Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou: do not be wedded forever to fear

Maya Angelou history

What you looking at me for?
I didn’t come to stay…

So, in the space of six months two beacons of justice and equality have flickered out.  First Nelson Mandela, now Maya Angelou. Confirming her death today, Maya Angelou’s son said: ‘She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace’.

Maya Angelou’s life was a s remarkable as Nelson Mandela’s: born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1928, she survived the trials of a terrible childhood. Born into poverty in the depression and the racist, segregated American south, she survived a childhood rape, gave birth as a teenager, and was, at one time, a prostitute. The opening section of her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood, closes with this vivid assertion:

Growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an
unnecessary insult.

Yet that volume opens with the words quoted at the top of this post: ‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay’ – a suggestion of her fierce determination to transcend her circumstances. It’s the same spirit that burns through her wonderful poem ‘Still I Rise’  – the determination to rise above ‘history’s shame’, the past of pain, terror and fear, of terrible suffering. But the shared history of her people has also yielded so much pride and beauty:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Like Mandela, Maya Angelou did rise – above the hatefulness and suffering, the violence and prejudice directed against herself and her people, to write inspirational texts such as ‘Human Family’:

I note the obvious differences
in the human family.
Some of us are serious,
some thrive on comedy.

Some declare their lives are lived
as true profundity,
and others claim they really live
the real reality.

The variety of our skin tones
can confuse, bemuse, delight,
brown and pink and beige and purple,
tan and blue and white.

I’ve sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I’ve seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.

I know ten thousand women
called Jane and Mary Jane,
but I’ve not seen any two
who really were the same.

Mirror twins are different
although their features jibe,
and lovers think quite different thoughts
while lying side by side.

We love and lose in China,
we weep on England’s moors,
and laugh and moan in Guinea,
and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,
are born and die in Maine.
In minor ways we differ,
in major we’re the same.

I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
We are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.

At the same time, in memoirs such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou wrote with brutal directness of the racism she had endured: of  ‘the rust on the razor that threatens the throat’:

A light shade had been pulled down between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop a fear-admiration-contempt for the white “things”—white folks’ cars and white glistening houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable.

In one scene that she describes, Maya is among a crowd gathered around a store radio with the rest of her community to listen to Joe Louis, ‘the Brown Bomber’, defend his world heavyweight boxing title. In a passage that conjures black pride in the face of oppression, she writes:

My race groaned. It was our people falling. It was another lynching,yet another Black man hanging on a tree. One more woman ambushed and raped. . . . This might be the end of the world. If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help. It would all be true, the accusations that we were lower types of human beings. Only a little higher than the apes.

As Lyn Innes writes in her obituary for the Guardian:

The book is also a celebration of the strength and integrity of black women such as Angelou’s grandmother, who enforced the respect of white adults and endured the impudence of white children. […] It gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of a beleaguered black community while also humorously dramatising Angelou’s need to find self-fulfilment outside it.

And what a fulfilling life she achieved for herself.  Lyn Innes summarizes the bare outline of an amazing story in her obituary.  It’s a story narrated by Angelou in the several volumes of autobiography that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings:

While this first volume of her memoirs is generally considered to be the best, the subsequent instalments – Gather Together in My Name (1974), Singin’ and Swingin‘ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), The Heart of a Woman (1981), All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes (1986), A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) and Mom & Me & Mom (2013) – have also achieved a large and appreciative audience. Collectively, they portray Angelou’s experience as a young single mother; her travels in Europe and Africa with the cast of Porgy and Bess; her involvement with the civil rights movement and meetings with iconic figures such as King, Malcolm X and Billie Holiday; her life in Ghana, her son’s car accident and her decision to leave him in Ghana to recover; and finally the years after her return to the US in 1965 and her decision to begin writing her first book.

Also in the Guardian, there’s a lovely appreciation by Gary Younge which begins with his memory of a day spent in her company in 2002.  He recalls:

She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was drunk or not. There’d been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she’d also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don’t take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.

Angelou was, Younge writes:

A woman determined to give voice to both frustration and a militancy without being so consumed by either that she could not connect with those who did not instinctively relate to it. A woman who, in her own words, was determined to go through life with “passion, compassion, humour and some style”.

Finally – was there ever any moment in our lives more inspiring than Maya Angelou’s recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning‘ at President Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993?  Those lines:

Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
To brutishness.

