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Book Excerpt: Being Black in the World

Chabani Manganyi carefully reflects on black consciousness, defining it as having mutual knowledge of the thoughts, feelings and impressions of all black people, which leads to solidarity.


THE MARRIAGE between the words “black” and “consciousness” has in some instances led to panic and consternation in certain sections of the South African public. There have been arguments, debates and naggings. It all happened so quickly that some observers have even suggested that the bogey of swart gevaar [black peril] was suddenly becoming real. After this marriage it even became customary for some people of liberal bent to suggest that black South Africans were now turning racialist. In these observations, there appeared at most times to be an insinuation that black people were becoming the ungrateful people that they are known to be by putting the liberals out of work. This kind of reaction is not entirely unexpected when one considers that South African liberalism can only be a form of narcissism – a form of white self-love. People who love themselves can pity only themselves, hardly anybody else.

What, in fact, these people were saying was that they have been fighting for the black cause for a long time, that it had since become second nature to them to do this pious work. How dare the black people disturb the scheme of things by wanting to do the spadework as well as the dirty work themselves. The extent of South African white fathering was dramatised recently when a black organisation demanded that the word “blacks” be used instead of the notoriously insulting “non-whites” or “non-Europeans”. What happened at that time was very instructive. We were told in so many ways that we should not behave like a naughty little boy who changes his name without the explicit permission of his father. So many theoretical and semantic difficulties were immediately thrown in our faces. We were told even before the Indian population objected that they would feel insulted by being lumped into the black bag. That effort was a unique demonstration of the white people’s expertise in hyperbole.

Leaving the white reaction aside for the moment, we may now turn our attention to the actual marriage that took place between the words “black”, “consciousness” and “solidarity”. Since it has been suggested that these words might mean damnation or racialism or swart gevaar, it becomes necessary to inquire into some of their meanings as understood by us. I should not be misunderstood to be saying that all black people will agree with my understanding of these concepts. It seems to me that the white people have to wait for us to tell them what we mean by these terms just as they have to accept our interpretation of the concepts of African personality and négritude. When words or concepts become public property they tend to become either clichés or slogans. It is then necessary to remain strictly within the accepted meanings or definitions for purposes of communication. The word which requires definition is “consciousness”.


According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the following meanings of the word “consciousness” are given: “mutual knowledge”; “knowledge as to which one has the testimony within oneself”; and “the totality of the impressions, thoughts, and feelings, which make up a person’s conscious being”. The first usage, though rare, is of the utmost importance. In our definition of Black Consciousness there is an implicit recognition of mutual knowledge. This recognition leads us further to that of black solidarity. From mutual knowledge to solidarity is a very short and logical step. But now the question may be asked: mutual knowledge about what? This also is crucial. Before answering this question, it should be stated that Black Consciousness is something about which each black person has evidence (testimony) within himself. This will be developed later. The question about mutual knowledge may now be answered: Black Consciousness should be understood to mean that there is mutuality of knowledge with respect to the “totality” of impressions, thoughts and feelings of all black people.

Some observations made by some people may create the spurious impression that Black Consciousness primarily refers to awareness of skin colour. This is not a judicious interpretation. My own interpretation is that skin colour in itself and of itself is insignificant. What is important is what the skin actually signifies in sociological and psychological terms. The skin only becomes significant in these terms as body. There can be no bickering about the existential significance of the body. It is precisely for this reason that Black Consciousness has no choice but to start from the existential fact of the black body.

This is a recognition of the fact that it is the sociological schema of the black body which has in so many ways determined part of our experience of being-in-the-world. In other words, it has determined part of the totality of the experience of which we are being called upon to be conscious. In terms of the body, then, we may say that we are being called upon to experience our black bodies in a revitalised way. We are being called upon to change the negative sociological schema imposed upon us by whites.

