Report by Liesl Jobson
The 11th Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, given this year by literary icon Alice Walker, was warmly received last week by a capacity crowd, including poets, writers, academics and public intellectuals. In a somewhat unanticipated note of ceremony, the evening commenced with the national anthem ringing out in UCT’s Jameson Hall. The diminutive Walker appeared visibly moved, standing with her hands crossed over her chest, she tapped her fingers lightly in time to the rhythm.
The reason for the author’s request for this formality soon became evident. Like a call and response spiritual, her stirring address was structured lyrically around Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrica. In a true, clear voice she sang the opening stanza of the national anthem, recalling how at the age of five, her sister Mamie Lee taught it to her on her return from college to the racially segregated Eatonton, Georgia. Walker was the only child of colour in the town who knew these mystical, powerful words that so profoundly shaped her life.
Walker sang again the phrase that had propelled her curiosity about Africanness and her own essential connection as a daughter of the continent while on a visit to Uganda. In a linking braid, she wove strands of poetry (her own: We have a beautiful mother/ Her hills are buffaloes/ Her buffaloes, hills, and Galway Kinell’s: Sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness) to the words of Steve Biko (“Once your consciousness changes, so does your existence”).
She counterpointed tender observations (“You are so lovely. So lovely. It is this loveliness who you deeply are… as so many of us have forgotten that we are beautiful”) with stern rebukes (“I am unable to comprehend how you now have a president who has three wives and twenty-odd children”) and hard questions (“… that Bill Clinton, who could not respond to the genocide of 800 000 Rwandans, and even De Klerk are going down in history as more honorable, more smiled-upon, by many South Africans than Winnie Mandela. How can this be?”).
The melody of Nkosi interlinked with her words on gender (“The African way with women leaves much to be desired. And I am not faulting only the men, some women are content to be ‘potted plants’”); her consternation about the planet (“We have entered a period of such instability and impoverishment of spirit that even though charged with our soul care, our ministers, our teachers, our spiritual guides, are themselves also in a state of fright. Never before has humanity faced losing the earth itself, which is exactly what we are losing as global warming increases, and as greater climate disasters affect us worldwide”); and her exhortation, despite all of this, to dance.
Noting how our governments don’t not hear our cries for a better way to exist, Walker offers practical advice. She wants to see people gathering together in small groups, meeting monthly to remedy the suffering that afflicts the country: “…the old methods of protest have left a great weariness and disappointment. It is time to circle… There appears to be magic simply in the willingness to tackle life’s hardest problems from the humble position of simply being one among many in a circle of individuals caring for the common lot.”
Her talk, which she introduced as “Coming to See You Since I was 5 Years Old: A Poet’s Connection to the South African Soul” received a resounding standing ovation.
At the press conference that followed, Walker spoke of her research into FGM (female genital mutilation) over a ten-year period. She heard from a woman who performs the procedure that she “doesn’t hear the children scream” and from the men she interviewed, that it didn’t happen, that she, Walker, “was making it up” and was “delusional”. This practice affects over a million women and children and is extremely destructive to women’s health.
She spoke of women’s collusion: “There has to be in woman, herself, her resident rebel that claims her life as sacred; that no-one can abuse and misuse. We must fight for that. We must hold that really dear. It could be that a lot of that fight has been beaten out of women. That happens, but I would like to see much more resistance.” She referred to her novel, The Secret of Joy, which asks what the secret of joy is. On the final page, the narrative offers the answer: resistance. Walker said, “All people have to simply resist whatever is denying them their humanity, and their joy. This planet is for joy, if for nothing else. To miss out on all of that because someone is standing on you is simply not acceptable.”
She spoke about Women for Women International, an organisation that (amongst other things) supports women in the DRC to rebuild their lives. Referring to the appalling incidence of violence against women, she pointed out the communal responsibility and opportunity for the individual to attend: “To not be involved, if you have any feeling for what is happening, is really bad for all women. We can stop it, but we have to be present to it.”
Walker claimed literature as a tool for activism. She extolled the value of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and expressed the desire to see young teenagers read the classics, dictionaries in tow, “to instil in them a sense of just what justice might look like, and what the struggle between the rich and poor means. Art removes it for us, so beautifully. If you have a story, you can sit there and you can bear it, whatever the tragedy is. All great literature is at its root, teaching stories, often about some kind of liberation.”
She called for wariness around the “gadgets drowning out our inner voices”. The artist, potentially as influential with our children as our mothers, can speak to this and show how you lose yourself if you are constantly responding to something external. You can’t hold onto yourself. How would you? A lot of the confusion on the planet is due to our having lost inner direction. We don’t know where we are. The world, the earth is being stolen faster and faster because we’re not there to attend to it. We’re distracted. Young people can grasp this. As adults who know there’s an inner space for us, we have to be determined to have it, to do it.”
She spoke on TV: “If you develop a sense of yourself as ‘clean’, if you want cleanliness about your aura, your psyche, you don’t want to sit anywhere and have people throw all their madness, fantasies and craziness all over you on a daily basis, and this is what’s been happening to humanity. What’s scary is that people often don’t have a clue that their dreams are being stolen through distortion. When you soak up everybody else’s garbage, it goes into your psyce. Your psyche loses the way. It has no idea what’s happening because it experiences these fantasies as real. We aren’t really made to watch TV.”
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