Nontombi Naomi Tutu has a lifetime of experience as a lifelong gender, race and human rights advocate. The third child of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, she is defined by her tireless resistance against oppression and her razor sharp analytical understanding of the world’s inequalities and violence. Monday, she will give the Keynote Memorial Lecture for the University’s annual MLK Symposium, an event dedicated to celebrating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The most formative [experience for me] was growing up in apartheid South Africa and that experience of growing up in an oppressive system, growing in a country that I loved, I still love,” said Tutu in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “I loved the country and at the same time felt so ‘less-than’ in this place that was my home country. This experience is basically what has pushed me to say, ‘I don’t want anybody else to live through this kind of experience. I don’t want anybody to feel their humanity questioned based on their race, their gender, their sexual identity.”
Tutu said she identifies as an “African womanist,” with political views influenced by her upbringing as a black woman in apartheid South Africa.
“Womanism says specifically that our experience as women of the African diaspora is an important experience,” Tutu said. “Our perspectives on the world, on politics, on economics are valid perspectives. That might sound basic, but that hasn’t been our experience in the world.”
Tutu has led a remarkable international career. Educated in Swaziland, the UK, and the US, she has spent her career teaching at various universities in the US and South Africa, in addition to her traveling speaking and preaching engagements. She has also established Nozizwe Consulting — Nozizwe is the Xhosa word for “mother of many lands”— an organization dedicated to “bringing different groups together to learn from and celebrate their differences and acknowledge their shared humanity,” according to the University’s event description.
Tutu said she partly credits the international perspective she’s gained over her life for her focus on intersectionality.
“Intersectionality is inescapable, I think. I find that it is hard to explain that experience of both, and to people who don’t experience a loss of privilege in their lives,” Tutu said. “When you sit down in a room of any group of people, once you start saying to people, ‘What has been your experience?’… people start to understand that it’s almost impossible to unpack all of those experiences,” Tutu said.
She described the inability to have a perspective on one’s experience as a major obstacle against meaningful, intersectional solidarity. A feminism that focuses on middle-class white women and the “right to work outside the home” does not promote the interests of black women and other women of color who, all over the world, have not agitated for this, Tutu said, because they all had to work outside the home.
She also noted how her experience as a middle-class black South African did not expose her with the oppression faced by rural South African women that she observed when she lived in rural South Africa for a year.
“They were having their citizenship taken away from them in the country of their birth,” she said. “They were being forcibly removed from land that had been their ancestral land. They were living separated from their husbands and their sons who were migrant workers. They had no rights to even go and visit their husbands without receiving special permission.”
Along with discussing intersectionality and her career, Tutu also highlighted the importance of Black Lives Matter.
“All the attempts to diminish the importance and the message and the work of Black Lives Matter, I think to me, speaks to the fact that that movement has hit a nerve in this country,” she said. “It has hit upon a truth that, in many instances, black lives do not matter.”
As the MLK Symposium keynote lecturer, Tutu’s warning against the revisionist history and rhetoric deployed against black activists that uphold Dr. Martin Luther King as the “pinnacle of respectability politics,” aligns with other events already held for the symposium. Wednesday, Alicia Garza, an advocate for racial and gender justice, house workers’ rights and one of the three black women, along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who initiated #BlackLivesMatter, spoke at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater as part of the MLK Symposium.
“What angers me even more about many responses to Black Lives Matter is that then the response is, ‘You need to be more like Martin Luther King,” Tutu said. “He was a conciliator, he was a mediator, he brought people together.’ Which history are you looking at? Martin Luther King, who we talk about today, if you read the papers of the time, he was being attacked very much in the same way that the Black Lives Matter movement is.”
Locally, the work of activists in the Ann Arbor Alliance for Black Lives and other organizations surrounding the killing of 40-year old black woman Aura Rosser by AAPD Office David Ried on November 5, 2015 also speaks to the centrality of black women’s experience in today’s political movements.
As an activist, educator and thinker whose work explores and promotes the experience of black women, Tutu’s lecture will be an important entry into Ann Arbor’s discussion of race, gender, and activism.