Most eras end imperceptibly – and most eras also end abruptly. It may seem a contradiction that social change is both barely noticeable and drastic, but history teaches us that this frequently is the case. All of a sudden there is a shift, and long-held cultural symbols, social patterns, or value systems are no longer what they once were. This is how the west became secular and, for that matter, the Global South Christianised. It is how globalisation happened, and how social media transformed public discourse.
However, it is also true, when you probe deeper into the matter, that behind every catalyst for social change, are years of dreaming, building and fighting. For example, pan-Africanist thinking dates at least to radicals like W.E.B DuBois and Amy Ashwood Garvey but it was the independence movements of 1960s Africa that ushered the institutionalised pan-Africanism we are familiar with today. When the birth control pill revolutionised women’s sexual lives and emboldened the second wave of feminism, it was not simply the case that the pill gave women independence, but rather decades of feminist organising that led to its invention. Social change is like a river flowing seemingly peacefully for decades then suddenly erupting into a flood.
The COVID pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated oppressive elements that are embedded within sociopolitical structures. It has therefore been a catalyst for not only a health emergency but also for social change, ushering unprecedented conversations and protests connecting race, class, gender, decolonisation, and ecocide. But the injustices and inequalities the pandemic has brought to the fore of the sociopolitical agenda, have long been urgent to the groups whom they affect.
One of the social patterns that COVID may play a role in transforming in the simultaneously intangible yet abrupt way described, is the centering of whiteness in the black struggle for liberation.
So much of black liberation has, necessarily, focused on dismantling white supremacy and thus, understandably, to centering the actions (or inactions) of white people. Black liberation has a long history of telling white people where they went wrong, and how they should make things right, of feeding into white guilt, and so on. As mentioned, this focus has been both understandable and necessary, especially in political life, leading for example to significant policy changes such as affirmative action.
Yet, centering white people in black liberation ironically means consequently de-centering black people’s liberation. It means deprioritising black people’s individual and collective interiority; the deep recesses of being where we make meaning of existence. Blackness has come to be defined by resistance to whiteness, rather than as a repository of a people’s philosophy that conveys collective attitudes to fundamental matters of life such as birth, death, love, work, and pleasure.
This means, for example, that we teach black children about racism (and thus, whiteness) from a young age while white children (who at best will benefit from the privilege of racist systems and at worst will perpetuate them) can reach adulthood before learning about race.
In my book, Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, I describe liberation, not as the end of suffering, but as the end of suffering from being you. When last have black people as a group been able to look inward and say: We are not going to suffer from being black anymore, we are not going to be reduced to perpetual anger and dissent, we are not going to exist in constant defiance of pity and shame. We are going to grapple with matters of the human mind and coexistence like everyone else. We are going to live lives of compassion, courage and joy.
And so speaking of joy, it is wonderful that this was the year that talk about “Black Joy” was everywhere. It was as though the despair of systemic inequality and injustice laid bare once again through the disproportionate amount of black people dying from COVID, the murder of George Floyd, the continued inhumane deportations of black and brown people, etc., led to protests, frustration, and high-level strategizing. But it also led to an emphasis on individual and collective desires–for joy, discovery, harmonious co-existence with the natural world, softness and languor.
The pandemic may be the factor that we one day look back to as the catalyst to look at black liberation not only through dissent but through joy. It may be the cathartic reinvigoration of black interiority and the layers of power and love embedded within.
This article was originally published on The Voice.
Photo by Thor Alvis