Malick Sidibe is a West African photographer from Mali known for his portraits of youth and youth culture in the capital Bamako. When I first looked at one of his photographs my body vibrated with complex emotions of love and frustration. Love because of the beautiful images of blackness staring confidently into the camera’s gaze; exuding life and power. It was a different representation of African people; one that veered away from the colonial images of Africa, as object, reflected in western culture and media. It made me realize how so much of my early exposure to Africa has been through a western and Eurocentric gaze, which treats Africa and African’s as objects to be observed, studied and exploited for the western viewer/reader. Africa has often been presented to me through the thoughts and gaze of White people. This, of course, effects the outcome of the work. For an example, when I look at photographs of Africans in the National Geographic there is a sense of distance between the subject and the photographer that feels cold. I believe that this is due to the material and cultural divisions between the subjects and their foreign photographers, who are there for their own purposes. There is no organic connection to the community; and they are not trying to build one that would support the self-determination of the community. Sidibe’s portraits, on the other hand, radiate a warmth that comes from the relationship between the photographer and his subjects.
During the imperialist scramble for Africa France seized Mali, where it ruled until 1960, when Mali achieved it’s ‘independence’. The European domination of Mali, like all colonized land and people, created an antagonistic, oppressive and exploitative relationship between the indigenous Africans and the European colonizers, who now controlled everything. African’s did not have access to luxury items, such as cameras. And the European ruling-class, who did, chose not to photograph the humanity of African people. That would go against their own colonial ideology, which justifies their dehumanizing actions. Sidibe had the talent and intellect as well as good luck to be able to study at a university and work for a French photographer, where he was able to get practical experience and access to a camera. At the time it was rare for a European photographer to sell a camera to one of their African employees. In 1958 Sidibe opened up his own studio in Bamako, where he immediately got work taking photographs of the youth and their friends, parties and other gatherings. Sidibe was able to capture the movement of the people within the country during a revolutionary anti-colonial/post colonial period.
Sidibe has been doing photography since the 1950′s, and continues to work in the same little studio. However, it was only in the 1990′s that his work got any recognition in the west. This explains why I heard about him only a year ago, and why his photos immediately stood out in stark contrast to the sea of commodified images expressed in cultural anthropological studies and documentaries. Why is this so often the case? Because this is the legacy of imperialism. People, especially men, of European descent are given more privilege in society; even amongst the working-class, and this is due to western/ European Empire. The development of capitalism throughout the world was/is through force that violently uprooted people from their lands, and either proletarianized them or enslaved them. In order to prevent class struggle developing among the different sectors of the oppressed (enslaved indigenous people, enslaved Africans, European indentured servants and proletarians) the concept of ‘race’ was invented by the bourgeoisie helping to define a hierarchical division of labor. For an example, Africans/black people were defined as ‘inferior’ ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’. This justified their enslavement and continual lower position within the division of labor post slavery. Materially, poor whites were not always much better off than black people, but often had more access to material opportunities and better paying jobs. This was, and is, at the expense of the oppressed brown and black people.
The division of labor is still incredibly hierarchical, and the fundamental conditions aren’t much different. People of color, who share an indigenous and colonial history, are still positioned within the bottom layers of the working class and unemployed. They make the least money, are the most vulnerable to state violence, fill up the numerous prisons, and continue to live in impoverished and oppressive conditions that are only getting worse with the economic crisis. White people have more material wealth and therefore more movement in society. They are able to travel and vacation in foreign lands. They have more access to privilege institutions, such as universities, where they are able to study abroad. I am not implying that people of color do not go to college; but the fees/tuition hikes, along with cuts to financial aid, are effectively pushing out working-class people of color.
My focus on the white university student and their relationship to the colonial gaze was sparked up again recently after I read through a debate between my comrade Crunch and a mutual acquaintance about whether white college students should be able to go to Africa or not. Crunch was speaking to the material privilege white grad students have in bourgeois society, and how it gives them access to move more freely in this world, and the emotion that that stirs up in black people, who long for such a journey, but lack the capital to get there. The acquaintance seemed to take the position personally, disagreeing with Crunch’s comments, and asking him if white academics should only study in Europe, thus reproducing a Eurocentric view of history. Crunch was not trying to reproduce borders; rather he was trying to place the influx of white academics in Africa within the context of a colonial history and white supremacist capitalist system that has given white people more material and social privilege in this society, and therefore more privilege. I believe Crunch sums up the emotion and politics quite well below in an excerpt from the debate,
“White kids (the grad students going to Africa) have the privilege of accessing a land that is sacred to me and my people because of our connection to it and the trauma surrounding our removal from that space and the oppression of that space, on all levels, by the White Imperialist nations since they looked down and realized it was there to conquer. These kids, who usually have vestiges of white privilege because we are all socialized and have our own vestiges of the old society within us that need to be transformed, go to Africa with their White gaze and analyze, in some part from that, they then have the privilege of coming back and becoming an authority gaining social status, economic benefits or just “get into heaven” (anti-racist) points from everyone. And they, most times, have faulty- racist- or other wise incomplete and problematic analysis.
