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Results of the Labs
Who Has The Power?

© Akinbode Akinbiyi

The most profound part of the closing statements during the Echoes of the South Atlantic Conference was a candid conversation on authorship, authority and ownership. 

In the aftermath of the recent deaths of Brazilian councillor and activist, Marielle Franco and South African freedom fighter and politician, Winnie Mandela, the idea for an “biography” on both women was suggested. A biography that would illustrate their differences while also paying attention to the interconnectedness of their realities as black women who were deeply in love with their blackness and that of their own people. As women who toed the line between invisible and hyper-visible and had a shared reality of constant state surveillance and constant state negligence.

“I want to know what made you decide that you had the authority to write this biography? I mean Winnie just died. I am still mourning. What gives you the authority to tell this story?” asked Ntone Edjabe, a Cameroonian musician. Clapping erupted from across the room and a change in mood was felt, invoking the first genuine moment during this three day conference were a conversation on the intersections of power and privilege (even within circles with well meaning academics) elicited responses not bogged down by meaningless pedagogy.

A meandering of answers followed with no clear cut response except to say that such passionate reactions are part of the reason why such ideas (biography writing) should take place. An audience member raised the point that maybe this was a timing issue with the recent deaths of both women leaving little time to properly mourn. Ntone clarified. “This is not about timing. Yes that is an issue but this is about authority.”
Ultimately as this group of intellectuals engaged in a back and forth sharing of responses, the question remained in the air; very present but unanswered because how do you tell a group of well meaning intellectuals that even the best of intentions can lead you straight to hell?  When it comes to biographies, the lens is usually focused on two obvious things: the writer and the subject. Is the writer skilled enough to tell the story? Is the subject worthy of archiving? In recent times the conversation has become a bit more layered. Eighteen years ago, the late music icon, Prince, refused to do an interview with a popular mainstream publication until it found a black female writer. As an entertainer heavily invested in offering opportunities and visibility to the most marginalized in society this was Prince’s way of attempting to somewhat “balance the scales.” It is an open secret (then and now) that the media industry is a country club dominated by straight, white men and so Prince made the intentional choice to give a black woman authority to tell his story.

To bring it back to the question of biography writing, specifically the telling of Winnie Mandela’s story, the question of authority is determined, not complicated, by the layers of Winnie Mandela’s identity. Winnie Mandela was a public figure, with a public life mission that entailed the liberation and autonomy of black Africans from colonial rule. Her story carries it with the politics of blackness, african identity, womanhood, anti-imperialism and police brutality. What tends to happen when such figures are deified or labelled with terms such as “hero” or controversial figure” is that their lives are more often than not white-washed to be more palatable to a universal experience of oppression as seen through a white gaze. It’s no surprise that the presence of white male in a white institution seemingly laying claim to the story of Winnie Mandela raised points of query and discomfort. The real surprise is that many failed to see the true problem of authority, choosing instead to highlight the need for collective storytelling as a means to foster different perspectives - completely disregarding the fact that sometimes, certain perspectives can and need to be left out of the conversation. As a black African myself, I can live without ever seeing a European retelling of Winnie Mandela’s story.


Because when it comes to her black, female, African life, that perspective does not really matter. When academics can get to a point where they realize that access to all stories and experiences is not a right, but that some things need to be seen for their specificity, then maybe the field can be less a cycle of unending ideas and more an understanding of the true impact of privilege and power in society.

by Tari Ngangura