On Wednesday night, I watched a descendant of slaves take the podium at the US presidential inauguration of Joseph Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. Her name is Amanda Gorman. The ceremony itself was loaded with significance because we saw America elect its first female vice-president.
One often feels that we are the generation that has seen almost everything. Here I refer to the people born between 1960 and 2020, give or take on both ends of the dates. We have seen tyrants come and go, pandemics of science fiction proportion, leaps of science, the invention of the internet, the resignation of a pope, the first black president of America, the release of Nelson Mandela and other freedom fighters, the end of apartheid, and so much more.
With all this, there are moments, perhaps small to some but packed with significance for any black person who is fully aware of what it has taken for us to arrive at this moment.
Of course, it must be said that the full emancipation of black people has not been fully attained, even here in South Africa, or the rest of the continent and the diaspora, but that does not take away moments like those we witnessed on Wednesday, 20 January 2020, which, to me, are among the many significant moments of African resilience.
It is difficult not to be sentimental. Mush is often cringeworthy and a source of great discomfort – but not on Wednesday.
Sitting here in Africa, I, a descendant of those who remained, and surviving the lasting effects of colonialism, watching descendants of the taken surviving the effects of slavery, feel very much that this event unfolding before my eyes in America is also very much my story – the story of my people.
Culture, although often regrettably subordinated to economics and science, is the best vehicle through which stories are carried; reflection and meaning are transmitted. Amanda Gorman carried with her our journey and our story. What follows here is not an enfilade of clichés about black liberation experiences, but serious moments of reflection.
Gorman is the manifestation of Weldon Irvine’s “Young, Gifted and Black”. Those words which Nina Simone sang were the war cry of the civil rights movement.
Gorman’s prose carried the very paradoxical story of the black experience – they were simple and complex at the same time. Simple in that every word spoken was understandable and believable, and complex because she took us through a range of experiences – the lows and the triumphs of the human spirit.
There is a temptation for wordsmiths to encrypt important messages such that they have to be studied at great length to excavate their meaning. She could have done that, but she did not – she came there to say something that needed to be heard.
The moment and honour was not lost on her, hence her reference to being “a skinny black girl, descended from slaves, raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president only to find herself reciting for one”.
It cannot be ignored that Gorman’s moment revisited other similar moments. In 1993 at the presidential inauguration of Bill Clinton, a black, female, cultural icon, Maya Angelou, stood for the very first time at the very same podium and became the first woman and black person to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. In that same year, Toni Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel prize for literature.
No slave trader or owner could have imagined what the future would hold for the descendants of those who were reduced to instruments of labour, or who were regarded as the inferior race (and, unfortunately, still are in some quarters).
Can it ever be forgotten that just a few years before, in 1989, Jessye Norman, born in Augusta, Georgia, and yet another descendant of slaves, sang La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution at the Place de la Concorde in Paris with millions watching around the world?
Could it ever have been imagined that a descendant of slaves would be at the centre of the commemorations of one of Europe’s most important events?
Better still, for me, could those French colonisers who docked their ships at African ports and claimed entire countries as theirs, ever have imagined that a black woman would one day sing for millions in their own capital, Paris?
Although Gorman’s poem speaks principally to the American context, her words, “when day comes we ask ourselves where can we find light in this unending shade… we’ve braved the belly of the beast… what just is, isn’t always justice”, ring true for all people everywhere – but, most importantly, they speak to the black experience everywhere.
Ours has been a life whose core motifs are those of struggle, force, invasion, slavery and great pain.
Pick a country, anywhere, where black people live – even in Africa – and tell me that all this malaise, this searching for light in the unending shade, braving the belly of the beast and the absence of justice, has not been their experience and I will find for you, if I can, a place enjoying its plenty not coming from the sweat of black people’s land and labour.
Yet even with all this weight of history and daily struggle, there are moments when it feels good to be black and alive.
I have put before you the images of black women that played in my mind as Gorman recited her poem – these are moments, among many others, where our story protrudes even amidst great resistance… culminations of our collective triumphs everywhere.
Look at us. We have survived. DM