‘Thinking while black’—Read Grace A Musila’s essay from the award-winning book Black Academic Voices: The South African Experience

How do we craft a healthy, dignified blackness, in a world where blackness is a captured identity location that needs permission to speak, and must play nice and tiptoe around white sensitivities?’ asks Grace Musila, in an excerpt from her essay ‘Thinking while black’, from Black Academic Voices: The South African Experience.

Black Academic Voices was the winner of a 2020 Humanities and Social Sciences Award.

Black Academic Voices: The South African Experience
Edited by Grace Khunou, Edith Phaswana, Katijah Khoza-Shangase and Hugo Canham
HSRC Press, 2019


Thinking while black

Grace A Musila


In June 2015, I had a difficult exchange with a young black academic on social media, who asked me a question I am still trying to answer. I would like to reproduce part of that conversation here, because this piece is part of my search for an answer for my young friend:

Friend: Hi Grace, I wanted to ask you a relatively personal question—how do you own being a black woman academic in this white and patriarchal space?

Me: That’s a difficult one. I wish I could answer it coherently. The honest answer? I am still looking for ways of owning it, and the energy to do so (and I hear the same from my colleagues too). The ‘Oprah’ answer? Find the balance between strategic diplomacy and being true to your convictions. Strategic, because we are still guests in the academy, with guest privileges, which the system reminds us it can withdraw at will. So, even when you are being radical, you have to cover your back, otherwise the system will find ways to use that against you, and you will have done no favours—neither to yourself nor the black cause. And the second part, conviction, because it is a hard road, and you will only keep walking it if you believe in what you are claiming, namely, conviction about blackness and womanhood, whatever that means to each of us, which in turn, is a work in progress. Once you are clear about what you believe in, you also become clear on the non negotiables: those things you will not compromise on, because such compromise will kill your spirit. Once you find the balance, you gradually develop the wisdom to choose your battles—not every battle is worth fighting. Some are pointless wastes of energy and ego indulgence, while others are absolutely important to take on, even if you know you will lose, because they nurture your clarity on what is at stake and what you will not willingly compromise on. I guess that is a long paraphrase of my answer, which is: I am still trying to figure this out …

This question has stayed with me since June 2015. My friend was asking many questions in that one question. She was asking, how can we be black women academics in the South African—and by extension, global—academy? She was asking, how do we develop, embrace, and nurture spaces and practices where blackness is not ‘overdetermined from without,’ to borrow Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon’s (2000) phrase? She was implying something I have always known, but I am yet to find a grammar for articulating. She was implying: we are more than our rage, our resistance, our frustration. How do we say that? How do we nurture black affirmation? How do we craft a healthy, dignified blackness, in a world where blackness is a captured identity location that needs permission to speak, and must play nice and tiptoe around white sensitivities? How do we say with Henry Louis Gates Jr, ‘I’ve been black for my whole life, also a [wo]man; but I’ve come to suspect that this isn’t the whole story’? (1998: xxvii). How do we say this in a world that reduces us to our rage, and then delegitimises our rage by valorising a conciliatory ethos underwritten by continued black vulnerability and the myth of bottomless pools of black forgiveness? How do we articulate and embody what Hugo Canham (2017: 6) correctly describes as ‘the generative potential of Black rage,’ which holds the promise of self-love? These are questions I have yet to answer for myself. For now, all I can offer is an attempt to explain why these questions emerge at all, for a black academic on a majority black continent, in a majority black country.

I often say to myself—only half-jokingly—that there is a gap in the South African insurance industry: an insurance cover for the souls of black folk (to borrow WEB Du Bois’s phrase) working in South Africa’s historically white academy and corporate sector. There is need for this insurance cover, for black souls’ health. But as we wait for the insurance industry to address this gap, we have to find various ways of hanging on to our sanity, as people who dare to think while black: people afflicted with the curse of insight—the ability to see through various facades and their rhetoric, which remain empty for people of colour because they encourage us to aspire to what Alex Alston (2015), following Keguro Macharia, describes as a humanity whose ‘vernaculars of the human’ inherently exclude black people. Rhetoric such as Multicultural. Multilingual. Multiracial. Dignity for all. The list of politically correct rhetoric perpetually renews itself, often cannibalising many well- meaning debates and concepts.