I have often said that the existential fact of the black body has also meant certain specific ways of relating to the world and to others. This relating may be understood as involving both positive and negative features. In its negative form we recognise the fact of a specific form of suffering – that of having been a colonised people. It stands to reason that part of our consciousness of being black people amounts to a mutual knowledge of this suffering at the hands of white domination. We must hasten to say that this consciousness of mutual suffering must not be mistaken for self-pity, for that would be a tragedy. The black people share the experience of having been abused and exploited. This is part of our consciousness.

Consciousness of our experience of suffering also means on the positive side that we share the mutual knowledge of wanting to escape from this suffering. To the extent that we are conscious of being black people will we be more in a position to improve on our lot. At this stage, one would like to point out that Black Consciousness is time-bound. This means that it is characterised by its temporality. It is, as it were, consciousness of past, present and future. The fact of the temporality of Black Consciousness is very important, and is accounted for by the following observations: If we should only talk in terms of the mutual knowledge of the fact of suffering (both past and present), we could be accused of oversimplifying. What emerges on reflection is that the consciousness of being black must also include the fact of our contribution to culture, for I am loath to talk in terms of civilisation. For us then, Black Consciousness in its temporality includes the consciousness of our cultural heritage. It has been said often enough that African cultures were assaulted almost beyond recognition. It has not been said often enough that Black Consciousness must also include as part of its recognition of suffering this fact.

If Black Consciousness simply amounted to a mere recognition of this historicity, it would be nothing more than ancestor worship. We said that it has its temporal dimensions of past, present and future. It follows that for Black Consciousness to be an “active presence” in the world, it has to deal with the present and the future. What may be said about Black Consciousness and the present? Inter alia, it may be said that in its expression of the present it is first of all mutual knowledge about its historicity. Second, it amounts to a recognition and the desire to re-establish community feeling. This is generally what is meant by the word “solidarity”. Some people feel themselves very threatened by this development. It should not constitute a threat of any kind, because it is a logical result of a common existential experience. Where there is mutual knowledge it should come as no surprise if there should be solidarity. A negative way of looking at this development is to say that this solidarity is only against white people. People who subscribe to this view fail to go on to say that this is only a historical necessity. It immediately becomes clear that we are not in any way to blame for this fact. Theoretically, Black Consciousness and solidarity could have been neutral. This, however, is hardly possible since in large measure Black Consciousness and solidarity must be considered a response to white consciousness and solidarity (racialism).

Black Consciousness and solidarity must be seen by us as phenomena that are positive in themselves. This means that they are desirable even outside considerations involving white domination and racialism. References to these developments as ‘racialism’ become meaningless in the face of this recognition. Nobody should ever have had any right to tell anybody else that he should not be aware of himself as being. Black Consciousness and solidarity as expressed in the present should also mean something in addition. They should mean continuity with the past and the future. Something has been said about the past already; it is now necessary to make a few remarks on the future.

Our orientation with respect to the future is of the utmost importance. It is a commonplace to say that what will happen in the future will be determined in large measure by what Black Consciousness and solidarity mean to us today. At the time of writing, it is possible to spell out a few thoughts on this matter. An idea which appeals to my fancy amounts to saying that Black Consciousness and solidarity must mean to us that we have to re-examine the forms assumed by personal and community relationships in our midst. This is necessary for the simple reason that we have the mutual knowledge about the assault on the sense of community that befell us. Our spirit of communalism was gradually eroded until we were left with individualism and its stablemate materialism. Solidarity among other things means that we as a people have to share. This sharing is all-embracing, since it involves the sharing not only of material things but also of suffering and the possible joys of being-black-in-the-world. It may now be said that in the past we have not shared as we should have because in order to share, it is imperative to have the mutuality of knowledge of suffering which is now anchored in Black Consciousness.

