Whose table?

On September 12, 1977, Steven Biko, a young black South African activist, died in a South African jail – as a result of beatings and lack of medical attention.

His death, one of many by the apartheid regime of South Africa, was but one of many. But his life and struggle came to be known throughout the world. I read and was moved by Donald Wood’s Biko and found the movie Biko challenging and inspirational.

But one quote from Biko in Wood’s book captured my imagination and has formed my conscience.

“We are aware that the white man is sitting at our table. We know that he has no right to be there; we want to remove him from our table, strip the table of all the trappings put on it by him, decorate it in true African terms, settle down and then ask him to join us on our terms if he wishes.”

We whites think we can help people while we are still sitting at a table that does not belong to us. This is even more so when we whites are the oppressors, as in South Africa and in the South of the United States in the past, and in many parts of the world today where white, most often US, interests dominate and control the economic systems that keep people down.

Biko suggested that we should be removed – if we don’t have the good sense to get up and leave the table – so that they can eat. Then the poor, the oppressed, will strip the table and decorate it in their terms.

I don’t find this offensive. I find it realistic and indeed empowering. The poor, the people of color have something to offer and, if I don’t let them do what they can, I am impoverished.

But note that Biko suggests that we be invited back to sit down at table with them – if we are willing.

If we are willing to give up control, privilege, setting the agenda, being at the center, power.

And then maybe we can enjoy life and the food and company they offer us.

This has happened to me!

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