We take nothing with us
Trevor Lwere | Thursday, October 29, 2020
Death is a brutal reminder of our mortality. Renown economist John Maynard Keynes said that “in the long run, we are all dead.” Unlike Keynes who used the inevitability of death to advocate a greater role for government intervention in the economy, I would like to employ the inevitability of death for a different purpose: a call to justice.
Death reminds us of our temporality here on earth, and our temporality should remind us that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to make having a good time here on earth a preserve for a few and deny others a chance to “be at home” in the world. It is a truism that when we die, we take nothing with us; then why are we so obsessively and easily predisposed to primitive accumulation here on earth, especially at the expense of others who, like us, are here but for a limited time?
Amongst its many consequences, the ongoing global health crisis has afforded us the opportunity to pause and confront, rather directly, the deep-seated injustices in our world today, among these: racism. Racism denies non-white people a chance to “be at home in the world.” Whiteness as a standard, or white supremacy, seeks to universalize the Eurocentric way as the only way of “being” in the world. This standard is upheld through cultural imperialism, the threat of military destruction, economic dependence and political manipulation. To be non-white, therefore, becomes an illegitimate way of “being” in the world, punishable by dehumanization and death through subjugation, discrimination, destruction and all manner of exploitation. But if we are to take nothing with us when we die, then why delimit the earthly experience of others through racial oppression?
In the struggle against racial oppression, Black people are asking for the very least: to be allowed to “be at home” in the world without any compulsion to conform to some arbitrary standard. All Black people are saying is that “being” Black in the world, “being” in the world in a “non-white” way, should not attract death and dehumanization. Unfortunately, some people have misconstrued the struggle against racial oppression to be a call for the death of white people. That is mere distortion. The struggle against racial oppression simply condemns white supremacy as evil and does not at all mean that white people deserve death. It is a struggle against sin, not the sinner. This idea is perhaps best expressed by anti-apartheid struggle icon, Nelson Mandela.
While speaking at the Rivonia trial in June 1964 before his sentencing to life in prison for fighting against apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela expressed the simple idea that the struggle against racial oppression is about hating the sin and not the sinner. This struggle is motivated not by vengeance against white people, not by the desire to bring about “Black Supremacy” but the desire to bring about “a [truly] democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” That is to say that this struggle is resolutely opposed to white domination, yet, it is not about vengeance; such would be self-contradiction. Black people know oppression all too well to wish it on anybody else. In fighting against racial oppression, Black people are simply seeking to “be at home” in the world as they best know how.
Indeed, like Mandela, the ideal of “a democratic society in which all persons live in harmony” is one that those of us fighting against racial oppression and imperialism “hope to live for and see realized.” Yet, as Mandela says, “if needs be, it is an ideal for which [we are] prepared to die.” If our way of “being” in the world is to be deemed illegitimate, then living is as good as being dead. If we have to mute our souls just to stay alive in the world, then death becomes freedom for us. After all, living illegitimately and in subjugation is no more different than dying and exiting the world with nothing. Therefore, to borrow that famous revolutionary maxim, for Black people in the United States and all over the world, it is “liberty or death.”
Death is a brutal reminder of our mortality. And if it is a reminder of our temporality here on earth, I pray that death also reminds us that when we die, we do not take anything with us. Therefore, there should be absolutely no reason whatsoever to make having a good time here on earth a preserve for a few and deny others a chance to “be at home” in the world. Black people do not seek vengeance against white people. We hate the sin of subjugation, but we do not hate the sinner who has subjugated us. We know too much about subjugation to wish it on anyone. All that Black people seek through the struggle against racial oppression: a chance to “be at home” in the world as we best know how.
Trevor Lwere is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in economics, with a PPE minor. He hails from Kampala, Uganda, and lives off campus. He is a dee-jay in his other life and can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.