Monday, February 23, 2009

Being African is a misfortune

Dear bell hooks,

I am glad this forum exists, for where else would I vent, where else would I show my disgust at the endless gaze of Africa that the rest of the world clings to?

The global media has embraced and standardized Africa's image as the get-away safari destination on the one hand, and the starvation-poverty-disease continent that swims in eternal hopelessness; they have held Africa in this light as proof that Africa, the homeland of most of the world's black population, will never be as advanced as the 'white' continents. Africa, of the inferior race. Africa of the corrupt shortsighted leaders, and of the world's surviving primitives.

This 'dark continent' image has turned my continent into a pityful and sneer-worthy non-deserving continent. This continent where I have lived all my life, been happy in, and successful in, survived in. This Africa, from which fellow Africans have run away, embrassed to be associated with it, in preference for the heavenly west as portrayed in the media. Our young people, barely out of high school, are being ensnared by this image of the West, an image they hold on to, until they arrive in Europe or North America, and realise they are nothing more than modern day slaves. Some exist illegally, in the hope that the system will not detect them. Others live on the mighty green card, awarded to foreigners who have to pay using their lives.

And yet, these people withstand humiliation. Rather this than go back to the motherland and be seen as a failure, they argue. Rather this than the laughter of the damned. If Ben Okri slept in the streets, who am I, a nobody, to think I deserve more? While back home i would have been assured of a warm meal and a warm bed, it is better to be here, where my sense of purpose and sacrifice is sharpened.

But is Africa really that bad? Ought we be ashamed of being called Africans? Ought we be ahsamed of being black? What about the laughter and the education and the cultures? what about the joy of playing in the dust with friends whose names you will always remember even in your old age? What about the normal lives we lead? Are these successes not worthy of the media's precious spaces? What about the fact that Africa produces super-intelligent human beings? How else can you explain how Africans have excelled with minimum resources usually made available to students their ages in the West? What about the punishment of existing in a double life, that of the home and that of school, both heavily demanding and both equally important? The double burden of being the educated one, and the provider? and yet we survive in the same world as kids who have known nothing but over-protectiveness, whose every need has been tended to? If it is about survival for the fittest, who most deserves to survive? whose survival skills has been sharpened beyond question?

And so, while the only sport where Africans have outperformed the rest of the world is athletics (minimum resources required to achieve this goal), it is also the most inferior sport. After all, isn't it defined through funny looking, non-English speaking (hence lacking eloquence) black people from some god-forsakken land whose name periodically pops up to remind us that the world's first black leader hails from a father with humble beginnings.

It is easier for the West to typecast Africa using images of starving children. That is our public image. we are content with this image, because it prevents us from dealing with this complex continent. We marginalize and fragment its narratives, because we do not want to cause trouble, raise the expectations of the masses of Africa, give ideas of possibilities.

If the world is currently geared towards the superiority of capital, how can Africa be integrated into this dream? Easy! By making them give us whatever resources they have, so we can continue being the superpowers; by attracting the best brains using green cards, scholarships anything that will move the most diligent, strongest of them out of their holes, and making them grateful for the opportunity.

Now Asia rises and threatens to become the world's next superpower. Can the West let this happen? This would be extremely bad, because a breakdown of these societies would mean a change of power focus! Now we cannot have that. The under-dog race will edge its bony arse closer to the 'it' and soon we might just become powerless. This would be a big let-down. So we must fight on, we do not want to become the 'empy' continent.

So even now, while African crawls on its knees, hangs its head in shame as it begs for money from the Big Brother, accepts the disguised and sometimes open insults from the west, it continues to hope for release, relief. The West on its part continues to hold an image of eternal desperation and primitivity to measure how far its come and how far it can still go.

To succeed, it needs a failure.

