In defence of profanity

“I have a dream…”

These famous words are most commonly associated with the American civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Uttered by a widely respected Christian cleric and scholar Martin Luther King Jr, they came to define how an entire generation perceived the language and form of political revolutions and accelerated social change. The “I Have A Dream” speech is now recognised globally as the defining moment of an era – the point where eloquence and circumstances came together to spark one of the most important social revolutions in all of human history.

To those who have more than a cursory understanding of mid-century American history however, this is a reductionist and fairly inaccurate position. It is not that Dr. King’s speech was not a hugely significant and momentous event on the road to the Civil Rights Act on its own. It was indeed very important, but to cite it as the centre of that era’s political conversation is to erase the even greater contributions made by other events and people that did not have the sage respectability or the scholarly eloquence of Dr. King. Here is why acknowledging this is important.

“No Vietcong ever called me nigger”

While he is remembered more for his exploits in the boxing ring, former world heavyweight champion and undisputed Greatest Of All Time Muhammad Ali, was arguably just as influential – if not more so – than Dr. King in the Civil Rights struggle. Dr. King had an audience of churchgoers and educated people, and his goal was to enact legal change. Muhammad Ali had an audience of…everybody – and his goal was to enact root-and-branch societal change, which was a much bigger and more painful process than getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed.

In 1967 for example, he declared himself a Conscientious Objector to the Vietnam War, and chose to go to prison instead of making himself available for the military draft. When politicians and newspaper editors predictably came down hard on him for his perceived lack of patriotism, he responded with a quote that had arguably just as much cultural resonance in the US as Dr. King’s speech 3 years earlier. Speaking to a reporter in a 1968 interview, he said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

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That statement, which now lies curiously forgotten by history – or perhaps by history writers who would like to forget that it happened – led to momentous change and upheaval in American society. Overnight, following a hail of sympathetic protests and demonstrations that sprang up across Black America, the American political establishment suddenly realised that it could no longer treat the domestic politics of race relations as a lower priority or a separate issue from the Cold War and US foreign policy. Suddenly it became clear that oppressing people domestically and expecting them to be “patriotic” internationally simply could not work anymore.

Arguably, Muhammad Ali’s barbed tongue and perceived impolite words and actions led to just as much social and political change as Dr. Martin Luther King’s polite, eloquent, well-mannered, socially acceptable speechmaking and activism. History does not credit him with this, possibly because those with the privilege of writing it much prefer to gloss over the extent of America’s ugliness at the time by dwelling on the saintly, socially polite and respectable person of Dr. King. It is possibly for this same reason that the part of Dr. King’s activism that is widely highlighted is not the part where he talked about self-defence, strategic separation, economic boycotts and the interminable hypocrisy of white liberals.

Change – real change – is never polite

Over here in Nigeria, the closest historical equivalent we have to Muhammad Ali would probably be Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Like Ali, he is often remembered more for his entertainment career than for his equally – or even more so – momentous career as a political activist. Even when his legacy of fighting against corrupt military regimes is spoken of, it is typically referenced vaguely and without any attempt to drill into it. We often hear “Fela fought xyz,” without hearing exactly what said fight meant in real terms.

In real terms, Fela was anything but a polite, socially acceptable, milquetoast “human rights activist.” Fela was bold. Fela was brash. Fela smoked weed. Fela could often be seen without a shirt. Fela built his house in Mushin, when he could easily afford his pick of property in Ikoyi, Ikeja or Victoria Island. Fela openly embraced African traditional religion and polygamy at a time when Christianity and Islam were the only socially acceptable faiths in Nigeria. In his music, Fela used Yoruba and Nigerian Pidgin – the languages of the street in Lagos – so as to speak to ordinary Nigerians, instead of the minority of rich and educated patrons who could have made him much wealthier.

Fela cussed repeatedly in his music. He called people out directly and without prevarication. He openly accused Ibrahim Babangida of murdering Dele Giwa. He described Olusegun Obasanjo and MKO Abiola as “International Thief Thief.” He described Muhammadu Buhari as a “craze man.” He used unabashedly sexual references taken straight from the language of the streets. His music was considered so profane and off-colour that broadcast stations were banned from playing it. Even to date, hearing a Fela song on the radio – after his death – is still something of a rarity.

And yet, between him and the English-speaking, suit-wearing, tooth-shining, impeccably polite contemporary public commentators of his time, who had a more demonstrable impact in the fight to get rid of military dictatorship and achieve respect for basic human rights? Between those who wrote PhD thesis papers on racial injustice in America, but refused to engage robustly in public, and Muhammad Ali who sparked a nationwide protest movement by saying “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” who had more of an impact on American history?

This is something to think about, the next time you are moved to ask me “Why do you lower yourself to exchange insults and use profanity on Twitter?”

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