By Ben Okri
All across the world in the late fifties and sixties could be heard what Byron once called the ‘First Dance of Freedom’. Not long afterwards came the cry of failure as civil wars, tribalism, coups and corruption descended on the recent freedom dances. Then came the long decades of animi, that was such a feast of gloating and salivation for western observers. People emerged from the African world into a European-shaped reality in two or three generations and no one wonders that there would be some confusion. People entered an arena in which others have been shaping themselves as nation states over hundreds of year and no one wonders that they would at first seem inadequate. The fact is we might have lost control of our self-perception. We might have lost control of how we see ourselves in the modern world. We see ourselves and measure ourselves with outwardly determined standards. We don’t play our game.
We don’t choose our values; but more seriously, emerging from African reality into modern reality has had one major effect: time has gotten speeded up for us. We are having to accomplish in 10 years what it took European nations 2000 years to accomplish. Africa is having to compress in a short time her own equivalent of the Roman Conquest, the Viking marauders, the Black Death, feudalism, Civil War, the Industrial Revolution with its dark satanic mills, capitalism, the poverty act, the union of the four warring nations and the unholy spoils of colonialism – all into a few solitary decades.
There is however another way to read history. It could be said that African nations have emerged from the long reality of their selfhood into a different time and are engaged in a complex historical adjustment. We need to define history more accurately, and the history of African people, the Bantu, the Zulu, and the Yoruba’s, to give a tiny example, is long, unique and needs to be written and studied. History is not the story of the impact of the western world on the African world; that is a small part of our history.
History is not objective. The meaning of history keeps on revealing itself through time. Like a text of infinite interpretability, history yields new meanings in relation to the eyes that behold it and the pressures of the times. History may be memory, history may be vengeance, history may be redemption – but whatever history is, it is too soon to extrapolate the meaning of our recent histories. Those who write about history in haste and fall into quick judgements, find that the long unfolding of events change the meaning of the facts upon which they base their judgements. Time is a great ironist. The historian who makes a quick judgement against the United States of America right in the middle of her apocalyptic Civil War, would be made fooling by the unfolding destiny of that nation.
History may be fact, history may be a dream, history may be revelation. It is not how things are that count, it’s what you do with them, what vision you have and with what strength you march towards that vision. We need a new consciousness. History is always responsive to a new consciousness.
Do you want me to keep going? I’m just trying to make sure I’m not talking to myself. They say the greater the mistakes the greater the lessons that can be learned. Africa has surely made enough mistakes for us to learn about. Among other things we are rich in mistakes. Some nations in the world make their mistakes over thousands of years, we made ours over decades. We have made enough mistakes to become nations of genius if we had that inclination. Maybe that is why there is the beginnings of a new consciousness, a new stirring of national success slowly creeping across the continent.
But what are some of these mistakes: the slide towards dictatorship and tyranny, corruption becoming a ‘natural’ part of the national fabric, the depletion of national resources by ruling elite, the erosion of civil liberties, the failure to realise that nations can die just like businesses, companies or individuals. You do not need me to tell you that if Biko were alive today, his cry to Africa would be to put its house in order. He would be appalled at the civil wars, the failure to feed and educate the people, the greed of government officials, and the general failure to live up to the promise of the great struggles for liberation. He would be harder on us than our critics because he would expect from us the highest standards of national life.
I interpret Black Consciousness not only in relation to the history of oppression; I interpret it also as an injunction to the highest fulfilment of a people’s possibilities. Black Consciousness means nothing if it does not also mean the best flowering of our reality. To me Black Consciousness means equality, freedom, community, grassroot transformation, but it also means excellence, humanity, foresight, wisdom, and a transcendence of our weakness and our flaws. Stripped of its specific context of Apartheid the core of Black Consciousness does not seem to me a polarising message. Rather it is a call for the awakening of the spirit, a call such as the ancestors might have made. Wherever a people are oppressed, the first thing they must remember is who they are. But once liberation has been achieved, the first thing they must remember is who they want to be.
The heart of Black Consciousness is a message of ‘becoming’; its goal is not limited, it hints as a continuing journey of self-discovery and self-realisation. This can be as wide and as expansive as the mind that interprets it. There can be no end to a self-realisation. Every day we discover more and more who we can be – this is what Black Consciousness says to me: become who you are, and also, become what you truly can be. It is an injunction of greatness. In fact, it is an injunction to leadership. It says in effect that black people because of their history and all that they have learned, should show the world a new way of being – to paraphrase, a better way of being human. I’m coming to the end, slowly.
