It’s important to be responsible stewards of our words because words, whether we wield them frivolously or not, have power. That is why I am approaching this brief response to MP Ghaleb Cachalia’s editorial, which was recently published in this media outlet, with care.
I offer these words from within the context of a country whose highest elected official often employs, with ease and bravado, language that cuts almost anyone who happens not to be a white heterosexual, moneyed, able-bodied man who professes a myopic version of Christianity that foregrounds the white nationalist impulses of the same.
That said, I’m careful not to offer a critique of elected political leaders in another country without acknowledging that I am writing from the shorelines of a nation-state which has become an exemplar of a type of democracy that professes an idea of freedom it fails to actualise. Words, like those used by political leaders who divert attention from their queer antagonism before committing first to the work of critical self-reflection, can be used as weapons.
MP Cachalia opened his non-apology with an epigraph containing my words. I can only assume that he wanted readers to wrestle with the point I tried to make about the radical potential that queerness offers. Queerness, I’ve noted, is a politic that allows us to “fuck with language”. But MP Cachalia’s response belies the major thrust of my words.
Yes, queerness is an entry point into a way of being that makes it possible for those of us who have been considered (or legislated) as “other”, as non-normative, to toy with language. But whose languages require deconstruction and reframing, but the colonising languages of those in power — wherever they might be in the world and however they might codify their power by way of the force of their tongues and pen?
My proposition is not an invitation for cisgender heterosexual people to “fuck with language” with the intent of using their words and turns of phrase to harm queer, trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming people. No. People who exist closer to power, and whose position is guaranteed by the continued oppression of those on the underside of their proverbial boots, don’t get to further dehumanise and other people.
In fact, any elected officials, especially those who exist outside the queer and trans spectrum, who do not understand that their role as a defender of the right of all people includes the mandate to ensure that LGBTQIA+ people deserve to live unassailed and free, ought to be reconsidering if a life of public service is their calling.
So, no, MP Cachalia, you do not have permission to use my words, the words of a black queer person, to excuse your wrongdoing, especially when I have been shaped by the brilliance of so many black queer writers, thinkers, activists in South Africa whose very existences serve as testimony that words can be used to either destroy or uplift a people.
Somehow, you’ve found and misread words I had offered in the past, but a redemptive way forward would be to hearken to the words of LGBTQIA+ South African people whose words should matter to you the most.
There is a way forward, but back-pedalling won’t get you there. DM
Darnell L. Moore is head of strategy and programme at Breakthrough US. He is also the author of No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black & Free in America, which was listed as a 2018 NYT Notable Book. He is co-managing editor at The Feminist Wire and an editor of The Feminist Wire Books. He is a writer-in-residence at the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice at Columbia University and an Innovation Fellow at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
In other news...
July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.
In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."
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