This week I am reminded of the hit song Say It Loud, I’m Black and I am Proud released in August 1968 by James Brown a few months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America. It shot to the top of the Billboard magazine rhythm and blues singles chart where it remained for six weeks. Here in Kenya, I still remember singing along with Soul Brother Number One in high school over the radio and later at “boogies” in Nairobi.
Because of the widespread colourism that had existed for centuries in America, the song posed a challenge, felt so exhilarating and resonated so powerfully.
The disparagement of “black” derived from a centuries-long development that Winthrop D.Jordan describes in White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812.” He shows, in excruciating detail, how blackness served as an easily grasped symbol of the Negro’s baseness and wickedness”. To sanitize the word “black”, black people were called Negros.
Wielded fiercely by whites, this symbol inflicted hidden injuries that scarred every stratum of African-American society. In his memoir, Soul on Ice, published in 1968, Eldridge Cleaver recounts a fellow prison inmate’s scornful dismissal of African-American women: “I don’t want nothing black but a Cadillac.” He remembers another remarking, that “If money was black, I wouldn’t want none of it.”
Advocates of African-American self-consciousness in the 1960s sought to liberate blackness from the layers of contempt, fear and hatred with which it had been smeared for a long time. Brown’s anthem poignantly reflected the psychic problem it sought to address.
People secure in their status don’t feel compelled to trumpet their pride. At the same time Say it Loud was a rousing instance of a reclamation that took many forms. Instead of celebrating light skin, thin lips, “good” ( straight) hair, increasing numbers of African-Americans began valorising dark skin, thick lips and “bad” (kinky) hair.
For purposes of collective self-identification, African-Americans began calling themselves “black” as opposed to “Negro” or “coloured”. Negro Digest was renamed Black World. Negro History Week was renamed Black History Month. Students demanded the establishment of black studies programs.
In his final book, Where Do We Go from Here?, Dr King also embraced the reclamation of blackness. One “must not overlook”, he insisted, “the positive value in calling a Negro to a new sense of manhood, to a deep feeling of racial pride and to an audacious appreciation of his heritage.” He went on to say that a black man “must stand up amid a system that still oppresses him and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of his own value. He must no longer be ashamed of being black.”
The reclamation of blackness made great progress in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973, Billy Paul released the song Am I Black Enough for You? articulating the theme of black pride and emphasizing the need for black listeners to continue struggling until the goals have been achieved and to be steadfast in embracing their black identity.
Five decades after the release of Say It Loud it is clear that although the changes brought by the black liberation movement were impressive, they were only partial. Professors Jennifer Hochschild and Vesla Weaver have authoritatively declared that compared to their light-skinned counterparts, dark-skinned blacks continue to be burdened by lower levels of education, income and job status. They receive longer prison sentences and are less likely to own homes or marry. Filmmakers, advertisers, modelling agencies, dating websites and other key gatekeepers demonstrate repeatedly the ongoing pertinence of the old saw: If you are black, get back. If you are brown, stick around. If you are white, you are all right.
Although I consider the situation to be better in Kenya, we can draw many parallels from our history.
In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o in her acceptance speech for her role in the critically acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave revealed that she too felt unbeautiful when she was young because she was dark but, on her journey, she realized that “the validation of external beauty is the deeper business of being beautiful inside.” “There is no shade in that beauty,” she continued.
You may be wondering why I have engaged in this rant. Well, last weekend there was a picture of three individuals doing the rounds on social media. The three were: Tyler Perry who opened the largest movie theatre in history, Eliud Kipchoge, the first man to run the marathon in under two hours and Abiy Ahmed the Prime Minister of Ethiopia who won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The caption on the picture read “What a time to be black!”
As my friend Linus Gitahi put it, “It is ALWAYS a good time to be black. I would never exchange it for any other colour”. I couldn’t agree more. These men’s achievements had nothing to do with being black or any other color but, the caption on the picture reflects a deep and lingering identity crisis amongst some of our people because they have been socialized over a long period of time to have a low expectation of their own self-worth.
On Saturday 13 October, the whole world was watching as Eliud Kipchoge became the first human being to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. The whole world was watching Kenya!
I want to tell the conspiracy theorists that Eliud Kipchoge is a smart and articulate man. He saw an opportunity to catapult himself into the history books using his unique talent. Hours of planning, training and marketing saw him achieve his dream. He was deliberate and intentional towards his vision and that made the difference. He is one of a new breed of young Kenyans who are using their unique God-given gifts to propel themselves beyond the limits of their circumstances and create a livelihood for themselves and others.
If you can conceive it, you can achieve it, regardless of your colour!