And the concluding verse:

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Mandela’s long walk: a long journey for all of us

Mandela’s long walk: a long journey for all of us

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela campaigning against the pass laws

Idris Elba as Nelson Mandela campaigning against the pass laws

Watching Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom in a crowded cinema yesterday, the thought occurred, as the credits rolled, that it has been not just Mandela and the people of South Africa who have made a long  journey to freedom.  We all have.  When I was a university student in the late 1960s it would have been unimaginable that a major film, backed by American and European film distributors, would have told the story of a black South African jailed for planning and carrying out acts of sabotage in pursuit of one man one vote.   It’s a mark of the transformation in political and cultural attitudes since then that a Hollywood-style biopic about the radicalisation of a young black lawyer who starts out committed to non-violence before having a change of heart should be a box office hit and in line for success in the BAFTAs and Oscars.

It’s sobering to recall that in the same decade that Mandela and his nine comrades began their life sentences on Robben Island, black Americans were also struggling, and dying, in their pursuit of civil rights and economic emancipation, while entrenched racism and discrimination persisted in this country.  In 1969, along with thousands of other other students and anti-apartheid activists, I demonstrated against the South African Springbok rugby tour  of Britain: though the team of white Afrikaners had been selected on strictly racial grounds, the British political establishment thought it acceptable for the tour continue.  In the same year, at Liverpool University, students were met with incomprehension on the part of the university authorities when we demanded that the university divest itself of investments in South Africa and get rid of its racist Chancellor: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’ was the response.

Rivonia trial

The end of the Rivonia treason trial

So, what of the film itself?  It would be fair to say that as an example of the genre to which it belongs – the biopic of a great man – it is an honourable achievement.  How could it be otherwise, given the extraordinary nature of Mandela’s story? Adapted by William Nicholson from Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, the screenplay avoids the major pitfall of most biopics – being over-respectful.  In the early scenes at least, the film does not shy away from certain less pleasant aspects of the young Mandela’s character in scenes that portray his womanising and the way in which he deceived and on occasions beat his first wife.

Indeed, a central thread in the narrative (as it is also in Mandela’s own telling in the book) is the terrible impact of Mandela’s political commitment on the family, and especially his children: his absence from home during the time he went underground as the ‘Black Pimpernel’ and the 27-year separation from his family during his imprisonment.  Again and again our attention is drawn to the wife whose husband returns home late or never at all, the children who hardly know their father. Heart-breaking moments foreground these personal traumas, such as when Mandela learns that his eldest son Thembi has been killed in a car accident and is refused permission to attend his funeral, and when he sees his daughter Zindzi for the first time, allowed to visit her father in prison now that she is sixteen.

The film’s success in presenting Mandela as a rounded character is due in no small way to the superb performance of Idris Elba, who – though he may not look like Mandela – certainly sounds like him and is completely convincing in the role, lending a crucial human dimension to what would otherwise be a routine, stylised epic.As Geoffrey MacNab wrote in his review for the Independent:

It is left to Elba to give emotional complexity to a story whose triumphant ending we all know well in advance. Elba’s performance is stirring and very effective. He doesn’t just capture the gait, voice, mannerisms and self-deprecating humour of an immensely well-known figure, but he shows us a character who is constantly changing. The young Mandela is very different from the sainted figure we encounter in the final reel. He is athletic (continually shown boxing), charismatic, angry and confrontational. He is also a pragmatist in the fight against white supremacy.

Naomie Harris has received praise, too, for her performance as Winnie Mandela.  She is good, especially as the younger Winnie, the social worker who captures Nelson’s heart. But in later scenes the steeliness of the radical who fiercely endorses violent retribution against alleged informers is sometimes undermined by the flicker of a cheeky grin.

The film’s portrayal of Winnie Mandela is another example of the film’s reluctance to airbrush its main characters.  To a large degree it rehabilitates Winnie, emphasising that her trials – arrests and re-arrests, banning orders and 16 months in solitary confinement, along with constant intimidation and in front of her children in her own home – add up to a story of brutalisation that ran in parallel to Nelson’s.  Her endorsement of  the horrific practice of ‘necklacing’ suspected informers and collaborators with burning, petrol-soaked tyres – unflinchingly presented – was, the screenplay suggests, a consequence of that brutalisation.

Even at over two and a half hours, it would be a challenge for the film to cover everything in Mandela’s own remarkable life, let alone do justice to the story of the struggle by the people of South Africa to free themselves from the shackles of apartheid.  You notice key historical moments that have been omitted or given only glancing treatment. Mandela’s rural childhood is glimpsed in the first few minutes, while the period when he ran a law firm in Johannesburg, in partnership with Walter Sisulu, rushes by, focussing as much on his womanising as the cases he was taking on and his growing politicisation.

The politics are dealt with a little superficially, mainly through the tried and tested device of inserting rapid-fire newsreel clips of national events or of the growing international isolation of the South African regime as the boycott campaign gains strength. One political event that is presented as an extended dramatised reconstruction is the massacre of anti-pass law demonstrators at Sharpeville in March 1960.  The reason is obvious – it was a pivotal moment in the development of the struggle against apartheid – but I think that for younger cinema-goers or those outside South Africa the oppressive nature of the pass laws might have been made more clear.

