Black History Month | Why the Protests of 2020 Had a Sense Déjà Vu About Them

Here is the entire preface to the 2020 version of YouthPower! in Soweto for your enjoyment and edification. This book was first written 15 years ago upon a life-transforming visit to South Africa in 2005.  The anti-racial protests in 2020 were like a 1976 déjà vu and inspired me to get this re-release going for today’s generation to remember and soldier on. 


 

“It is better to die for an idea that will live, 

than to live for an idea that will die.”

Steve Biko
The Definition of Black Consciousness, I Write What I Like, 1978

 

It is 2020. The pandemic year. The epochal events of this year, on both sides of the Atlantic, have had such significant parallels with the youth uprisings and protests in apartheid South Africa in 1976 that after procrastinating the republishing of this book for years I finally got the umph to do it.

“Police brutality.” “Systematic racism.” “Peaceful protests turned violent.” “We are dealing here not with a spontaneous outburst but with a deliberate attempt to bring about polarisation between whites and blacks.” “This government will not be intimidated and instructions have been given to maintain law and order at all costs.” Do any of these phrases and sentences sound familiar? Yet these are not from 2020; these are all 1976 words and phrases! 

With the world slowed down, even locked down, we all had the time and bandwidth to take in the slow slaughter of an American young man, George Floyd, by those paid “to serve and protect” him. The aftermath of #BlackLivesMatter protests in the United States and around the world seemed like a coordinated tsunami. Perhaps no other year has there been more concerted protests against police brutality, systematic racism and no-nonsense towards anything or anyone glorifying an apartheid, segregationist, slavery or colonial past.

At a point, the confluence of 400th year anniversary of the first slave setting foot in America, a plague (COVID-19) and protests by the oppressed made me wonder if this was not a modern replay of the biblical Exodus, the liberation of Israel from Egypt.

Then just when things seemed to be settling down, #endSARS happened. Nigerian youth wouldn’t take the brutalization of their kith and kin anymore either. The well-organized air war (via social media) and on-the-ground protests did result in the dissolution of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that had been unleashing untold mayhem on the Nigerian people, especially youth, for years. Some paid the ultimate price for daring to express their Youth Power! May they rest in peace. May their death bring life.

In all the standing up to, shouting out and marching against, the core demographic has of course been Young People. Youth Power! at work again; just as in 1976.  In fact, my favourite picture of the 2020 protests in the U.S. so strongly correlates with a scene from 1976 although both events are seas and decades apart. On the streets of America in 2020 the youth held placards that read, “We are not our ancestors. We will fuck you up.” In Soweto, 44 years earlier, the youth had asserted similarly, “Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.”

It seems to me that like the Boomer generation of 1976, the Millennial, Gen Y and Gen Z generations alive and kicking in 2020 have also taken seriously their mandate to leave the world better than they found it. “You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”” [said a certain wise man]. I believe that was the Youth Power! mindset in 1976, replayed in 2020. Here’s to celebrating Youth Power! from Soweto to Minneapolis to Lagos to the ends of the earth.

 

POST SCRIPT

I am humbled by my very rich family history of Black story-telling. My grandfather, J.H. Kwabena Nketia, was an emeritus professor of ethnomusicology whose lifework was dedicated to documenting the songs and drum language of African peoples while my mother, Akosua Adoma Perbi, is a professor of history with a specialization in the slave trade, indigenous and trans-Atlantic. It seems my turn has come to continue a family tradition.

I can understand those in my generation who feel Black people are too yesterday-focused and are pushing for this month to be Black Future Month instead of Black History Month. A word of caution though: we must know our history well–although not dwell in the past–if we are to be and do today what will make our tomorrow better than yesterday. As a wise man once said, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” 2020 has proven that history tends to repeat itself.

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