I had such a laugh this morning thinking about this so I thought I should share it with you while it is still fresh on my mind. By the way the words Suppose God is Black are not mine. They were actually the words of President John F. Kennedy: the 35th president of the United States of America in office from 1961 to 1963 when he was assassinated. I found this out at the Rise and Fall of Apartheid :Photography and the Bureaucracy of Every day Life. A photographic exhibition open at Museum Africa in Johannesburg South Africa. JFK said those words Suppose God is Black in reference to Apartheid Rule in South Africa during his visit in June 1966. No wonder. I got to thinking about this in more detail as I walked through walls and walls of black bodies fervently seeking emancipation and freedom. I went to the museum to see the exhibition knowing that it is mostly unpleasant, many of the images on exhibit I had seen numerous times before, however I was determined to come out of it stronger than I was when I First went in. And Suppose God is Black was the first thing I came across : Thank you JFK.
BUT SUPPOSE GOD IS A BLACK WOMAN?
This thought arose as I studied the image (see above) of a white woman walking by the beach front, causally, while her black dog trailed behind her. A few feet behind the white woman and the dog is a black woman – her maid. The Dog was doing what dogs do…shitting all over the place and the black maid was doing what black maids do, picking up the shit the dog had left behind. Now you may wonder how this is a) Funny or b) Godly. But the more I thought about it the more it made sense. First can you think of one single person who has cleaned-up your shit no matter how badly it stunk, wiped your puke, cleaned your nose, and took care of all your disgusting (let’s be honest) bodily functions and still thought you are the most amazing, beautiful, precious thing on earth?. Someone who loved you so much they could eat you, cuddle you and will do anything to protect you, love you and make sure you’re happy after all of that? Yes you thought right it is your mother. (I use this term inclusively of all kinds of mother(s)/mothering yes, men/fathers who do this are included too) But mostly it’s mother’s who do all the dirty work, the unpleasant stuff. So take this analogy and think about it in the South African context (or any the colonial context for that matter). Who does all the dirty work? Who cleans up after you, makes sure your dog’s shit is picked up, your house is clean, you have clean clothes, your children are well raised and taken care of? A black Woman. If you’re not doing it yourself, a black woman is doing it for you. So still, how does that make a black woman God you ask? Don’t white women do this too? Sure white women do, do that too… but if I were looking for answers I’d go to the person who looks after everybody including white women. That person in my context is a black woman.
Still confused? okay let me simplify it. Though not all of us are religious, many of us believe that there is something or someone greater than all of us and we give that person or thing the name God, an omnipresent powerful force beyond our human understanding. Of course if you’re an atheist then this would not apply to you. But enough people in the world believe that there is a God somewhere out there or inside you and everywhere.
So when, we, those who believe in the God figure pray. What are we doing most of the time? Dictating tasks /orders we would like him to do for us in that day. The list is endless…
please make him give me the promotion
give me some money from petty cash
i know i was late but can you make them understand why
buy me that dress
do you love me?
okay please get me that car
make Thomas love me
clean my house
cook for me
make my children happy
buy me a new cellphone
make me famous
make me rich
oh you forgot i asked you for a man ten years ago
where is he…
why aren’t you listening to me?
why did you give her that job and not me?
she’s evil, drinks and sleeps around
I am good.
I pray everyday
why aren’t you doing what i want?
i’m right and he is wrong
so I’ll be doing you a favour if I kill him
talk to me
why are you so quiet..
please don’t make it rain tomorrow!
i love you
please make all my dreams come true.
Well… think about it. When you “pray” to God, what do you normally want him/her to do? Solve your problems. You pray to God because things aren’t going so well, you can’t do it, can’t cope, not bothered whatever the case may be – but you need stuff to get fixed. Bottom line.
However real or imaginary this God figure is, we understand at the most basic level that he/she is there for us: at our service so to speak. They are there to serve us, make us happy, get us everything we want and could ever dream of. So if we treat God like this in our secret place, in our closed hearts, how much so another human being? So we treat maids in the same way, but with even more disdain because we think they are worth- less. So it is with the black woman/maid. She must be a miracle worker, solve all our problems make our lives easier, for free or if we insist at a nominal fee. But even then we’re free to choose how much we give her, because clearly God needs or wants for nothing.
So ergo my theory on why a black woman, can be God. Because whether we smile at him and speak to her in scorn, we’re asking both of them for the same thing, we want God and the Black Woman, to do something, for our benefit and our benefit only most of the time. The answer to all our daily ” can’t deal with this – don’t know what to do with this ” messy problems. We need them to intervene in our lives and make everything okay. Fix it! There’s nothing right or wrong about our intentions but whether we pray fervently at church on our knees, or standing in the kitchen barking orders for someone to do something for us, we are always in need of something or someone, if we think God won’t do it, at least I can tell a black woman to do it by whatever means necessary whether they want to do it or not, we think. I pay you to do it, so you must do or I’ll kill you.
