There’s a common ground between Franz Fanon, Steve Biko and Chika Onyeani in their engagement of Slave/Master dialectics, or psychology of oppression. You begin to notice a preponderance of harmony in their works too similar for coincidence.
Fanon was an influence on Biko who frankly admitted as such. But I cannot say the same of Onyeani because his work bears no bibliography, only an index. Also, the writer does not live or work at home in Nigeria for a possible one-on-one interview. This robs African researchers any hope of getting him comment on his work.
Fanon started a debate on black oppression in 1952 at Algiers under the title of “Black Skin, White Mask.” Biko took it up in 1970 in apartheid South Africa giving a vicious twist to Fanon’s original meaning under a different title, “Black Souls in White Skins?” In 2000 at New York, Onyeani appropriated the discourse from Biko and returned it to Fanon’s original meaning as “White Masters, Black Slaves.” So we have here a convergence of three great minds that chanced into our orbit.
We shall examine how Fanon, Biko and Onyeani view oppression in relation to the Politics of Space. How did they differ? Our template is Onyeani’s strong criticism of blacks abandoning their own neighborhood (living space) for white suburb and whites taking flight on sighting blacks move in. This phenomenon greatly interests me as the three writers appear to argue on the psychological violence the environment inflicts on the individual.
In “Black Skin, White Mask,” (derogatory term for black who apes white) Fanon argues that white racism so destroyed the black man’s pride that the victim’s only unquantifiable aspiration was to be accepted by the white society. Under such abnormal condition the black man feels trapped in an unwanted black skin as he sees no future in his race except when assimilated as honorary white.
While agreeing essentially with Fanon, Biko aims his gun at racist white liberals who claim to be black at heart as they equally feel the pains of white racism as much as oppressed blacks. He ridicules such hypocrites as “Black Souls in White Skins.” He warns these meddling whites to “leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society-white racism” (I Write What I like, p.25).
He condemns blacks who “sing out their lamentations” to seemingly sympathetic whites instead of joining ranks with other blacks for their own liberation. Only the black man can emancipate himself as the white man cannot be the oppressor and at the same time the liberator. The earlier the black man realizes the bitter truth that he has no true helper in this historic task of self-emancipation the sooner his liberation. This line of thinking convinces him to declare, “Black man, you are on your own!”
In “White Masters, Black Slaves” Onyeani indicts blacks for their own defeat. Black “Herd mentality” as faithful consumers makes them willing victims of the global economic war not minding the contempt that comes with such unbridled culture of consumerism. This goes back to the point of cultural contacts: “Today’s white master, Black slave mentality started when the Caucasian came to Africa with a Bible and a gun; and the Arabs came with the Quoran….The master slave relationship is demonstrated everyday in how we conduct our business. It is reflected in how we spend our hard earned money. It is reflected in how we make our purchasing decisions. The more the oppressor hates us, the more we want to do business with him” (Capitalist Nigger, pp 84-86).
Note that Fanon and Biko wrote under segregated societies and rightly saw race and space differently from Onyeani who lived under a relatively desegregated America. Their geographical settings impacted on their respective responses to oppression as we shall presently see.
Fanon and Biko articulate the socio-economic consequences of racism. In a colonized society the settler minority expropriated most of the resources leaving the indigenous majority poor. For this reason Fanon and Biko (both lived in societies where the native majorities form the economic minorities) see race and class as inseparable. Race is often the parameter for class. A racist enclave works on the praxis that if you are white you’re automatically rich and privileged; but if you are black you will remain poor in spite of your education and industry. So we have here a binary social structure conditioned by the skin colour as evident in the squalor of the black (native) town as opposed to the splendor of white (settler) town.