Another pivotal scene comes with Mandela’s speech from the dock at the conclusion of the 1964 Rivonia treason trial.  It’s a stirring moment, worthy of Shakespeare, and highlights the stature of Idris Elba’s performance.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The politics of the period of imprisonment on Robben Island are dramatised in two scenes. When Mandela and the other ANC leaders first arrive on the island, prison regulations stipulate that African prisoners must wear short trousers. Only Africans were given short trousers, for only African men were deemed ‘boys’ by the authorities (the ‘Coloureds’ in the ANC contingent were issued long trousers).  The ANC prisoners wage a successful campaign for all prisoners to be given long trousers, a small but symbolic victory. We see the moment of victory, though the form of protest that brought it about are left unclear.  Nevertheless, it represents a way for the screenplay to humanize the way in which apartheid denigrated black South Africans – and the way in which prison, in Mandela’s words, ‘not only robs you of your freedom [but] attempts to take away your identity.’

Another key moment is the arrival on the island of a new, younger generation of prisoners – militant Black Conciousness activists arrested after the Soweto uprising in 1976.  The young men, who have come to political maturity in the years when the ANC leadership was behind bars, are at first scornful of the ‘old men’ and of Mandela growing tomatoes on the small plot that the prison authorities have conceded.  Mandela instinctively reaches out, seeking to learn from the experience of the young generation, and their new approaches to political action and thought.

Mandela set free

Idris Elba and Naomie Harris: the day of freedom

The politics come through most clearly in the final section of the film when Mandela is released from prison, warily reunites with Winnie and negotiates an end to apartheid with representatives of the white power structure. There are compelling scenes in which Winnie and Nelson disagree bitterly over policy and the question of violence.  There are taut scenes in which powerful acting by both Idris Elba and Naomie Harris viscerally conveys the couple’s accumulated years of struggle and sacrifice.

Mandela’s reason for pursuing reconciliation is shown to be pragmatic as well as idealistic – a way to avoid a bloody black-on-black civil war. Elba, with whitened hair and heavily-pancaked face, suggests the elder Mandela’s probity and strength of personality, but his acting in these later scenes is more stilted. The scene in which we see him telling his wide-eyed grandchildren that they should not talk of violence against whites people (‘that is what they do to us, we must do better’) is a bit too sentimental and mawkish.

If you have read Mandela’s book, or lived through the years of anti-apartheid struggle, you will learn nothing new from this film. You may feel that it is too big a sacrifice to endure Bono wailing about ‘ordinary love’ on the soundtrack (though you can walk out – he only starts as the credits roll). Nevertheless, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom does provides a stirring, honest and largely unsentimental account of Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life.  For a film that says something new and interesting about Mandela we will have to wait for something from what is currently cinema’s most vital genre – documentary.

I shall be released…

I shall be released…

Nelson Mandela released

February 1990: Nelson Mandela walks to freedom

Standing next to me in this lonely crowd
Is a man who swears he’s not to blame
All day long I hear him shout so loud
Crying out that he was framed
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released

It was one of those curious coincidences that seems to happen surprisingly often. The last few days have brought the news that the British Greenpeace activists are back in the UK after their incarceration in a Russian jail on charges of ‘hooliganism’ following the Arctic oil drilling protest – and that Pussy Riot activists Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova had also walked free from prison, pledged to devote their energies to changing the political system in Russia and improving conditions inside its prisons. At the same time, I reached this moment reading Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom – his own account of the afternoon of his release from prison on 11 February 1990:

By 3.30, I began to get restless, as we were already behind schedule. I told the members of the Reception Committee that my people had been waiting for me for twenty-seven years and I did not want to keep them waiting any longer. Shortly before four, we left in a small motorcade from the cottage. About a quarter of a mile in front of the gate, the car slowed to a stop and Winnie and I got out and began to walk towards the prison gate.

At first I could not really make out what was going on in front of us, but when I was within 150 feet or so, I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people: hundreds of photographers and television cameras and newspeople as well as several thousand well-wishers. I was astounded and a little bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene; at most, I had imagined that there would be several dozen people, mainly the warders and their families. But this proved to be only the beginning; I realized we had not thoroughly prepared for all that was about to happen.

Within twenty feet or so of the gate, the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic 5easts. Reporters started shouting questions; television crews began crowding in; ANC supporters were yelling and cheering. It was a happy, if slightly disorienting, chaos. […]

When I was among the crowd I raised my right fist, and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for twenty-seven years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy. We stayed among the crowd for only a few minutes before jumping back into the car for the drive to Cape Town. Although I was pleased to have such a reception, I was greatly vexed by the fact that I did not have a chance to say good bye to the prison staff. As I finally walked through those gates to enter a car on the other side, I felt – even at the age of seventy-one – that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were at last over.