Warm regards,

Hopeful African

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

the sensitivity of being blacker

dear bell hooks,

its an honour to finally write to you, you, whose name defies rules and order, you who is fed up with what is supposed to be. i believe that you have brought to my life what i did not have before, for before, i never had the courage to spit into somebody's thoughts and express the anger i feel inside. you liberated me.i do not say these words to flatter you, for perhaps i will never meet you, but i say them to liberate myself, of thoughts, feelings and chains that tie me up so tightly i can only smile politely for fear of crying out loud.i come from a society that is near-free of direct racism. until i travelled to my present country, i had not encountered the kinds of direct racism that i experience here. as such, your words on racist ideologies are new to me. however, i understand discrimination, ethnic discrimination, color discrimination among blacks, for I lived in a society of blacks only until I was more or less a grown woman. i understand black on black discrimination all too well, and like the child in toni morrison's bluest eye, i am the one who one day realised i was different because i was a shade darker than most of my friends, and i learnt early in life to regress and hide in the shadows. i come from a community where dark skinned people have a special place in childhood taunting games called mchongwano. in these games, there is a series of choice phrases used to shoo away the dark-skinned person - dark-skinned people are so black they do not have shadows, or so black, day turns into night when they walk into rooms, or so pitch black that it is possible to see their fingerprints on charcoal. but such games are taken as norm and fun, more like the 'yo mama' jokes/games in the african american community. we all grew up accepting these games, in fact, playing them, embracing them, laughing at ourselves.however, i have asked myself in the recent years, just how dangerously we have embraced white ideology. why do we automatically see ourselves as more beautiful and acceptable because of our skin-tones, why have black people generally bought into the concept of the ‘whiter the better’? and why oh why do i have to constantly be dragged into it? for every time dark skin is scoffed at, i feel it as if it were a personal insult. it does not matter if this takes place in the media, or in song, or in social circles i am part of.

it is our thought patterns of ourselves as black people that have led to such dire consequences as having dark skinned brothers and sisters trying to smear themselves with skin lightening creams, what ngugi wa thiongo so eloquently writes about in his stories, and in the process burning themselves and hurting themselves. often, it is something we experience within our own social groups, the slight disapproval because the many years in the sun has only managed to make you darker, the lack of 'fairness' of skin, that pumps new skin-cream products into the market, the flurry of it all! sometimes i play a game. i watch tv adverts in the hope of catching a really really dark alek wek like model being used to promote a beauty product, or being used as a mark of true beauty, or even in music videos, just one glimpse that we as black people are beginning to realize that we are one, and all beautiful. i lose all the time, but still i try. i remember listening to a radio programme on a local fm station. it was a late night show where callers were being encouraged to use the medium as a space for finding new love. the dj had people calling in to describe what kind of men/women they had in mind. most of those who called had one consistent demand: they must be light skinned! yo! imagine a poor teenage girl or boy sitting somewhere longing for love but never having the courage to go the route others were taking!in your books, specifically black looks and salvation, you suggest that black people have to learn to love themselves from inside. but i am in a society where black people have embraced the violence of oppression so much that it is spilling onto their ability to love and embrace each other. i am in a society where to be of a certain skin tone means people will want your blood at a certain period and point in time. i write this to you, not in a splurge of self-pity, but as an outsider. for i am outside of me as i write, me who has reached a stage in my life where i no longer matter. but certain issues have to be voiced, recorded. i believe if we want to fight the bigger monster called white supremacy that has made sure the black person's lot has remained at the level of destitute, that we have to love one another. but we are all so busy struggling to get better, richer, lighter, better, richer, lighter and standing in line to receive compliments. i trust that we should develop a new way of looking at ourselves, a new way of appreciating ourselves and a new way of understanding, so that the generation that comes after us may begin to understand how we survived in a system as vile as the one we live in now.



Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A mouse, a louse and a man named Disney

