Black Consciousness Movement (BCM)

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Defining Black Consciousness

The ideology of Black Consciousness, which informed Biko and his colleagues’ approach, represented a deeper strand of Africanism within African nationalism. This ideology had a long history which dates back to the 1880s, when it was borrowed from foreign writers such as Frantz Fanon, whose banned book about the Algerian war against French settlers was widely read. Fanon stated that:

“...the native had become psychologically incapacitated, no longer capable of action. The native detested white society, but was envious of it. Realising that his own skin prevented him from ever attaining privilege, the native despised his own blackness.”

Therefore, it has been argued that “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." To liberate themselves, Black people had to redefine their values, self-image, and entire outlook. It is also true that Americans contributed to the style and rhetoric of Black Consciousness. The very term “black” came from the United States and referred to people previously known as Africans, Indians or Coloureds. Black Americans offered the idea of non-white unity against their oppressors. However, the phrase non-white defined Blacks in negative terms.

Ideas about Black unity and emancipation are deeply rooted in the struggle Biko launched against apartheid since the 1960s. It should be emphasised that in South Africa, both the rhetoric and philosophy of Black Consciousness contradicted the fundamental principles of grand apartheid. In short, apartheid was designed not only to separate Whites from Blacks but also to foster black parochialism by segregating Blacks into ethnic and linguistic groups. Such a system was challenged by Biko, who then spearheaded a process that led to the formation of organisations that were representative of Black political interests and aspirations. Black Consciousness has therefore been defined by Biko as:

“the realization by the Black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their oppression – the blackness of their skin and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude. It seeks to demonstrate the lie that black is an aberration from the normal which is white. It is a manifestation of a new realization that by seeking to run away from themselves and to emulate the white man, blacks are insulting the intelligence of whoever created them black. Black consciousness therefore takes cognizance of the deliberateness of God’s plan in creating black people black. It seeks to infuse the black community with a new-found pride in themselves, their efforts, their value systems, their culture, their religion and their outlook to life.”

Black Consciousness instilled in Africans a culture of revolt that was based on a number of fundamental ideas. For instance, Black South Africans believed in God, culture, community and family, and were against a state that tried to weaken these elements of society. Similarly to political organisations, the renaissance of black culture can be traced back to the early 1970s, and the ideas of the BCM.

Steve Biko diagnosed the problem of oppression in South Africa as a problem of culture. This is because Whites described African culture in derogatory terms, and Black South Africans were ashamed of their history, and their 'primitive' religion and art. Blacks were ashamed of their skin colour, and it is believed that some Black women adapted themselves to wigs with long European hair to hide their African hair. This relentless denigration of black African culture created a sense of inferiority that rendered Black South Africans incapable of action and revolt. Biko realised that political revolution would have to be preceded by a revolution in how Blacks saw their past and culture – their very blackness. He had often spoken about the unique qualities of African culture, and the destructive influence of western culture.

Biko wrote that:

“Black Consciousness seeks to show the black people the value of their own standards and outlook. It urges black people to judge themselves according to these standards and not to be fooled by white society who [sic] have white-washed themselves and made white standards the yardstick by which even black people judge each other.”

Therefore, to put it briefly, Black Consciousness refers to the ideas and action which emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the aim of uniting Black people to oppose apartheid and white supremacy.

Last updated : 14-Dec-2011

This article was produced for South African History Online on 10-Jun-2011