It’s pertinent to recall Mandela’s release at this time; it was he, after all, who wrote (also in Long Walk to Freedom):

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina (left) and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova

Speaking to the Guardian soon after her release from prison, Pussy Riot activist Maria Alyokhina said that she and  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova now plan to launch a project which will fight for the rights of inmates in the Russian prison system:

I decided to become a human rights activist when I realised how easy it was for officials to make a decision and force women to be examined in the most intimate parts of their bodies.  Russian officials should not stay unpunished, they cannot have this kind of absolute power over us. Russia is built along the same lines as a prison camp at the moment, so it’s important to change the prison camps so that we can start to change Russia.

Alexandra Harris

Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris

Meanwhile Greenpeace activist Alexandra Harris spoke about how the Arctic 30 had been treated in jail. Prison conditions in Murmansk had been difficult – they were held in a cell for 23 hours a day and shared a toilet without a cubicle with three others. But, she said, they were treated better than Russian prisoners:

Because the world’s watching us and they’re scared of what we’re going to say now. There was no physical violence towards me but it was torture – we spent two months in a Russian jail cell and 100 days detained for a crime we didn’t commit. It was obscene, a complete overreaction on the part of Russia, and we should never have been there.

Fellow-activist Anthony Perrett said:

It was worth it. I think we brought the world’s attention to the fate of the Arctic and that’s difficult to do because it’s so far north. All the science is telling us that if humanity carries on as it is doing, in 1,500 years the planet will be dead. I don’t know how big a price you have to pay for that. The price we paid was jail.

I’d like to salute these ‘unharmful, gentle souls misplaced inside a jail’.

Robben Island prisoners break rocks, 1964

Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, break rocks, 1964

Mandela returned in 1994 after being elected president.

Mandela returned to Robben Island in 1994 after being elected president.

See also

Mandela: his long walk has ended

Mandela: his long walk has ended

Nelson Mandela

An inspiration for all who sought justice and equality: Nelson Mandela.  For many long years a symbol of racist oppression, then came that moment that lives in the memory when he walked free from prison.

Perhaps nothing sums up the man’s dignity and grace better than the closing passage of his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom:

I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free – free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.

It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it.  At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself, the transitory freedoms of being able to stay out at night, read what I pleased and go where I chose. Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honourable freedoms of achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a family – the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.

But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I  am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.

It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.


It was 4.16pm South African time (around 2:00pm for those of us watching live through the tears in Britain) on Sunday, February 11 1990, when Mandela finally came out of prison 27 years, six months and six days after he was captured.  Later, after being driven into Cape Town where he spoke – for the first time as a free man – to a huge crowd of 60,000 gathered in front of the city hall.  In his address he revisited his speech at the Rivonia trial so many long years before:

I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

See also

The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

The RSC’s ‘African’ Julius Caesar: not stones, but men

How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted in states unknown and accents yet unborn!
Cassius, Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Never spoke a truer word, that man with the lean and hungry look.  Cassius, Brutus and the rest of the conspirators are dipping their hands in the blood of the man they have just assassinated, and action that will unleash civil war.  In Gregory Doran’s production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company which we saw in Stratford last week, the repetitious nature of dictatorship and civil war is reinforced by having the play set somewhere in modern Africa.  But it could as easily have been the post-Spring Arab world or just about anywhere else on the planet.

But there is another sense in which those words from Cassius resonate here: this is a production in which the entire cast are black British actors who speak Shakespeare’s poetry in vibrant African accents.  In an article for the programme, Richard Dowden, Director of the Royal African Society, points out that, not only is Shakespeare taught in most schools in English-speaking Africa, but Africans also respond effortlessly to the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language and the relevance of the drama of Julius Caesar.

Gregory Doran and Paterson Joseph (Brutus) at rehearsal for Julius Caesar

For director Gregory Doran,  one of the inspirations behind setting Julius Caesar in Africa was learning of the copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare that made its way on to Robben Island and which was passed between anti-apartheid prisoners during the 1970’s, all of whom treasured the book, each highlighting passages and quotes that they found meaningful and profound.  On December 16 1977 Nelson Mandela chose to autograph these lines from  Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Africa has no monopoly on dictators –  you only have to ponder this image of four deposed leaders – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh (Yemen), Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi, and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt) – to understand that this play could easily be staged in the Arab world.  Indeed, in the scene that follows Caesar’s assassination which reveals – through Mark Antony’s ironic evisceration of the conspirators (‘are they not honourable men?’) and his revelation of Caesar’s will – that the murder, rather than saving the republic, has set fire to it, I thought of another place and time, and another fearful and factionalised leadership faced with an inconvenient last will and testament:

You are not wood, you are not stones, but men;
And, being men, bearing the will of Caesar,
It will inflame you, it will make you mad:
‘Tis good you know not that you are his heirs;
For, if you should, O, what would come of it!