Dear bell

About two months ago, one of the local GLAMOUR magazine’s headlines foretold an issue of top black models (despite the fact that for a whole year, the only black face to every grace the magazine’s cover was that of Beyonce). I looked forward to it as I had previously found the lifestory of Alek Wek quite inspiring. And yes, there were seven international black models on seven pages modelling the latest trends. No mention of where they came from or anything about them other than their names. Just seven beautiful black women with no lives and no personalities. Nothing more interesting than their black bodies and what they looked like. And yet in the course of the year, there were stories after stories about Kate Moss and her drugging habit, her druggie boyfriend and her subsequent success, stories about Britany Spears’s and Amy Winehouse’s rise and fall and rise again. Black people in these forums seem mainly like side orders to the main white course. But in modern popular culture this is hardly new, especially in the most popular of forums. Growing up, I was fed on the Little House on the Prairie, Heidi, the Fonze, the Disney Club – the same one that spawned Justin Timberlake, Britney, Jason Priestly and Christina Aguilere. White person after white person, but there was almost always one black person who ‘represented’. I was a huge fan of the Disney Club as a pre-teen and was crushed when it was off after only two years or so. Almost twenty years and a Lizzy McGuire, Hannah Montana and three High School Musicals later, I have grown to loathe Disney as a the cultural branch of the Klu Klux Klan spreading white supremacist ideologies through popular culture. Watching Disney’s productions brings me back to the days of apartheid and Reagan, when white people dominated my TV and I thought they were the vast majority in the country and the world. Today, in the latter half of the first decade of the new millennium, Disney is brainwashing a new generation of children and teeny-boppers the world over to believe that ‘reality’, that the ‘perfect’ life is a group of white kids laughing, dancing, singing, finding true love and adventure (and yes there is always a black/Mexican/Indian kid present for diversity). Our kids are sold on being dreamy Lizzy McGuires, kick-ass Kim Possibles, cool Hannah Montanas and rich, spoilt Mary Kate and Ashley Olsens.
As a kid, reading the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Bobbsy Twins adventure books gave me a thrill, an escape from my dreary, boring township life. These white kids and teenagers could drive around on their own, go spelunking and fly airplanes. Their holidays always turned into mystery-solving adventures and they had friends and family with all kinds of specialities and resources. I had family who bordered on resembling ‘trailer-trash’-Jerry-Springer-type guests and the furthest I ever went on ‘holiday’ was to my poor aunt’s house twenty minutes away. Reading and watching TV was my magic carpet ride out of my black life. And yes, of course, one realises eventually that it is the highest level of fantasy that is promulgated through this type of media, but living in apartheid South Africa, never having actually interacted with a white person until I was 16 years old, how was I to know that white people were not living some aspect of this fantasy? Apart from The Cosby Show, black people’s lives on TV – from Sanford and Sun, Good Times, Fat Albert, S’gud, S’nice were not to be envied, let alone fantasised about. Black people were poor and often farcical characters, hardly the stuff of dreams. Bollywood movies also supplemented my reality deficit and even though I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying, love was the greatest achievement and always won the day (how did people ever earn a living in these movies)? It’s not surprising that despite how much our parents preached to us about not coveting white, Western lives (after all according to my parents they didn’t bath often which resulted in a lucrative perfume business, their kids were dirty and bad-mannered, their wives didn’t know how to cook and they had no culture), we all wanted the white lives we saw on TV, where white people drank a specific drink or smoked a specific cigarette and then skied and snowboarded and parachuted. They always seemed to be having so much damn fun, even when they were working or being teenagers.
And today, even though Barbie can’t seem to quite compete with the likes of Bratz and we finally have a black drunken misfit superhero named Hancock, new generations of kids are soaking up Britney, Christina, Amy, Lindsey, Lizzy, Hannah, Mary Kate, Ashley, Paris, Hayden, Lindsey while we grown women are still dreaming of the lives of the Sex and the City ladies. We buy magazines and visit websites to hang onto what they’re wearing, who they dating, who they’re fighting with, what they’re drugging on and which rehab they just checked out of. Can we blame another generation of dreaming white?
I blame Disney.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Brown Skin, White Masks

dear bell

When I was a little Indian girl, growing up in an apartheid-constructed Indian township in Durban, South Africa, I created a fantasy image of myself in my head. A little heroine who experienced all of life’s adventures on a very grand scale within the walls of my skull, who eventually always turned out the winner despite all of reality’s painful mishaps. This little girl was called Christine and she was white, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She grew as I did and in truth, it was only when I went to university that I truly left her behind. Thinking about it now, thirteen years since Christine and I parted ways, I feel ashamed of her, of myself. And yet I understand why Christine came about.

Christine was everything I was not. She was not stuck in an ultra skinny brown body with sore marks on her legs which all poor kids seemed to magically manifest without any adult being able to tell you how they got them; or a scar down her right leg from trying to high jump a low wall, instead hitting it full and being draped limp across it until her father carried her indoors. Christine’s body was a healthy, normal sized (whatever that meant!) scar-free zone. She did not have to endure teasing by both her family and friends and have to grow up with names like Bones, Skinny, Ironing Board and Skeletor because her arms and legs were thinner than those of starving Ethiopian children. No, the only other name Christine was called was ‘Chris’, which sometimes made for amusing tales of people initially thinking they were expecting a boy when in strolled a luscious blonde. Christine didn’t have to worry about her ankles being thinner than most people’s wrists and a complete lack of hips, which meant that she could never find pants that ever fitted without sagging on her. Pants that were made for ‘real’ South African women who had plenty of hip and arse. Christine didn’t have to worry about wearing her Physical Education white shorts inside these pants so that they fit. Christine could wear anything she wanted because she was normal. Christine would know nothing about the three times in my life when I have worn a dress or a skirt in public and then with absolutely no self-confidence and a sense of exaggerated shame, trying to simultaneously keep my eyes averted from people while also apologising via a look for my skinny legs. But there was often no need, because people would not look at you, and embarrassed for you they would simply pretend you was not there. But luckily, Christine was always comfortable and cool in crowds no matter what she wore.

