Monday, January 15, 2007

Legacies of peace and justice: John Chilembwe and Martin Luther King Jr.

That the month of January is set aside in Malawi and in the United States to commemorate two black leaders in two different periods of history, and on two different sides of the world, is a coincidence only the heavens can arrange. In Malawi, January 15th is celebrated as Chilembwe Day, in honour of the Reverend John Chilembwe. In 1915, Chilembwe led the first ever uprising against white racism and colonialism in what was then known as Nyasaland. 
John Chilembwe, his wife Ida and their child. 
Photo copyright George Shepperson & Thomas Price, 
Independent African
In the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated every third Monday of January, in honour of the man who led the civil rights struggle, protesting racism, and fighting for the rights of Black people and other minorities in the United States. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, also protested against US imperial aggression, and its invasion of Vietnam.  In 2007, the day falls on 15th January, coinciding with John Chilembwe Day in Malawi. 

It is important to note that the recognition for the roles these two clergymen played for the freedom and equality of their people did not come automatically. In Malawi, it took the 1994 transition to multiparty democracy for the new government, led by then President Dr. Bakili Muluzi, to recognize Chilembwe’s selfless contribution to trailblazing the path that several decades later led to the formation of the independent Malawi nation. The Muluzi government went on to even issue new banknotes bearing a portrait of Chilembwe.

In the United States, the struggle to fully recognize Martin Luther King Jr. continues, because the day is still not yet fully recognized in certain states. Worse still, some of the important messages Dr. King gave have been the subject of manipulation and distortion by racist whites and conservative blacks. In California, Texas, and now in Michigan, as of last November 2006, affirmative action has been banned, on the twisted logic that it serves as reverse racism, and that people should be judged based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. The argument about judging people based on character rather than skin color is a sick, unfortunate and devious misunderstanding of history and of what Dr. King stood and fought for.

The reactionary forces that work to distort history, justify and perpetuate racism are at work not only in the United States but also in many countries that have suffered colonization, exploitation and repression. One successful strategy these forces use is to co-opt individuals from the victimized societies and make them spokespersons of conservative, right wing ideology, who take the side of the powerful and privileged, and blame the victims for their suffering. They work to stifle resistance to oppression by using the word “victimology” to refer to any efforts at raising concerns about effects of racism and inequality. 

For some of these spokespersons, it is a question of not having been properly educated about the history of the world and the violence that white racism has inflicted on Black, Asian, Native and other societies. One hears a lot of self-hating views in Malawi and elsewhere. For some people, as in the case of some who say black people always blame others, this comes as a result of having not had the occasion to study and reflect on the broader, complex context of racism, its historical trajectory, and its continuing presence today. 

The same type of thinking is present in the evocation of the so-called pull-him/her-down syndrome (PhD) syndrome. The people who bring it up might indeed be facing some hardship at the hands of their compatriots, but attributing this to such as a generalization betrays an inability to analyze the roots of resentment that comes as an inevitable result of inequitable allocation and distribution of resources and opportunities for advancement. In Malawi these problems are deeply entrenched, and rarely analyzed in depth.

But there is another category of such spokespersons who have gone to the best universities available, and have learned about these histories, but who still choose the side of the racist, rich and powerful. Examples can be found in books such as Keith Richburg’s Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa, and Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success, among others. The authors of such books view Africa and Africans from a pathological perspective that sets apart the continent and its history as aberrant, grotesque and irredeemable. 

Instead, the affluent global North is viewed as the antithesis of Africa, set apart from her history and her present, and having developed completely on its own devices, and on it own innate superiority. This is the more disturbing category because it persists in the face of evidence of how the global North developed its wealth by violent exploitation, plunder and looting of Africa, ongoing to this day. Also ignored is the role African people, from times ancient to the present, have played in contributing to the building of the modern world, and who, by being denied their place in history, suffer real consequences that actually perpetuate marginalization for those sidelined from the march of capitalist exploitation.

It is tempting to imagine the disappointment both Reverend John Chilembwe and Reverend Dr. King would have felt at hearing the views of the Malawian bloggers above, or reading the books by Richburg and Onyeani. Perhaps they would not have been so surprised; there were probably many black people, let alone people of other races, who did not understand then that the black struggle was a freedom struggle, shaped by real, practical occurrences in the world. 
Old buildings in Nguludi, in the area where Chilembwe lived. 
Photo copyright Steve Sharra
For John Chilembwe, even the scholarship on what happened in 1915 has tended to portray him as a psychopath, while the British colonialists of the same time have been praised, according to the late Dr. Mekki Mtewa (1977). Writes Dr. Mtewa: “It fits the burden of history that, for this reason, and this reason alone, Harry Johnston was knighted by the British Government, and he still lives as a symbol of colonial posterity in the Museum of Malawi. While the other, a native of the country itself, died like a dog, and is crowned with the most epithetic titles, and his mark is subject to ridicule” (p. 229). 

Being 1997 when Dr. Mtewa’s article came out, it is gratifying that Chilembwe’s place has been properly restored in Malawi, with the commemoration of his heroism on this day, January 15th, and his immortalization on the Malawi currency, the Kwacha.

The legacies that both men of the cloth have bequeathed to us remain relevant today: to recognize injustice when we see it; to fight on the side of the oppressed and the marginalized; and to dedicate our lives to making the world a better, more peaceful and equitable place for all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to thank you for referencing my uncle Dr. Mekki Mtewa. He was a good man and I am just happy to know that his work still inspires people.