Black writers, remain true to history and yourselves
Big names in the literary industry like Niq Mhlongo, Fred Khumalo, Cynthia Jele, Nokuthula Mazibuko-Msimang, Victor Dlamini, Sabatha-Mpho Mokae, Athol Williams, among others, have criticised and condemned the list of nominees, winners and judges.
Some white progressives, including the winners, are not excited either.
It is sad that there are not enough black voices to express disappointment at this development. There are far too few voices that think black writers who have been overlooked by untransformed white companies deserve what they get. Their voices are muted and condemned for being too harsh. It is presumed that they are a threat to reconciliation and the little gains that have been made.
The renowned literary voices have not said anything significant except to complain about what they perceive to be racist discrimination.
But the judges have a right to their opinion. No correspondence will be entered into.
Literature is art and art is relative. The Media24 Book Awards, too, are nothing but an opinion of men and women who have the privilege to decide who is the best writer and who is not. The judges are mostly men and women who grew up in the time of racial segregation and are beneficiaries of apartheid and white privilege in South Africa.
It can be presumed that they have neither deep insight into black aesthetics nor exposure to black creative intellectual works.
Frankly, black authors, especially those at the mercy of white mainstream publishing houses, do not have the power to stop the whites-only awards. The easy thing is for them to continue to play it safe and allow the judges to decide. Or make a lot of politically correct sounding noises.
But what we need to remind ourselves of is that the final decision of the all-white panellists does not make the judges God. They are only expressing an opinion.
Black writers must remain strong and follow their instincts. When they write they should not seek white approval or desire to win awards. Creative writing is a blessing that provides opportunities to express talent and celebrate skills.
Black writers should heed the words of Marcus Garvey: “If we people realised the greatness from which we came we would be less likely to disrespect ourselves.”
It is unthinkable that when black writers are kept awake at night to write, their single-minded ambition is to please white judges or to win some whites-only awards.
In fact, it is self-disrespect for any black writer to hanker after living up to the expectations of white judges. They are answerable only to a spirit that stirs in them.
Will the real black writers please stand up?
They are not in this world to live up to white expectations. They are on earth to do their own thing and remain true to their history and themselves.
The mainstream publishing houses, their readers and editors have been a historical source of displeasure and frustration for black writers.
After all, these companies were not created with black people in mind or to be instruments to equality. They were created to celebrate white talent. The founders did not imagine a world where black and white would be on par when it comes to creative talent and artistic expression.
One would have liked to see African literary figures refuse to accept nomination to dominantly white awards because of their history.
But black writers cannot do that because they, too, have become part of the history they fought against. They have been gobbled up by integration into an untransformed system. It has a lot to do with reconciliation.
There are some fake radicals that believe that blacks must withdraw and boycott the white publishing houses, including their awards. But that will not change anything. Neither will setting up alternative Black Awards help.
But these fake radicals are right and echo Garvey when they raise questions about self-perception and consciousness of black writers. When you are aggrieved by someone who refuses to acknowledge your talent, you are giving too much power to your detractors.
The sooner black writers take back their power by refusing to be defined or judged by others the better. They know their worth and value.
Over the decades, far too many black writers have based their worth on what white publishers, readers, editors and judges think of them.
They worry too much about white approval and affirmation and agonize when they are denied awards.
This is placing too much importance on those who hold you in doubt and contempt.
The judging panel largely comprises of incorrigibles not aware of the consequences of racial bias.
In fact, black writers must just deal with their insecurity and self-doubt. They are constantly playing up to please white publishing bosses and judges. It is okay if you do that to a white publisher who gave you a break. But they do not owe anybody else anything except to be true to themselves and give their best, for themselves.
When black writers moan about not being in the finalists list or create a storm around the alleged racism of the whites-only awards, they are forgetting the history they come from.
It means that they place white approval and affirmation above their history and aspirations. Black aspirations are not to be equal to whites or try to please them but to remain true to self.
Thus they are setting themselves up for failure, manipulation and control. They allow themselves to be judged by standards they did not determine and a panel that is not representative.
But they will not lose anything if they just forget about the white awards to only concentrate on personal goals that they will have set for themselves.
Happiness will be possible when black writers and other artists are content with themselves and what they have to offer. They have been granted talent to express themselves and that is a reward enough.
Black writers should not even think of pulling out of the whites-only writing competition.
The idea of blacks-only literary competitions are not different from the whites-only as they imitate everything and were set up for blacks to affirm themselves in their own black cocoon.
Much is expected from black writers as people who come from a history of struggle for justice and equality in the world.
As Steve Biko said, they are the ones who have “to give the world a human face”. In addition, to paraphrase African-American poet June Jordan, they are the ones we have been waiting for.
It is not their fault that publishing houses are untransformed and judging panels are whites-only.
But as people who have been integrated into a history they fought against, they can continue to work within the system, if they so wish.
They have come too far to turn back, now. Black writers must do what they have to do because they have always done it as part of the struggle to give the world a human face. They must remain true to themselves.
* Memela is a journalist, writer, cultural critic and a public servant.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.