Christine did not have burnt black knees – which may have made a teacher once ask her in front of class whether she was on her knees scrubbing floors daily, nor an overly dark bum causing the owner to wonder how black bums which were never exposed to sunlight still managed to get blacker and not more lighter. No, Christine had a white bum, which she could tan and get yummier and which was then envied even more. A bum that could be seen through bikinis, short shorts, shorter skirts and the shortest of dresses. Yes, Christine’s white skin could turn shades of cream or tan, which was coveted in magazines and on TV and which ‘glowed’! Since Christine was not Indian, she didn’t have to worry about being burnt charcoal black if she spent a day at the beach in the shade with horrible sun protection cream which made her skin look purple and oily. Christine’s skin baked in the sun. Mine simply braaied.

Christine was not sent home with lice in her long, coconut oil-soaked hair by stupid school department nurses who came two or three times a year to find all sorts of grossness on little kids, which caused their mothers endless humiliation. Mine still hasn’t forgiven me for this twenty five years later. I’m not really sure why, cause pretty much everyone I knew had lice, some even had several species of lice that would have made Bob Marley envious. To this day I keep a bottle of lice shampoo in my medicine cabinet ‘in case of emergency’, although I haven’t had lice for over twenty years. You never know though. One could randomly pop up one day, and this would be the day that the school nurses miraculously emerge at work and send me home to Durban, back to mother to seek revenge. Christine could not imagine these dramas. The only hair Christine had was long, blonde and streaked, which she could blow dry straight, dye any colour and which stayed in place for an entire month. My hair reached to my knees and was probably the only healthy looking part of me (except for my abundant Muslim nose) on my whole body. This hair had to be separated into two by a middle path down my entire head, plaited so tightly by my mother that they probably pulled memories out of my head, wound into a U-shape and tied tightly with white or black ribbons at the base. On weekends, I had the luxury of the one plait down the back with a love-in-tokyo tied towards the end which allowed my hair to swish around like a horse’s tail on my back (probably the closest I came to being near a horse in those days).

But that was just the beginning of the hair escapades. With lovely knee-length hair on my head, came hair just about everywhere else – a well defined moustache that to this day I am at war with, thick well-meaning eyebrows, eyebrows in between eyebrows, a goatee (a belated joy of adulthood), under my arms, on my back, my butt, my stomach, hairy arms and even hairier legs that tried to desperately hide my bean stalk legs and in failing to do so, only caused me more embarrassment. Christine didn’t have three strands of hair for every pore, which behaved as if they were competing in the Olympics for emerging first, and having won that race, had to be shaved off every two days with my father’s Minora blades and razor, ripping off the skin in every place that had a tendon connected to your foot that hurt every time you took a step. No, Christine had very little blonde hair on her legs which she didn’t have to wax, but did it for the fun of it anyway. Hairless legs that reached to the sky. Christine would not be able to relate the story of how when she was in her final year of school, she asked her father to buy her an Epilady shaver, that was said to go over the skin, pulling out the hair by the root and thereby ensuring a promise of two or three weeks of hairless, smooth legs. Christine wouldn’t know anything about yearning desperately for that promise for months on end after seeing the advert on TV, as the white woman effortlessly moved the noiseless Epilady shaver over her tanned, long leg, gliding her hand over the smooth surface of her skin. Nor would Christine have known the shock of sitting in the bathroom one day when the parents were out grocery shopping, being surprised to hear that the Epilady made a whrrring sound, or an even more louder clogging sound as it mercilessly grabbed at three hairs per pore, yanking it ruthlessly from below the skin, resulting in a red bumpy pore that was clearly in as much shock and pain as I was. And that was just one pore. True, the pamphlet had said it might hurt a bit the first time. And this was the very first time. So I had to diligently fight on, after all, as the Betty Wright song went, ‘no pain, no gain’. As tears flooded my face down one stretch of leg, red little bumps appearing everywhere after the clogging whrrr of the Epilady, it suddenly stopped. Just stopped. It seems the manufacturers of Epilady did not encounter the three hairs per pore phenomena and it was the Epilady’s turn to die of shock. It took me more than fifteen years to throw the Epilady away. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my dad or anyone else I had killed the Epilady within fifteen minutes, so I hid it at the bottom of my underwear basket year after year, a reminder of my losing battle, of my guilt. Maybe a part of me hoped the Epilady could be resurrected to fulfil its two to three week promise. Maybe I was just too embarrassed to except my hairiness. Whatever it was, I’m pretty sure Christine would know nothing about such physical and mental torture.