Like my colleagues, I too adopt various mental and spiritual diets to hold my soul together. One of my favourites is black writing, especially black writing from the African diaspora. It is partly in gratitude to this body of writing that nurtures my humanity as a black person that I open this meditation with a poem by one of my favourite black poets, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In ‘We Wear the Mask’, a poem reflecting on black people’s experiences in the US at a historical moment when black lives mattered even less, Dunbar (1992) writes:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

Many black colleagues, like me, know these masks, intimately. In some ways, writing this piece—and indeed, the essays in the book as a whole—is an act of removing these masks that need no explaining for black readers who know what it means to ‘become’ black.

 Black writing is important to me, and among the many loves of my life, are fictional characters in some of these works. Characters whose sheer outrageousness, cheek, humour, courage and total ungovernability—to use that South Africanism—make my spirit sing with delight and weep with astonishment at their intense humanness. One such person is Janie Starks, the protagonist in Zora Neale Hurston’s (1986) Their Eyes Were Watching God. I love Janie for reasons too complicated and lengthy to recount here; but her complex relationship to whiteness comes to mind for me when I think of my journey to becoming black in the South African academy. As a child raised by her grandmother—a recently emancipated slave in the South—she grows up together with her grandmother’s employers’ white grandchildren, subject to the same forms of punishment for mischief, which the children get into frequently. One particular incident in Janie’s childhood stood out for me, and is worth citing in full:

Ah was wid dem white chillum so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old. Wouldn’t have found it out then, but a man come long takin’ pictures and without askin’ anybody, Shelby, day was de oldest boy, he told him to take us. Round a week later de man brought de picture for Mis’ Washburn to see and pay him which she did, then give us all a good lickin’. So when we looked at de picture and everybody got ponted out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize that dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’ Everybody laughed, even Mr Washburn. Miss Nellie…pointed at de dark one and said ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’ Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said: ‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’ Den dey all laughted real hard. But before Ah seen de picture, Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest. (Hurston 1986: 12)

Janie’s childhood experience with her blackness here resonates for me in complicated ways. Although she has always been black, she becomes black when she finally sees herself in relation to whiteness. The process of becoming black here evokes Fanon’s thinking on the experience of blackness as relative to the white gaze, or, as he puts it, ‘not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man’ (2008: 82), while the reverse is not the case, as Fanon warns us. Elsewhere in Black Skin White Masks, Fanon comments on the ways in which the black person’s identity is overdetermined from without; not only because a new black person comes into being under certain kinds of white gazes—‘I feel, in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new genus. Why, it’s a negro!’ (Fanon 2008: 87)—but because, as per Sartre, the black person, like the Jew, is overdetermined from without. Finding themselves fixed under a gaze tinted with stereotypes of Jewishness or blackness, they are faced with an awkward choice: if they confirm the stereotype, they give these lines of thinking new life; if they actively set out to resist them, they illustrate that there was some truth to the stereotype. Or as Sonia Kruks argues, Fanon exposes the contradictions embedded in the tensions between the universal and the particularist assumptions of French society:

Either the Jew attempts to assimilate to the norms of ‘civilised’ society (hence confirming his or her Jewish particularity as a stigma which must be eradicated) or the Jew indulges his or her particular practices and customs (hence confirming the very stereotype that the anti-Semite has of the Jew). (Kruks 1996: 116)

Janie Starks’s childhood experience in certain ways illustrates Fanon’s ideas on one sense of becoming black.

For Fanon though, it is important to find ways of dismantling both this over- determination from without, and the attendant mythologised black person produced by the white gaze, precisely because, as he protested, in response to Sartre:

Black consciousness is immanent in its own eyes. I am not a potentiality of something, I am wholly what I am. I do not have to look for the universal … My Negro consciousness does not hold itself out as lack. It is. It is its own follower. (Fanon 2008: 103)

This is Fanon’s resolution of the Jew’s/black person’s dilemma as per Sartre. It is also Fanon’s response to Sartre’s thinking, which adopted a Hegelian logic of racism that, as Kruks argues, read blackness as ‘an element in the dialectic (that is, a European perception of the teleological unfolding of history) which will eventually disappear into a raceless and classless society’ (Kruks 1996: 117). By Sartre’s logic, Kruks writes, ‘the Black and the Jew are constructed by the look of the racist coloniser/anti-Semite, and have no ontological experience of their own, outside of this gaze. So, they are destined to disappear with the eventual elimination of anti-Semitism/racism’ (Kruks 1996: 117). For Fanon, this is simply ‘another version of the Western Enlightenment vision of man: ethnic attachments are a sign of parochialism and backwardness which must be removed in the pursuit of freedom [in addition] the Hegelian dialectic (employed by Sartre) implicitly endorses a European ‘I’ (or eye) (Kruks 1996: 118).

