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The new black celebrity authors

Sandile Memela
11/30/2009 09:30:29

Artslink.co.za News
Sandile Memela: The last ten years have been marked by a strange phenomenon in black writing.

This is a visible and negative literary portrayal of the black experience and critical assault on black identity and achievement.

This is quite ironic.

But black writers have, unwittingly, become enemies of everything that their people fought for.

Instead, their allegiance overlooks the celebration of freedom and democracy to promote pseudo-critical intellectual stances that supposedly speak truth to power.

This approach, influenced by a desire to reach a white readership - instead of growing a black audience - needs serious critical examination, especially from the black world itself.

Unfortunately, it would seem that black writers themselves are convinced of the ‘blacks don't read' myth and thus dismiss them as a significant market.

But there is a need for some kind of intervention to caution black writers against this dangerous development.

The new black literary self-sabotage is, undoubtedly, an expression of a desire to be affirmed as critical intellectuals and thinkers by white liberals who have very little to do with an authentic black experience.

This confusion of creative thought - magnified by the non-existence of black owned publishing houses with black editors - threatens to plunge black literary talent into a crisis.

If they continue in this way, black writers will, inevitably, be dismissed as irrelevant sell-outs who thrive on the promoting the ‘PhD syndrome,' that is, putting black people down.

There are three basic charges that are, increasingly, being put forward against black writers in the new South Africa.

First, it is that black writers have white interests in their brains. What this means is that when they write, black writers have a white target audience in mind. They, too, believe the ‘blacks don't read' myth.

Secondly, whatever they write will have to gain white approval. They have to condition themselves to meet white expectations and criteria because if they do not their work is unlikely to see the light of day.

Thirdly, it can be argued that there are no black editors for black work. This has resulted in black writers' work being edited and critiqued by white people who lack the intuitive connection and understanding of the subtlety and nuance of what can be considered the ‘black experience.'

It is a serious indictment that 15 years into freedom and democracy, there is no well defined black aesthetics when it comes to judging or evaluating black literary output.

Black writers need to pause to engage in self-examination now before they are overwhelmed by accusations of not only ‘airing the dirty linen' before whites but being considered creative Uncle Toms who please white audiences at the expense of black integrity and history.

One cannot say for sure if these charges are noteworthy, for now, but they are spreading like wild fire among blacks who observe developments and trends in the creative sector, especially literature.

Of course, it will always remain a self-destructive risk and dangerous development for black authors and so-called intellectuals to continue with their negative portrayal of life under freedom and democracy, for instance.

One can even judge the content of these by their covers because they, inevitably, have vivid and memorable titles that assault the integrity of the first legitimate and elected black government and its democracy.

The promotion of so-called ‘courageous, independent and fearless black voices' in post-1994 is nothing new.

Some of the best known names in South Africa today are men and women who would have remained nobodies except that they had the silly courage to rubbish Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, the ANC and the true meaning of freedom and democracy in a post-apartheid society.

It would seem that the prerequisite for anyone black to become an over-rated columnist or celebrated author is to assume an attack mode towards the government, the ruling party and everything that is pro-black people.

This is, indeed, one of the most unexpected creative blind spots of so-called black writers and intellectuals that to focus on the positive and celebrate the achievements of the last 15 years is to be a praise-singer of the government or ruling party.

This tendency to rubbish the government, the ruling party or the elite is not necessarily a proactive way to raise the standard when it comes to affirming and encouraging excellence and merit among the previously disadvantaged.

Instead, it reflects the internalization of racism, deep seated anti-black sentiments and inferiority complex which says there is absolutely nothing good in the black experience under democracy.

These over-rated writers and intellectuals typically ignore the fact that black corruption is inextricably linked to and feeds off white injustice, corruption and greed.

Of course, there is no denying that there are far too many blacks, within a short period of time, in both government and corporations who have bought into the corrupt lifestyle that was previously the preserve of white privilege.

But the guilty party is not the blacks themselves but the unchanged economic structure that causes and perpetuates injustice, corruption and greed.