And Christine would know nothing of the endless shame of ‘growing pains’ making you cry out to God, “Why????!!!!!”. In my head Christine had never had a single pimple in her whole life. Sometimes she had a mole, a la Cindy Crawford, and sometimes not. It was quite nifty having a movable mole, much like an accessory. The joy of menstruation and having an overly large nose and crooked teeth that loved each so much they climbed one on top of the other, was accompanied by an ever growing mass of acne. The kind that becomes part of your life and daily routine, much like brushing your teeth and combing your hair. I don’t think for the last three years of my schooling that there was a single photograph I had that didn’t have the largest zit on the planet. I often felt that the moment my skin heard the word ‘photograph’, it would send an invitation to the Acne company to send one of its best representatives over. And this representative, being the best at what it does, would stay for over two weeks, mass producing oil and puss, and when I forced its departure, it was sure to leave me a reminder of the visitation. Sometimes this reminder was in the form of a dark mark, later on it decided that minor craters in my skin was a better monument. And then at 21, having tried the contraceptive injection to joyfully find that it greatly reduced my PMS symptoms, I developed acne on my teenage acne, even on my back and chest. It took my rather slow brain about a year to realise it was the contraceptive injection that was causing this reaction, so I abandoned the injection for the daily pill. And although the acne disappeared from the chest and back almost immediately and with no visible signs of scarring, it waged war on my face for over 10 more years. Christine could not have known the horror of having a friend proudly show me his photoshop skills on a ‘before’ and ‘after’ pic of myself where he had rigorously attempted to eliminate all my acne. It was finally time for me to admit that I had a problem and off to the dermatologist I went. But as with crooked teeth that my parents couldn’t afford to straighten (my brother got the braces and I got the education), I soon couldn’t afford the last two months of the very expensive acne medication which was proving very effective (yes, no medical aid in my family anymore). So my torturer Acne went away for two years and tried to emerge again, except this time, armed with a part-time job (and still no health insurance), I was able to undergo the dermatological treatment again to the end. So, finally, no more acne. And inspired by my acne victory, I went and got braces and proudly paid cash this time too. But of course the story couldn’t simply end like this. Oh no. Not for me anyway, but I will spare you the long story about the folliculitus that severely scarred my legs after a year of waxing. My Achilles’ heel, my constant shame, had become an even bigger embarrassment. How I wished for the days of shame at the skinniness of my legs and not huge black marks down the back and inside of my thighs! How I wished I could have afforded medical insurance! How I wished I could have been white!

Christine was my exit out of these battles. She was everything I was not, everything I could never be. And while my adult self feels ashamed that Christine existed at all, the girl-child that was me seemed to understand the higher status given to white people in South Africa. Under apartheid, white skin, blonde hair and blue/green eyes were trophies to be sought after. After all, every Miss South Africa that I saw on TV for about 17 years of my life was only white. And I mean the whole competition was only made up of white women because women of colour were not allowed to participate in the national competition. When South Africa was re-admitted into the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants, these were still dominated by white women from various parts of the world. How could I not want to be white? It was all I saw women being judged against, whether on a national, world or universe level. All makeup adverts on TV, front pages of local and international beauty and fashion magazines, runway shows and Mills and Boons books all featured white women. It was no surprise that I thought that statistically this world was overwhelmingly dominated by white people, which would explain why cosmetics companies only seemed to create foundations, blush and red lipsticks that looked right on white skins (oh please let’s not forget sunblock!), and why the only products that had black faces on them were awful smelling hair straightening products (not relevant if you were Indian) and skinlightening creams (very relevant if you were a dark skinned Indian). Not that it made you lighter of course. What it did was burn and scar your skin so badly that it made you learn to accept the colour of your skin before you attempted to ‘correct’ it. And how tempting such adverts were – the promise of a lighter, brighter future, what I like to call ‘whiteness in a tube’. A promise, like all other promises of whiteness, which was unattainable to those born into black bodies.

As I grew into a teenager and became interested in beauty products, I couldn’t help noticing how I was always followed around the beauty counters of Edgars (a popular clothing store) by their shop assistants, usually waving white strips at me so that I could spray tester fragrances onto these ‘white’ generic pieces of paper. And yet in their monthly magazine, the writers would go about describing the proper way to test fragrances, which meant not spraying more than two fragrances on each wrist and wearing it throughout the day to see how your body influenced the smell of the fragrance. Not in a single article did I ever read about a ‘white’ tester strip. I hated being followed around the store. It made me feel like stealing something just for the spite of it. I often find myself staring at magazines lined on up store shelves, looking upon the many white faces of the cover women and men, and seeing faces repeated within a 4 month cycle without a single black face ever gracing any of the covers. I have wondered about why editors think that a black face won’t sell issues. I mean, will women or men really not buy a magazine because it has a black face on the cover? I can’t believe that. People haven’t stopped seeing movies because Denzel Washington is the lead actor or director. This year, the Glamour magazine that I usually buy had a single black face on the cover for this year, that of Beyonce. And so I’m left with the feeling that the only form of black women that is acceptable is that of the anglicised, small-features black women, and yet in the country I live in, there are so many gorgeous black women who appear inside magazines, on TV, on the radio who look nothing like this ideal.

