A recent biography of Gandhi is much less flattering than the status quo representation of the man who created the prototype for the Civil Rights Movement. According to the biography written by Joseph Lelyveld, Ghandi reacted to black South Africans with disdain. Consider this quote from “Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India”;
“We were then marched off to a prison intended for Kaffirs,” Gandhi complained during one of his campaigns for the rights of Indians settled there. “We could understand not being classed with whites, but to be placed on the same level as the Natives seemed too much to put up with. Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilized—the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live like animals.”
My reaction to Gandhi’s racist inclinations is analogous to my reaction to the misogyny experienced by black women who played central roles in the Civil Rights movement; big shrug. No person is just one thing, good or bad. There are a multitude of layers to our humanity and those layers continue to unfold and grow or diminish in strength based largely upon both our intention and our level of self-reflection. Did Gandhi die believing that Africans were savages? Don’t know, don’t care.
What matters to me is our reaction to the luminaries who offer voice to our struggles. We tend to take from them only the attributes we most value and ignore the leader’s amalgamation of traits. We ignore their wholeness and chop them into jingoistic creatures that we piece back together in a way which benefits us and our mythology. One of the many drawbacks of such a singular on only what we qualify as positive traits is that our rigid assessment doesn’t allow for corrective action.
If you believe a man a prophet, he’s destined to disappoint you. And if you project upon a human the qualities of an all knowing God, then what happens when that person veers off the path which has the highest likelihood for producing freedom for the masses? If you have deified that leader and believe him (or her) all knowing, then you become all trusting. And thus begins the demise of a movement. The movement dies because of psychology, not because of resources or circumstances.
We must broaden our view of Ghandi, and others, and be ready – collectively – to pivot away from anyone who exposes themselves as detrimental to our mission or interests. Our inability to pivot has become what defines us as black people. We’re – in a word – stuck.