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Why the war in South Sudan risks dismantling the gains of Black is beautiful movement

Beauty is an overused yet improperly understood word. In its holistic sense, the term encompasses all things of fine quality. It is a characteristic of an animal, idea, object, person or place that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.

It is part of aesthetics, culture, social psychology and sociology. An “ideal beauty” is an entity which is admired, or possesses features widely attributed to beauty for perfection.

A 1974 German "Black is beautiful" poster
A 1974 German “Black is beautiful” poster

Etymologically, beauty originates from the Greek word for beautiful ὡραῖος, hōraios, an adjective etymologically coming from the word ὥρα, hōra, meaning “hour”. Beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.

The experience of “beauty” often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. Because this can be a subjective experience, it is often said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined: things, aspects of people and landscapes considered beautiful are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human’s genes.

In our epoch, the cultural movement ‘Black is Beautiful’ – started in the United States of America in the 1960s by African Americans, later spreading prominently in the writings of the Black Consciousness Movement of Steve Biko in South Africa – has become one such notion.

This movement began in an effort to counteract the prevailing idea in American culture that features typical of “Blacks” were less attractive or desirable than those of “Whites”.

Although historical records indicate he never actually used the specific phrase on that day, one John Stewart Rock was long thought to be the first to coin the phrase “black is beautiful” during a speech in 1858.

Research indicates that the idea of “blackness” being ugly highly damaged the psyche of African Americans, manifesting itself as internalized racism. This idea made its way into black communities themselves and led to practices such as ‘paper bag parties’: social events which discriminated against dark-skinned African-Americans by only admitting lighter-skinned individuals.

Black is Beautiful aims to dispel the notion that black people’s natural features such as skin color, facial features and hair are inherently ugly. The movement also encouraged men and women to stop trying to eliminate African-identified traits by straightening their hair and attempting to lighten or bleach their skin.

The reason this movement took form was because the media and society as a whole had a negative perception of the African body as suitable only for slave status. The Black is Beautiful movement thus may have started in the 1960s, but the fight for equal rights and a positive perception of the African started much earlier in history.

Barack Obama Jr. (standing 2nd left) and a section of his Kenyan Nilotic Luo side of the family
Barack Obama Jr. (standing 2nd left) and a section of his Kenyan Nilotic Luo side of the family

The Black is Beautiful movement was based around a fight for an equal perception of the black body to help undo all the negative ideas brought about by a history based on white supremacy.

In its literal sense, gains made through the ‘black is beautiful’ notion have seen Caucasoids troupe in their millions annually to Africa and Africa-like climes to sand, sun and – specifically – to tan.

It is emerging that the closer one gets to being black in colour, the more enhanced is one’s beauty. Models such as film-star Lupita Nyong’o of Kenya have emerged as the international ambassadors of the literal ‘black is beautiful’ movement.

At the level of equal rights and a positive perception of peoples of African descent, Barack Obama Jr.’s Presidency in the race-infested United States added a new dimension to the ‘beauty’ of the people of colour, as the Americans call non-Caucasians. A Black human had become the leader of the most powerful nation in the world through an electoral process dominated by the light-skinned peoples!

Kenyan Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o
Kenyan Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o

Coincidentally, both Obama and Lupita trace their paternal ancestry among the Luo of Kenya, a Nilotic people who voted with their feet from the territory known as Southern Sudan to escape Arab slave trade and natural calamities; yes, the Sudan which gave Ancient Egypt its pharaohs, language, culture and a civilization emulated everywhere in the world.

It is therefore heartrending for one to continue hearing that even after Southern Sudan had extricated itself from the virtual colonial relations with northern Sudan (the Republic of Sudan), drums of war and human rights violations are the order of the day in such a potentially rich territory and source of many advances for humanity, past and present.

The current protagonists are President Salva Kiir on one side, and his Deputy, Riek Machar on the other, together with their respective followers. In spite of assurances by officials that all is well, South Sudan’s capital Juba is very insecure to say the least, with armies of the two leaders clashing periodically.

In the countryside, thousands have been displaced and on the verge of starvation. All these are happening as South Sudan marks the fifth anniversary of its independence from the Republic of Sudan. It was hoped that the August 2015 peace agreement between the two parties would inaugurate a period of peace and eventual prosperity.

Generals of South Sudan's army celebrate during official independence day ceremonies
Generals of South Sudan’s army celebrate during official independence day ceremonies

But alas! ‘Scores’ are believed to have died on the fifth independence anniversary, amid growing fears of a return to an all-out war. The result is that South Sudan’s displaced people are wary of returning home from their exile. The current instability is similar to the skirmish between soldiers in Juba in December 2013 that led to the civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

How to eventually resolve the fundamentals of the problems in South Sudan is at present not clear, save for appealing to all the sides to learn to live together peacefully. But when one couples the going-ons in South Sudan with those of gun violence against peoples of colour in America and threats to immigrants in Europe, one may be forgiven to agree with Stephen Ogongo, editor of that “we seriously need to consider black people in certain parts of the world an endangered species”.

South Sudan is a tinderbox that threatens to set the fire of instability to the whole of the Eastern Africa region, the cradle of man and a source of inspiration to all peoples of colour everywhere in the world.

Concerted international measures need to be put in place to prevent a full-blown regional security crisis now and prevent blacks regressing from the tag ‘beautiful’. As Kenyan musician Lydia Achieng’ Abura says, let us: “ask all people of good will to pray for South Sudan. Conflict cannot be a way of life, least of all for personal goals at the expense of the masses. It is time South Sudan … brought a stop to this culture of violence and conflict. You did not fight for freedom for decades, just to fight among yourselves. There is nothing so important that one must sacrifice lives to attain. My brothers and sisters, may Our Father intervene and bring peace to your land. Pray for South Sudan.”

By Enoch Opondo,
Global Education and Development Organization
Kisumu, Kenya

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