The great man is dead, and world leaders are tripping over themselves to cosy up to his memory. In the process, he becomes like some kind of neutral mirror in front of which others preen themselves.
He is a freedom fighter, a champion of western capitalist democracy. (Forgetting that he was also a communist revolutionary.)
He is the man of peace who chose the path of non resistance. (Forgetting that despite all the pressure to do so, he never renounced the need for an armed struggle against the state.
He is the icon of international statesmanship by which all others are measured. (Forgetting that a few short years ago many regarded him as a terrorist- including much of the Conservative government under Thatcher.)
He was the civilised face of Africa, the educated black man. (Contrast this with the way that our newspapers talk about all other black politicians in South Africa since.)
None of this should diminish the man, but it might be regarded as creating a degree of confusion, particularly as we consider the degree to which the racism that kept Mandela locked away in prison for so many years has really changed. Did his release and subsequent elevation to international sainthood mean that the battle was won?
We live in a world in which racism, of both the direct and indirect kinds, is alive and well. We still live in fear of the outsiders, who will take our jobs, ruin our NHS, steal our homes and drain our resources. When these outsiders are black or Asian, this seems to add a higher degree of concern. Australians have almost banned non-white immigration. Unfair trade relationships ensure that the white West will continue their economic ascendancy at the direct cost of the poor south- who send us their minerals and produce our goods for us. The abolition of most formal apartheid systems (African, American) has done little to change the distribution of wealth and power between black on white people, both within societies and across nations. Beware those characterisations of passive-Mandela that allow us to forget this- it does the memory of the great man no favours.
We the privileged have a reciprocal responsibility to act out the gift of it with grace. Part of this might be to confront the injustices that we inherit- both to understand the cost of this privilege, but also to confront our propensity towards self justification. This seems all the more important as the people in power line up to put a slice of Mandela in their top pockets.
In the spirit of ‘minding our privilege’ (a rather useful American phrase) I was reminded today of two other stories that carry more than a little of the old racist divisions. The first one is this one, concerning the tradition of Zwarte Piet or ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch traditional Christmas celebrations.
As the Netherlands gears up for its annual Saint Nicholas celebration on Friday, the festivities are in danger of being overshadowed by a growing row over his helper and clown, “Black Pete”.
While families exchange presents and eat cakes to welcome Santa Claus’s slimmer and more sober ancestor, criticism of the crude depictions of his sidekick, known locally as Zwarte Piet, has reached the United Nations.
The clown is usually portrayed by a white person in blackface, who goes around offering sweets to good children and, according to legend, threatens to collect naughty ones in a sack to be taken to Zwarte Piet’s home in Spain. But he is increasingly reviled by critics as a racist relic of Christmases past.
Momentum has been growing against the custom, in part thanks to campaigners such as Quinsy Gario, a poet and activist born in the former Dutch colony of Curaçao who was arrested two years ago for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Black Pete is racism” at a Saint Nicholas parade in the city of Dordrecht. Gario’s message is that the tradition perpetuates crude stereotypes.
From The Guardian.
The criticisms of Zwarte Piet have stung the Dutch, 91% of whom seem to want to keep it as part of their tradition, and will say it is harmless, and the black face is just because Piet comes down chimneys. However, the roots of the tradition seem to go back to ideas of good (St Nicholas) overcoming evil, and chaining the devil to service. The Devil of course, is African. He is less-than-human, a worthy recipient of our projected fears, hidden behind all the grease paint and derision.
Zwarte Piet reminds me very much of another blackface image that is a lot closer to home- about 100 meters in fact, the controversial Jim Crow rock;
The blackface/Golliwog imagery of Jim Crow and Zvarte Piet are a direct link with the racism that justified slavery, that built the wealth of the West, that created colonialism, that gave birth to apartheid, and that Nelson Mandela gave his life to confront head on.
Perhaps a fitting memorial for his death might be to take another look at this history, and to mind our privilege.
Dunoon folk- I have said this before, and I respectfully say it again;
“… there can be no doubt that the painting of the ‘face’, with its exaggerated red mouth, is a typically caricatured image of a black person, as popularised by the American entertainer T.D. Rice in the nineteenth century. [...] I feel certain that black visitorsfrom outside would see this as somewhat insulting [...] as a derogatory reference to their skin colour and origins.”
Institute of Race Relations.
So – are we sure that this is just a little bit of harmless local colour? And even if it is just that- are we really comfortable with the associations that are being made, and the offence that this might carry to the descendants of slaves who had to fight on for generations against the oppression of the Jim Crow laws?
If the rock is to stay, then we need to tell these stories.
If we are to keep the face on the rock- then let us also put a big sign on the foreshore dealing with the darker side of our past…