'Clever' slur lives on
The year is 2012, the accuser a black president. Our leader says some blacks "become too clever" and "become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything". Further, if this continues, "whose traditions will [their children] practise"?
The year is 1936, the accuser the Committee on Native Education, pronouncing thus on black people: "There is still strong opposition to their education because it makes him 'cheeky' [and] it makes him turn against his culture and his people."
The charge is the same - education makes "clever blacks" who must be restrained; they must be locked into their "own" cultures for too much education makes them misfits within society.
Seventy-six years apart and we still despise clever blacks.
I have heard endless repetition of the sentence: "He's black, but very smart." You will, of course, never hear this qualifying "but" in reference to the intelligence of the pigmentally challenged. So what is going on here?
As more than one commentator has correctly observed, this presidential comment must be read with other statements from on high casting aspersions on book knowledge and mere education.
Any sign of a clever black - like an accent that is not "traditional" or musical choices that are not "black" - invites ridicule and resentment. Blacks are cast in a mould that is firm and fixed, unaffected by a changing world.
Instead of placing a high premium on the intellect we, in fact, attack those who think for themselves.
More than one political party insists on shutting down independent opinion even in the face of undemocratic practices and offensive utterances - even calling for a law to punish critics of the powerful.
We are slowly becoming a society that has effectively whipped critics into submission; to think for yourself is to raise querying eyebrows about who you really are. To speak fluently and perceptively is to raise concerns about cultural drift.
The people occupying centre stage in the ferment sweeping the country have become the new norm. So what if the semi-literate miners first killed security guards? Or what if poorly educated farmworkers set fire to vineyards? Or what if the unskilled truckers stoned and wounded hard-working truck drivers on major roads?
Let's focus rather on their plight as underpaid, exploited workers, not on wanton destruction of property. We valorise violent, uncouth, dangerous behaviour. We make victims (again) out of the poor.
Not a single analyst has asked the question: why did we have to wait for the violence before we took the plight of exploited workers seriously? And nobody asked how the situation could have been different if we had functional schools for all learners and effective, credible post-school training programmes for those who left school early.
"What do we fight about between development plans?" I asked government officials this week.
While powerful economies in Asia set uncompromising standards for education, we destroy the already slim opportunities and vulnerable institutions we need to build strong and durable social systems. While modern education systems recognise the transforming power of 21st- century technologies to create new social, cultural and economic relations across borders, our leaders klap clever blacks and remind them to stay in their predestined cultural enclaves.
While more and more young people are transforming their own identities through social and technological relations that break down primordial attachments, we still snigger at black people who achieve in science and the humanities because they no longer talk like "us" and bow at the altar of ancient traditions.
A clever black just won the American elections. He did this by recognising one simple thing: the world had changed and America had changed. Those old, traditional values built around the often offensive preferences of white men with conservative and traditional values no longer mattered.
Changing demographics and new technologies could be mobilised to create a new kind of society. Instead of dragging people back into an often-romanticised past, the one-time professor held up to young and old a vision of a more hopeful future in which green technologies and digital education would alter lives.
To have won so emphatically in the midst of an economic recession, this black man must have been clever indeed.