In Gregory Doran’s production, as the audience take their seats, the stage is filled with a colourful, noisy and frenzied crowd, yell and sway as musicians playing afrobeat rhythms whip up the excitement.  The set design simultaneously suggests a Roman amphitheatre and crumbling post-independence African architecture, a looming bronze statue of Caesar emphasising the dictatorial threat.

This street fiesta consists of ordinary folk celebrating the return of warlord Caesar, a hero after crushing fellow-warlord Pompey. From the off, Shakespeare avoids simplistic analysis.  Julius Caesar is a play about the encroachment of autocracy on a republic – the conspirators speak of genuine concern for the future of the republic at the same time as they seek their own aggrandisement – but in the opening scene Shakespeare focusses on the fickleness of public opinion.

But, indeed, sir, we make holiday,
to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph –

so speaks one of the ‘tradesmen’ who have gathered in the square.  The rejoinder comes from Flavius, one of the tribunes:

Wherefore rejoice?  […]
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb’d up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!

Paterson Joseph and Theo Ogundipe in Julius Caesar

This is a production that does not slow for one moment, the absence of an interval maintaining the pace throughout.  The cast are uniformly excellent; as Charles Spencer remarked in his review in The Telegraph:

The production is … a reminder of the strength in depth of British black actors. There isn’t a dud performance here, and Shakespeare – who was such an enduring inspiration to Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates on Robben Island – sounds just fine with an African accent.

Indeed, the verse-speaking is vibrant and fluent, the rounded rhythms of African speech enriching Shakespeare’s poetry.  The acting also draws out the complexity of Shakespeare’s portrayal of the main characters.  Jeffery Kissoon is superb as a heavy-set, dignified yet intimidating Caesar with fly whisk and white suit:

Danger knows full well
That Caesar is more dangerous than he.
We are two lions litter’d in one day,
And I the elder and more terrible.

Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar

Paterson Joseph succeeds in conveying the contradictions in Brutus’ personality, while Cyril Nri conveys the ‘lean and hungry’ manipulativeness of Cassius. Ray Fearon is excellent as Mark Antony, especially in the aforementioned scene in which he whips up the populace to rebellion with the power of his rhetoric.

If the focus of this production and the reviews which have followed has been on the play’s relevance to recent events in Africa or the Arab world, the first performance of Julius Caesar, on 21 September 1599, also took place in a deeply unsettled times. With an ageing and childless Elizabeth nearing the end of her reign, the issue of the succession – and whether England would remain a Protestant country or revert to Catholicism – preoccupied the nation.

Threatened by Spain and rebellion in Ireland, that very month had seen the Earl of Essex, a Brutus-like figure popular with the public, defy Elizabeth by returning to London after the failure of his campaigns in Ireland.  He  would be convicted, deprived of public office and income, and go on to mount an abortive rebellion.  It was these weeks and months of uncertainty that Shakespeare drew upon as he wrote the great plays of this period: Henry V, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet, dramas in which Shakespeare shifted up a gear or two to produce thought-provoking dramas, each successive play pushing the boundaries a little further with complex portrayals of character and motivation, and reflecting the times with incisive commentaries on power, leadership and morality.

Shakespeare’s greatness as a dramatist is revealed in the way in which he transforms his source material – widely understood to be Plutarch’s Lives, translated into English by Thomas North in 1579.  Although Shakespeare follows Plutarch’s account quite closely, and even echoes some of North’s phrasing, characteristically he emphasises the contrasts and contradictions within the main characters – Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Cassius and Octavious – giving them an ambiguity that makes them more human.

Much discussion of Julius Caesar has centred on its structure, in which the titular character appears for only one-third of the play.  Some critics have even seen the action after the assassination as something of an anticlimax.  But perhaps this misses Shakespeare’s central concern: to explore both what impact Caesar has on the thoughts and actions of the other main protagonists, and to examine the repercussions of the murder, an act championed by Brutus and his fellow-conspirators as one both necessary and liberating.

Shakespeare’s play continued a tradition of literary debate about whether Caesar was a tyrant or the father of the people, and if Brutus was a liberator or treacherous assassin.  Significantly, gives the final words to Antony, with his eulogy for Brutus:

This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

This was our first visit to the transformed RSC theatre at Stratford. It re-opened in November 2010 following a three-year transformation project which has retained many of the art deco features of the 1932 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, but significantly improved the experience for theatre-goers by changing the auditorium to a projecting thrust stage with consequentially better sight-lines and sound.

