A friend of mine, a public relations professional, once gave me the following advice: if you have an issue whose public knowledge could undermine the message you intend to convey to your service users, audience, community, voters, followers or simply friends, never wait for it to become public in a way you cannot control. You should, preferably, reveal it yourself in the way you want it to be perceived, or if you cannot do that, have in place a carefully prepared strategy to minimise the fallout once this issue is disclosed.
With the recent PR disasters of Sally Bercow, the Speaker’s wife, despite her background in public relations, I am not sure that all the recommendations of PR professionals should be taken seriously. There is also quite a considerable shortcoming in my friend’s advice, which is that you cannot always anticipate what could, ultimately, undermine your message.
I had the opportunity to experience this at a symposium a few days ago. Unbeknown to me, a group of participants, who had read some of my fiercest anti-imperialist pieces, and attended some of my pan-African lectures, had decided to transform me into an anti-imperialist and pan-African ideal. What’s wrong with that? I can hear you ask. The problem is that, more often than not, the way people expect you to be, think and behave once they have chosen to transform you into an ideal rarely corresponds to the way you are in reality.
Thus, I inadvertently disappointed many of these participants when, in my intervention, I proudly referred to my family as a “microcosmic UN”. Our hues and physical characteristics vary widely from the coal-skinned type found in, say parts of Southern Sudan, to the dark-haired and green-eyed Iberian specimen, banana-skinned Asian type and blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian specimen. One of the participants asked me how a true pan-Africanist could feel comfortable living in such an environment, and another was applauded by several attendees when he called me a hypocrite.
I am a passionate advocate of race equality, and I will never tolerate racism. For I firmly believe that it is the cornerstone of evils such as imperialism and slavery that have wrecked Africa. I am also utterly convinced of the un-African nature of racism for two reasons. First, if, as scientific evidence shows, human life began in Africa, it is, in my view, absurd for an African who accepts this evidence to indulge in racism. Second, as we have suffered, and are still suffering so much from this evil, we Africans have a moral duty to combat racism, not validate the misdeeds of our tormentors by fomenting them as well, and becoming co-perpetrators.
Despite this, I will never ever criticise anybody who makes the personal choice of not having close relationships with people of a different race. For I know all about the feelings of pain, humiliation and resentment that can lead one to take such a stance.
I too have been overwhelmed by these feelings on countless occasions. I have experienced them when, in a crowded supermarket in London, Paris or Ottawa, the security guards would leave other people alone, but follow me wherever I would go. Or when, in a packed train, nobody would sit beside me. Or when, as I strolled around Madrid, people would make monkey gestures and noises. Or when some Asian shopkeepers would refuse to serve me. Or when I would call BBC Radio 4’s Any Answers? to express my views on an issue debated on Any Questions?, but they would not allow me to go on air like people with British accents. Or when I would send letters or article proposals to allegedly left wing newspapers to discuss an African topic, they would ignore them and give a platform to an often male, middle-aged, Western “Africa analyst” with a racist outlook on African affairs. Or when, back in my native Cameroon, Western priests would tell me that as descendants of Ham, I and all black people were cursed and damned to servitude. Or when I watched Roots and read Maryse Condé’s Moi, Tituba for the first time. Or when I stumbled upon Cheikh Anta Diop’s writings in my late teens and realised that I had been brought up on a daily diet of denigration and misrepresentation of African history and culture.
But despite all the above, and many other things that I will not enumerate here for the sake of concision, I have been able to transcend my pain, humiliation and resentment. Not because I am a better person, or more intelligent, or more forgiving than people who cannot, or do not want to, overcome such feelings. It is simply that I have been fortunate enough to experience the best antidotes to these feelings: the realisation that evil is human and not the preserve of one group or race; love, and courage.
Before leaving Cameroon, I saw how prejudice, discrimination, abuse of power and dreadful evil acts were perpetrated by people who looked and spoke like me. I was sometimes at the receiving end of these acts. For being left-handed; or a girl/ woman; or a love child (‘bâtarde’, they would call me); or poor, or too nerdy. I would love to say that I have never committed these or similarly evil acts. But I have. Sometimes to survive; but others simply because I could. And this is why organisations like African Peoples Advocacy exist to guide all of us regardless of our race, gender or background.
I have been fortunate enough to experience the love of people like my Spanish stepfather. Despite coming from a right wing environment, he nurtured, protected, respected and cherished me once he realised that my mother was the love of his life. I have benefited from the love of people from a wide variety of races and backgrounds who have supported and advised me throughout my existence. Remembering or seeing them has shielded and is still shielding me from the negative feelings triggered in me by racism.
I have had the fortune to experience the extraordinary, Mandela-like courage of people who, having suffered from racism far more than me, have been able to forgive their former tormentors, and reach out to them. Whenever I think about such people, I know that without being as great, brave or courageous as them, I can and should, at least, honour them by aspiring to follow their example.
Of course, I am aware that there will always be people who will never be able to reconcile my ideas and work with some of my private decisions. Why should they do so when they do not have a PhD in my inner demons? But I will always ask them to have the basic common sense and decency to respect my personal choices just as I respect theirs.
By Sylvie Aboa-Bradwell