On Monday 13 October 2014, I gave a speech at Edinburgh University’s Student Union, “Beware the Black Sainthood”. The speech examined how the legacies of great black figures throughout history are often sanitised, and how black history is often marginalised if not destroyed altogether. The transcript of my speech is below.
The title of this evening’s talk is “Beware the Black Sainthood”. I should probably start, then, with an explanation of what the “Black Sainthood” is; and, during the course of that explanation, it will quickly become clear why we should be afraid of it.
The “Black Sainthood” is a status given to a revolutionary black leader after his or her death. This status is typically bestowed by those who vigorously opposed him or her in life; and its intention, conscious or otherwise, is to soften the edges of their legacy, to stop them living in our minds as a symbol of resistance.
If any of you in the audience tonight wish to qualify as a Black Saint, you must have the following four characteristics.
Firstly, you must be a black leader committed to the racial equality of his or her people.
Secondly, you must have lived a public life of astonishing dignity and restraint in the face of horrifying provocation.
Thirdly, you must have a group of troublesomely radical allies from whom, after your death, all connections can be conveniently severed by historians*.
Fourthly, you must make at least one major speech or declaration which allows your life’s philosophy to be nebulously defined after your death as “peace and love for all mankind”.
If we go through those characteristics one by one, we can see that the most illustrious recent member of the Black Sainthood is Nelson Mandela. Committed to racial equality? Check. A life of astonishing dignity and restraint? Check. Troublesomely radical allies? Let’s see: Mandela had Cuba, and the Communist Party. Check. And finally, peace and love? Check.
Following Mandela’s death, he was celebrated by many of those who had either been apologists for apartheid, if not actively enabled it. Their tributes were characterised by one common element: they chose to remember Mandela merely as the elder, possibly cuddly statesman, the supposedly anger-free great-grandfather, and not also as the young trial lawyer of fearsome resolve. What also passed largely without comment was why Cuba was given such a prominent place at Mandela’s memorial ceremony, with Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel, giving an address. For many years, Cuba was a staunch ally to Mandela in fighting apartheid, even supplying training and troops. Indeed, Mandela visited this country shortly after his release from prison in 1991, and told Fidel Castro that “the Cuban people have a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa.”
The benefits of such a selective remembrance are clear. They allow those who perpetuated perverse systems of injustice to scuttle away from the scene of the crime. They allow them to make a clean break with the past, to treat the Black Saint’s legacy as some form of holy water which washes away all of their responsibility for the wrongs which he or she had to overcome. They allow them to say, for example, that apartheid was just what people practised back then, as if there were not significant numbers of citizens – and countries – who were horrified by it at the time.
Now, I’m not saying that everyone who elevated Nelson Mandela to the Black Sainthood did so deliberately. He led a remarkable life, and was an inspiration to millions; the temptation to regard him as more than merely human is immense. Yet to do so actually diminishes his power. Because every time that anyone working towards social progress states that Mandela’s deeds were beyond emulation, they are simultaneously telling themselves that “oh, well, I could never do that”. And that, I think, is contrary to the true spirit of activism. As activists, all you are ever really doing is chipping away at whatever wall of oppression you face. You never know if it will be you who makes the breakthrough, and if you do, you will owe everything to those who came before you. Activists, whether or not they end up their names in lights or on street corners, are nothing more than ordinary people responding to extraordinary challenges. That, if anything, makes Mandela’s achievements even more praiseworthy – that he was just a man, like anyone else.
The danger is that we are so dazzled by the glory of the Black Sainthood that we ignore those who contributed to their success. We forget the names of those who were in jail alongside Mandela. We forget those who came before them, like Steve Biko. This, of course, is a mistake, because those who helped to devise these strategies often have the most compelling stories to tell. In fact, whenever we look at a Black Saint – someone who is hoisted up on history’s pedestal – we should always ask ourselves: who were their contemporaries? Who were their friends, their mentors? By doing this, we can better understand the complex narratives that existed at the time.
For example, many people know that Rosa Parks was not merely some disgruntled black woman who got spontaneously fed up with the back of the bus. What Parks did that day was the result of a carefully-plotted protest. What most people don’t know, though, is the name of Claudette Colvin, who did exactly what Parks did almost a year earlier. In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Colvin refused to concede her seat to a white person, and was arrested for her trouble. Colvin, who was only 15 at the time, then went on to become one of four plaintiffs to challenge Alabama’s bus segregation laws; in Broader vs Gale, a case which they won. Yet Parks, and not Colvin, was chosen as the face of the civil rights movement, and Colvin herself has no doubts as to why that was.
“They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable”, she told Margot Adler, in a 2009 interview with National Public Radio. What’s more, she noted that Parks’ physical appearance was more socially acceptable at that time. “Her skin texture”, said Colvin, “was the kind that people associate with the middle class. She fit that profile.” Colvin, along with being teenaged and dark-skinned, was also a single mum; she was therefore not deemed wholesome enough to be a figurehead for progress, even though she was probably more representative of the protesters at the time. As the author David Garrow has noted, “the reality of the movement was often young people and often more than 50 per cent women”.
Colvin’s story is so important because, when we glance at the Civil Rights movement, we mostly see heterosexual black men at the helm. If we look no further than Black Saints like Dr. Martin Luther King, we therefore end up with a misleading picture of history. Our refusal to recognise the central place of many women and gay men in that movement has implications for how we regard those groups today.