Fanon, Sartre and Kruks grapple with the question of what to do with racial difference, especially when it is framed as both a product of a racialised gaze that creates mythologies around otherwise neutral racial differences, and a form of ethno-cultural particularity, with the implicit pressure of assimilation into hegemonic cultures, in this case, white. In Fanon’s view, racial difference cannot be addressed as a problem to be resolved through black integration into a hegemonic white cultural script that masquerades as neutral, non-raced universal. This rhetoric of integration into a hegemonic white normativity entails the absorption of the specificity of black struggles into a faux-normative whiteness, most recently articulated in popular responses to the Black Lives Matter movement by claims that All Lives Matter. Equally, as Alston (2015) eloquently notes in a critique of black respectability as a response to the recent onslaught of anti-black violence in the United States, it is important to bear in mind that ‘what respectability politics hinge on is the possibility of incorporating black life forms into a Western idea of humanity configured entirely on the dehumanization of blackness’.

Sartre, Fanon and Kruks, then, speak to questions of becoming black. Or, more specifically, the two ways of becoming black: in the sense of being raced through the white gaze, and in the sense of awakening to an immanent black consciousness, and grappling with what it means to embrace and live out this consciousness, in a world that prefers to make one black à la the white gaze. I read Janie Starks’s encounter above as the beginning of her becoming black—though her experiences in the novel unfold in ways that accent intra-black politics of race, gender and love. My journey to, and within, the South African academy has been about negotiating both modes of becoming black.


Despite growing up in black neighbourhoods and schools, being exposed to pan- African and black thought from across the continent and, indeed, across the world, I became African when I went to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for my postgraduate studies—and only became black when I moved to Stellenbosch.

So what do I mean by becoming African and black at these institutions? How did I only become black during my postgraduate studies, when I had studied history and literature both in high school and undergraduate studies in Kenya and, indeed, studied the politics of racism, colonialism, apartheid, the Negritude movement, the protest literature of South African writers, and the searing critiques of racism in the fiction of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, George Lamming and Richard Wright long before I set foot in the South African academy? And why didn’t I become black at Wits, where my home department, African Literature, exposed me to more of this scholarship, writing and thought? The answer is simple: in high school in Kenya, race was never an identity I experienced viscerally—largely because it was a predominantly black school, with a small handful of students and teachers of other races. The same applied to undergraduate studies in Kenya. More importantly, as an undergraduate, I was in a literature department—something I took for granted as a banal fact of naming, in the same way one could be in a sociology department or a history department.

In terms of curriculum content, in high school, we started Form One (Grade 8) with sixteen courses: maths, biology, chemistry, physics, English, Kiswahili, German, geography, religious studies, social ethics, history, home science, art, music, agriculture and physical education. We narrowed down to thirteen subjects in Form Two, and eventually ended with 8 subjects in Forms Three and Four (Grades 11 and 12). What this meant was that, one way or another, you were exposed to multiple bodies of knowledge and ideas and histories from across the world: a lot of which we admittedly considered irrelevant. In English and Kiswahili literature, our set works included the drama of figures such as English William Shakespeare, Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, Nigerian Wole Soyinka and Tanzanian Ebrahim Hussein; the fiction was drawn from west and southern Africa, and collections of poetry from across the continent. The important thing about this curriculum content was that we moved smoothly from Peter Abrahams to Bertolt Brecht, from John Ruganda to Nadine Gordimer, from Alex la Guma to Ngrom Alex La Gum. There was no hierarchy of knowledge, although we remained haunted by the then fashionable prioritisation of the so-called hard sciences over the arts and social sciences.

My undergraduate curriculum in the literature department at Moi University would feature the same exciting journeys across literatures and thought of different thinkers from all over the world, once again, sans hierarchy. When you move smoothly from a discussion of Greek tragic theatre and Aristotle’s thoughts, to a reflection on Yoruba cosmology and Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, you come away with the assumption that Yoruba and Greek philosophy are equals: that they are simply different ways of understanding the world, and neither is in any way superior to the other. And this is where I got the wrong sense of the world; I understood the racist histories from which we came, and from which South Africa had just come, with the official demise of apartheid—but I had yet to comprehend racism as a lived experience. I had yet to become black. I had arrived at my twenties seeing my blackness as a banal statement of fact, rather like the baby fat around my tummy that insisted on sticking around late into my twenties. It just was.

