The Psychology of Oppression and Liberation in Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood.

Author:Sakiru, Adebayo
Position::Critical essay


Drawing from Carl Ratner's (2009) brilliant essay, the psychology of oppression is the psychological effect of social oppression and the system that sustains it. It is demonstrated in the ways a society is oppressive towards its people and how the people's psychology is implicated in that oppression. The psychology of oppression is not only predicated on the victim's psyche, it also involves the psychology of the oppressor and how they are both yoked in a Manichaean view of things. Ratner opines that the oppressor does not recognise the oppressed as a social being, he rids him (the oppressed) of all that is needed to understand and fulfil himself, thereby 'stunting (his) panoply of psychological processes such as cognition, perception, emotions, motivations, sensibility, imagination, morals, aesthetics and self-concept'(2). He also notes that the psychology of oppression can be objectively demonstrated to diminish the subject's socio-psychological frame and to subjugate him to economic and political interest of a ruling social elite. The main purpose of psychology of oppression is to adjust the oppressed to social and material oppression and to distort their understanding of social reality so that they are blind to its oppressive character or so that they are incapacitated to reverse it. The oppressor promotes the psychology of oppression through the institutions, artifacts and conceptual apparatuses he controls--think tanks, advertising, news outlets, entertainment, institutions, university research institutes, religious institutions, political parties and government agencies.

Bulhan(1985) also asserts that the psychology of oppression is maintained through various means which include police brutality, surveillance, incarceration, power, privilege. He notes that in an oppressive society, the law, media, education, work relations, environment and the whole ensemble of cultural and material arrangement of the society remain infused with violence. Hence, the effect of oppression on the oppressed may include psycho-social phenomena such as 'craving, impulsively buying, consumer habit, identifying with consumer product, conforming to restrictive, punitive, theological dogma; enjoying vile, vapid entertainment programs, crude, superficial sensational taste, feeling insecure, irrationality, short-sightedness (quick return on investment)'(56). This structure of oppression usually makes it flourish unnoticed. As a result, victims are oblivious of their oppression and become unwittingly complicit in their own oppression (Ratner, 2009). This gives rise to the need to educate people about oppression and the need to eradicate oppression through a democratic society.

Frantz Fanon (1961) explores the historical and structural oppression of the colonised people as he uses the phrase 'traumatised for life' to explain the postcolonial condition- a nervous condition. Hussein Bulhan(1985) builds on Fanon's work in order to investigate the psyche of the victimised and oppressed people in the Third World. He explains that all situations of oppression violate one's space, time, energy, mobility and identity. He also notes that the oppressed finds his or her physical and psychological space unacknowledged, intruded into and curtailed, resulting in a collective, everyday forms of traumatising violence. Therefore, 'a situation of oppression is a cauldron of violence'(131). This everyday kind of violence is what Maria P. Root (1992) refers to as an 'insidious trauma- a traumatogenetic effect of oppression' (234), Kai Erikson also calls it a 'gradual process of psychic erosion' (1994: 238). Sindiwe Magona, in her essay, 'It is in the Blood' (2012) also explains how apartheid's oppression is inevitably implanted 'in the blood' of South Africans, 'in the very cells of (their) deformed bodies' (93). Speaking of apartheid, this paper is an attempt at examining the psychology of oppression and liberation in apartheid South Africa, as portrayed in Mongane Serote's To Every Birth Its Blood. This paper also attempts to study how Serote's concerns still resonate in the so called 'liberated' South Africa and how this challenges the transparent distinction between the psychologies of oppression and liberation.

Having established himself as a poet, Serote debuted as a novelist with To Every Birth Its Blood. This novel chronicles the events before and after June 1976 in South Africa. It is a story about all levels of oppression (legal, social, economic, political, historical, structural, psychological) meted out on the Black people in apartheid South Africa. It is also an urban narrative about lives in a township and a city. To Every Birth Its Blood has attracted quite a lot of critical attention even though critics tend to be divided over its subject matter. This is due to the novel's bipartite structure. Because the novel does not follow a chronological structure, many have labelled it as two novels in one. However, Kelwyn Sole (1991) reads this disjointedness as a 'double logic' because the first part began in 1975, interrupted by the student uprising of June 1976, and the other a subsequent response to this event.