Again, for example: as several people know – but still more do not – Dr. King’s mentor was a man called Bayard Rustin, whose role in the movement was largely downplayed because he was openly gay. It was Rustin, after all, who taught Dr. King and his peers the techniques of non-violent resistance that would go on to be so effective. Yet the names of Rustin and Colvin do not ring through the ages like those of King and Parks. Their unashamed homosexuality or their youth or their teenage pregnancies were an inconvenient truth, and in some minds they still are.
The Black Sainthood exists because too many people like their history to have a happy ending. But, of course, history does not end. To quote a character from the film Magnolia – a quote I use far too often – ‘We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us”. The structures that fortified apartheid did not all crumble the day that Mandela left jail. Indeed, given the economic inequality that persists in modern South Africa, some would insist that many of those structures are still firmly in place, and that Mandela accepted them too readily. I say this not to attack Mandela’s legacy, but merely to state that his work was not yet finished, that his life did not remove these entrenched injustices; something which he himself might have been one of the first to accept.
You might think that I am being unnecessarily reductive in my analysis – that no-one is using Mandela’s death to skim over the past. But if we look around, we see that historical revisionism of this nature has been taking place for years.
To quote a recent example, there’s this Guardian article from 18 April 2012, titled “Britain destroyed records of colonial crimes”:
“Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded.
Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.”
“Clear instructions were issued that no Africans were to be involved: only an individual who was “a servant of the Kenya government who is a British subject of European descent” could participate in the purge.”
“Some idea of the scale of the operation and the amount of documents that were erased from history can be gleaned from a handful of instruction documents that survived the purge. In certain circumstances, colonial officials in Kenya were informed, ‘it is permissible, as an alternative to destruction by fire, for documents to be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast’.”
But back to more recent times. Barack Obama’s election was greeted with joy by many, who perhaps hoped that America was on its way to becoming a post-racial society – whatever that means. A few months later, President Obama found himself a somewhat unwitting candidate for the Black Sainthood, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama, who stated that he was “surprised” and “humbled” by the award, was nominated for it just a few weeks after taking office. The Nobel committee gave him the prize, in its own words, “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”. Those “extraordinary efforts”, by the time of the awards ceremony in October 2009, consisted of little more than a few encouraging speeches on how to tackle climate change, nuclear proliferation and reaching out to the Muslim world. Given President Obama’s subsequent expansion of the drone programme and continued supply of arms to the Egyptian government, the Nobel committee may feel that this prize was somewhat premature. That is, of course, assuming that they didn’t award him the prize – as I still suspect – for the feel-good factor that he gave the world to see an African-American sitting in the Oval Office.
Of all the reasons why people would choose to promote Black Sainthood, perhaps the most insidious is white guilt. By “white guilt”, I mean the sense that many white people have that they may have been decisively complicit in maintaining a system of racial supremacy. When figures such as Dr. King, Mandela and Obama emerge, they are seen by many black people as symbols of liberation, but by many white people as impossibly clean-cut symbols of redemption. It is remarkable how kum-bay-yah the story of Dr. King has become; the lesson of his life supposedly being that you can have all the equal rights that you want, so long as you ask warmly and nicely. Yet Dr. King was much more than that. The sanitisation of his image has been so profound, even among black people themselves, that we must reassert his achievements. This has been done most effectively, in my view, by an article written in 2011, by Hamden Rice. This article is so good, in fact, that I will quote from it at length.
“Dr. King’s main impact was not to make white people nicer or fairer. That’s why some of us who are African Americans get a bit possessive about his legacy. Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy, despite what our civil religion tells us, is not color blind.”
Rice then goes on to describe a conversation with his father, in which he criticises Dr. King for not being radical enough – a perception which, I am sad to admit, I once shared. His father responded, ‘with a sort of cold fury”, that “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the South.”
As Rice notes, the Deep South was not merely a place of segregation, where black and white people merely used different drinking fountains. The real problem was that “white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually black men, and lynched them. You know all about lynching. But you may forget or do not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment. This is the climate of fear that Dr. King ended.”
Dr. King and his peers taught black people to take beatings – they actually gave classes on how to brace themselves so it would be less painful – how to maintain their composure in jail, and generally to absorb the greatest assaults on their person and psyche that white people of the time could inflict upon them. And this is a part of his legend that is not so often taught, and that, I think, is that it emphasises too starkly the brutality of white supremacy at the time. Far better to focus upon the Dr. King whose message was one of compassion, collective healing and dreams, than of the one whose work held up a mirror to the horrors of his age.
How to prevent this from happening? How can we stop people and institutions from sweeping their darkest misdeeds under History’s carpet? Well, the only answer is: by maintaining constant, passionate vigilance. By reminding ourselves of the names of those whose struggle for racial equality and black self-determination has never made them eligible for Black Sainthood; people like Thomas Sankara, Chris Hani, Angela Davis. By remembering, whilst we talk of Black History Month, that a great deal of Black History has either been carefully curated or destroyed altogether. We should be wary of those who try to ascribe happy endings to history; who spend longer praising the abolitionists of slavery than they do in deconstructing why slavery was allowed to persist as long as it did (and, indeed, still does today). We should beware the Black Sainthood, and its attempt to Disneyfy the past. Instead, we should treat these great black historical figures with the nuance they deserve, learning from both their strengths and their flaws; because there, and there alone, is where true progress lies.
*The correct word here would have been “revisionists”; indeed, it has been historians who have been most committed to nuance over this issue. Many thanks to Simon M Stevens, History PhD candidate at Columbia University, for alerting me on this issue.