To buttress the psychological violence each environment inflicts on the person living in it, Fanon carefully places the two towns side by side and allows you draw your own conclusion:
“The settler’s town is a strongly-built town, all made of stone and steel….The settler’s town is a well-fed town, an easy-going town; its belly is always full of good things. The settler’s town is town of white people, of foreigners….The town belonging to the colonized people, or at least the native town, the Negro village, the madina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute ….The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and arabs” (The Wretched of the Earth, p. 30).
The full belly of white neighborhood evokes the envy of the native whose burning ambition is to supplant the white man, “The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession-all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man” (The Wretched of the Earth, p. 30). Envy, or the desire to be white, is the motivating factor why the black man covets white neighborhood.
If jealousy oppresses the native, fear rules the white man’s heart: “The white man is convinced that the Negro is a beast; if it is not the length of the penis, then it is the sexual potency that impresses him. Face to face with this man who is ‘different from himself’, he needs to defend himself. In other words, to personify The Other. The Other will become the mainstay of his preoccupations and his desire” (The Wretched of the Earth, p. 170). The white man fears his wife sleeping with the black man and leaving him as a result; a prospect that makes him take an immediate flight on sighting his nemesis move into his neighborhood.
For Biko, black/white neighborhoods give meaning not only to deprivation/privilege but to physical brutality. He talks about definite forms of violence in black township, “I am talking about the situation of police charging people in places like Sharpeville without arms, and I am talking about the indirect violence that you get through starvation in township….I think that is all put together much more terrorism than what these guys have been saying” (Steve Biko: No Fears Expressed. Ed. Millard W Arnold, p. 61).
In his own contribution Onyeani who lives in the USA (where blacks constitute the economic minority and the death row majority) sums the rot in black community as self-afflicted: “Some of the things we do in our Black neighborhoods are things we would never consider doing if it were in a so-called ‘white’ neighborhood….It is so insidious to come out of your home to see all kinds of plastic bottles, beer and soda cans which people drop in front of your home, which they would never do in a Caucasian neighborhood” (Capitalist Nigger, p. 125).
Only on rare occasion does he admit the correlation between race and space, “There are many negatives involved in always trying to move into Caucasian neighborhoods. First, you are dehumanized as a person, you are seen as a less than the Caucasians who live in the area. Your neighbors who are invariably less qualified and a lot of times less affluent than yourself feel superior to you (Capitalist Nigger, p. 126).
For him race is not synonymous with class since Indians, Koreans and other minorities can come to America and become moguls in a relatively short time. If you must understand Onyeani’s attitude to the living space, pay close attention to market economy than the color line (Capitalist Nigger, p. 122).
The difference between Fanon and Biko, and Onyeani in their engagement of oppression is evident. Fanon and Biko (used “starved” and “starvation” above) see state policy, or white racism, behind the deterioration in black neighborhood under segregated developments, just as you might say of the opposite in white suburb. This is a position fiercely contested by Onyeani who questions why blacks are “always the victim and never the oppressor.”
One must be frank that if the individual spirit is not compatible with the environment then that in itself is a form of psychological violence. This creates the vagabond motif wHere the inhabitant of such cursed land is condemned to walk the night. A soul so oppressed by an emasculating environment will readily resort to violence or apathy. One begins to suspect that black community in America is inimical to human progress and the question must be asked why Onyeani turned a blind eye to this fact. This is one grey area an interview with him could yield more clues.
Onyeani’s refusal to acknowledge racism does not in any way wish it away. Race historicity, or the changing nature of racism, over the years has become very difficult to detect but this does not in any way invalidate it. He could easily have misread the handwriting in his interpretation of the functional white neighborhood in relation to the dysfunctional black community.
If you dare to see the black community as “cocoon,” or safe haven, deliberately degraded to keep the white man and his civilizing tendencies at bay, then you obviously have the authentic picture. I give just one instance: black attitude to so-called Queen’s English.