At least God has a break. Black women on the other hand are constantly listening to silent and loud prayers from everyone. They can make your home look like paradise in a second, but you still don’t think they are good enough for you. You treat your Dog better than the Black woman.
But the good thing about a black woman is, even though she is as powerful as God, even though she can abuse that power which you give her thinking you’re doing her favour. She chooses again and again, not to. She unlike many of us knows who God is. Which makes her the closest thing to unconditional love you can ever experience. She doesn’t like “we” all do, think that it is her who makes things happen by the strength of her own might. She knows where her power comes from. She loves and respects herself and everyone, regardless of how they treat her. She is not without mistakes, weaknesses in character, her vulnerability is the source of her her strength a strength which comes from a sacred place, a sacred union with source, our creator far outweighs her deficiencies.
She Loves more than life itself. No matter how unpleasant or belittling an experience can be. She knows where her worth comes from, and it’s not in your words, or pitiful actions or the money you pay her. She knows who God is, that’s why she can and always does, serve you regardless of what you say or do to make her less than who she really is. Doesn’t the Sun? It shines for all of us everyday, whether we deserve it or not. The Sun does not depend on our goodness or evilness to shine. It shines everyday. Regardless. Shine Black Woman.
Recently my Facebook homepage has been populated with a litany of race commentary from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter what the topic was about. I found that the issue of race keeps coming up over and over again in politics, sports, fashion, education, you name it. First it was a white girl who painted her face black with a permanent marker to poke fun at black people. The commentary there was: the joke is on her because she will remain black like that forever, which of course in not true. Then yesterday an admission by a Kenyan Socialite that she has deliberately lightened her skin to make money because her body is a business drew much attention from local and international networks. Comments on that story were highly judgmental against “black “women’s general lack of self-worth and self-esteem.
So what is it about race that matters so much? What is it about the colour of one skin that makes it so important above everything else we share as human beings on this earth that we have to kill each other for it?
Why is race important today in the 21st century when we have more than enough scientific proof that there really is absolutely no biological difference between races except of course the colour of their skin. Maybe the shape of your nose and mouth or eyes… but isn’t that different anyway regardless? Why are people judged often solely on how they look?
I met a man the other day who said he often borrows from nature to answer life’s big questions. So I will learn from him and use “nature” to try to explain why I think race matters today more than ever but of course not for the same reasons we have been conditioned to think it does.
RACE: A KIND OF LANGUAGE
To use nature to explain the challenge of race I will not go on a wild African safari. Instead I’ll start at home. Using an example of an animal said to be the human’s best friend. The Dog.
Yes I am comparing humans to dogs.
In the world of dogs: there are different types of dogs, different colours, personalities, characters and strengths. But they are all dogs though, and the only thing that helps us tell them apart – is their shape/size and colour/character. If dogs were only short and black and didn’t come in any other variety, I’m sure humans would run experiment testing what would happen if mixed a dog’s genes with those of cats for example. But ultimately, if that were the case we would not be able to tell the difference between one short black dog to another. To tell the difference we’d have to spend time with each dog in order to discover its unique peculiarities which sets its apart from the packs in order to know the difference.
So there you go. Humans are like dogs. We’re the same. And since we are so much alike in every way imaginable, race becomes important. If we were all black and looked exactly like me – exact copies of who I am, Jedi Ramalapa with my history and everything that I am now there would be no US, but only ME or as the Rastafarians like to say, there would only be I and I. I will be the only person I know because there would be no one else who is different from me. There would be no “other”one who would be me, I would be you. So I need there to be white people, Chinese, Indian people, black people, short people, tall people, all colours because that’s the only way that I will ever know that I exist as a human being . I know I am human because you are human, but I know I’m me because you are not me even though you are, like me, human.
This is where I think where the notion of I am because you are –” umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu “– I am human because you are human comes from. I know I am me because you are not me. If you were I wouldn’t be who I am. I will not be able to tell myself apart from any other human person because we would all be exactly the same. Imagine if we all had the same thought, at the same time, felt the same, had the exact same families, backgrounds, histories, and training, skin colouring, feelings at the same time what would make you different from me? Nothing. If you were me, the whole world would be sitting at Lucky Bean in Melville, Johannesburg writing this blog post. But there would be no one singing, cooking or making food because the whole world would think like me, feel like me want the exact same thing as I want right now. Nothing else would be happening.
You wouldn’t exist as an individual, because I am exactly the same as you so we are ultimately, one.
