Earlier this month, I was walking down South Forest Avenue with a friend of mine on a Friday night when two white men drove by us on the sidewalk. They rolled down their windows and one of them proceeded to shout at me to “get off the street” followed by the N-word. Two weeks later, I can still vividly recall the fear and discomfort I felt in the moment. The event, which happened mere blocks away from my apartment, turned what used to be a familiar street to me into a cruel reminder of the antiquated attitudes still existing everywhere in the United States, including (and especially) here, at the University of Michigan. It reminded me that, as African philosophy scholar Mabogo P. More once stated, “To live under the threat of non-being is to live in what existentialists call a condition of finitude, the constant possibility of disintegration and death and, therefore, anguish and anxiety.” This immense lack of control over the way society perceives us, as Black beings, has a tremendous impact on our lived experience. 

Nowadays, we often talk about racial oppression on a systemic level, typically from an economic standpoint by examining the impacts of structural inequality. But not nearly as often do we discuss the effects oppression has on the body, mind and soul of the oppressed being –– the disparaging impact that incessantly being perceived as an other, along with the ongoing relativization to the white norm, has on the psyche of the dis-possessed subject.  

Steve Biko, a radical South African activist, wrote extensively on what it means to be Black in an anti-Black world. Before he was assassinated by the South African apartheid regime in 1977, he worked heavily with the South African Student Organization and contributed towards establishing the Black Consciousness Movement. This was a movement combining ideologies of Black Power, philosophical notions of (Black) consciousness and radical Christianity in order to empower Black people to assert their own autonomy and self-determination, thus challenging the white power structure. Biko believed, and once stated, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” I know firsthand what it’s like to carry the weight of a lifetime of internalized oppression. It’s an ongoing process to overcome the never-ending feelings of imposter syndrome, coupled with my increasingly negative self-esteem and body image after years and years of being socialized by our anti-Black society to hate myself.

It’s true that a lifetime of racialized oppression psychologically alters the conscious experience of the oppressed individual. According to Frantz Fanon, a radical Black political philosopher, this constant subjugation to violence results in the epidermalization of inferiority in the mind of the colonized subject. In other words, in attempting to subvert and mitigate the likelihood of discrimination, the oppressed individual will subconsciously strive to adhere to standards of whiteness, thus internalizing their oppression “in anticipation of the punitive norms.”

Growing up, I felt this internalization daily without even being aware of it. Living in a world where you’re constantly otherized, conscious of your racialized identity in relation to others or, as Biko referred to in his “On Death” chapter of his popular text “I Write What I Like,” facing “a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death.” And as much as I try to shake it, by no fault of my own, this omnipresence of death is always following me, lingering, as a constant reminder of my sheer lack of control over how I am perceived in this world. 

But even at my lowest, I remind myself that I have the capacity to rise above it all. To do so, I often find myself drawing parallels between the Black Consciousness Movement’s notion of salvation and deliverance (by going from non-being to being) with the Biblical notions of salvation and deliverance found through Jesus Christ. As Biko discusses in his text, “The Radical Gospel of Black Consciousness,” Black consciousness entails a radical transformation of the ontological status of the individual, going from an inauthentic to authentic being. The inauthenticity of repressing one’s own self in fear of retaliation from the unjust status quo is stripped away by the affirmation of one’s own being. 

In a similar vein, liberation theologists such as Latin American philosopher Ignacio Ellacuría, draw similar comparisons of deliverance in the act of seeking salvation in Jesus Christ. In his text, “The Crucified Peoples,” Ellacuría discusses how an overwhelming majority of humankind is crucified by means of natural, historical and personal oppression. He claims that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross serves as a double soteriology (salvation doctrine) by tying together the passion and death of Christ with the oppressed.

This carries with it heavy implications: The notion that the Creator of the Universe –– all we’ve ever known, experienced or sensed –– came down onto Earth in order to side with those who have historically been persecuted and to affirm the existence of their beings is something that gives me solace as I navigate a society hell-bent on killing me. As Black theologian James Cone wrote in Black Theology and Black Power, “In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes His, their despair, divine despair.”

This new life that is given through Christ parallels this radical transformation from non-being to being. They both seek for us to live a life that is affirmative and liberative of the oppressed, by wrestling with death in order to receive life. As Luke 4:18 states, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor (…) To set at liberty those who are oppressed, To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

I find comfort in this. The knowledge that I am not determined by my earthly, bodily existence and the demonic nature of capitalism and white supremacy omnipresent in our world. As Fanon once stated in his seminal piece “Black Skin, White Masks,” “In the world through which I travel I am endlessly creating myself.” With this in mind, I continue traveling, paving my own path amid the persecution, and whenever I feel hopeless over my lack of control in the present, I stop and think to myself who really is in control in the end –– and that, in all its glory, liberates me. 

Like Matthew 5:10 proclaims, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Suggested Reading:

  • “The Radical Gospel of Black Consciousness” by Steve Biko

  • “I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko

  • “The Crucified Peoples” by Ignacio Ellacuría

  • “Black Theology and Black Power” by James Cone

  • “Black Skin, White Masks” by Frantz Fanon

 

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