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Black Consciousness

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Black Consciousness Defined


The ideals of Black Consciousness put forth by Steve Biko, and supported by his fellow colleagues in the South African Students’ Organization (SASO) was a black response to Afrikaner Nationalist Party white power. Unlike the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) that came before the birth of SASO in 1969, SASO and their view of Black Consciousness sought to make black Africans – students and the majority of the population of Africans have a say in the matters that concerned their living conditions, and the treatment that they received under the apartheid system of government. According to Clive Nettleton, a former NUSAS leader “the formation of SASO [had] disrupted the traditional alignment of the South African student world. / While it is still possible for white and black students to hold joint congresses and seminars, and to meet occasionally at social events, they live in different worlds.” The world that is mentioned here is a world where Steve Biko observed that the black African seemed to be a defeated person, is the “kind of black man who is man only in form”, and has been “reduced to an obliging shell”. Therefore, the idea of Black Consciousness was not to institute black racism, or return some aspect of vengeance upon white society, but rather to enforce a sense of solidarity amongst blacks in South Africa where they developed a new-found pride in themselves, their culture, their religion, and their values, and believed that they weren’t an aberration in God’s plan, but had aspects of their way of life to offer, just as much as the South African white society had in terms of science and other technological advances.

However, due the inter-related oppressive, South African society that black South-Africans, Indians, and coloreds lived in, Biko’sBlack Consciousness sought to eradicate the already existing stereotypes and inter-group suspicions amongst these groups. According to Biko, these groups were all oppressed by the same system, and were oppressed to varying degrees as a deliberate means by the Afrikaner led government to stratify the South African society, with white society still exercising control over residential areas, voting, education, holidays, and all of the other means of South African existence. Consequently, Biko’s vision of Black Consciousness sought that there be a harmonious South African society where whites and blacks primarily, but all other groups included as well, live together without the fear of group exploitation and contribute to a democratic system of government where there were no deliberate haves and have-nots.

Cultural and Political Theory

Proud to be black

Steven Biko’s conception of black consciousness was motivated by his frustration with the pervasive influence of white domination over society. Instead of relying on white people and institutions for support, Biko envisioned a movement that came from within the black community and was driven by black South Africans. He puts forth this over-arching definition in I Write What I Like:

Black Consciousness is in essence the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their operation—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude.

This definition lays out a framework for nearly every aspect of his vision for revolution. Ultimately, he was not just concerned with political ends, but would only be satisfied with the complete upheaval of the social and cultural hierarchy that defined South African apartheid.

Before his movement could accomplish its political goals—ending apartheid, Biko wanted to instill a sense of pride and self-worth in the black community. Black consciousness was meant to teach blacks that “being black is not a matter of pigmentation—being black is a reflection of mental attitude.” Blacks who only defined themselves solely based on their skin color were destined to feel inferior in apartheid South Africa. As a skin color alone, and not tied to any distinct culture, blackness was just a method of oppression and a sign of exploitation. Biko’s black consciousness movement sought to reclaim blackness and remind people of the vibrant culture that comes along with it. He wanted people to be proud to be black because of their unique attitude and way of life, not try to hide from their blackness because of the political subjugation it entailed.

Furthermore, he argued that “merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation…against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being.” For Biko, exalting black culture was itself an act of defiance. By prouding exclaiming his blackness, Biko was refusing to bow down to the apartheid systems of oppression that argued that all blacks were sub-human and should be ashamed. With black consciousness, he wanted to create an alternative to trying to pass as “colored” or Indian, he wanted to empower people to claim their blackness with pride. As long as they were proud of their heritage, the political systems of apartheid could never fully oppress the black community.

The need for a unified community


Biko believed that the strongest and most successful campaign against apartheid must come from a unified black community. He argued that blacks must work together to completely overthrow all of the systems of apartheid and asserted that blacks should not be satisfied with any reforms. At its core, apartheid was an oppressive system on every level. Economically, legally, and culturally, apartheid considered blacks inferior to everyone else in society. Biko believed that this universal subjugation could unite the black community in the revolutionary movement. He explained that “in terms of the black consciousness approach we recognize the existence of one major force in South Africa. This is White Racism.” This common enemy could unite and mobilize the entire black community, creating a movement that Biko argued could eventually topple the structures of oppression.

Ultimately, his ideal movement has two core components: the cultural revolution already described and political resistance. At the time, movements to resist apartheid were fragmented and principally driven by a minority of the black community. He recognized the potential overwhelming strength of a united black front, and wanted to leverage black consciousness to building the alliances necessary to accomplish his expansive goals. He explains that “one of the basic tenets of Black Consciousness is totality of involvement. This means that all blacks must sit as one big unit, and no distraction from the mainstream events be allowed.” The white power structure followed the tactics of racist regimes around the world and exploited the fragmentation of the black community by encouraging divisions and infighting to distract from their fundamental oppression and weaken the resistance. Biko’s black consciousness was designed to inspire black people to come together and be proud of their heritage because only a unified community could hope to combat the forces of oppression.