A lot of Black kids, from all over the Diaspora, don’t have that privilege because Black people, globally, have become mules to White Supremacist Capitalism and the permanent mascots of the under classes- meaning getting the worse material/spiritual/psychological treatment from the society. They cannot, or must work 10 times as hard as the white kids to access a land that should be free for them to access and would provide a kind of spiritual healing and knowledge. It would also heal the Diaspora in many ways.
Also, Africans need to speak for Africans. I don’t want to read someone elses study of shit. And if we say that those people don’t have the means of creating that study and having it seen then we must ask ourselves why? Which means we must confront White racism and the rape of Africa by the White imperialist West which is still murdering, raping, colonizing, and otherwise fucking up the country. White people need not go to Africa! Period! I thought this discussion was done when we acknowledged Sarah Bartman and Apartheid.”
The university is a product of the capitalist system, and therefore reflects the bourgeois social relations of worker/boss, master/slave, that structure the world creating an antagonism between who owns the means of production and wealth in the world, and who doesn’t. The objectification of the African through colonization is reflected in the university. The academy is not about reproducing revolutionary subjects; Its about reproducing and maintaining the structures of the ruling class. Sometimes this results in community programs and direct services too, but all this does is maintain the status quo. People of color have always been objectified within the academy, reflecting the objectification that occurs within society and has been occurring since our lands and bodies have been appropriated by the European ruling class. When white Phd students go to Africa they are representing these institutions and politics. And even if they personally disagree with them they must be mindful of them, because if that privilege is not understood then it will continue to be reproduced within our social relations. And that is not revolutionary.
Art, as an expression of the people, has always been a powerful weapon to inspire and nurture, and Sidibe’s photographs reflect that. It is so important for the oppressed to express their own truths and narratives, because we must understand and feel the power within them and our own agency. This will not be felt through the academic studies conducted by white grad students, which often leads to further silencing and invisibility. Through the sharing of our stories through words, visual art, theory and struggle, we become closer to each other. When we become closer to each other we develop understanding and compassion for our similarities and differences, while learning how to support each others own power together collectively. This work is revolutionary, because we live in a system, which denies us the opportunities and tools to do that. When we are alienated from each other we will divide and conquer ourselves, while the system reaps the benefits. This work is revolutionary, because when we come together on the basis of expressing each others truths we begin to see the truth about the system, and perhaps decide that such a harmful system is no longer necessary, because we have found each other. And finally, this work is revolutionary, because not only does it help us understand what we are against, but, most importantly, it helps us collectively cast visions for what we are for.
I love the political freedom poetry and art can provide. The ways it can function as theory inspiring and invoking us to act. This should be its primary use. I never could understand ‘art for art’s sake’. I don’t understand what that statement means, because it is not my reality. And theory that fails to change our reality is a waste of my time, and time is what I don’t have thanks to our ‘illustrious’ oppressors that rob us of it. When we look to the people’s history, and the development of humanity across time we see societies destroyed and rebuilt through cycles of struggles. As people act against their conditions they are not only changing the structures of society, but also themselves in the process. Art and culture have an important relationship to this revolutionary process. Art, as a part of culture, influences people’s consciousness, and consciousness guides our actions. Artist warriors have always inspired me; nurtured and affirmed my thoughts about this world and helped me express them through various forms. One artist and thinker, who has inspired me as a revolutionary/feminist/ artist is womyn warrior poet Adrienne Rich, whose life and work is the subject of this post.
During reflective times I find myself turning to Adrienne’s work. The way she always speaks from her own experiences but within the context of something larger than herself, such as oppression, is what resonates with me. Her approach to writing, whether it be theory or poetry, is always concise and grounded in the righteousness of her own truth. It is confrontational. She is not writing to just analyze herself or the world; she is questioning it; envisioning something different. Interacting with her work compels you to do the same. This is where the power of her work lies; not just in the naming of our truth, but the carrying of it in practice. Art is a revolutionary practice. Adrienne Rich embodied many of these values in her work and in her life. When reading her bio recently I stumbled across this quote from 1997 when she refused the National Medal of Arts,
“I could not accept such an award from President Clinton or this White House because the very meaning of art, as I understand it, is incompatible with the cynical politics of this administration.” She went on to say: “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
Poetic. Truthful. Revolutionary. “[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.” This is a deep and powerful truth. We need art that can fight. Art that speaks to the enslavement of the people under this global patriarchal white-supremacist capitalist system. Art that strengthens the power of the ruling class over our lives is shallow and means nothing as Adrienne says. Her writing is also excellent and poetic in it’s form and content. I like the arrangement of the words and the skillful way she incorporates metaphor in the themes and visuals of her pieces.