Interestingly, N, Visser (1987) justifies this 'double logic' as a 'fragmented ontology of the oppressed' but more than this, the actual events which Serote attempts to capture in To Every Birth Its Blood unfolded in a fragmentary- rather than a complete or methodical- manner. Tlhalo Sam Raditlhalo (2013) also reads To Every Birth Its Blood as a 'trauma fiction' and validates the fragmented style of narration as an anticipated way of writing trauma. Despite these various critical bearings on the novel, it is evident that the novel is a protest novel-an indictment on the oppressive nature of apartheid. Jane Watts (1989) refers the novel to a 'literature of combat' while Dyer T.U. (2015) opines that a 'revolutionary consciousness' runs through it.

This paper reads the novel's bipartite structure (the shift from first to third person point of view, principal character to multiple voices, mood of melancholy to activism, and tone of loss to defiance/resistance among others) as portraitures of the psychologies of oppression and liberation respectively. While the first part details how characters are tortured, exploited and traumatised because of an oppressive system, the second part of the novel records a season of awareness and struggle against that oppression. I go further to deconstruct this seemingly binarist/structuralist orientation. I begin with an examination of the psychology of oppression in To Every Birth Its Blood.

Psychology of Oppression in To Every Birth Its Blood

In the first chapter of the novel is an atmosphere of melancholy and a description of characters with wearied bodies and faces. These wearied bodies move about with a sense of crushing defeat. The old man Zola tells Tsi; 'we have been defeated... to be defeated is a painful thing'(17). Zola's statement paints the picture of an oppressed psyche. Through Zola, Serote cautions the readers not to underestimate the damage brought on the Black people of South Africa by the settlers. This damage, in all its ramifications, is so immense that the characters feel estranged and unwelcome in their own land. Tsi laments while he reveals the extent of this damage and defeat:

you know that it is only in our memory that this is our land. We imagine we have a home, we know that in reality, if there was a quick way that these settlers could wipe us out, they would, and if they did not need our labour they would. All these things live with us every minute of every day. (To Every Birth Its Blood, 78). As if the confiscation of land is not enough, the apartheid government tyrannises Black people in town, on farm, on street. This tyranny drags the Black subjects to a place of alienation. The melancholic narrator in the novel draws attention to the non-phenomenal life that the oppressive system has left him. He says: 'most things about this earth want you to run, want to make you weary, want you to faint' (TEBIB,1). In another part of the novel, Tsi speaks of the alienated condition that apartheid brought on South Africans. He says:

What is it that we don't know? Despair? Fear? Crying? Laughing? Maybe we know too much of everything. Maybe. And maybe that is why, that is why we have never lived? (TEBIB, 38). Frantz Fanon (1961) claims that alienation is central to the situation of oppression. He reveals how, in the psychology of oppression, the oppressed is disturbed by a feeling of self-estrangement to an extent that he gets no intrinsic satisfaction from life. He is alienated from his body, cognition and affect. In other words, he is alienated from himself, his corporality and personal identity. Tsi, an archetypal character, walks aimlessly at night because he could not come to terms with his self-estrangement. He says:

I was not really sober. But I was not drunk either. I fear this feeling. It knocks me down. It puts the light out of me. I do, I fear this strange feeling....not knowing where to go... lost. Big man I am Lost. Lost, yet aware I had someone who loves and cares, wishes to be with me. Yet here I was, lost in the streets' (TEBIB,45). As Tsi has shown in the statement above, he is not only alienated from himself but also from others who love him. This crushing sense of disaffection turns him to a wanderer. This is not just a peculiar case of Tsi, the oppressive system throws many people to a life on the street. This street life and its alienating effect is portrayed in Nina Simone's song which was referred to in the novel.

... street full of people all alone, road full of houses, never home(105). To Every Birth Its Blood presents 'streetism' or...

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