BUT THAT’s NOT THE REASON WHY RACE MATTERS
So race matters only in so far as like the clothes we wear helps us to tell each other apart even though we are all part of the same thing or source. That’s the only thing. There are of course many other things which make people different. Where you grew up, your environment and what you were taught. Depending on where you come from and how you were educated about yourself, that differentiates you from the next person. The differences between humans though are beyond skin. Take for example my siblings and I. We were all raised by the same parents, lived for the most part under one roof. But we are all distinctly different from each other and we all want to do different things with our lives. My brother has chosen a different life for himself where he feels needed and wanted as an entrepreneur, my younger sister is married with children, my oldest sister has not lived anywhere else but at home with my parents since I’ve known her, I have traveled the world and still have itchy feet to this day. We all love music, we appreciate dance, education and the value of hard work but we appreciate those things in our own unique way. So even though we share the “same” DNA we are all different, even if we may share similar features, even though our skin colour is the same and from the same person. We are as diverse as the vegetation in nature.
IT’S OUR DIFFERENCES THAT MAKES US WHO WE ARE.
So I am Jedi Ramalapa, only because there is a Peace, Victoria, Didi and Immie in my life. I am who I am because no one else is like me, even though we share the same genes. I “wear” my genes differently and how I “wear” my genes changes also with time and the environment. But Victoria the “quiet” one in my family has strengths and skills I don’t possess, she knows things I don’t know, understands and interprets the same facts we both know differently. Her perspective is different from mine. Same with Didi, Immie and Peace. We have the same reference point but not the same perspectives, understanding or way of doing things. And that’s what makes us individuals. The me I am, only make sense in the difference that makes you who you are. I need an Immie, a victoria, a Didi, a Peace in my life, because they in their difference complete me. They compensate for my shortfalls or should I say make my strengths more visible or are strong where I am weak and vise versa. We all have a role to play in life and our roles are as unique and different as life itself. I need another to be me, you need me to be myself not a copy of anyone else to be you. That is why we’re all, regardless of our colouring, irreplaceable.
Perhaps this is only a notion parents with more than one child can understand, but I’m definitely sure that if I can understand this so can you, child or no child.
So in all the debates about race, the issue is not race necessarily, but the desire to control and have power over another human being or a particular group of people that we decide at some point or other is inferior. They are not intrinsically inferior they just have different strengths and weaknesses to us. In order to control anyone or anything, you must insist on their weaknesses, highlight the points at which they are wrong, more than the points where they are strong and ‘right’.
Needless to say there is no wrong or right necessarily, what exists are the norms which we decide as a community should be deemed right or wrong in order to further perpetuate the notions of superiority, power and ultimately control.
In the cycle of life we are all equal, yet different. What makes nature so magnificent is the one thing we refuse to acknowledge in our human relationships. Difference makes harmony possible. There is no harmony without difference.
So yes you matter, your race or whatever colouring you are matters. But not anymore or less than the next person who appears different from you. They make you who you are. Without them. You can’t be. You.
So instead of focusing on the superficial race arguments, lets talk about how to change the systems that make discrimination based on skin or anything else possible. Why should we fight about the very thing that makes us stronger as a human race. Why should someones skin be the basis on which you decide how to treat them, when you yourself need and want the very same things as the other person? Food shelter, love, community, understanding, freedom. Why should someone else die for your comfort? Why can’t we use our strengths as individuals, races and or communities to build a better world. We all need each other. No one is wholly and entirely self-sufficient. Not even the people we label crazy. I cannot exists without you, is the bottom line, and neither can you. Even if we all looked exactly the same, we’d still be different or find reasons to discriminate against each other based on other differences such as country or continent, age , gender, sexuality. Race would not matter then.
So why should it now?
What you choose to do with your body or skin, is ultimately up to you and no one else.
Bree, Johannesburg South Africa: The Taxi Marshall, acts as a bus conductor, except he is doing it at a taxi rank. He peek’s into the taxi bound for Cresta, ensuring that all the 16 seats in the minibus taxi have been occupied. A woman sits in the second row from the front, holding a child. The seat next to her is empty.
“Is that child, under three-years of age” He asks the woman holding the little boy comfortably on her lap.
“He’s three” The mother replies hesitantly as if considering in hindsight what the right answer would have been.
“Well then, let him sit on the seat” He says closing the door loudly.
“No but it’s fine, someone can take this seat, someone can sit here” She repeats her voice almost desperate.
” No Sisi, sisi, I asked you how old is the child, is the child under three years?” The taxi marshall asks again.
“He’s three, I told you already that he is three” she says argumentatively. The taxi driver comes in and asks again how old the child is after having noticed that the taxi door had been closed but there was still an empty seat in the front row. It’s not ready to move yet, the taxi must be full before it leaves the rank. All 16 seats must have passengers, sometimes a 17th person can be squeezed in just – nje.
