Thursday, 03 November 2011 00:15 BY KHAINGA O'OKWEMBA

We wear the mask that grins and lies-Paul Lawrence Dunbar

The pen is mightier than bullets. It can make the world a better place. It can transform the life of an individual for better. It can maim and destroy. We have been taught to use it responsibly; to promote understanding and mutual respect between people; to dispel race, ethnic, class, gender, and national hatred. When I put my fingers on the barrel of the pen, it is to guide it towards a greater goal; to roll it towards affinity and love amongst all people; to walk the path of a singular universe and one humanity.

I have created the ideal world, far removed from the world we live in. Let us come down to earth. The story is told of a renowned Kenyan scholar who was on an academic tour in a South Asian country. Well informed in his field of study, highly visible in academia, respected and accorded the status of an oracle at home, the university don had been gracious and generous to his hosts, particularly on matters pertaining to education systems. One day he accompanied a handful of his hosts on a field tour.

During the tour one of his companions lost a wrist watch. Being the only African in the group, our good professor had to suffer the indignity of being singled out and suspected of stealing the little luxury. How sudden and dramatic! “Racism” he told me in an interview, “can be subtle.” The Kenyan was a victim of racial prejudice. However, he responded by “masking” his humiliation and disbelief. The “mask” is an age old form of resistance. Throughout the history of human civilization, victims of oppression have been known to wear the mask as did the slaves; to hide their pain, feelings, furry, dreams, as a shield and as a means of survival and plot a fight tomorrow.

Had this incident happened to Mary Louise McCarthy, a Canadian of African heritage, she would have wrought her wrath to the perpetrator. Mary is an outspoken activist. Mary is a post-colonial feminist theorist whose dissertations in patriarchy and colonialism exposes race and gender biases directed at females, and Africans in Diaspora. As a descendant of the Tran-Atlantic Slave trade, she says that her tribe in Canada has suffered no less than the African American.

In her book, Releasing My Critical Chatter: An autobiographical narrative from black diaspora , Mary draws our attention to her personal experiences as a child, as a student, as a black woman, and as a working middle class, to show the different forms and levels of racial and sexist prejudices in modern societies. A joke that is often times viewed as a harmless stereotype may in fact be a form of systemic racism or sexism. The “critical chatter” is Mary’s effort to “unmask” prejudices perpetuated against women and blacks. The chatter calls for respectability in human relations.

Using black feminist thought, Mary turns her individual experiences as a black woman into theoretical materials to explore and show how racism and sexism are embedded in everyday life. The experiences or 'moments' open our eyes to the different forms and layers of marginalisation and attack of disadvantaged groups and communities as vestiges of patriarchy and colonialism: “I analyse the moments through critical black feminist theory to name my own reality and to reveal how my experiences connect to larger institutional structures and colonising practices” she writes. Through poetry and prose Mary Louise McCarthy defines herself and champions social transformation.

NB: This review appeared in The Star newspaper of Nairobi, Kenya on November 3rd, 2011.

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