In their decolonization project black writers deliberately bastardized the English language to make it unintelligible to its original white speakers. The bastardization of English (just as black neighborhood is intentionally bastardized) is a form of protest that enables the colonized to signify in the white man’s language without losing his identity, “Taking the white man’s language, dislocating his syntax, recharging his words with new strength and sometimes with new meaning before hurling them back in his teeth, while upsetting his self-righteous complacency and clichés, our poets rehabilitate such terms as Africa and blackness, beauty and peace” (“African Voice of Protest.” The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States. Mercer Cook et al. p.52).
Decolonization could hold the answer why blacks living in white society deliberately work against “progress.” Black landlessness in the USA could be reversed by deliberately degrading anywhere a single black family ultimately takes root. The question might as well be asked, suppose the black man’s “laziness” is a conscious response to the violence of white racism?
WEB Du Bois understands black indecisiveness, or what Onyeani decries as the black man’s lack of killer-instinct, to be a hallmark of an oppressed consciousness. The Southern Negro realizes the immense economic and social advantage the Southern white has over him. As long as he remains economically redundant he is relatively safe as coming into means makes him a target. Hence, the Southern Negro develops a survivalist psyche that enables him subvert the truth. This is the price the Negro has to pay to stay out of trouble:
But there is patent defence at hand, -the defence of deception and flattery, of cajoling and lying. It is the same defence which the Jews of the Middle Age used and which left its stamp on their character for centuries. To-day the young Negro of the South who would succeed cannot be frank and outspoken, honest and self-assertive, but rather he is daily tempted to be silent and wary, politic and sly; he must flatter and be pleasant, end ure petty insults with a smile, shut his eyes to wrong; in too many cases he
sees positive personal advantage in deception and lying. His real thoughts, his real aspirations, must be guarded in whispers; he must not criticize, he must not complain. Patience, humility, and adroitness must, in these growing black youth, replace impulse, manliness, and courage. With this sacrifice there is an economic opening, and perhaps peace and some prosperity. Without this there is riot, migration, or crime…. The price of a culture is a lie (The Souls of the Black Folk pp 147-148).
If Black/White, Slave/Master, dichotomies are pointers to binary social structure, then we must also concede that there’s a double consciousness of progress here: one black and the other white. Biko captures this fact which Onyeani seems to miss.
Onyeani declares at the beginning of his work that he intends to engage the docility of the black race using the “yardstick of success in different categories.” The question, of course, is whose yardstick? Unfortunately, the writer measures progress in black community with white yardstick, or values. His romance with Eurocentricism prioritized scientific Darwinism against black culture which is essentially man-centered, “There, you must understand that this world and in fact Wall Street is a jungle. Kill or be killed (Capitalist Nigger, p. 38). Elsewhere, “His reality check is that the strong must inherit the earth. He understands that the world is a jungle. It is kill or be killed” (Capitalist Nigger, p. 48).
Unlike Onyeani, Biko does not measure progress in the black community using white standard. His argument is that the white man has through science and technology unleashed great technological advances on the world (aircraft, medicine and weapon); but it is in the place of black man to give these technological achievements a human face (humility, compassion and communalism).
What Biko is saying is that these two entities are products of distinct cultures and the yardstick used by one must never be used in qualifying the other as that could be in itself a form of racism. This as black values are never used to measure progress in the white world. Subscribing the black man to white standard is to give the white man an unfair advantage which is not acceptable: “I am against the superior-inferior white-black stratification that makes the white a perpetual teacher and the black a perpetual pupil (and a poor one at that). I am against the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is a sine qua non in this country and that whites are divinely appointed pace-setters in progress. I am against the fact that a settler minority should impose an entire system of values on an indigenous people” (I write What I Like, p.26).
The white man risks extinction subscribing himself to black language, culture or neighborhood. Equally so, there is no way the black man can assume the white man’s death-wish or devil-may-care attitude without losing his humanity. This deadlock leads us to a middle ground; or what I best call progress and alternate progress.
Remarkable strides come not by the harmonious working of these two progresses but by their constant collision.
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