The taxi could be well on its way to Cresta now. It is already seven o’clock at night, on a month-end Saturday in Johannesburg. Many of the passengers had places to go, people to see, not to mention having to walk for however long at night to their places of residence. Minibus taxi’s don’t drop passengers at their front gate. Passengers in this taxi were already not so keen on a protracted waiting period while the woman makes an argument no one seems to understand.
” Sisi, put the child on the seat, it’s not me, it’s the government” He says banging the door once again. Then he opens it again as if pleading with her “the insurance is not going to pay for your child if something happens and it was found that you were holding him”
His last statement almost pours petrol into a fire already burning invisibly inside this woman. She seethed.
” Don’t you tell me about government insurance! We have been involved in so many taxi accidents, I have yet to see insurance! don’t tell me about government insurance, government insurance where? Kuphi? Where did you ever see government insurance for Taxi’s! Nxaaa!”
Terse conversation begins to bubble up in the taxi. Other passengers don’t understand why this woman is being so difficult. “What does she want, she says the kid is three, so she much pay, if she said the kid is two and a half we could be going now” They mutter to each other.
Finally the driver comes and settles the dispute. “Mama, you said the kid is three, so he must sit on the next seat”
The woman dumps her child on the seat next to her, which then means the taxi can get going.
This eases up the air in the taxi, passengers are now preoccupied with their wallets and getting the right fare and change to the driver. The hum of the traffic barely subdues whatever conversation was going on in front.
“You must remember you taxi drivers, that your money comes from people, we pay for taxi’s you can’t treat us like this so badly, your business depends on us. We are the ones who pay for these taxis’, telling me about government insurance!” Hmmph. It is the woman with the child again. She still hasn’t stopped.
Her voice disappears , four – three – three. Passengers collect their taxi fare.
Then a few minutes later the taxi driver says ” No no no, Sisi, I don’t want imali yezinyembezi, imali oyikhalela kanga” He continues ” Why are you crying over this money, I asked you if the child is under three years of age and you said he’s three. Now you are crying when you have to pay, no’ He says swerving the taxi to a stop by the curb. You can take another taxi if you like take your money.” He says ” I don’t want money that’s been cried over like this”
The Woman Screams. “How dare you! you can’t take me from Bree and come and dump me here in the middle of no-where! take me back to Bree if you want. But you are not leaving me here! I am not getting out!”
The woman is now very angry, it is clear that the conversation between her and the driver continued while the passengers were counting their cents and now it seems it has escalated to such a degree that they might have to go back to the rank and drop this woman off. It’s a conundrum. It’s now up to the driver to decide if he is going back to Bree or if he’s going to take this women’s “tear” money and proceed further.
The taxi is quiet now.
“It’s just because you started talking about me being Zimbabwean! Kungenaphi lokho ukuthi ngiyiZimbabwean? What does it have to do with anything?!” She launches into a long monologue that swallows the taxi driver’s attempts at an explanation. The taxi is moving ahead, and you can almost hear the collective sigh in the taxi. The taxi driver took the Woman’s tear money. But she is not satisfied.
” Why do you say you, you Zimbabweans?!” Did I ask you about being South African? where does my nationality come in?Hhe? We are all the same maaan, we all Africans ! What makes you better than me, you, you a South African? You black like me, there’s not difference between you and me, you driving a taxi like this at night you are no better than me, do you call this a life?”
Her voice is now the only music playing in the taxi.
” what do you have, a South African, you are black like me, we are both african, the sun burns us the same here, we are all struggling all poor. what do you guys know? saying I’m Zimbabean, Zimbabwean? where does being Zimbabwean come in? huh? You South African’s you must just know that we are all Africans here, no one is better than the other… Johannesburg is a city for everyone, you don’t own Johannesburg, Johannesburg is not yours!’
Phone rings.”Hello” On male passenger answers “yes, I’m in a taxi” I call,I call, I call, but no one come, no one pick”
“are you still in town” His conversation breaks the monotony of the Woman’s speech. “well I call I call, no one pick, no one pick eh?”
The back seat giggles at the mans; fruitless journey, or accent it’s not clear.
“Hello?! Hello?! I’m coming, I am in a taxi to Cresta, Huh? I’m in taxi to Cresta wait for me” Another passenger a woman this time takes a call and begins telling the person on the other end of the line over and over again that she is currently on a taxi to Cresta.
” What do you South African’s know huh?! What do you know?! ” The Woman’s voice has found its place once again, at the top of the passenger’s heads. ” What do you know huh? You South Africans….. all you know is killing, just killing each other that’s all you know, you are no better, we are all suffering here all suffering”
Excuse me, a young woman interjects, ” the lady at the back says I must give you this” she says handing the woman a R20 ( +- 2 USD) rand note.
“Na I’m fine” the woman says to more silence in the taxi.
