Steve Biko on the Black Consciousness Movement

Black Consciousness and Steve Biko

In his illustrious life as a Pan-African Historian, Dr. John Henrik Clarke once remarked in the many lectures he delivered that some people are confused about where they belong among us. You can clarify this situation very easily. Your creator, the oppressor, has made no room in his house for you; you either belong among us or you don’t belong in any place. 

In September 1977, 45 years ago, Africa lost one of its revolutionary sons, Steve Bantu Biko, who proudly upheld an unshakeable spirit of uncompromising struggle against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Biko fronted the Black Consciousness Movement in the midst of white Racism and Apartheid colonialism. It’s critical in our times to reflect on this philosophy in a world that has hardly changed since his demise. 

Statements of solidarity from African leaders and Africans through social media following the death of Queen Elizabeth have left many dumbfounded. Is it ignorance, inferiority complex, or Stockholm Syndrome? Or better still, Malcolm X would ask who taught us to hate ourselves? The ruling class and elite Africans befit the title of the Frantz Fanon work Black Skins, White Masks; a clear demonstration that neo-colonialism is a monstrous system that kills the intellectual creativity of people and deforms their minds and personalities. As Amilcar Cabral would say, the liberation struggle is a revolution that does not end with one getting a flag, a seat in the United Nations, and a National Anthem.

The Irish people surprisingly are more aware of the crimes committed by the British empire than Africans yet the British colonized the whole of African regions. Mis-education largely has contributed to most Africans not understanding the extent of the atrocities and evilness committed by the British empire. Since time memorial, detention camps in Kenya and South Africa (where Africans were brutalized and massacred) represent just a fraction of what the empire did. And nowhere in history did the Queen ever acknowledge nor condemn these atrocities.

Kenyan radical historian Maina wa Kinyatti says, “History for most of us is something we have been taught in schools about our past and place in the world, it comes to us out of tedious textbooks generally written by foreigners.” Most Kenyan historians have added little to the understanding of whom we are tending to see our histories as a series of aimless wanderings and endless genealogies leaving us with a stunted understanding of our past. As historian Chancellor Williams puts it, “there can be no real identity with our heritage until we know what our heritage really is. It is all hidden in our history, but we are ignorant of that history, so we have been floating along, basking blissfully in the sunny heritage of other peoples.” Distorted history has made us a shell of ourselves making us apathetic and complacent about our responsibility.

We can use revolutionary Pan-Africanism interchangeably with Black Consciousness to combat neo-colonialism and oppression. Steve Biko was fond of saying the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Thus, Black Consciousness was not just a movement to fight apartheid. It was a philosophy founded to make Africans change their mentality and free their minds from the ideas of inferiority and oppression. But how do you inculcate the philosophy of Black Consciousness towards achieving an African revolution that is relentless and uncompromising? Only through political education and rigorous study can this be achieved.  Avenues must be founded to teach and self-educate. It is imperative for Pan-Africanist movements and social movements to embrace political education and study sessions as the colonial sentiments show there is a lot to be done to undo mental slavery. We should start with the basis of what Brother Biko formulated in the early days of the Black conscious Movement in South Africa. I summarize his thoughts with quotes from the book I Write What I Like and in particular two chapters, Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity & What is Black Consciousness:

“It is perhaps fitting to start by examining why it is necessary for us to think collectively about a problem we never created. In doing so, I do not wish to concern myself unnecessarily with the white people of South Africa but to get to the right answers, we must ask the right questions; we have to find out what went wrong—where and when; and we have to find out whether our position is a deliberate creation of God or an artificial fabrication of the truth by power-hungry people whose motive is authority, security, wealth and comfort. In other words, the “Black Consciousness” approach would be irrelevant in a colorless and non-exploitative egalitarian society. It is relevant here because we believe that an anomalous situation is a deliberate creation of man—- Thus, a lot of attention has to be paid to our history if we as blacks want to aid each other in our coming into consciousness. We have to rewrite our history and produce in it the heroes that formed the core of our resistance to the white invaders. More has to be revealed, and stress has to be laid on the successful nation-building attempts of men such as Shaka, Moshoeshoe, and Hintsa. These areas call for intense research to provide some sorely-needed missing links. We would be too naive to expect our conquerors to write unbiased histories about us but we have to destroy the myth that our history starts in 1652, the year VanRiebeeck landed at the Cape.”

Steve Biko from I Write What I Like

“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 institutionalized 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.”

Steve Biko from I Write What I Like

Long live the legacy of Steve Bantu Biko.