The need for a black leadership

Biko also believed the black consciousness movement was critical to the resistance because only blacks have a true interest in ending apartheid. Biko was very critical of white-led campaigns to end apartheid. He believed that, because they benefited from apartheid, whites could never fully understand its effects and would be as committed to ending it. In White Racism and Black Consciousness, he asserts that

So blatantly exploitative in terms of the mind and body is the practice of white racism that one wonders if the interests of blacks and whites in this country have not become so mutually exclusive as to exclude the possibility of their being room for us all at the rendezvous of victory.

He argues that racism is so pervasive in society, and white benefits are so ingrained, that non-blacks can never fully recognize all of the manifestations of racism. He specifically targets a liberals who might be genuine in their efforts to combat oppression, but do not grasp the enormity of the problem. He believes that, for them, it is just a matter of integration and their solutions all revolve around getting people to live together and work cooperatively to find solutions. He argues, however, that no solution is possible within the broader framework of society. Whites and blacks have been raised hate each other for years and Biko asserts that it is naïve to think that they could overcome that fundamental animosity through integration alone. Instead, he advocates for a complete revolution—an “overhaul of the whole system.”

Besides their limited ability to understand the scope of the problem, whites are also not good partners in the revolution because it is ultimately not in their interests to destroy the system. He asserts that many of the whites who join the picket lines and participate in other parts of the movement are not really committed to its ends because they benefit from them too much. He tells stories about whites who take part in protests, but then leave to go to exclusive clubs with their friends to talk about how good they feel about themselves. These people will never be fully committed to the revolution because they are so comfortable with the way things are. For them, protesting is just a side activity to make them feel better, not an all-consuming campaign for survival. Because they cannot rely on white support, Biko argues that the black consciousness movement is the only way forward. Blacks are the only ones who fully understand the oppressive nature of apartheid because they experience it ever day, and they are the only ones whose survival ultimately depends on ending the oppressive regime. Biko envisions black consciousness as the best way to build a massive campaign of the oppressed and leverage their power to destroy the racist foundations of South African society.

Black Consciousness v. American Black Nationalism

At the surface, the Black Consciousness movement might appear to espouse an ideology congruent to that of Black Nationalism found within the United States for over a hundred years. Granted, the former has undergone many permutations and beliefs under a vast number of leaders, but the there are fundamental ideas that Black Nationalism in America has stood for which the Black Consciousness movement does not advocate. While the conditions which South Africans are facing, Apartheid, and Black Americans are facing during the times of slavery and Jim Crow are different, they both represent oppressed peoples of color attempting to combat what has become the status quo imposed upon them by the white man.


Black Nationalism in the United States, at its core, attempts to promote solidarity amongst “black” people within the United States with some degree of separation from their oppressors. It is putting black people and their interests at the forefront of one’s mind. A concept of blackness is one of the variants within the ideology at large. Some believe that blackness should be extended to all oppressed peoples; some believe that it should be extended to Africans, and others believe that blacks should simply be decedents of slaves born in America. Solidarity amongst the aforementioned groups is also the essence of Black Nationalism. This group of the oppressed must unite, and rise up to fight the injustices which plague them. Contention also exists when speaking of how to fight the injustices which plague them in efforts to raise themselves up to a better standing within society. There are some who do not believe that this is the case, and feel that the only way to achieve a better standing is to emigrate somewhere, either back to Africa or someplace else. Whatever the plan, blacks must become one unit and maintain a mindset of thinking which produces actions which serve to promote the race as a whole. They must also embrace that which makes them inherently “black” i.e. culture. Violence has also been a point of contention with many nationalist thinkers as some believe that it is not the answer while others believe that it is inevitable.

The above image is the logo for the AZAPO organization founded upon the teachings of the Black Consiousness Movement
The above image is the logo for the AZAPO organization founded upon the teachings of the Black Consiousness Movement

The Black Consciousness Movement and Steve Biko also believe fundamentally in black solidarity – that black people must unite in order to enact any change. Biko’s concept of “blackness” extends to all oppressed colored people of the world. “Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude. Merely by describing yourself as black you have started on a road towards emancipation, you have committed yourself to fight against all forces that seek to use your blackness as a stamp that marks you out as a subservient being. ” This definition serves to exclude bourgeois blacks who have no affinity for the remainder of the oppressed race, as well as everyone involved within the regime which serves to oppress men. “The deininition of blackness deliberately excluded those who were considered part of the system. ” Biko also does not believe that whites can enter the movement as it is a black movement. He does not oppose white groups working towards the same ends as his own, but he does not wish them to have an explicit connection with the Black Consciousness Movement. As for an end result, Biko desires a race-neutral society. He wishes for the deconstruction of the fabrication of race as a disuniting force. This is not an end which a Black Nationalist would desire because a Black Nationalist has a great affinity for the black race and believes in inherent differences between the black race and others.


Biko, Steven. I Write What I Like. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 2000.

Woods, Donald. Biko. New York & London: Paddington Press Ltd., 1978.

Pittanya, N. Barney. Bounds of Possibility. London, UK: Zed Books. 1991