Forgetfulness and black genius in danger

Students at Rhodes University, March 2015
Students at Rhodes University, March 2015

In “Notes of a Native Son”, James Baldwin tells us that

“In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back;  but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.”

In “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual”, Cornel West notes that the act of choosing to be an intellectual “is an act of self-imposed marginality” particularly in the academy where “the present-day academy and contemporary literate subcultures present more obstacles for young blacks than those in past decades.” West contends that black students, particularly graduate students, are still not taken seriously “as potential scholars and intellectuals” and that there remains very little “black infrastructure for intellectual discourse and dialogue.”

This year’s theme for Bokamoso enters the international debate on the success and failures of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals in which member states committed to achieve by 2015 during their adoption in 2000.  As a teacher, I, of course, take a closer interest on questions of educational access. I revel in the efforts by governments to ensure that access to education remains an issue of global development and governance in the past decade. Yet, this optimism is curtailed by the global and local realities which confront us daily about the limitations of institutions of education as liberatory spaces of emancipation, freedom and holistic learning. When I think through the efforts of South African students through “#TranformWits”, “RhodesSoWhite” and “RhodesMustFall”, or globally “I, too, am Harvard”, “Why is my curriculum white” and many other student led efforts to destabilize racist, white centric and heterosexist norms in education institutions, it raisse the question of what it means to teach in 2015. What does it mean to think about access to quality education in the years students across universities are resisting a curriculum that reproduces colonial ways of knowledge that were designed to deny, undermine, and eviscerate black humanity, creativity and genius?

Lihle Ngcobozi, writing about historical erasure under the banner of postracial South Africa at Rhodes University, argues that the rush to silence history’s legacy on ideas and knowledge creation at university “is an attempt to banalise and conceal race and racism, to depoliticise history and its legacy while delegitimising the process of redress and restoring the dignity of those violently dispossessed.” Paul Maylam in “The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering An Imperialist in Africa” (2005) points to two reasons to why a figure like Rhodes remains symbolically and materially celebrated well into the post-apartheid Africa:

“First, the impact of Rhodes and his legacy on twentieth-century South Africa has been very considerable – he played a key role in developing both mining capitalism and segregationism – but his impact on South Africa has been less obvious than in the case of Zimbabwe, where he stands conspicuously as the founding father of Rhodesian colonialism. This partly explains the second reason, that the symbolic reordering that has occurred in post-apartheid South Africa has been directed largely at those Afrikaner nationalist leaders who were more obviously responsible for racial oppression.”

Speaking at Rhodes University in April 2015, Lungisile Ntsebeza has argued that this silence on figures like Rhodes is far-reaching in the ways in which his role on the land question remains muted. Instead, questions of land are traced to the early nineteenth century without pushing the archive further beyond the 1913 Land Act whose contents incorporated the notorious 1894 Glen Grey Act which was adopted by the Cape Parliament under Rhodes’ premiership. Maylam notes that this “historical amnesia lets figures like Rhodes off the hook”.

Ntsebeza makes visible the point that the silence on Rhodes mutes not only conversations on decolonizing tertiary institutions, but has broader discursive implications on how we understand the historical, structural content of the colonial and apartheid state beyond Afrikaner nationalism. It follows then that if universities are unable to address such questions that the students that graduate from them go off into the world without sufficient tools to understand the intricacies of colonialism which manifests at various levels. It also follows that these students do not have the tools then to engage and challenge the current post-apartheid state on the ways in which it has become complicit in the reproduction of colonial and apartheid structures of violence – be it in the unresolved land question or in the predatory police force.

The silence on objects and figures of colonial violence which are venerated as “brands” of excellence in the present, are demonstrative of a profoundly anti-intellectual spirit of the academy which seems to be co-opted by a capitalist order that places value on bottom line figures instead of the imaginative and transformative spaces that they can be.

The salience of these symbols has come to the fore recently following the massacre of nine African American men and women at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the United States. The perpetrator of the massacre, 21 year-old Dylan Roof, was wearing the old apartheid flag and the flag of Rhodesia. The massacre has evoked a debate on the use of symbols such as the Confederate flag in states such as South Carolina. US President, Barack Obama, argued that the removal of such symbols should be seen as a “modest but meaningful balm for so many wounds”.

It is this painful history of the violence that accompanied the creation of universities that  Ntebaleng Morake evoked about UCT that the university’s institutional culture which tells a “single story of history that positions whiteness as triumph that UCT so chooses to articulate is gigantically undermining to black pain. It bluntly states that here, on this campus, built with the sweat of our people, our pain and lives do not matter”. For we know as Maylam reminds us that when talking about plans to build UCT, “Rhodes used to joke that ‘he meant to build the university out of the Kaffir’s stomach’”.

If, as Baldwin posits above, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly, we must wonder about the implications of creating knowledge in spaces where students learn at institutions that are willing to silence history for the sake of the bottom line.

After being denied access to the Oxbridge library, Virginia Wolf wrote: “That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library”. We find it difficult to cast eyes of judgment on the extent to which government is accelerating access to education for their people in a context where institutions of higher learning seem unbothered by the many women and men who’ve cursed them for their discursive chauvinism.

Siphokazi is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read her previous articles here.

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