But bell, I find ways to get my own back. While when I was a teenager I couldn’t afford to actually buy any of the perfumes I tested, to this day I still won’t buy a single fragrance from Edgars because of the lasting impression I have of them and their stupid white strip. I keep a wary eye on cosmetic manufacturers as I notice that some of them, like Rimmel, don’t offer foundation in darker shades, which lets me know they’re not interested in my skin or my money. I’ve written to Glamour magazine letting them know how I feel about their lack of black women on their covers. I wear my hair up, down, plaited, braided, wavy, straight or curled in whatever colour I want (sans coconut oil though). I buy perfumes in duty free or on an airplane. I shave my legs once a week, and in between my 3 hairs per pore can do whatever they like. I still can’t swim properly and look absolutely skinny in my bikini but I get in the water anyway, slightly suspicious that it is all my body hair that is affecting my buoyancy. I have found that they now make sunblock that blends onto brown skin and that my foundation colour is ‘caramel’ (I do really like the sound of that).

And Christine? I suspect that she will always haunt me and yet I feel no need for her since I let her go. Life is hard as a black woman with acne, sore marks and loads of body hair, but there comes a day when you realise that this brown body is all you’re ever going to have and it’s the one you need to make the most of. Thanks are due to people like India Arie who gave me the anthem, ‘Brown skin. You know I love my brown skin. I can tell where mine begins, I can tell where mine ends.’


Monday, January 19, 2009

Madness or Militancy?

dear bell hooks

The first time I started writing the first sentences of this letter to you, I sat with tears in my eyes and a very heavy heart. It was not a good day to say the least. It is not the kind of sadness where you would want to hurt yourself, but the kind of hopelessness a black person feels about one’s race and gender engulfing oneself - those two amazing qualities in a human being that binds us to a specific history and which despite all education, money, status and religious evocations, we are unable to change.

So, what was the source of my despair? Just a single sentence by a young white wannabe-critic on an internet site that dissed me as an artist at a time I felt incapacitated the situation to do anything because of the wide-ranging societal on-goings. This may sound simplistic and I don’t want to ramble on about the details of what I considered nothing short of slander posing as art criticism. The statement, the forum, the manner in which my name was dealt all reeked of racism. I looked at this single sentence with complete shock, with sadness and with anger pulsating through my veins because instinctively I could feel, see, understand the latent racism dripping through every word. I wrote a quick response to her calling her out for the racist she was, intending to write a more formal response explaining why. I sent friends and colleagues the link to the site and quite quickly the argument grew, educated black people trying to explain to this young white lady why her statements were out of order, many more white people rallying to the writer’s defence. The discussion heated up with not a single white respondent able to see why her writing was racist and not even something that could be labelled ‘art criticism’. Interestingly, there were also a few black respondents who understood that something was wrong but wasn’t sure this was racism as opposed to bad, misguided ‘opinion’. The writer continued to write back to all the black respondents saying that they were all getting it wrong and simply didn’t understand her or art criticism in general, turning the racism discussion around to say that if a white critic ‘criticised’ a black artist’s work, then it was easy for the black artist to scream racism.

It took me two weeks to respond in a lengthy categorical letter to this writer. Those two weeks were an incredibly painful experience for me. I cried, I lashed out at my white boyfriend as yet again I struggled internally and externally with the vulgarity of racism in South Africa. I cried my frustrations into my pillow. I set my hopelessness on the bathroom floor and wept over it. This is the ‘me’ that nobody saw. After all, shouldn’t I have been used to this? It’s been nearly two and half years since I wrote an article on what I saw as the complete lack of racial transformation in the visual arts in South Africa, a field whose positions of power are almost completely dominated by white women. I should have been used to having become personae non-grata, having lost white friends, having only a few people pitch up for my exhibitions, having not a single review or listing for any of the shows either locally or internationally that I had participated in, of being humiliated at scholarship and job interviews and articles over the views I expressed – of having this dominant white art world pretend that I didn’t exist except when it chose to denigrate me.

Yet, somehow, it has never stopped hurting. Perhaps because it is because of the dignity with which my parents raised me to believe in a form of ‘higher good’, in my mother teaching me to help the poor, the less fortunate and my union father teaching me to fight for others – for people of colour, for the oppressed, the vulnerable, for myself and what I believed in. As I hurt deeply and felt anger well up inside me to the point of tears, I started to write the long response about why I saw the piece as racist, trying to point out that racism is not just the sheer vulgarity of physical oppression, but beyond that to attitudes, reactions, perceptions, stereotypes, jokes, etc of people of colour without any attempt to understand that another point of view exists that might be equally valid and that the dominant (in this case ‘critical’) view was not just a ‘natural’ one, but was one established with authority through various means.