Muttering begins again ” this lady just gave that woman 10 rands for the seat but she doesn’t want it” ” Oh she’s turning back money” “Oh Sisi, yehlisa umoya, calm down” ” Oh nami, I wanted to give her the money too, shoo, she doesn’t even want the money” The muttering continues, no one dared speak any louder in case the woman heard their comments and decided to turn her attention on them instead of the taxi-driver.
“You know I was fine. It’s just that I was fine with the seat and everything until you said you Zimbabweans, You Zimbabweans for what?! She had started again.
” We are all in the same boat here, we are all suffering, everybody is counting pennies, counting their money, that’s why we’re in a taxi, all of us… we are all in this taxi right now because we are suffering, no one is better…..”
A phone rings. “Hello” a man sitting in front of the taxi answers his phone.
“excuse me can you please call me after ten minutes? Yes, call me after ten minutes, There’s a problem in the taxi” he told whoever who was listening to him on the other end of the line with such seriousness.
The the entire taxi shook with laughter.
Even the Woman was laughing and was even able to articulate that fact between giggles.
“We are all laughing in the taxi now,” she said her shoulders shaking.
PS: When I got out of the taxi, I learnt one of the most important lessons in life. When first got into the taxi I sat next to the Woman with the child. I moved to the back because I wanted to be more comfortable. While sitting next to her I overheard her talking to her son saying we won’t have anything to eat tonight. But I wasn’t sure if she said that because they genuinely didn’t have money for food or because they’ll arrive too late to start eating when they get to where ever they were. When the argument about the seat started, I immediately thought it must be a money problem, that’s why I passed on the R20 to her as a gift. I know from experience that however small it could go a long way when money is too tight to mention. Perhaps it was her pride (which she is entitled to ) or just a matter of principle, but I learnt that sometimes money is not everything, and people just want to be heard, they want to express themselves” No money in the world can silence that need.
I first met critically acclaimed dancer and choreographer, Nelisiwe Xaba, in 2008. We made T-shirts together for the anti-Xenophobia protest march Johannesburg in June. She never said a word the entire evening, (if she did I didn’t hear it ) while I and our other mutual friends chattered or argued and debated about which slogans worked, how many we should make, the fonts, the style etc. She just got on with the work at hand.
The next time we met, it was in 2009 for an interview on the short run of her solo-performance pieces, “They look at me and that’s all they think” and Sakhozi says ‘non’ to the Venus, which she self-funded at the Market Theater in Jozi . Both works were based and inspired by the story of Sara Baartman (1789-1815) a Khoi-khoi woman famously exhibited as a sideshow attraction in 19th Century Europe, under the name “Hottentot Venus”. I watched both her pieces with awe, I had never seen her perform before – she is often travelling and working abroad and on the continent. I wondered why I didn’t know about her before (being a lover of dance and all) or why there were not many people, black women like me, going out to see what other sisters are doing. Her performances are powerful and challenging, and thought-provoking. I have never been left unchallenged by her work. Her meticulousness is evident in how her work is structured: from the costumes she chooses, the props she uses, body movement, facial expressions, no action or movement is wasted. All tie in methodically together into smooth and powerfully vibrant performances only Nelisiwe Xaba can deliver. I have loved all of the shows she’s produced including that of X-Homes in Kliptown ( one of the oldest townships in Soweto and the venue where the 1955 freedom charter was signed) in which I barely escaped her urine which she splashed angrily at her audience as part of the piece. If there’s a critique from a novice, it would be, she is very much more than just “intense” . The day of the interview was over-cast, just like this one today. We sat in a cove at Gramadoelas restraurant at the Market Theater, and indulged in what was to be the most enjoyable interview I have ever had. We both laughed, and giggled like two school girls while sipping tea. I was surprised when I stumbled on a short transcript of the interview the other day and re-reading now I see it was probably the most seriously, real, interview I have ever done. Xaba is also, as it turns out one of the funniest people I’ve met yet, with a balanced mix of irony and witt I smile just thinking of that day. I didn’t want the Interview to end I remember… I was already in Love.
SWA: How did you navigate your way through the dance industry almost two decades down the line?
XABA: ” I had to fight. Nothing was given to me, all I had (have) I had to do it myself. I know that for my male counterparts things were just given to them and they didn’t know how to handle it, because it was given to them. No one gave me anything. I had to build my name, build everything myself. So, no one can say I gave her something, including all these Dance Institutions for all I care. The dancing industry is full of men, and no they’re not better.
SWA: Isthere a need then to build support structures for young (female) dancers? Would you consider perhaps setting up a something to train aspirant dancers?
XABA: Sometimes I dream of having my own studio, my own Non-Governmental – Organization (NGO). But at the same time I don’t believe in NGO’s…. to keep giving something to people, maybe they don’t need it. They don’t need it so they don’t know what to do with it. So I would like to create something where young girls or boys, if they want to be dancers, would have to make an effort. I don’t want to open another school where I have to rely on funders to give me money for the underprivileged, I don’t believe in that. It’s a great gift from NGO’s or from Europeans, but it doesn’t help. How many NGO’s do we have in Africa? What do they do? If NGO’s were helping Africa, Africa would be at the same level with first world countries today.
