Sharp Read | Heed the word

Artists and activists, from Toni Morrison to Ken Saro-Wiwa, have warned of the consequences of inequality and rapacious capitalism. It is up to us to listen – and to act.

Malcolm Gladwell defined a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”. In 2011 scientists at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute concluded a tipping point for a political trend could be as low as 10% of the population. This is maddening: why does it take years, decades, sometimes centuries, for meaningful change to occur, even when the voices crying out are loud and clear? 

In recent years there has been a spurt of analyses attempting to explain the post-truth world, why tribal belonging is more powerful than truth. Frantz Fanon figured this out almost 70 years ago: “Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted … And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalise, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief,” he wrote in Black Skin, White Masks

More presciently, in his withering 1961 dissection of colonialism, Fanon predicted that “the basic confrontation which seemed to be colonialism versus anticolonialism, indeed capitalism versus socialism, is already losing its importance. What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth. Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.”

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Why is it that white South Africans celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration speech (“The time for the healing of the wounds has come … The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come … never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”), but were utterly deaf to his emotional four-hour Rivonia trial plea 30 years earlier? (“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities … if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”)

One of the key messages in Seven Votes, the new book by South African historian Richard Steyn, is that opportunities are forfeited when we don’t listen.    

There was an unheeded warning in the aftermath of South Africa’s crossroads 1948 elections: “South Africa has chosen the road to national suicide,” railed ANC leader AB Xuma. Steyn tries to reimagine the country’s abnormal past: “History teaches us the stupidity in shutting doors, as [Jan] Smuts did to Xuma in the late 1940s. If we had cultivated the essence of democratic politics into the broad population, then, what a difference that may have made.”

Paying for inattention

Further north in Africa, a different nightmare was unfolding. Nigeria was formally colonised in 1899, sold by the Royal Niger Company to the British government for £865 000. The company had traded palm oil for 30 years, a crucial industrial lubricant for machinery. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, set in that time, was a harbinger of the looming disaster for the people of the Niger delta. The novel conveys the entitlement, the brutal arrogance threatening the indigenous people. It was published in 1958, the same year Shell first exported oil from the region. 

The book’s recognition and awards stacked up in proportion to the upscaling of destruction in the delta. By 1995, despite millions of copies sold, colonialism and exploitative capitalism had wreaked havoc, and nine activists including Ken Saro-Wiwa were executed for their protests. Earlier this year, Dutch and British courts ruled that Shell may be held accountable for compensation for its environmental destruction in Nigeria. Too late: Achebe had warned that the centre wouldn’t hold. At the end of the novel, the District Commissioner clarifies his plans to write a notable paragraph on the tragedy of the main character, Okonkwo. He’s decided the title of his book: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger

Nobel literature laureate Toni Morrison took inspiration from Achebe: “African literature is incomplete and unthinkable without the works of Chinua Achebe.” She was expressly interested in exploring how language separates or unites, celebrates or quashes. Her focus was on the individual, but for Morrison the personal was always the political, and so her novels symbolise individual pain as representative of broader suffering. Her lesser-known first novel, The Bluest Eye, conceptualised in 1965, holds up self-worth and then shatters it, savagely. The protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, is a young Black girl rather than a man – but Morrison’s summary of Pecola’s tragedy in the novel’s afterword applies to George Floyd’s murder: “My book showed how the demonisation of an entire race is a consequence of casual racial contempt.” 

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The book ends with Pecola’s insanity, a broad parallel to the warnings by experts that Floyd’s murder could spark a mental health crisis. The child literally fell apart, writes Morrison in the afterword. Grotesquely, so too did a part of humanity on 25 May 2020.   

Why did America, and the world, hear George Floyd’s dying words, but paid no attention a decade earlier when 27-year-old unarmed Steven Washington was shot and killed in Los Angeles? Or to the circumstances of almost all the 1 944 Black people killed by police in America between 2013 and 2019 alone?

The complex human psychology underpinning blinkeredness and deafness to the cause of social justice is epitomised in our responses to the voices of musicians. “Don’t you know / They’re talking about a revolution? / It sounds like a whisper,” sang Tracy Chapman in Talkin’ About a Revolution, from her eponymous debut album in 1988. The following year came Why?, from the album Crossroads: “But somebody’s gonna have to answer / The time is coming soon / When the blind remove their blinders / And the speechless speak the truth.” 

These were huge global hits. In South Africa too – years before democracy – we sang along to the catchy slogans, shuffled to the rhythms. But we didn’t pay attention to the cry against domestic violence, damaged dignity, social discord and inequality.

Facing up to reality

John Berger’s voice was multifaceted. He wrote prolifically on a vast range of topics, including memory, imagery, art, political philosophy, and how artists can motivate and direct political protest. He is probably best known for Ways of Seeing, published in 1972, a landmark treatise on humanity’s conditioning, how the images we see do not always present the real world. “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” he narrated – but complex issues are hidden in plain sight. 