This is how Ellis Woodman summed up the changes, writing in The Telegraph on the occasion of the re-opening in 2010:

Designed by Bennetts Associates, it is just the latest in a line of remodellings that the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has undergone since its foundation in 1873. The original building presented a ripe fantasy of Ye Olde England, complete with neo-Tudor half-timbering. Its focus was a 32-metre water tower that loomed, Big Ben-like, over the town and was intended as a safeguard against fire.

In 1926, however, the tower and a significant part of the building that it was meant to protect burnt to the ground. A competition was quickly held to find a design for a new theatre. Elisabeth Scott, one of the very few woman architects working in Britain at the time, won it with a design for a 1,400-seat auditorium which backed directly against the retained ruins of the Victorian building. Its layout was indebted to her experience as a designer of cinemas. Intimate, it was not. […]

Ever since, the RSC has harboured a desire to exchange the Scott auditorium for a venue of equivalent capacity, but of a layout much closer to that of the Swan. And the new auditorium really is a triumph. It has yet to stage its first production but shows every sign of living up to Michael Boyd’s billing of it as “the best place for performing Shakespeare in the world”. It actually represents a reduction in capacity of around 400 seats, but the gods of the old auditorium had such awful sightlines that the RSC struggled to fill them. A large part of the problem was that the distance from the front of the stage to the back of the auditorium was a daunting 30 metres – a gulf that prompted one disgruntled thespian to describe performing there as “like standing on the cliffs of Dover, addressing Calais”. In the new theatre, the actors can now make eye contact with virtually everyone in the audience. […]

The new theatre not only has a 7-metre fly tower, but a 7-metre basement to boot. The Forest of Arden can now be summoned at the press of a button.

Beyond the auditorium, the results are more mixed. The new public spaces are generic – the palette of grey painted steelwork and full-height glazing serviceable but distinctly under-imagined. However, the more significant misjudgment is the one moment where the architects have allowed themselves a truly emphatic gesture. On the site’s most prominent corner a new tower has been constructed of a height that matches the long vanished water-tower. One can see the logic. The old building’s primary orientation was to the river with the effect that it turned its back on Stratford – a failing that has now been corrected through the creation of a much expanded lobby running the full length of the town elevation. The tower stands sentry-like beside the new front door. The architects talk of it as being wedded to the Italy of Shakespeare’s imagination.

And yet, this is not a campanile but a startlingly imposing structure designed for the purposes of observation. Visitors can take a lift to the top and, on a good day, see four counties.

See also

Slavery, apartheid and morality

You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
Peter Gabriel, ‘Biko’

There was a moment in a recent TV documentary about the Asante kingdom (located in present-day Ghana) when a Ghanaian academic, asked about the Asante proclivity for selling captives from neighbouring tribes into European slavery, said, ‘Well, we didn’t have any morality then’.  It didn’t sound right.

It was only later, watching a film about the international movement to boycott and isolate apartheid South Africa in sport, that I figured out what was wrong.

Of course the Asante of the 18th and early 19th century did have a moral code – it was just that, exactly like European morality at the time, it applied only to Asante and not to others.  Certainly there were those in the anti-slavery movement who argued that ethical standards on how we should treat human beings should apply not just to fellow-countrymen but also to those widely regarded at the time as belonging to inferior races – but they had a mighty struggle getting their views accepted.

One love 
One blood 
One life 
You got to do what you should 
One life 
With each other 
One life 
But we’re not the same 
We get to 
Carry each other
– U2, ‘One’

What gained traction in the 20th century (paradoxically, in a century of such great inhumanity) was the concept of moral universalism – that ethics apply universally, for ‘all similarly situated individuals’, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality or sexuality.  For some, the source or justification of a universal ethic lay in Christian or other religious beliefs, in Enlightenment reason or socialist values.  Whatever the source, Noam Chomsky stated its meaning crisply:

One of the, maybe the most, elementary of moral principles is that of universality, that is, If something’s right for me, it’s right for you; if it’s wrong for you, it’s wrong for me. Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.

Watching the current (brilliant) series of documentaries about the worldwide effort to destroy South African apartheid, Have You Heard From Johannesburg, I recognised a principle that drew countless numbers around the world, myself included, to protest on behalf of others we would never meet, but whose circumstances and treatment were judged intolerable.