Postgraduate studies at the Department of African Literature at Wits brought two things to me: an awareness of myself as an African (and not just a Kenyan), and a deeper celebration and immersion into scholarship on black life, both continental and diasporic. This was a powerful and nurturing immersion, which on hindsight, cushioned me from the struggles my black colleagues were wrestling with in their interactions with their intellectual homes at the university, and that may not have had such a matter-of-course affirming relationship to blackness and Africanness as the African literature department did. At the same time, in the early two-thousands, there was a large contingent of graduate students from across the continent studying at Wits. We formed a loose community that would often bump into each other at the Postgraduate Club (the PiG) and bond over heated arguments about politics, soccer and the merits or demerits of Amstel Lager—along with more serious conversations about our research and our various contexts back home. I became an African and a pan-African, thanks to these after-hours classes on Africa, and the formal classes in the African literature department, whose syllabus was unapologetically African in impulse—and broadly, interested in the literatures, lives and cultures of people of colour across the world. This did not mean strict exclusion of white writing and scholarship; rather, it meant a clear privileging of literatures and scholarships of people of colour in conversation with each other, and with white life and writing. These contexts further consolidated my assumptions about the place of African knowledge and thought broadly, and African lives specifically. Black lives mattered, as a matter of course. Black thought mattered, as a matter of course.

Raised to take it for granted that there was nothing political about naming a department, English or literature or African literature (a naiveté I must take full responsibility for), nothing had prepared me for operating in an English department at a predominantly white university. While there were colleagues who shared my research and teaching interest in African literatures and, broadly, the lives and thoughts of people of colour, what I had taken for granted as an equality of literatures at the marketplace of ideas turned out to be far from a universal truth. For the first time in my life in the academy, I was faced with student resistance and even disregard for writings from the continent. Repeatedly, anonymous student feedback registered that they were ‘tired of reading about apartheid and postcolonial texts,’ even though these same students registered deep surprise at the banalities of how apartheid functioned—banalities such as the idea of separate utensils for domestic helpers who could be trusted with preparing their employers’ food, but couldn’t be permitted to use the same utensils as the employers. What I had taken for granted—that all students have a healthy curiosity about the world, which includes Africa—turned out to have been a fantasy. Suddenly, I found myself having to convincingly explain why these stories mattered: why the experiences of a civil servant in Accra at the height of the Nkrumah presidency, in Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born mattered, why Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino was worth knowing and thinking about. Although the crisis of student apathy is hardly unique to South Africa, or my institution for that matter, the selective apportionment of interest and curiosity certainly is unique. Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters were an easier sell than Chinua Achebe or Ayi Kwei Armah. Yet these same students identified as African; and complained bitterly about having to explain their Africanness when they travelled overseas. Having arrived with a heady sense of my Africanness and pan-Africanness, I met myself afresh. I became black. Like Janie in Hurston’s novel, a fact that I had known all my life—that I was black—became activated and charged with new meanings, new anxieties, new explosive associations for me to manoeuvre around: new baggage. I started making peace with the reality that I would sometimes be confronted with all-white classrooms—and have to spend a semester with sixteen young white people, for some of whom I would sometimes turn out to be the first black person to teach them. In these classrooms, there were three options: I could become the representative black, the native informant, and take it upon myself to take my charges on an educational tour of blackness and black life; or I could be the discomfiting black, drawing their attention to my blackness and all the awkwardness that comes with black presences in predominantly white spaces South Africa, configured to guarantee white comfort; or I could choose to ‘mute’ my blackness. I often chose the mute option—not as an act of erasure, but as an act of self-preservation. I chose to protect a section of my soul I wasn’t ready to share with people who might not be ready to receive it; or be prepared to receive it on the terms I needed them to receive it.


  • Grace A Musila is an associate professor in the Department of African Literature at Wits University. She is the author of A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, which explores Kenyan and British interpretations of the 1988 murder of British tourist Julie Ann Ward in Maasai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya. She also coedited Rethinking Eastern African Intellectual Landscapes with James Ogude and Dina Ligaga. She has written articles and book chapters on eastern and southern African literatures and popular cultures.

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