“You are either alive and proud or you are dead, and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway.” ~ Bantu Steve Biko
Today HOLAA! remembers Bantu Steve Biko the father and founder of the Black Consciousness movement. A movement born out of a sense of indignation towards the institutional and systematic racist violence that Black Africans were subjected to under the Apartheid regime. African Queers everywhere can relate to the notion of being marginalized, ostracized and victimized because of who we are and how we love.
Black Consciousness sought to galvanize Black people based on a sense of pride regarding their common identity and a belief in a future where they too were active and equal participants in society. The notion behind Black Consciousness is that the only way in which the Black community can attain true liberation, respect and ultimately personhood is if they purged themselves of internalized self-loathing, reconfigured their self understanding of themselves and took pride in the unique attributes of their communities. Black consciousness was, and is, about the knowledge and re education of self and community.
September 12th marks the 36th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death. In 1977 Biko died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. The inhumane torture, treatment and abuses that Biko suffered at the hands of the Apartheid security police were also metered out towards homosexual members of the South African Defense Force. From 1969 – 1987 homosexuals were frequently subjected to shock therapy to cure them of their “ailment”; at times voltages were so high that prisoners’ shoes would fly off. What is common in both these cases is that people were routinely persecuted for open expressions and celebrations of who they were. Identities that did not conform to commonly prescribed norms were seen as subversive and in need of marginalization and silencing.
In 21st century Africa much of the rhetoric used by colonial administrations to marginalize Black people is being used against Queers. Homosexuality is labeled as “unAfrican”, disgusting, unnatural, carnal and shameful. Many African Queers silence themselves for fear of being ostracized or victimized by their communities. This victimization can take many forms such as: attempts at religious exorcism, excommunication or, in its most severe form, murder. Though institutional, political and social changes take time the Queer African community can use the lessons from black consciousness to its benefit.
One of the biggest challenges African Queers face is overcoming internalized homophobia. Being socialized in an environment where queers are invisible and patriarchal family values are of primacy can lead to non-heteronormative persons questioning, fearing and resenting themselves. Overcoming preconceived notions of gender, compulsory heterosexuality and what it means to be African is critical in understanding yourself as a Queer. Re-educate yourself about who you are and understand the power dynamics behind the laws, morals, politics and traditions that you observe around you. Who you are is not a mistake nor is it a disability. Popular opinion should not sway you because norms always evolve over time.
Being a Queer African means that you are African and Queer- which does not require you to mimic popular representations of homosexuality. Your strength lies in the unique understanding of SELF that Africanness affords. Black consciousness was about mobilizing marginalized communities in order to effect change.
African Queers need to band together around their LBGTQI identities and build communities where stories can be shared and support garnered. Identity policing is the last thing that the Queer African movement needs because it fractures an already vulnerable minority. We are strongest when we are united. We are strongest when we are true to ourselves.
Queers must instill within themselves a sense of pride about who and what they are. Being lesbian, gay, transgendered, intersex and/or bisexual is not about trying to prove that you are “just like the straights”. We are all unique in who we are, what we feel and how we see. As such we must seek to understand and appreciate ourselves so that we can use our differences to make a patent change in the world around us. If it had not been for their unique positions as Queer Black Womyn Audre Lorde and Alice Walker may not have been able to articulate their social criticisms so poignantly. Who you are determines the voice you speak with and your voice absolutely matters. So live boldly! Always be conscious of who you are and always proud of it.
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