Berger pointed out the “moral shock of the contrast” in mainstream media when horrifying reports or images of war or deprivation blend with aspirational articles and utopian advertising. His deeper point was that for centuries Western culture has remained oblivious to this shock. Cynical, manipulative establishment and media forces have perpetuated an us-and-them conditioning. 

Having opened our eyes, Berger wanted us to explore further, to interrogate and question the historical narrative. Confronting reality, perhaps, was what Berger was urging, most. There is too much suffering in the world, he showed us, but our empathy and compassion was lost in the whirlwind of capitalist consumerism and a patriarchal, colonial cultural mindset. He tried to talk us out of our lethargy. Was his voice, too, lost in the wind?

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Society’s culture – the values, mores, beliefs and practices that weave through current times – are also at play. In sport, too. Almost 50 years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee and was promptly exiled from America’s National Football League (NFL), two athletes gave a clenched-fist Black Power salute during the 200m medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. They stood on the podium with a human rights logo on their tracksuit, in black socks without shoes, to represent the poverty of many Black Americans and to express solidarity against injustice and racism. 

The NFL has apologised for not heeding, earlier, players’ concerns about racism. But not directly to Kaepernick, who has remained in the football wilderness, his career curtailed in his prime. As for Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their seismic statement was largely ignored, and they paid the price: the International Olympic Committee expelled them from the rest of the Games, they were castigated by the mainstream media, and they returned home to widespread opprobrium.  

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“It was a cry for freedom and for human rights,” said Smith in a 2008 interview. “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.” Carlos, in the same interview and referring to that current decade, 40 years on, said, “What’s going on is wrong.”

Marvin Gaye phrased this as a question, just after those Olympics. “What’s Going On?” asked the anthemic song on the 1971 album of the same name. Gaye no longer felt able to croon the ballads that had made him famous. “In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say … I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realised that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” 

Gaye was facing up to reality, and wanted us to do the same. He died in 1984. He would have been dismayed to know that 50 years after he asked, there are still so few answers. “It’s an album that still sounds revolutionary 50 years after it was recorded,” notes Rolling Stone magazine. It’s intended as a compliment – and therein lies the shame.

Towards a just future

The conflation of terror, tragedies and historical injustice throughout the Middle East has been the subject of decades of reporting and calls for change from the journalist Robert Fisk, who died last year. Search for him on the Independent UK website and hundreds of articles appear under the Voices section.

They bristle with warnings of endless cycles of bloodshed, in large part attributable to biased if not blind policymaking, shocking levels of US and UK arms exports into the region, and reedy and unreliable government narratives that too few other journalists have challenged. Fisk believed in seeing for himself: “A story should be told from the viewpoint of the victim whose blood is being spilled. During the time of the slave trade, I’d have interviewed the slaves, not the captain of the slave ship. During World War II, I wouldn’t have interviewed an SS spokesman, I’d have talked to the Jews.”

The Economist described him as one of the most influential columnists on Middle East affairs since World War II. Pity the politicians shaping policy have not heard the hysteria, felt the earth shake, grasped the truths in his passionate missives. 

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We can only look forward to when we justly reframe the past. And so it is the newer voices we must receive, now. American teacher and poet Caroline Randall Williams condenses slavery in America, the Civil War and the Jim Crow Confederate legacy in a way that must surely shake definitions to the core: “I have rape-coloured skin. My light-brown-blackness is a living testament to the rules, the practices, the causes of the Old South.  If there are those who want to remember the legacy of the Confederacy, if they want monuments, well, then, my body is a monument.” 

The full text is some of the most powerful, deeply shocking prose you will ever read.

There is no greater existentialist threat than global warming. Kim Stanley Robinson has been writing and lecturing about this for decades, sagely showing the cause-and-effect links between the Anthropocene, rapacious capitalism and social inequality. The New Yorker salutes him as one of the great science fiction writers, but he is also a sociopolitical thinker, challenging capitalism’s monocultural construct that stifles motivations and ideas for change. 

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His new book, The Ministry for the Future, is a litany of concepts to build a new political economy, to harness technology for societal good, to transform capitalism to a more inclusive humanism – to save ourselves. It’s also a chilling vision of what will occur if we don’t. It should be mandatory reading for every corporate, government and educational leader, worldwide. 

These artists are a tiny sample of those who urged us to wake up, writing powerful, eloquent, angry words. But Toni Morrison was sceptical we would do the work. “As a matter of fact, literature will not save us at all,” she wrote in an essay in Mouth Full of Blood. It was a plea for us as readers to participate, to find what she called the “invisible ink”; we have to tune in, interpret and take responsibility.  

Writers and artists have a role – a duty, perhaps – in using culture as a voice to push the conversation, to elevate awareness, to help bend Martin Luther King Jr’s arc towards moral justice. It’s incumbent upon us to listen. 

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