SWA: In Sakhozi says “non” to the Venus, you tackle Immigration Issues amongst other pressing issues, tell us more.
XABA: It boils down to the relationship that Europe has with Africa. It’s the superiority complex that they have with us. Also it’s not only Europe that should be blamed. We’ve been blaming Europe forever. I think our Governments will blame Europe until I’m dead. Africa needs to start having balls. Africa needs to stop having her legs wide open and cross them probably, and start having some dignity. Europeans are closing their gates to Africans, and we’re opening them wide, I don’t understand that. I don’t know what we gain from them. Europeans gain money from doing business in Africa. I don’t know what we gain.
SWA: Who are you Challenging?
XABA: Unfortunately cabinet ministers or parliamentarians won’t attend the show. They are too important (laughs). I grew up in Apartheid – South Africa, then there was a movement of consciousness, ( Black Consciousness Movement/ BCM) especially with the youth. We made each other conscious, but that’s all gone and I don’t understand why it’s gone when it should be starting, beginning actually. So I look at my work as a form of creating a consciousness.
SWA: You’ll also be performing your 2006 piece, they look at me and that’s all they think, what does this piece relate to.
XABA: This goes back to exoticism. When you’re performing in Europe, people are mainly interested in seeing your body. Sometimes they don’t actually care about what you’re saying. The black body is still so exotic. When your body is your tool to make or create art, then it becomes a challenge. How do you get your message across when someone is actually not listening and they’re just looking at your body? How do you get them to listen? That’s the challenge. They look at me , was also a challenge to Europeans that the black body is just a body “actually”. So you can listen to what I’m saying, or see what I’m talking about, to open a dialogue”
SWA: How do you deal with your own personal narrative? The irony your work evokes?
XABA: This time it is a choice. It’s not like Sara Baartman who had no choice, a contract or costume. Of course it is an art-form that gets abused. My challenge is how do I use my body in a way that exhibiting it does not degrade it, and how do I do that with pride.
SWA: Why do you think, many women, like Sara Baartman are still “caged” today?
XABA: The problem for me starts with the basics. If we women don’t teach girls to be powerful girls, they will never be powerful women. You can’t expect a 21-year-old to be a powerful woman, when you’ve never taught her when she was five how to be a powerful girl. The state of women in Africa is still ridiculous. Men are still men. Men haven’t changed despite the fact that we marched in the 60’s . It’s like the struggle of being black, you have to fight everyday of your life. Same with being a woman, you fight everyday of your life. We live in a man’s world. We live in a White world. Until we change that world, nothing can change for us.
Nelisiwe Xaba was born and raised in Soweto (South Africa), and received a scholarship to study at the Johannesburg Dance Foundation. After studying dance in London (with a 1996 Ballet Rambert Scholarship) she returned home to join Pact Dance Company, where she was company member for several years, and with whom she toured to Europe and the Mideast. She worked with a variety of choreographers, visual and theater artists, particularly Robyn Orlin, with whom she created works such as Keep the Home Fires Burning, Down Scaling down, Life after the credits roll, and Daddy I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they’re hurting each other, which toured for several years in Europe and Asia, winning the Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance. In 2001, Ms. Xaba began to focus on her own choreographic voice, creating solo and group dance works that have been performed in Africa and Europe, includingb Dazed and confused, No Strings Attached 1, No Strings Attached 2, Be My Wife(BMW)(commissioned by the Soweto Dance Project), and Black!.. White and Plasticization. Ms. Xaba has also collaborated as choreographer and dancer with fashion designers, opera productions, music videos, television productions, and multimedia performance projects.
“ So many people who consider themselves progressive have their own weird notions about the native, but they all have one thing in common. They want to decide who the native is and they want to do good things for him. You know what I mean. They want to lead him. To tell him what to do. They want to think for him and he must be accepting of their thoughts. And they like him to depend on them. Your Zuma makes an excellent “good native” for progressive folk. That’s why you like him” – Frederick Cooper, Conflict and Connection -re thinking Colonial African history ( Abrahams 1963,68)
I wrote the following piece “Un-begging to be white” in 2011. I continue to think deeply about many of the issues raised in my piece since and more so now that I find myself re-listening to archive testimonies from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-1999). Testimonies from which South African writer, poet and journalist Antjie Krog (whom I deeply admire) wrote her most famous non-fiction book Country of My Skull. The bubbling racial (sic) tensions in South Africa today and around the world make this piece more relevant. I would like you to keep these words by Nobel Laureate, Political activist, professor novelist and former Auschwitz prisoner and survivor – Elie Wiesel, in mind as you read. Prof Wiesel believed strongly that indifference is the epitome of evil. And offered memory as an antidote to it. Below is his answer to the question on how to fight indifference, he said:
“Through memory. Memory may not be the only answer but there is no answer without memory. As a writer I have always been tempted by silence. I have tried to introduce silence into every word of mine. I have tried to surround my words with silence. And yet I know that though the memory of silence is important, the silence of memory would be scandal. ( Wiesel 1988,19).
