My first encounter with Steve Biko was during my high school years, mainly through the captivating clichés and phrases that my compatriots and I often quoted from him. The depth in his words and eloquence whetted my appetite, I knew I needed to sink my teeth into a full text that he had written. It was not until my third year at varsity that I finally picked up the famous ‘I write what I like’ that this surreal man I had grown to revere had penned down.
Now, there were a number of reasons why I avoided the book for so long which I will not go into in this article. What I do want to say though is that I am grateful I waited. Had I read this book any earlier, it would have done more damage than any good to my psyche. This is to say that my naïve, hot-headed self was not ready for such an enormous text.
To say the book had a profound impact on me would be an understatement; it changed me. In a world where blackness is the symbol of all things, well..black, it is often hard for black youth to formulate a healthy identity embracing the magic that is blackness. This, coupled with a burning quest to ‘find myself’ made for a rather confusing early varsity experience. So coming across this book- whose every ink drop is an ode to blackness- was like coming home to myself; I had finally seen the dark!
The problem though with formulating your ideas on one story is that it leaves no room for differing views.
While Steve taught me to love my black skin, to love my Jackson nose and my ‘kaffir hare’, at the same time, I grew intolerant to anything different, terming it ‘unAfrican’. The fallacy in this idea is obviously in the notion that to be African is limited to and encompassed by particular things such as: having only natural hair and all things print. It is the idea that there is a single way in which you can be African and thereby express your Africanism, a fallacy we perpetuate across the continent. To fully etch my newfound revelation, I furiously searched for the ‘Hugh Masekelas and Thomas Sankaras’ of our continent that in my mind further cemented what Biko iterated, thereby further building up my single narrative.
While learning to fully embrace myself and my continent was necessary and a great thing, I would later learn that in my doing, I had swung too far left and now an undoing was necessary.
Rereading Steve, 4 years after he first emancipated me, I found him emancipating once more. In the past few years, I have learnt of the danger of a single story, an idea Chimamanda Adichie so eloquently articulates. I have learnt of how such a story can damage our idea of any other story that is even remotely different from the notion we hold as the ‘true story’. This idea has had a profound impact on how I view everything, deliberately choosing to see that there is no ‘one glorious story’, every story has many facets, all equally valid.
So this time around, instead of basking in my black glory, I found myself wrestling with Steve, disagreeing with some of the narratives I thought I had learnt from him about the meaning of blackness/ Africanism. Through this process of undoing, I have battled- and still battle- with my own damaging single story.
To claim a singular narrative as African and ‘the ways of our continent’ is suffocating, isolating and arrogant. It takes up the whole space, seeking to shun and ostracize anything that is not deemed ‘the true story’. It further seeks to prove that the narrative held is the true African story, a claim both untrue and one we need to work hard to abolish. Instead of perpetuating the idea of one ‘true Africanism’, we should instead grow intolerant and even agitated at the existence of this false notion.
I have come to see that Africa is enormous and cannot possibly be explained only one way. We dare not cheapen her vastness. There is room for many ‘Africanisms’ to be expressed and coexist in this space, all equally valid, relevant and correct.
Steve Bantu Biko is the reason why I even deliberated these views. Therefore, any of my attempts to stay true to this continent and to love my ‘blackness’ (whatever that means) is and always will be an ode to him.
By Frank(ie) Talk
Frank(ie) Talk is a Development Finance Masters student at the University of Cape Town. When she is not making bracelets at Relate, you’ll find her at some coffee shop in Cape Town reading or theorizing about the World.
Steve Biko’s ‘I write what I like’ was our first book club read for the February session and it was only fitting that Frank(ie) talk share her story as she chose the book for the group.