In the midst of all of this, I began to think about your words. Just two months earlier I had seen an old video you had made on Cultural Criticism and Transformation. It was the first time I saw a visual of you and hearing you speak blew me away. You spoke like you wrote and I felt like I have always heard your voice in my head. As you spoke in the most clearest and simple of ways, you words appeared inside my head and before my eyes and as before, I began to see more and more. With every word, different experiences emerged in my head about my life, about life in society and life in the wider world as a woman of colour. The only way to not see was to close my eyes to the world.

A friend sent me a link to the unofficial bell hooks website that had a list of your interviews. As I began to read the Killing Rage interview, I struggled to hold back the tears that were hardly a second away in those two weeks. As you spoke of what it felt like to be hated and laughed at, I, for the first time since this particular incident happened, felt some sense of healing. I can’t remember where I read this quote (maybe it’s from the ‘Quotable Quotes’ section in the Reader’s Digest) but it said that the greatest empathy a person can feel is knowing that others have felt like they do. It gave me the greatest sense of comfort hearing you discuss how it felt to try to write about oppressions in a black woman’s life. You spoke candidly and in doing so, my spirit began to surface.... I fought back with my words, a bit loud and vulgar I have to confess. More polite, well meaning black colleagues felt that it was becoming personal and would have preferred me to be a bit more general, a bit more academic. I understood and appreciated their sentiments, but the political correctness that had blanketed South Africa for 14 years, has been slowly shred into pieces, wound into a noose and has been used to throttle black people calling for real transformation in this country. Political correctness and politeness be damned I thought! I felt to fight racism you had to take it by the neck and strangle the living daylights out of it, not sit down and have English tea with it. And others could afford for the dialogue to not be personal, after all it wasn’t their careers, their reputation and intellect that was being dismissed, time and time again, so nonchalantly.

Weeks later, after verbally lashing this young woman (by the way she did concede to removing the posting from the site with all the responses which I denied her doing, instead inviting her to a screening of your Cultural Criticism video which she in turn declined), I sat on my bed reading other interviews of yours and some of your works wondering, ‘How can someone who is born in a different place, in a different time, of a different race articulate my pain so clearly that it reduces me to tears?’ Be it about the academic environment, theoretical positions, cultural productions or just about intimate family relationships within the home space, you manage to communicate with all that is this urban black woman in South Africa in 2008, in academic discourse nogal. Your works have never read like other literature and cultural theory books that I have been exposed to. Your works speak to me and I want to talk back to you. I read your words and it is like balm to my open wounds where knives have been plunged in, where festering sores of racism, sexism and class oppression are soothed. I read your words and for a while, all is calm.

I had come across your works about eight years ago while reading about feminisms. From the first time I read ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ I was hooked (sorry about that bad pun, I am sure you must get that alot). I had never read anything before that spoke so uncompromisingly to my life experiences as a woman of colour with intersecting oppressions based on race, gender, class, education, sexuality and religion. Not only could I ‘identify’ with all you said, but more importantly I could see how these factors played out in my life on a daily basis. I read as many of your works as I could get from the library along with other authors on black, African and Afrocentric feminisms. Looking back at that time, this learning didn’t seem like anything phenomenal but just like a normal part of my development, that I had eventually come across the literature and perspectives that fitted my attitude and beliefs. When I left Durban, and attended a more ‘prestigious’ former white liberal university in Johannesburg, I found that using black or Afrocentric feminist discourse became increasingly difficult with my white South African supervisor. I had to constantly justify this body of literature as ‘legitimate’ – I even had to fight to make use of your name in small font and not in capitals! I have to confess that though I didn’t entirely abandon these theoretical perspectives, I did whittle down my usage of them to sufficiently appease the relevant parties. It didn’t take me long to understand the level of racism I was experiencing in Johannesburg was one that I had not experienced before in Durban (that may be due to the fact that I was hardly exposed to white people in my place of study or in informal settings, and then only through brief interactions in the art world). Johannesburg was an entirely different playing ground.

