The Role of Language in empowerment by Rev David Shosanya

Rev David Shosanya looks at how historical descriptions of Black people have led some to hate themselves, and how language can rather be used to foster self love and a stronger sense of community 

Whether we like it or not, we are each shaped in and continue to be shaped by legacies. This is true for all people. However, it would be naive to suggest or argue that legacy affects individuals, communities and nations equally. The fact is that some legacies are far more detrimental for particular people than they are for others. This is particularly true when one is exploring the structural and personal dynamics of race politics, especially in those countries with a strong colonial history that has resulted in an unconscious yet internalised, exaggerated sense of self and national identity in relations to others, predominantly individuals of African-Caribbean heritage.

This reality was forcefully brought home to me whilst recently visiting Portugal – a nation with a strong colonial past that led to it exercising territorial power and control over countries, such as Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and South Africa. I was particularly taken aback by the conspicuous lack of interaction that took place between Black people.

Elsewhere, I have expressed the view that the proliferation and commodification of Blackness (mis)represented in media and news reports – of underdevelopment, a desperate need for charitable aid, tyrannical government and a general sense of a lack of civilisation, not to mention gun and knife crime, alongside other negative projections of Black people – have led, in my view, to an acute sense of embarrassment that is felt whenever we meet each other.

I first observed this trend towards Black people casually ‘dismissing’ or ‘annihilating’ one another, as if the other did not exist, some years ago, when my family and I were on holiday. I was about to greet another Black family, and they almost simultaneously turned their heads away in unison. It happened time and time again with numerous Black families, to the extent that I began to formulate in my mind a ‘theory’ about a new phenomenon of Black shame that counteracted and perniciously undermined all the gains of the Black power, Black pride and Black consciousness movements, and that had the capacity to seriously threaten our sense of solidarity, but also to fracture and ultimately erode away our sense of who we are as a people.

To some, this may sound melodramatic, and I may possibly be accused of hyperbole. However, I invite you to carry out a small, unscientific but insightful experiment on how we, as Black people, choose to interact with one another in social spaces; I am confident that my ‘theory’ will be substantiated!

Perhaps what was most sad about my observation of the lack of interaction between Black people was the sense that they seemed to be oblivious to this fact! In discussion with a friend, with whom my daughter and I spent a day together at our hotel in Portugal, I sought to understand what factors may have contributed to this dilemma within that social space, and quickly concluded that it was a matter of language.

Language offers us the means by which we can understand and articulate a sense of ourselves and our surroundings. Language also provides us with the words, concepts and ideas through which we can negotiate, define and express our sense of identity. The danger that many post-colonial nations face, when they have either lost their original language, or no longer draw on its unique spiritual, social, religious and cultural insights, is that they inadvertently lose the dynamic power of the insights their language is able to afford them.

Consequently, the colonial language becomes the ‘standard-bearer’ for everything, including the negotiation, definition and expression of one’s sense of self and community. The danger with this is that the individual or nation inadvertently limits the task of  ‘defining’ themselves to and within the cultural and social constructs of a language that lacks the capacity to capture the nuances of who they were pre-colonialism. As a result, their sense of themselves is determined by linguistic concepts that either minimise or erode an authentic sense of self, unreachable outside of their original social, cultural and linguistic resource pool, which is often buried in linguistic codes. Furthermore, because they share the same language as their oppressors, they are left with a definition of themselves that is superimposed, and blinds them to inequalities and injustices that exist, as well as the denial of themselves in others that look like they do.

This is a phenomenon that I have not observed in individuals whose nations retained or resurrected their original languages post-colonialism. Those nations seem to have found in their language the resources to draw upon a history that has given them the personal and corporate consciousness to resist the tyranny of a colonial mindset, and to see reality for what it is – and themselves in other Black people!

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