There are many important considerations which go against the notion of the significance of tribal groupings. In this age of power politics and major powers, the grouping of people into tribes must be seen as something which amounts to a crude experiment. The money economics of the present century definitely provide the most convincing evidence against such experiments. We as black people have our own evidence, which should tell us that tribalism is dead because this is the twentieth century. No efforts on a grand scale to reintroduce tribalism will succeed in the long run. What kind of evidence do we have? The primary evidence revolves around the fact of mutual knowledge which is now expressing itself as Black Consciousness and solidarity. We do know that there are people who have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that the various tribal groupings in South Africa are culturally and linguistically very different. This has been used as the major premise for current South African policies. We were not asked whether we did accept that this is a matter of unusual significance to us. There is sufficient respectable evidence to support the idea that there is a great deal that is common to all African cultures on the African continent let alone in South Africa. One such a common denomination is African ontology, discussed elsewhere in this collection. Other uniformities arise from the unique type of suffering which has been part of our common experience on the African continent.

We have to be unified by our common desire to take the initiative in deciding and determining our future and that of future generations of black South Africans. We have mutual knowledge of the ways in which we have been deprived of this right. In their temporal dimensions, Black Consciousness and solidarity must mean something more than sheer nostalgia. In their present and future thrusts, they must mean the birth of a new creativity. It needs no gainsaying to point out that this must be a broadly based type of creativity covering all the significant sectors of our existence. The implications of this last statement for black people are many. Black Consciousness and solidarity must be understood as expressive of a new kind of responsibility. This responsibility covers all the important areas of our socio-political existence. We also have to get away from the political scapegoating which has characterised our existence for the past decade. What this means in practice is that we should not be saying that the white man has closed all the avenues for political expression. When we say this we should normally go on to say that this recognition does not mean that we should recognise our communities as simply dead. Life is not only political. Possibilities for self-improvement as a people should have been explored before we simply threw in the towel.

There are two important issues which should be raised relating to Black Consciousness and solidarity. The first is the relationship between consciousness and action. This relationship is often neglected by exponents of Black Consciousness. The neglect of this aspect almost amounts to a lack of a clear formulation of the actual practical meaning of solidarity. In addition to the relationship between mutual knowledge and solidarity there exists the connotation of action in solidarity. In other words, one has to be thinking of a consciousness which leads to action. It is not a primary consideration for us to point out the forms which should be assumed by the action involved in black solidarity. We are content to make the observation that such action as may be expressive of this solidarity will require all the ingenuity and creativity of we as a people are capable.


The reader may feel obliged to ask whether in the nature of our actual circumstances it is at all possible to indulge in creative action. Admittedly, the problems raised by this question are complex but significant. What this question amounts to is to reveal the possible significance of the problem of freedom vis-à-vis Black Consciousness and solidarity. This is the second issue which I said I intended to raise. The problem of freedom may not be discussed without reference to its overall significance in human affairs. This is our next task.

Human freedom is a pet subject of existential philosophy, however defined. This problem has also found its way into phenomenologically and existentially oriented psychotherapies. For example, we find it being a major concern of Sartre’s in Being and Nothingness (1956), Frankl’s in Psychotherapy and Existentialism (1967), May’s in Psychology and the Human Dilemma (1967), Merleau-Ponty’s in Phenomenology of Perception (1962) and Fromm’s in Escape from Freedom (1941). Besides these academic contributions and many others, the problem must always be considered one which is of interest to the lay public. Since this is a subject of such public significance, I intend to spend a little more time discussing it. We will limit our discussion to some of the ideas of Frankl since these appear to be the most relevant for the topic under discussion. In this book and others, Frankl makes a number of observations concerning freedom. The most important observation on freedom is contained in the following statement:

Needless to say, the freedom of a finite being such as man is a freedom within limits. Man is not free from conditions, be they biological or psychological or sociological in nature. But he is, and always remains, free to take a stand toward these conditions; he always retains the freedom to choose his attitude toward them. Man is free to rise above the plane of somatic and psychic determinants of his existence. (Frankl, 1967: 3)

Frankl is talking about the ultimate freedom expressed generally in what he describes as ‘attitudinal values’. His main contention is that a human being has potential to transcend his existential limitations to his freedom by taking a stand (free choice) vis-à-vis these limitations. The question now arises whether this assertion may be considered one which is generally valid in any situation where there are such limitations.