It is important for me to let you know that I did not come to Johannesburg with any intention of getting involved in racial politics. I meant to leave all levels of politics back in Durban and just wanted to be a successful artist, and in the beginning, as long people viewed me as the happy ‘native’, Johannesburg was very kind to me. But daily I became confronted with shameless racist attitudes and actions (especially in the aforementioned university visual arts department), which seemed to be the norm as institutional places were dominated by whites. This was a shock to me as this did not reflect the situation of an African country where over 70% of the population comprised people of colour and an overwhelming part of that being Black South Africans, nor was it in line with my former education in a university where Indian, Black and Coloured students made up the entire population. Being exposed more and more to the visual art sector in Johannesburg, the phenomenon that struck me most was that even though I was constantly reading about white male patriarchy, what I was seeing was the dominance of white women in almost all positions of power across the visual art sector - that the gender and racial transformation punted by the post-apartheid government of 1994 had stopped at white women replacing the white male patriarchy. Sentiments of ‘transformation’ and ‘affirmative action’ were regarded more like swear words (in fact, one white artist whose father was an apartheid government minister still punts ‘affirmative action’ as ‘reverse racism’ as she cries about her partner twice losing out jobs assigned to persons of ‘previously disadvantaged’ status). And even though all I wanted to do was make art works, when presented with an opportunity to write an article on the ‘avant-garde’ in South Africa, I presented my opinions on the lack of racial transformation in the visual arts, listing the vast range of structures and institutions that were headed exclusively by white women. The editor did warn me at the last minute to expect a backlash. And what a backlash it was, completely changing my status, my social networks and opportunities over the next two and a half years in Johannesburg. If I expressed my disappointment or hurt over the crucifixion I suffered, my remaining white friends would retort, ‘What did you expect?’ Indeed what did I expect from South Africa, a place where legislated racism ruled for 40 years and still goes on without having to be enforced? Where democracy only works because the economic status of white dominators has been left untouched for life to go on as usual with a few more electrified fences, gated communities and the forking over of one channel on TV to a black audience?

Out of all that has happened and the price I have had to pay for continuing to speak and write out about this, the one thing I can never get over is being hated by friends who I think should know that my call for transformation is not about personal hatred. It is the white friends who have slandered me with ‘anybody but Sharlene’ propositions that I have wept about. It is the black friends and colleagues who slap you on the back with unified whispers about how great it is that there is someone who isn’t afraid to publicly articulate what ‘we’ all know, but still leave me fighting and bleeding in the trenches alone. It is the friends who don’t want to been seen with you in public for more than a few seconds, just in case they are seen to be collaborating with the troublemaker. It is colleagues who don’t want to work with you or recommend you for any project just in case the troublemaker makes trouble.

I have cried out in my soul, ‘Lord, why? Why? Why Lord?’, which inevitably ends up as ‘Why me Lord?’ I didn’t want this burden, I didn’t ask for this challenge, I never willingly subscribed for this cause. And yet by virtue of my brown skin and hole, my formal education at school and university, of my having paid attention to the lessons of history and life, of having little to risk, but, most importantly, of trying to lift my voice under the rock that weighs on my heart when I know something is fundamentally wrong, I find myself speaking, saying, screaming, hurting and eventually being at peace. And this is the spot inside me that no-one can touch, a part of me that no-one can oppress, a part that still smiles and laughs... And laugh I did when I wrote to an SAfrican friend in the US about my recent woes, saying I often oscillated between anger and madness (the kind that makes you believe you can attempt anything) and she replied that she once read that you had said that we are sometimes left with two alternatives: madness or militancy. I asked her if she could contact you and invite you to come and talk to us, as I felt that your ability to articulate oppressions and the need for transformation was an important discourse for young black Africans to be exposed to. She did try, and having contacted you finally, found out that your elderly parents were not well and that you wouldn’t be travelling for a while. But you did give her your postal address and she left you with an open ended invitation to take up the offer to visit anytime.

So that is what I decided to do – write to you, whether you get to read these words or not. These writing sessions may be as close as I will get to sitting down to talk to you about what it is to be a black woman, to be the target of racism, of ridicule, of hatred, of condemnation; to discuss the matrix of oppressions and freedoms that govern our lives and minds. But mostly though, I would like to hug you and tell you thank you. Thank you for giving me a language in which to talk about my pain, by which to articulate and validate my experiences, academic language to vent my anger, my reality, discourse by which to create my own understanding and start to engineer my own healing. I know for sure that no matter what, that no form of oppression would have been able to silence me, but the power to understand myself, the colour of my skin and the way the world relates to me, gives me a strength which sustains my femininity, my creativity, my intellect. It is only the start of my journey and as I learn from you, not through any preaching on your part, but through your sharing of your own life experiences, I will open my heart and mind and I will write of this black woman’s experiences. I will not make you my god or saint or my saviour and your writings my bible. I have those already. I will take you along and learn from you as my sister – an older sister – who through her own trials has opened up a path of wisdom for me. I hope others will come along with us on this journey.

Yours in love and transit
The Girl who Cried Race