UN-BEGGING TO BE WHITE. (sic)Recently I had a matter of fact conversation with a dear friend. It was matter of fact because it was what I assumed to be a matter of fact tale of (my) life. The on-line conversation revolved around my progress in securing accommodation. I was looking for a one bedroom flat. My dear friend was assisting me by finding links to places she found thousands of miles away from Johannesburg the city I inhabit. And here’s the matter of fact part, I found myself typing this: In this situation I wish I were a white, rich woman, because I think it would make the process of finding a place easier. She responded by saying, being a “white South African is not easy. It’s hard, because you’re always looked at, judged at face-value, assumed to be a bad person (racist)”. I brushed over her comment by saying yeah but there are pros and cons (to being black or white) and in this case I think it would be a pro for me as I would be able to eliminate all other possibilities. She said she didn’t think it was a racial thing. I agreed with her in part. But instead of telling her this I continued by saying that two of my friends ( white expats) were also looking for accommodation and while viewing a cottage in Brixton they were told that they were only considered because they were white . The landlord didn’t want black people living in their backyard. At that point she said she didn’t want to have a black/ white conversation and promptly logged off.
The conversation left me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. It left me pained,and I had to really take a long, hard look at myself. I wished I could take what I said back because just like my flat hunting experience, I wasn’t sure if the conversation had ended because she really had to go or because I had hurt her feelings and she wasn’t willing to engage with me anymore. I had said to her that I wish it were simple; either the place I was looking for had already been taken or that I couldn’t afford it.
But I found myself thinking that perhaps there is more. After the conversation I had to question whether as a black South African, race is my default answer to all my problems? If I don’t get what I want – do I always assume that there must be a racial rationale? Why had I thought to even say that, why was that the uppermost thing on my mind?
Even as I write this I am finding it hard to pin down my thoughts, my reasons, my position. Why was her response to what I thought was part of my normal so disturbing for me? Did it disturb me because I had never thought of what being a white South African must be like, feel, like taste like? Is it because I did not have a white South African view to life, my vision is skewed by my skin colour, my skin colours how I look at life, defines how and when I move. I tried to think about her statement: How hard it must be to be a white South African; a descendant/beneficiary of a white racists regime, carrying the guilt of privilege, the burden of wealth on your skin; – despite what your actual personal circumstances may be. The assumption that you are racists, just because you are white.
It does sound hard and harsh. Just as hard and harsh as being black. So where do we find common ground. How can my statement not hurt my friend whom I love dearly who is also a white South African woman? How can I be sure that race has nothing to do with my difficulty in securing a place to stay, in one of the richest, leafiest suburbs of Johannesburg?
The conversation reminded me of an experience I had in Cape Town a few years ago. I had been in the city on a work assignment when it was finished I decided to stay on for a few days to experience more of the city. I decided that booking into a backpackers would be the most affordable option for me since it was after all a last minute plan. Cape Town’s long street was central, and offered a host of social venues where I could meet new people as I knew no one in the city. That night accompanied by a friend and colleague I walked down Long street and knocked on every backpacker – there were many of them. Most of them were full, others didn’t answer the door. Eventually we arrived at one where the door did open. They had room(s) available and I could afford it. There was just one problem. I was South African. They had a policy that explicitly favored, preferred foreigners over locals. I asked why in exasperation and fatigue and the man replied saying something I didn’t quite hear because the I was thinking of where the hell I was going to sleep that night. Yes, my race was the last thing on my mind.
But on re-telling the story to friends and colleagues they found it a veiled racist’s rejection. They found that whatever reason he had given was hard to justify in a country where racial segregation shaped every part of our lives. Then in 2004, I could not sleep at a backpackers which had a room I could afford because I was South African. But Cape Town is another country – or is it? Do other countries reserve accommodation only for foreigners too? Where locals are not allowed? Maybe. But I have come to define that incident as being a racist one even thought I didn’t think of it those terms initially. And wonder to this day, if the story would be different had I been a white female. Of course I have no way of knowing this for sure.
Did that experience raise my antennas? To label anything I could not understand as being racist? Am I a walking talking racist person? How can I have a colour-blind outlook to life? What does being colour blind mean, where do I draw the line… when is it acceptable to take issue? When is it not? Is my assumption that life must be easier for South African (rich) white women or white people in general true? Is it fair?