To us, it seems that Frankl may in a sense be accused of having indulged in an interesting and profound abstraction. Although this abstraction appears to have been stated with conviction, it seems to us to remain an open question which calls for more reflection. As he pointed out, limitations to freedom may arise at a number of levels. These limitations may be somatic (bodily), they may be psychic or they may be sociological. One should in all fairness hasten to add that limitations in one of these dimensions must always have far-reaching effects on the possibilities of freedom in the other two dimensions. It would appear that it is relatively easier for one to take a stand (develop an attitude) towards somatic and psychic limitations since these tend to raise higher-order type of questions. This is understandable, since such questions as are raised will tend to focus on the obscurities of the meaning of life. Here again, not all human beings are capable of asking these questions, least of all taking a stand against an unalterable fate.

Sociological limitations to freedom are more instructive. An example may well illustrate this point. A healthy slave would be sold to a slave owner. That act would signify for the slave the beginning of excruciating limitations on his freedom. Taking a stand in the face of these limitations immediately implies the existence of several possible choices, for one may not be said to be taking a stand when there is no alternative course of action. A further qualification appears necessary: The available alternatives should include a number of positive possible attitudinal stands. These alternatives may only be positive and meaningful to the extent that they will improve the lot of the slave – redeem part of his existential freedom. Theoretically, it should be possible for the slave to adopt the attitude that he is going to fight his master in order to regain his freedom. The slave recognises the futility of such a stand and may well slide into despair and indifference. This despair and indifference may express themselves in various forms of hedonism, which may never be considered an expression of freedom. Could one say that one is expressing one’s ability to transcend limitations on one’s freedom when one despairs and becomes indifferent? A positive stand should be supported by rational and affective conviction. This condition is not met in the case of despair and indifference.

The point may be made that it is possible for certain resourceful individuals to take a stand against what for all intents and purposes may be provisional limitations to their freedom. A patient who knows that he is going to die within a few days may well brace himself up – may take a stand because death in its obscurity may come to present an absurd kind of freedom. The situation is different for a slave who has the knowledge that his parents were slaves, that he is a slave and his children are going to be slaves. The time perspective here is so different that there appear to be only two alternatives. The first, which is not always possible, is to wish to lose everything by being prepared for a physical death – committing suicide or taking up arms against his master. The second is the more usual process of committing suicide in small doses represented so often in hedonism.

It therefore appears that it is not useful to take a stand as long as such an attitude does not result in conscious action because that becomes indifference. What are the implications of our discussion of freedom with respect to Black Consciousness and solidarity? We have a duty to be conscious of our responsibility to deal with limitations to our freedom. Black Consciousness and solidarity must mean a posture which will express a movement away from indifference and despair to rational, organised activity. Frankl has suggested in addition to his position on freedom that there are other values in life which may be realised. He suggests as one of these what he describes as ‘creative’ values – what we give to the world. I suggested that this in its broadest sense must be considered as one of the possibilities of the awareness of being black. Another possibility away from indifference is an increased sensitivity to one’s surroundings (‘experiential values’). The creative potential of black South Africans will be measured against their action potential.

I would like to comment on one issue which has generated more heat than light. Some people, even black people, have wondered whether a separatist posture is essential to Black Consciousness and solidarity. It should be obvious to anybody that black people and white people will continue to live together as long as there is life on this planet. A separatist posture should never be understood to negate the existence of other racial groups. This posture would seem to arise from the fact that we as a people want to indulge unhindered in self-reflection and in self-definition, and we are putting conditions on how this should take place. The essential condition is that only people who share our mutual knowledge should actively participate in these activities. This position is capable of being abused by both white and black people. Nobody should consider this to be a very important fact, since it is only a side issue.

In sum, we may say that the mutual knowledge which is Black Consciousness and solidarity is not by design racialism. It is a way of relating, of being-black-in-the-world in its temporality of past, present and future. – This article was first published in New Frame.

By The African Mirror