Notwithstanding their European origins, . . .[i]n Asia, Africa, and South America, human rights now constitute the only language in which the opponents and victims of murderous regimes and civil wars can raise their voices against violence, repression, and persecution, against injuries to their human dignity.
– Jurgen Habermas

In South Africa, opposition to apartheid was led by the African National Congress, founded 100 years ago on 8 January 1912.  The ANC in its constitution and membership represented the ideal of universalism, being an organisation open to all, irrespective of race, colour and creed, its 1955 Freedom Charter stating that all should have equal rights, be equal before the law and enjoy equal human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, asserted the same principles globally. By that time, the idea that different peoples were endowed with separate rights was challenged by those struggling against colonial oppression or trying to build new nations.  The barbarities of war and genocide fuelled the yearning to safeguard rights within the nation-state, as well as limiting external aggression and war.  ‘It was imperative that the peoples of the world should recognize the existence of a code of civilized behaviour which would apply not only in international relations but also in domestic affairs’, said Begum Shaista Ikramullah, a Pakistani  delegate on the UN drafting committee in 1948.

This was impressive, given the experience of the previous decades.  The Encyclopedia of Genocide records that:

In total, during the first eighty-eight years of [the twentieth] century, almost 170 million men, women, and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved,frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad other ways governments have inflicted deaths on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. Depending on whether one used high
or more conservative estimates, the dead could conceivably be more than 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague.

Michael Perry, in Toward a Theory of Human Rights by (Cambridge University Press) underlines the significance of the change that took place in the second half of the 20th century:

In the midst of the countless grotesque inhumanities of the twentieth century, however, there is a heartening story, amply recounted elsewhere: the emergence, in international law, of the morality of human rights. The morality of human rights is not new; in one or another version, the morality is very old.
But the emergence of the morality in international law, in the period since the end of World War II, is a profoundly important development.  Until World War II, most legal scholars and governments affirmed the
general proposition, albeit not in so many words, that international law did not impede the natural right of each equal sovereign to be monstrous to his or her subjects.  The twentieth century, therefore, was not only the dark and bloody time; the second half of the twentieth century was also the time in which a growing number of human beings the world over responded to the savage horrors of the twentieth century by affirming the morality of human rights. The emergence of the morality of human rights makes the moral landscape of the twentieth century a touch less bleak.

Coincidentally, in the same week that these thoughts were provoked by watching two TV documentaries, on Thinking Allowed Laurie Taylor spoke to Kate Nash, a sociologist from Goldsmiths College who was about to present a paper, Charity or Justice: What is the suffering of strangers to us? to a conference on Humanitarianism.  What is the suffering of strangers to us? What is it that makes us care for people we have never met and who have very different lives from our own?

Nash argues that such feelings can be prompted either from a sense of justice or an impulse for charity. Laurie Taylor asked her to explain the distinction.  She responded:

Charity is related to humanitarianism.  It’s the idea that we respond to the suffering of others because they are suffering – its basis is compassion.  Justice on the other hand is more a response in terms of common expectations: we respond to the suffering of others as we expect that they would respond to us, to help us out, because we share common conditions and because we share what’s sometimes called a ‘community of fate’.

Nash sees justice as rooted in the nation state – the ‘community of fate’ is firmly rooted in the nation, and our sense of commonality is based on the nation:

It’s a much thicker sense of commonality – that we belong together because of common language, common origins and common history. But generally, when we think about the suffering of those beyond our borders, with the exception of certain political movements, mostly what is being asked for is a charitable, a compassionate response.

That proviso – ‘with the exception of certain political movements’ – is important.  It reminds us of the crucial part played by campaigns from the anti-slavery movement to the anti-apartheid movement in advancing and solidifying a global vision of justice and human rights.  Nash argues that the media – including Internet and social media – will play a key role in strengthening support for international justice and human rights in cultural politics.  But to me it seems that the role of international solidarity campaigns will remain paramount.

The series Have You Heard From Johannesburg, currently being shown on BBC 4, is a superb, probably definitive, cinematic history of the worldwide struggle to isolate and destroy South African apartheid. Filmed by Connie Field throughout the world over ten years, it features interviews with many of the major players, and archive footage of the struggle, much of it never seen before on television.  An American series, it has been adapted for screening on British TV, with a different second episode.

That second episode looked at how athletes and activists around the world hit white South Africa where it hurt – on the playing field. Knowing that fellow blacks in South Africa were denied even the most basic human rights, let alone the right to participate in international sports competitions, African nations refused to compete with all-white South African teams, boycotting the Olympics and eventually forcing the International Olympic Committee to ban apartheid teams from future games. By the 1970s, only South Africa’s world champion rugby team remained, and citizens across the world took to the streets and sports fields to close the last door on apartheid sport.