There are three kinds of leaders. There are the ones who make; there are the ones who bring meaningful change. There are the ones who make change real. And then there are those who squander the possibilities of their times. The challenge of our times has always been the challenge of leadership. It is not the only challenge but it is the most symbolic. Black Consciousness is an injunction to leadership because the people can only be as liberated as its leaders are – in that sense Black Consciousness says that to liberate in your mind and freeing your consciousness, you should be your own leader. Everyone therefore carries the burden of leadership. To that degree, the leaders that you have says something about the kind of people that you are.
Previously leadership was considered on its own as an isolated event of responsibility. We tended to blame our leaders for our failings. The micro responsibility of Black Consciousness implies that we should blame or praise ourselves for our leaders for they are what we have enabled them to become. To me Black Consciousness suggests that the people take the responsibilities for their lives, their societies, and their destiny. This is not a textual but an intuitive reading of Black Consciousness. I am not advocating civil unrest but that the people are complicit in how their societies are run, how their history turns out. The people cannot be passive about the single most important thing that affects them, which is the running of their lives.
In that sense there is a micro and a macro dimension of Black Consciousness, but its core is that of liberating for time and in all historical circumstances the consciousness, the conscience and the spirit of a people. After all, the people cannot come away in their oppression and fall right asleep after their liberation. A continued wakefulness is the burden of Black Consciousness; a continued vigilance is its responsibility. More than that, an ever-higher refinement of the possibilities of the people, an ever-higher reach in its potential and the realisation ought to be its goal.
The renewal of a people of a continent is a miraculous thing. And it happens when a great new idea takes root in a people; when they see the image of themselves not as they were but as they can be. It is a renewed self-vision. Its source is a potent and enchanted vision; it is conveyed through inspiration and sustained by example. Through the undercurrents of our minds, the idea is passed along that we can have good houses, good roads, decent education, fulfilling jobs. The idea is passed along in the undercurrent of our minds that we can stand tall and be fruitful under the sun. The idea is passed along that no one needs to starve and that everyone can have access to health services. The idea is passed along that we can question many of our beliefs; we can apply reason to our inherited notions that we can transfigure our superstitions. The idea is passed along that we can transcend our tribalism without losing our roots; that we can transcend our religion without losing our faith. The idea is passed along that we can transcend our race without losing its uniqueness; that we can transcend our past without losing our identity. It is passed along that we can only look forward and that has been done many times in history all over the world and is being done slowly today in Asia and places like Brazil – that we can remake our societies closer to our heart’s desire. The idea starts along that now is the time to show the true greatness on the part of your liberation. Now is the time to create a society commensurate to the ideals which the people fought for and for which so many died. That the fire of your history is a refining fire, producing from the blood of martyrs the goal of a new civilization.
In alchemy there are two ways to accomplish what is known as a great work. They are called the dry way and the wet way. The dry way is short and dangerous. The wet way is long and safe. In political terms the short way requires a certain kind of dictatorship, thoroughly unified people and highly focussed vision – Japan, the Soviet Union and China in some ways exemplify this; they try to bring about fantastic transformation in society in a very short time. The results are often ambivalent. With Stalin and Mao millions died in the spectre of the gulags haunt success experiments. Only Japan uniquely showed the fruitfulness of this difficult way. But for national of diversity involved in a land of many tribes and many races, the ideal seems to be the wet way. Europe took time to arrive at its current stability. America needed 200 years and a civil war to become itself.
We must measure time differently. Our history began long before the history of others. We must measure time not in the length of oppression but by the persistence of our dreams – and our dreams go back a long way, way beyond the fall of Carthage, which Mandela says we are to rebuild, and way beyond the first imperfect Egyptian pyramids. The cycles of time, like the inundation of the Nile, have deposited on us the immeasurable silt of human experiences. We have great wealth in all that is at the root of humanity. If there is a correlation between experience and wisdom, between suffering and understanding, Africa is the richest delta of possible transformation. The dream of our ancestors nestles in the Rift Valley, when the greatest enemy of man was not man but night itself. Our ancestors battled with all manner of monsters and evils within and without – and this long period of time and long march to civilisation must have forged in them some unconquerable sense of a human spirit. Just as rocks bear the strata of the ages they have witnessed, so deep inside us are the strata of unmeasured overcoming.
Let us be tempered. May the fire of history burn us into a new consciousness. Let the white learn from the black and the black learn from the white. I’m quoting Taoism here. Different histories come together in one great sea. Let us raise one another. You have something special to give the world, and the gift of your genius, our genius will be revealed not long after we claim the right to be ourselves. We can be no one else. We must therefore accept our history with all of its flaws. We should hide nothing from ourselves about who we have been. We can only transform that which we face. What we are now is only the present slice of a picture of ourselves; there can be no final definition of what we are. We grow and change in accordance with necessity and vision, and yet in some mysterious way will become more and more ourselves.
This is an extract from a transcription of a presentation by Ben Okri at the 13th Steve Biko Annual Memorial Lecture, which took place at the University of Cape Town on 12 September 2012.