When thinking about this, Antjie Krog’s book, Begging to be Black – comes to mind. Perhaps I may be subconsciously begging to be white also, as she is begging to be black. To be under a white woman’s skin, to think as a white person does, to feel & smell as a white person. Maybe I have white person envy. My black friends often remind me, tell me, state it as a matter of fact whenever they can, that I LOVE white people. They say it as if it were a crime, something bad, that I should be ashamed of. I cannot count how many times I’ve had to count how many black friends I have to justify the number of white people I hang out with. It is an interesting subject. I think it really would be more interesting for me to say that I am begging to be white. I would be the embodiment of the the oppressed, who Frantzs Fanon described thus : “Having judged, condemned and ignored their cultural forms, his language, his food habits, his sexual habits, his way of sitting down, of resting, of laughing , of enjoying himself the oppressed flings himself upon the imposed culture with the desperation of a drowning man” Frantz Fanon.
That would be a logical and easy assumption to make. An automatic logical expression of my oppression would be to hate myself, my heritage, my identity, my background. denying the past. I would be and probably am no different to those people who bleach their skin in order to have a fairer complexion, who loved their masters more than themselves, who devised ways to straighten their hair, so that it’s lighter, softer and gentler to the touch. Those among us who dated and married white men so they could have nice brown and light-skinned children who would by extension have a better or easier hand at life. In this world which favours lightness – the closer one is to the Aryan race the better. But I have never until that point given much thought to what being white must be like, except for the fact that I think the experience whatever it may be, must be generally easier than being a black woman. I guess I never had time to think about how hard it must be to be white – because I was busy trying to survive. Live.
Or perhaps my begging to be white could be an equally condescending and patronizing exercise as found in Krog’s analysis of black culture or ethos …” how they think”, her musings in orderly, efficient Europe about the missed benefits of Ubuntu. I could wonder how Europeans rationalize and justify their ideas of “civilization” and if they are proud of the civilization (s) they have achieved so far in Africa and in Europe. The African continent should be by now a bright shining example of white innovation, intelligence, supremacy. After years of practice in Europe their systems, machinery,isms, education, industrialization etc should have been easier and faster to implement here. How then has their efficiency, precision, logic, analytical mind (s) , all the “good” and genius that has always been their birth right benefited anyone?
I am not begging to be white or black for that matter. What I am doing is begging to understand why it is that I should (must) understand, how hard it must be to white – when the very white people have not tried to understand what it must be like to be black – and their only reflection on the matter is only in response to their own guilty feelings about what black people must think and feel about them? Why is it that I must be asked to constantly measure, balance my experience, be polite, nice, not hurt any one’s feelings, to hear all sides before I can say something which is my experience – not a feeling, but a fact. When it might reflect badly, upset, offend a white person? Why must I understand that all black people are lazy, that we have never invented anything, that we are thieves, corrupt, diseased, as a matter of fact and that the only way I can succeed is with some assistance or sponsorship, the AID of white people, why is it that I should be asked to understand that I am who I am, know what I know, live the way I do, speak the way I do, am because of my colonial saviours, because if they hadn’t saved me – I probably would be living in a rural mud-hut dressed in nothing but cow skin and breeding millions of children for an old abusive patriarch if not dead?
Why must I understand that most things about my life have nothing to do with race actually, when they don’t understand that everything about their life is about race, because of race? On a more personal level, why is it that I cannot speak about my experience without being a racists ungrateful and disrespectful person. Why can’t we have a conversation?
I would love to live in a world, where I didn’t have to sell my DNA/My soul/My dignity in order to have a roof over my head. I would love to live in a world where my house is your house; my land is your land, where community is community. But I don’t and that is largely because Europeans, thought it backward, uncivilized, uncultured, primitive and un-educated to share. So they took that away centuries ago, made sure that any semblance of equity was thoroughly destroyed. So yes, for me right now, in this country it is a matter of fact that it would be easier for me to find a place had I been white and rich. I look forward to the day when this would not be a matter of fact.
” Historians of economic thought should be heedful therefore, not only of what gets said, but what is left unsaid. And what in a sense cannot be said in arguments and articles meant to be heard and paid attention to. By considering the relationship between power, interests, and rhetoric among the elite producers of economic knowledge. Historians of economic thought may be able to further illuminate the nature and history of story-telling in economics. But in connecting these accounts historians of economic thought (must) should recognize that they themselves are storytellers, building partial accounts of the partial accounts written by economists. To the extent that the storytellers of economics however have been selected and socialized to believe in and to have a stake in stories of individual objectivity and the free market place of ideas, these storytellers will continue to present themselves as authoritative agents of truth. And as long as the rhetoric of the discipline in enforced thought and intellectual hierarchy resistant to transformative challenges, the telling of dissonant stories remains fraught with professional peril. — Diana Strassmann; The stories of Economics and the power of the storyteller (1993)
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