In 1970, the struggle focussed on the Springbok tour of Britain, with protests such as the one outside Manchester’s White City ground.  A few months earlier, November 1969, Peter Hain had come to the Student Union at Liverpool University, where I was a student, to address a meeting and gather support for the demonstration (above).  Jon Snow, who was arrested on the demo, wrote about the impact of the movement in his account of his early years and his career in journalism, Shooting History:

It was Peter Hain, subsequently a Labour Cabinet Minister, who finally identified our cause. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had spent the previous months preaching change through ‘economic engagement’ with the South African apartheid regime. Wilson and others had gone soft on economic sanctions, and the apartheid state was consolidating its hold amid calls from Nelson Mandela’s beleaguered African National Congress (ANC)  to black South Africans to burn their passbooks. British culpability and collusion with apartheid were clear, but what was Liverpool’s connection?  […]

In November 1969 Peter Hain, himself South African by birth, came north with his ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign. The South African Springbok rugby team were already in Britain, while a cricket tour was to take place in the summer. Hain’s ultimately hugely successful campaign recognised that sport was very close to the heart of the apartheid regime. It was the public, competitive and white face of South Africa. We might not be able to spring Mandela from Robben Island, but we could at least stop his jailers from playing sport in our green and pleasant land. Hain’s target was the Springbok match at Old Trafford in Manchester.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film came with its account of how, in 1981, the epicentre of the resistance moved to New Zealand, where massive protests met the Springboks when they toured the country.  At Rugby Park, Hamilton, protesters pulled down fences before invading the pitch and ultimately forcing the cancellation of the game (above and top).

The third episode dealt with the international reaction to the brutal suppression of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 and the murder of student leader Steve Biko – events that turned South Africa into a worldwide emblem of injustice. As most western governments refused to heed Oliver Tambo’s calls for cultural and economic boycotts, a new generation of young people – in South Africa and across the world – continued the struggle for justice.  I had not been aware previously of the significant movement in the Netherlands, original homeland of the Afrikaners, where activists such as Conny Braam (below) turned the tide of Dutch conservatism.

Returning to the Asante and their part in the Atlantic slave trade: that account came in an episode from the second series of Lost Kingdoms of Africa, presented by art historian Gus Casely-Hayford. There is a scarcity of written records documenting Africa’s past, Casely-Hayford presents a vivid account by drawing on the culture, artefacts and traditions of the people. Across the two series, Dr Gus Casely-Hayford has explored the rich and vibrant histories of 8 complex and sophisticated civilisations: the kingdom of Asante, the Zulus, the Berber kingdom of Morocco and the kingdoms of Bunyoro and Buganda in the current season, and West Africa, Great Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and Nubia in the previous one.

See also

Sharpeville repercussions

Today marks 50 years since the Sharpeville Massacre, when police in apartheid South Africa opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters, killing 69 and injuring about 180.  The Pan Africanist Congress, having split from the African National Congress,called on black South Africans to demonstrate against the hated pass laws. Thousands gathered outside the local police station in Sharpeville, challenging the police to arrest them for being without the pass books, or dompas, they were meant to produce on demand.

The massacre was a watershed in the country’s liberation struggle, providing the spark for the armed struggle mounted by the PAC and the ANC, and outraging international opinion, leading to the worldwide boycott and  disinvestment movement.

Not coincidentally, this weekend I have been celebrating another anniversary – 40 years since the end of an 11-day occupation of the University of Liverpool’s Senate House administrative block in March 1970.  The focus for the protest? The demand that Lord Salisbury – renowned for his racist views, scornful rejection of African self-government and financial links with apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa – resign as Chancellor, and that the University divest itself of investments in South Africa. After the protest, the University handed down punishments that were unprecedented in their severity: 9 students suspended and one expelled.

Yesterday, 60 of the 300 students involved in the sit-in came together in a joyous reunion. For the past three months I have been delving into the University archives to research this event, and producing a blog – An Emotional Involvement – which tells the full story of the protest.

The Liverpool students’ protest was rooted in a critical questioning of the nature of a university, its relationship and responsibilities to the wider world. Did it matter? The solidarity protests and the boycott movement gave black South Africans a sense of hope that change could occur. In 1981, on Robben Island, hearing of the massive and successful protests against the Springboks tour of New Zealand, Nelson Mandela said “When I heard that news it felt like the sun coming out.”

The Liverpool protest asked big ethical questions about what it is to be human: what kind of lives we want to live, and want others to be able to enjoy in freedom and dignity, and what kind of world we want to pass on to our children.  Back in 1970, the University Treasurer, HB Chrimes, talking about disinvestment from apartheid, asserted: ‘You cannot involve the whole university in a personal emotion’. In 2010, the current Vice-Chancellor, Howard Newby,writing to the student expelled for the action, affirmed: “Your voice and actions serve as a legacy to the freedoms we enjoy, preserve and defend”.