A CONTEMPLATION ON SPEAKING OUT
U N C E R T A I N
H O U R . . .
As the deluge of images and film footage of peaceful protest, hooliganism and more senseless violence, be these in Hong Kong or from cities and suburbs across America, flood our timelines, I find myself taking to the pages of a slim volume by Anthony Rudolph.
at an uncertain hour, Primo Levi’s War Against Oblivion is an unusual book. At the time it was published, it was held up as a critically innovative; delving into the life and thinking of a man who lived with intentional awareness, through every second of a rule of tyranny so he might tell it. After … when Primo Levi wrote his first book If This Is A Man, a bar was set by which the recounting of historical events he witnessed first-hand, memoir and critical erudition, would be measured, until it seems, with the turn of the 21st Century, facts, no longer matter very much.
As decades of racial tyranny and memory find its explosive perfect storm across America, the validation of memory and history faces its greatest ordeal and litmus test in the array of events, as they unfold live and within reach of all of us.
The political landscape that is contemporary America seems to wilfully seek the evisceration of human experience, of human existence, of memory, of minimising, or diluting what it means to be Black in America today, or ever. This makes it imperative to culturally mirror this reality, rather than to accord it platitudes.
Are we casual voyeurs or bearing witness; why do we watch and what story unfolds as we watch ?
Over a week of press and social media coverage begins to feel like an assault on sense and sensibility. Some of the more violent clashes between police, protestors and then looters and rioters, draws me awkwardly and emotionally, back into the violence of my own racially charged upbringing. My personal, indelible experiences of marches, uprisings, revolt and running gun battles between the police and ANC members in the middle of the citycentre that sorely marked more than three decades of urban revolt and violence in Apartheid South Africa are brought back vividly as I watch a nation draw a line.
Institutional repression by force, on one hand and the often reckless, though calculated onslaught of agitators, who were not always the real dissenters, wilfully planting “dustbin bombs” around the softest targets, on the other, are fresh and often raw memories. It was and is, a scathing landscape in which any young person grows up; certain experiences, even as memories forever stain the soul. That I became unwittingly involved, deeply so, in the theatre of a dying racist political dynasty in the months before Nelson Mandela came to power, makes the events of the past week that much more brutal to watch.
A poem by Levi cited by Anthony Rudolph in his book ‘ at an uncertain hour Primo Levi’s war against oblivion’ echoes in my mind. The context of having written it to an ‘actual woman under an imagined sun’ becomes a haunting refrain even before the poem appears;
I would like to believe in something, / Something beyond the death that undid you. / I would like to describe the intensity / With which, already overwhelmed, We longed in those days to be able / To walk together once again / Free beneath the sun.
Hector Peterson, a 13 year old school boy, shot in the back by police , June 16th, 1976.
The countrywide riots which flared up for weeks after his death, became known as the ’76 Riots, and was the moment Apartheid’s struggle for survival began to unravel. And yet, it took a further 18 years of draconian institutional measures and the deaths, incarceration and the disappearance of thousands, before something shifted politically and institutionally.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old BLACK American, asphyxiated by a policeman’s kneeling on his neck May 25, 2020. The countrywide riots and demonstrations declaring that Black Life matters has yet to unfold into the change needed for the idea of what is
American, to find its humanism: Perhaps it will have to burn through a militarised dictatorship for the stain to truly become irascible, such that men once again find dignity in grace rather than violent petulance in a reign of tyranny.
In that these two deaths were far from private, or fair, or warranted and even less, justifiable, like innumerable others, who should not be nameless, -not least the youngsters, children, men and women brutalised during these heady days of solidarity and anger: What are we to make of the lives we will live, moving forward, as the anger and flames die down?
How measured, or luminously sincere will all this heartache and tireless demonstration and movement of global solidarity, be remembered?
Can we be trusted as Levi was, and still is, because of his moral responsibility and accountability, to share the truth with dispassionate honesty, bearing witness of what we have seen and felt and experienced, without personal agenda and without the emotional high-ground of indignation or sentimentality?
Can we hold change to account, the real kind and once again speak up against the war against memory, truth, dignity and kindness?
I kept searching for you in the stars
When I questioned them as a child
I asked the mountains for you,
But they gave me solitude and brief peace
Only a few times.
Because you weren’t there, in the long evenings
I considered the rash blasphemy
That the world was God’s error,
Myself an error in the world.
And when I was face to face with death –
No, I shouted from every fibre.
I hadn’t finished yet;
There was still too much to do.
With me beside you, just like today,
A man a woman under the sun.
I came back because you were there.
Primo Levi, February 11th 1946
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