Rich spoke of lesbianism, race, and gender in a way that did not disconnect it from the imperialist world we live under. Second wave feminism, and it’s lacking of race and class analysis, often had the privilege of naming and defining feminism and patriarchy in a way that continued to erase the subjectivity of a lot of us, mainly, working-class/queer/womyn of color. This had a direct influence on the development of third-world feminism. Although Rich comes from a middle-class, European background, her consciousness transcended bourgeois conditioning and privilege. Rich understood the multiple of layers of self; and the way these layers are divided from one another and regulated by the system. Radical third world feminism has always been grounded in a reclaiming of self through understanding the intersections of our identity and how it relates to our total oppression. I believe the only way to get whole is through struggle to fundamentally change the system we live in so that it no longer harms and divides our mind, body and spirit. These ideas have not always existed in our social movements though. We are indebted to Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur, and the womyn warriors before us, who helped name our truths and validate our realities. Adrienne Rich’s book of poetry Dream of A Common Language is personally very important to me, because of the openness of lesbian desire and relationships running throughout it. In a world that supports male power, womyn community, partnership, and comradeship is not suppose to exist. This helps enforce the alienation that is real and material. Rich’s work confronts this power within her work, drawing out and affirming what is often forced into hiding under these oppressive conditions.
“We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation.”
The overcoming of alienation is so important in developing a revolutionary movement that is grounded and sustainable. We must learn how to come together on a healthy basis, and overcome the material divisions that the ruling class imposes on us. We must come together so that we can direct our power against the ruling class and rebuild society. Sometimes the emphasis on coming together and breaking out of isolation, becomes the main political strategy and fails to become revolutionary. Breaking out of the alienation is not the final goal, but it is a necessary part of our political praxis.
The poem below, Hunger (For Audre Lorde), comes from Dream of A Common Language. It captures, in poetic form, the particular suffering and oppression that is a product of capitalism, and the particular way that women experience it, as mothers, as queers, as sex workers, as colonized women. Hunger; starvation; we struggle for the basic necessities of life and that is not a way to live. As womyn, especially working class/womyn of color, our particular place in the division of labor, as mothers and wives, (a role that all women are trained to accept regardless if your queer or not), leaves many women and their families in a precarious state. When budget cuts defund daycare and after school programs, it is often the women, who must worry over who is going to watch their children when they are at work. It is often the womyn who must figure out how to pay the water and gas bill every month so they can have running water and heat in the home. It is often the womyn, who must figure out how to provide nourishment for themselves and family when the food prices keep going up while the paycheck rate stays the same. We are expected to tie up the loose ends, and we have been making a dollar out of 15 cents for centuries now.
I post this piece with honor and respect to Adrienne Rich, whose conscious body has left this world, but whose spirit lives on in our own.
May 16th 1929-March 27th 2012
Hunger (For Audre Lorde)
A fogged hill-scene on an enormous continent,
intimacy rigged with terrors,
a sequence of blurs the Chinese painter’s ink-stick planned,
a scene of desolation comforted
by two human figures recklessly exposed,
leaning together in a sticklike boat
in the foreground. Maybe we look like this,
I don’t know. I’m wondering
whether we even have what we think we have–
lighted windows signifying shelter,
a film of domesticity
over fragile roofs. I know I’m partly somewhere else–
huts strung across a drought-stretched land
not mine, dried breasts, mine and not mine, a mother
watching my children shrink with hunger.
I live in my Western skin,
my western vision, torn
and flung to what I can’t control or even fathom.
Quantify suffering, you could rule the world.
They can rule the world while they can persuade us
our pain belongs in some order
Is death by famine worse than death by suicide,
than a life of famine and suicide, if a black lesbian dies,
if a white prostitute dies, if a woman genius
starves herself to death to feed others,
self-hatred battening on her body?
Something that kills us or leaves us half-alive
is raging under the name of an “act of god”
in Chad, in Niger, in the Upper Volta–
yes, that male god that acts on us and our children,
that male State that acts on us and our children
till our brains are blunted by malnutrition,
yet sharpened by the passion of our survival,
our powers expended daily on the struggle
to hand a kind of life on to our children,
to change reality for our lovers
even in a single trembling drop of water.
We can look at each other through both our lifetimes
like those two figures in the sticklike boat
flung together in the Chinese ink-scene
even our intimacies rigged with terror.
Quantify suffering? My guilt at least is open,
I stand convicted by all my convictions–
you, too. We shrink from touching
our power, we shrink away, we starve ourselves
and each other, we’re scared shitless
of what it could be to take and use our love,
hose it on a city, on a world,
to wield and guide its spray, destroying
poisons, parasites, rats, viruses–
like the terrible mothers we long and dread to be.
The decisions to feed the world
is the real decision. No revolution
has chosen it. For that choice requires
that women shall be free.
I choke on the taste of bread in North America
but the taste of hunger in North America
is poisoning me. Yes, I’m alive to write these words,
to leaf through Kollwitz’s women
huddling the stricken children into their stricken arms
the “mothers” drained of milk, the “survivors” driven
to self-abortion, self-starvation, to a vision
bitter, concrete, and wordless.
I’m alive to want more than life,
want it for others starving and unborn,
to name the deprivations boring
into my will, my affections, into the brains
of daughters, sisters, lovers caught in the crossfire
of terrorists of mind.
In the black mirror of the subway window
hangs my own face, hollow with anger and desire.
Swathed in exhaustion, on the trampled newsprint,
a woman shields a dead child from the camera.
The passion to be inscribes her body.
Until we find each other, we are alone.