I have in mind to write a novel. Whether this will ever come about, I don’t know. I know it’s a complex and ambitious novel and I’ve no idea if I can pull it off. One of the themes in the novel is courage and it is in part inspired by my admiration for certain people none of whom I’ve met except through their writing or those who’ve written about them.
One such person is Steve Biko who was a writer and anti-apartheid activist in South Africa. He founded the Black Consciousness Movement. In 1977, when he was 31, he was beaten to death in police custody. I’ve borrowed the title of this blog piece from his book ‘I Write What I Like’ which is a collection of essays he wrote as President of the South African Student Union until banned from publishing his words in 1971.
Writing what he liked was a way of saying what he liked, of speaking out against injustice and brutality. Through his writing he could reach more people and inspire them to realise they too could speak out or even that they could think differently, not in the same old ways. They could think what they liked.
It’s a strange idea that we can’t think what we want to; that fear of the consequences might affect what we think in the privacy of our own minds. But, I think, once we’ve thought more radically or controversially or more truthfully it’s hard not to communicate those thoughts to others. There is an impetus to share what’s valuable, meaningful and vital to us. Sometimes those thoughts are voiced despite great risk to our personal safety. Words are then out in the world and can be acted on.
Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar were 2 men who spoke out of the passion of their thoughts and beliefs and they both changed the world; Dr King with the Civil Rights Movement in the US and Dr Ambedkar in India abandoning the destructive Hindu Caste System for Buddhism with half a million ‘ex-untouchable’ Dalits following him.
I love Biko’s phrase ‘I Write What I Like’. It is simple and yet so powerful. He is taking an essentially human freedom (of speech) to speak about freedom for all. To me these words are saying “This is who I am, this is what is important to me and no one can take that away even if they take my life away. There is no hiding who I am”. It is a celebration of a life of value.
What stops me writing or saying or thinking what I like? Any number of things; embarrassment, fear of disagreements, fear of appearing critical or insensitive. Fear of standing out and feeling exposed. Fear of getting it wrong.
Lots of ‘fear’ as you can see but none of it involves a fear for my life! But those smaller consequences can loom large in the mind. What others think about us can influence us hugely.
The writer Vera Brittain very publicly lost her popularity before the second world war through speaking out about the danger Hitler presented to a country not ready to hear it. She never regretted her many letters to editors of newspapers and lived with the loss of good opinion for years. It was only after the war when Hitlers ‘hit list’ was printed and she was on it that people realised she hadn’t been unpatriotic after all. The ‘worldly winds’ of praise and blame didn’t sway her from what she believed needed to be said.
Noticing what’s happening in the mind means, at least some of the time, I don’t buy into the popularity contest of group values. I try to be clear in my own mind what I think and even when it goes against the prevailing winds I’ll say it. Sometimes there is more of a ‘feel the fear and say it anyway’.
Because the reward is the winds of freedom and the cool breeze of equanimity. Awareness supports this freedom of mind and heart and there is nothing else that feels quite like it.