One has to look at Sipho Seepe's Truth to Power, Xolela Mangcu's To the Brink, Moeletsi Mbeki's Architects of Poverty; Zakes Mda's Black Diamonds, William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni's Poverty of Ideas and Jacob Dlamini's Native Nostalgia, for example, to understand how some black writers easily fall into the trap of rubbishing the achievement of freedom and democracy.

These books, of course, reveal how the dawn of democracy and freedom under the ANC has opened up opportunities for black writers and intellectuals to articulate themselves.

But what sits like a thorn crown among them is not just that they are witty and acerbic but their reactionary quality that negates anything positive in the post-apartheid society.

One cannot overlook their bravery and courage, if you like, but their strength lies more in rubbishing the gains of democracy and undermining black integrity than consolidating them.

At the risk of oversimplifying the content of all these books, perhaps it is too early for black writers overlook the positive gains of democracy and freedom.

The easiest thing is to throw out the baby democracy with the dirty water of an untransformed socio-economic system and hurl missiles at a new non-racial post-apartheid society that is still laying its foundations.

Seepe set the trend with his ad hominen attack on former president Thabo Mbeki; Mangcu generated much attention to himself by writing a book that says democracy is on the brink of collapse; Mbeki says the former liberation movements like the ANC are to blame for colonialism and apartheid sins; Mda says black elite are corrupt sellouts; Gumede and Dikeni says freedom of expression is under great threat while Dlamini says not all blacks were against apartheid oppression because it was possible to be happy under apartheid.

This perspective is far too reactionary, simple and predictable - especially from blacks with PhDs - who should come out with a much more complex analysis and interpretation of the transition.

This black conservative assault on the black identity, integrity and democratic gains is nothing but a silly attempt to please white audiences and live up to false liberal notions of so-called courage, independence and fearlessness.

Actually it marks a crisis of black thought and creative leadership.

In the light of this tragic development, the writings of a Steve Biko warrant attention in that he provided the inspiration and guidelines for black self-perception and definition.

One cannot be convinced that today's published black writers are doing justice when it comes redefining the existential meaning of black lives, experience, history and hopes.

Perhaps the solution to this is for black writers to close the gap that exists between them and black readers.

It is only when black authors write from a black perspective with black audiences in mind that they can learn to give a balanced analysis of their life experience and history.

It is time that they presented a more human face to the black experience.

Sandile Memela is the author of Flowers of the Nation (UKZN Press) and senior marketing manager for the Department of Arts & Culture. He writes in his personal capacity.



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I STRONGLY FIND THIS LIKE AN APPEAL. IT MUST BE active for retribution,blacks and all people of all walks of life should value own culture and that of others through writing. There is freedom to write,to publish and to read.No one is forced to read or publish articles for readership.This article brings to light many issues that should be addressed.It has many gaps. Jesus taught us to love one another and like our fingers are, so are our thoughts. Sandile should be forgiven.
Posted by Richard on Tuesday, 1st December 2009 at 10:51:43 AM

Mr Sandile Memela, with all due respect it is my attempt not to give you an answer to the issues that you are raising but to show your ignorance with the way you are approaching the issues that you raise. This ignorance if left unchecked can even defeat the purpose you are trying to achieve. Your arguments just like many other good speakers, I find them to be a failed attempt in applying sufficient reasoning in building your arguments and supporting it. You cannot draw conclusions without winning the argument. I want to challenge you , that you show us step by step on how did you arrived in your observations. If you can do that, therefore you would have contributed fairly and positively in your arguments. If you are to be a disciple of truth and knowledge you owe it to every person that have read your article to prove to them that you are not just another ignorant commentator, but your argument are indeed informed by valid reasoning. My concerns are with the level of reasoning you use to raise your issues. Give us the litmus test you have used to test your argument and its limit; if you have used any generalisation in your argument, you still owe it to us to prove its acceptability. The word black writers, by what authority you use it, can you define its use on your argument. When a black writer supposes is engaged in his/her writing does his/her blackness precede his reasoning, or his/her reasoning precede his/her blackness. If it is the latter then how can you reduce a writer into something that does not form part of his being as a writer. Such an important philosophical view I cannot allow any person to used it in any argument without explaining it. By: Emmanuel Shongwe
Posted by Emmanuel Shongwe on Monday, 30th November 2009 at 03:28:54 PM


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