because we can’t breathe” in academic circles. Equally, there has been a strong pushback against certain social movements that demand justice for marginalized groups. When Blackness is centered to articulate an emancipatory politics, to organize for justice, freedom, equality-which are all principles of inclusive democracy- the moral panic hits high. Quickly, one gets accused of racism and of reproducing the racist system for the mere fact that one grounds her political organizing within the very thing that interpellates her as a subject – her race. The question of race seems to scare everyone, even those with progressive and liberal persuasions. Anti-Black racism has become so suffocating everywhere every time that even those who try to maintain distance from Afropessimism are on the verge of subscribing to its theories of unending Black oppression. Against the hope for a better future, our encounters with racism push us towards believing that indeed this world is essentially organized around anti Blackness. In such disconcerting times, there’s no befitting solace than in ingeminating Steve Biko’s (1946-1977) thoughts to rejuvenate our hope. It is in this context that I would like to reflect on, by way of celebrating Biko’s legacies, Black Consciousness. Steve Biko, the African thinker, activist, politician, leader, community organizer and educator, has given us Black Consciousness which we might need to repurpose for its potential in fostering solidarities in seemingly fractured struggles oft dismissed as ineffective identity politics. I want to stress the contemporary relevance of Biko’s thoughts because the determination to fight against that which suffocates us is what Black Consciousness enables in our times as it has during the anti-Apartheid struggle.

Black Consciousness as Self-Assertion and Liberation  

Black Consciousness is a call to look inward, that should begin by acknowledging the dehumanization that Black people have been subjected to, a call to emancipate oneself before anything and anyone else.  It is a process of breathing life into the shell racism has made Black people out to be. It is an act of infusing oneself with pride and dignity, because only then can one accept that she has to fight to claim what is rightfully hers. In Biko’s own words, Black Consciousness

seeks to give positivity in the outlook of the black people to their problems. It works on the knowledge that “white hatred” is negative, though understandable, and leads to precipitate and shot-gun methods which may be disastrous for black and white alike. It seeks to channel the pent-up forces of the angry black masses to meaningful and directional opposition basing its entire struggle on realities of the situation. It wants to ensure a singularity of purpose in the minds of the black people and to make possible total involvement of the masses in a struggle essentially theirs.[1]

Black Consciousness is a philosophy of self-acceptance that centers Blackness as a source of integrity and launching ground for solidarity with others. With Black Consciousness, Biko anticipated a “just and egalitarian society in which color, creed and race shall form no point of reference.”[2] It is obvious that for him, Black Consciousness is an attitude, perhaps less to do with skin pigmentation than one’s relationship to systems of domination as well as one’s determination to fight for emancipation. That might be why Black Consciousness became post-Apartheid South Africa’s saving grace. Due to its capacity to transcend racial divides, it contributed to keeping the country from sinking into bloodbath right after the end of apartheid as Mahmood Mamdani in his latest book “Neither Settler nor Native” remarks.[3]

The Fear of Black Consciousness in a System of White Supremacy  

And yet, Black Consciousness was perceived as a threat. It was conveniently misunderstood by Biko’s white liberal contemporaries who were active in the fight against Apartheid. As if reflecting on this, Biko wrote the below regarding this persistent panic around Black people organizing:

When workers come together under the auspices of a trade union to strive for the betterment of their conditions, nobody expresses surprise in the Western world. It is the done thing. Nobody accuses them of separatist tendencies. Teachers fight their battles, garbagemen do the same, nobody acts as a trustee for another. Somehow, however, when blacks want to do their thing the liberal establishment seems to detect an anomaly.[4]

Today’s tendencies to dismiss Black self-assertion as mere identity politics is an interesting reminder of the continuity of fear harbored against Black organizing. Imagine what a déjà vu this would all seem to him if Steve Biko were to visit us in our present moment. There is a dangerous way in which the so-called identity politics is deployed to justify anti-Black stances. Social movements that demand an all-encompassing justice system from a particular location – that is Blackness – are reduced to identity politics because they challenge an abstract ideal of justice. Instead of what is being asked or focusing on the potential of the ask in creating a habitable world for all, “who is asking” becomes the issue of contention. Anxiety piles up around a historically marginalized society on the basis of race as if they are conniving to take it all, as if they are threatening the survival of humanity, as if others cannot exist if racial injustice were to be addressed more effectively.  And yet, to reiterate Biko, “What blacks are doing is merely to respond to a situation in which they find themselves the objects of white racism. We are in the position in which we are because of our skin. We are collectively segregated against—what can be more logical than for us to respond as a group?”[5] Interestingly, Biko’s friend Donald Woods, the journalist who later wrote Biko’s biography, was one among those who were furious about Biko’s radicalism, and the perceived danger of anti-White sentiment Black Consciousness is accused of breeding. When they first met, Woods asked Biko how Black Consciousness can be prevented “from becoming black racism or anti-white hatred”.[6] Biko said, “Because it isn’t a negative, hating thing. It’s a positive black self-confidence thing involving no hatred of anyone.”[7] His answer was precise and unwavering- their friendship only blossomed from then on. For our times, Black Consciousness must be reimagined to combat a divisive idea that stifles the possibility to collectively stand up against white supremacy and other systems of oppression as well as exploitation that enable it. It must be regurgitated to unite those who have the capacity to identify with others’ pain and fight for equality.

Locating Black Consciousness in the Struggle for a Just Society

Before concluding, I think it is important to mention Steve Biko’s connection with and investment in Black people’s struggle elsewhere in the world to address concerns some raise about Black History Month as having less to do with Africa because it is rooted in the African American history. For example, the father of Black liberation Theology James Cone’s influence on Biko’s thinking is glaring in his writings on Christianity and African Spirituality. Equally, Black Consciousness owes to most of Franz Fanon’s writings as it does to Aimé Césaire’s. Just as an example, if we read Césaire’s resignation letter written in 1956 to the French communist party, we can see it mirrored in Biko’s articulation of the struggle for Black liberation by emphasizing its specificities. The same is true for Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Reading Biko’s series of reflections in “I write what I like” one cannot miss Fanon’s influence on Biko. It cannot be overstated that Black people’s plight across the world was clearly something about which Biko thought just as the spirit of revolution and nationalist struggles were simmering in his call for Black South Africans to own their struggle against white racism, white supremacy, capitalist systems of exploitation, that among other things worked in detaching Black People from their humanities, from their histories, from their roots, from their Blackness. Beyond being a déjà vu for Biko, the current reverberations of anti-Blackness show just how incomplete the struggle for freedom has been and how our lives are still firmly tethered with those who fell fighting for racial justice. It is in this spirit that we should celebrate Biko and ingeminate Black Consciousness in thinking the way forward to a just society. Happy Black History Month!


[1] Aelred Stubbs. (fl. 1978) (ed.) I Write What I Like: Steve Biko. A selection of his writings (Oxford: Heinemann, 1987), 31.

[2] Millarld Anrold.  The Testimony of Steve Biko (Panther: Granda Publishing, 1978), 7.

[3] Mahmood Mamdani.  Neither Settler Nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities (Harvard University Press, 2020).

[4] Aelred Stubbs. (fl. 1978) (ed.) I Write What I Like, 25.

[5] Aelred Stubbs. (fl. 1978) (ed.) I Write What I Like, 25. 

[6]  Donald Woods. Biko: The Powerful Biography of Steve Biko and the Struggle of the Black Consciousness Movement (Lume Books, 2021), 54.

[7] Ibid., 54.

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