“I’d like to thank Berry Gordy. He created the world in six days. And rested on the seventh.” So said newly crowned author Frank B Wilderson III in a recent speech. He had just scooped the prestigious American Book Award for his literary epic “Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid in South Africa.”
Okay, so he didn’t actually say that. It’s a doctored line from the book. But, comrade, agent, national threat, boy, man, activist–Wilderson’s epic sweeps across all of these issues. And it offers thoughtful and provocative detail and nuance on each. The book makes you rethink the idea of what a hero is and why and who crowned Nelson Mandela as such. It reveals the soul wrenching challenge of what it means to be an activist. It prompts a redefinition of success. And Wilderson takes on what he describes as some left-wingers’ deep need to cling to the notion that South Africa’s apartheid was different than racism on U.S. soil.
“Ultimately, I could not allow for that type of comfort zone to come through in a book that I wrote,” explains Wilderson. What he did was put two stories together: his boyhood as the son of academics in Minneapolis and his time as activist, husband and father in South Africa. He first traveled to South Africa in 1989.It was a state of emergency, and he stayed until just after the ANC negotiated political victory. By oscillating between Minneapolis and South Africa, he weaves a thread of how the cancer of racism in small town America and apartheid South Africa is intimately intertwined. For some, empathy with racism and Black folk from a soil other than their own has always been an easier pill to swallow than dealing with homegrown racism. And certainly with South Africa, as with London, the challenge is for sections of the liberal left to recognize the degree to which racism is stitched into the very fabric of those institutions they create, uphold, maintain, applaud and profit from.
Dubbed a national threat by Nelson Mandela, Wilderson doesn’t subscribe to the notion of Nelson Mandela as hero. And he highlights the significance of the deep-rooted divisions within the ANC even as it moved to negotiate with then-President F.W. De Klerk’s National Party and the international community. All this while South Africa’s Black population inched towards that historic day where their political might was demonstrated. He argues internal divisions between Black folk of different activist sensibilities should never be allowed to become significant enough to derail the bigger vision.
Comrade or agent? That’s how the South African activists who belong to Umkhonto we Sizwe–the ANC’s armed division–thought of him when they first encounter him. His troubled relationship with some of the activists, their suspicions and concerns of betrayal are poised over each encounter. Voices are consistently raised about Wilderson’s authenticity, and the reality of life and death and the myriad daily humiliations of life under apartheid are vividly brought to life in this compelling work.
The book wrestles with masculinity via a range of partnerships and relationships: father/son, activists, leaders. Wilderson’s intention was to highlight the idea that conflict should not impede vision for Black folk. “There are many types of Black people: like my parents believed, get an education, get your head low, keep yourself safe in the institution, a safe Negro. Others believe that you have to become as educated as possible to disturb traditional power–those are important differences. I want to narrate a good story that includes the conflicts between Blacks and, at the same time, not lose sight of institutional power.”
One of the lasting thoughts is the issue of success. How do you define it? And how will that definition change after reading the book? For Wilderson, money equaled success and access.
Wrong, he discovered. “One of the most shocking revelations in writing and rereading the book is no matter how much money you have, if you are in any society in this world that defines you as Black, you are not going to be a subject of institutional power, you become an object of institutional power.
“In other words, you can become that good Negro that does the bidding of that institution, but you’re not going to be someone who sets the agenda, who forms the ensemble of questions. And I had always thought that once you got money, no matter what color you were, that you would be brought into the fold. No Black man has institutional power–which is the power to change life in an essential way for people who are most like him– and that can be really, really shattering once you move up the food chain in radical organizations like the ANC, or educational organizations like school or university.”
For Wilderson, watching his parents be rejected despite their education and monetary success enabled him to redefine what that would mean for him. So, success means what for him now? “Ultimately, I can do something in the world and for the world. I can contribute to the power of understanding; I can contribute to the power of analysis.”
Esther Armah is an international journalist, playwright and author. She hosts of “Off The Page,” WBAI 99.5 FM’s hour-long radio talk show about the world of books. Tune in! “Off The Page” airs Friday, Jan. 16 at 11 a.m. on WBAI 99.5FM. Contact email@example.com.