I humbly request you put your emotions in a state of moratorium while reading this post. My intent is not to cause offence to any groups of people, nor express affection or disaffection for the individuals mentioned in the post.
“Gandhi was a racist, he hated black people,” a friend said this me a couple of years ago. The statement was conclusively definitive and I was too shocked to respond. Although I knew very little about Mahatma Gandhi; I had always heard good things. I mean he was one of history’s great heroes and an inspiration to millions across the globe, including me. A few weeks ago, I read similar rhetoric about Gandhi on social media but my thoughts were very different: “So what if he was racist”! This may shock you, so I will try to explain my reasoning.
My knowledge of Gandhi does not go beyond the movie and the bits of accolades I have heard over the years, so I cannot testify for or against this accusation. I believe the source of these allegations could be based on comments attributed to him when he was a young lawyer in South Africa in which he referred to the black Africans as “Kaffirs”. Labeling Gandhi a racist without acknowledging his actions and the role he played in the fight for Indian independence would be grossly unfair. It could also rob the current and future generation of the opportunity to learn and understand how he took on the mighty British Empire. Similarly, Malcolm X was labeled a racist but he was and still is an inspiration to millions across the world. He considered white people devils while he was with the Nation of Islam. Again, if judged based solely on some his views early on during his struggle for black civil rights in America, one would be deprived of understanding the impact the Pilgrimage to Mecca had on changing his views before he was assassinated. He also had the courage to challenge the American government.
On the flip side, millions eulogize figures from history (and present) without fully understanding why. We label heroes and heroines based on what we have been told made or makes them great. It’s easy to admire one’s “greatness”; it’s harder to emulate the actions, which made them “great or admirable”. Continuing with the example of Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X, it is also very easy to label these two men (and others like them) hero’s of the liberation struggles without taking the time reflect or understand the reasons and results of their actions. I vaguely remember the period when wearing Malcolm X memorabilia was all the rage. He was the ‘poster child/icon’ for the hardline struggle for equality and fight against injustice: “By Any Means Necessary”. Nowadays, people admire Gandhi based on his quotes on social media, “likes and #” are all the rage. He is considered the “poster child” for the pacifist approach for the struggle for equality and fight against injustice. Looking at these two men from these singular/binary perspectives robs us of the ability to understand history of the liberations struggles and what they fought for and against.
To approach this from another perspective, history will remember Adolf Hitler as the man responsible for World War 2; a catastrophic event that claimed the lives of millions and caused utter devastation across Europe. Not many would disagree if I labeled him as “evil”. The consequences of his actions were abhorrent; but again simply “labeling” him runs the risks of overlooking the roots of his actions. WW2 and the genocide was the result his actions years before the first gun were fired. For many years, Hitler and the Nazi party demonized and vilified the Jews in Germany while the rest of Europe watched. (Maybe because they were busy practicing intolerance on their colonies in other parts of the world) I am afraid that if we don’t look beyond the labels, in the present and future we run the risk of creating similar levels of intolerance and atmosphere of fear, which preceded the 2nd world war. In this case we must look beyond the label, understand the actions with the objective of preventing similar events happening again. I fear that the world has not learned from consequences of Hitler’s actions. The genocides of Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda were all consequences of man’s intolerance against his fellow man. Based on current world events, its does not look like abating any time soon.
Now to approach this from a personal perspective; only a few will know the name Chief Obafemi Awolowo; except maybe Nigerians born before 1980. He was one of Nigeria’s most prominent politicians pre and post independence. I remember the day Awo died, I was only six but I felt the impact because it felt like the nation went into mourning. Although I did not know the man, his status as a great leader and hero to the Yoruba people was instantly imprinted onto me. There were two days of National mourning and he was laid in state. I carried the image of this heroic figure into adulthood. This image was cruelly chattered upon reading extracts of the book “There Was a Country” by Chinau Achibe a few years ago. It gave a totally different account of the man revered by so many Yoruba’s. Based solely on what I read, Awo was a power hungry tyrant. What I read shook me to my bones until I realized that I had no reasons to shocked or disappointed. Like those who eulogize Malcolm X and Gandhi without understanding their fully understanding what they stood for, I admired Awo because that was what it was expected of a 6 year old Yoruba boy. Further reflection elevated my thoughts on the importance of seeing the “bigger picture” and the dangers of the “singular perspective”. For many Nigerian, he was a national hero who had the visions and ability to make Nigeria great. He pioneered free primary education and free health care in the Western Region of Nigeria. For others he was one of the architects who contributed to the starvation millions of civilians during the Nigeria civil war. The following comment is attributed to Awo “I don’t see why we should feed our enemies far in order for them to fight harder.” Although I have limited knowledge about Awo and the history of the Biafra war, I believe that it is be possible to admire the man for his accomplishments while recognizing and disagreeing with some of his actions or comments.
I propose that we should look beyond labels and acknowledge actions; and beyond the periphery of our emotions. I humbly request you look beyond the names of individuals mentioned in this article. I hope the premise of my thoughts can be applied across all spheres, religion, race, ideology, politics, nationalities, culture, etc etc etc. In doing so, please reflect on the following quote by ANON- “I absolutely refuse to deal in absolutes unless its absolutely necessary”.
In conclusion, I will allow you to come draw your conclusions.
PS: In your quest to looking beyond labels; be careful not to fall into the trap of judging ACTIONS.