HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: The freedom of struggle is the freedom to act
In his book Apex Hides the Hurt, Colson Whitehead offers a postmodern twist on the themes of history, identity and language and the place all these variables hold within language itself.
The book’s centrepiece is struggle and no other quote in the entirety of its pages speaks to me more than this one, which is spoken by the protagonist who is unnamed for a variety of philosophical reasons:
the protagonist finds himself imagining the effect of his new name on the inhabitants of the town: They will say: I was born in struggle. I live in struggle and come from struggle. I work in struggle. We crossed the border into struggle… We found ourselves in struggle. I will never leave struggle. I will die in Struggle.
All language is image. All language has meaning and is devotion and all language is protest. We use it to live through our ideologies and our politics. Colson’s words stick with me because they are such a poignant but meaningful simplification of the human condition.
The plight of anyone who finds true semblance in the true meaning of struggle. The fighters of the past, the heroes, those who have died and those who remain risen on the shoulders of struggles past – their language was one filled with words we cannot disregard as a cruel optimism.
That the adjectives in delivery were intoxicated by the hopeless point of struggling only in the universe of political action, but the development that rose from the soil of that hard-fought right to have conversations and to open ears to listen and hearts to feel, cannot be ignored in the face of a racial consciousness which is still embryonic in its development.
We can identify ourselves with struggle in only as much as we know about it. The struggle to work, to talk, to succeed, to have the courage to fight and identify our imposter syndromes are languages of their own. Sometimes those conversations are personal and other times, we have to muster up the grace to have them openly in spite of the fear of humiliation or the looming threat of not being heard.
We can identify with the good as much as we can identify with the bad and even with all these conflicting notions, the other side of change can be reached, but we cannot touch something without creating new faith in the power of language and taking back its power to both affect and effect.
There are immediate structural realities that we’re reminded of daily. We live through them. Our colour greets us at the door. Our inexperience greets us at the door. The old signs of the past seem cracked like sharded glass and replaced by new shiny ones with neon lights that read ‘we are all equal here’, but renaming a manifesto can never equate itself with healing.
Words have meaning. Healing is not admittance to the environments of exclusivity that make us feel less than – it should be, but it isn’t, it is a fight that we have forgotten how to communicate.
We’ve been so busy spearing the sacred cows of our institutions that we’ve convinced ourselves that the language we use is a thrust toward the advantages that should all be equal.
But we live in struggle. We were born in it. We live through it and now we must rise from it by admitting that in as much as those in power have no idea what they are talking about when they perform understanding, we have brought ourselves into a very dark place where we are unable to internalise the fact that we ourselves have very little understanding about we’re saying. We think our language is an advantage and if we speak the same words enough times, that is the only tongue that matters. But a sentence is not an idea.
Our privileges have improved. How we got to that point has relevance and calls for a deep respect, but they have improved and now we must use them. Many of us are fortunate to have access to information, employment and educations which far surpass the dreams of any who came before us, but who we owe it all to, yet we’re stuck in the mud of negligence.
No one will ever understand the state of our advancements and the states we’ve been in while advancing better than ourselves. We have no idea what white people are talking about when they say they “get it”, we will never understand that, but the opposite is also true, we have no way of really understanding them outside of a few historical facts: It’s been drilled into us that white culture is the dominant one, that there is power in culture and that the difference in understanding each other is that the onus lies on us.
What we’re dealing with here is the same thing every ancestor before us has dealt with and that is the idea of self-ownership, but we are doing it in a way where the language we use distances us from the priorities of our purpose. The horizon of our narrative doesn’t need permission to be explored; all it needs is the courage to be supported by productivity instead of cruel and un-abiding tropes, which ironically enslave us to the wrong side of history – which unfortunately is the right.
The matter-of-factness of the language we use must be helped up by intellectual narrative, which can be hauled from an archive of experience, but lazily isn’t.
I hate to do this, but to quote myself from Sorry, not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa: "A lack of racial education historically instills in us a sickening insecurity."
You do not need permission to talk. You do not need an invitation. You have to grab it, with both hands, and strangle it to the point of silencing interjection and penetrating the ears with reason.
Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.