My Own Private Colonialism
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to Gerry T & the students who unleashed it at Bennett
I saw her come here with no words
arms flailing air, past mother, thigh,
and blood. Here we begin again
We shall know each other
by the root of our appetite
or rhythm, Big Mama Juicy
Aneb seemed to say
Her eye direct as comment. As
roaches or rats. As heads cracked
open for fun or lawandorder
in this strange place
When I woke up one morning
I saw her coming in the stillness
of her day and want. My eye sprung out
to embrace a season of dream
but she asked: if mother or father
is more than parent, is this my land
or merely soil to cover my bones?
- Poem by Keorapetse Kgositsile
Why, the poem? I am the Ipeleng Aneb, Big Mama Juicy, for whom this poem was written over thirty years ago. I do not remember when I first laid eyes on the poem. I know that I was a child; that my parents were separated. The poet, who is South African, also, my father, was living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. My mother and I were living in New York.
I bring up Tanzania because it was when my father moved there that I lost him to the people. Which people? The people of South Africa. Namely, South Africa?s youth: the ones who fled the country during the Soweto Uprisings of 1976. These young people were my father?s students at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO), an African National Congress of South Africa (ANC) school in Tanzania, which opened its doors in 1978.
When SOMAFCO?s doors opened, the one between father and daughter closed. I do not mean that my father did not write or send telegrams and birthday presents on my birthday. I mean that different from Cain and Abel, South Africa?s anti-apartheid movement became my rival sibling. Through this experience, the man I called Papa, became an idea, a construct, a fantasy. The reality is that I had sacrificed him for the struggle for liberation in South Africa.
Try processing that as a child. I did not. Instead, I coped with my father?s absence by devouring his written word as though the page were his flesh. This is how I became familiar with the poem, ?For Ipeleng.? That it was named for me memorialized his love for me in print. Still, its closing line, is this my land or merely soil to cover my bones? was a bit disturbing for a child?s imagination. Land. Soil. Bury. Bones. In those words, I felt the same kind of sadness that I remember feeling whenever I read Dr. Suess?s Are You My Mother? In this story, a little bird, whose mother has flown the nest, searches all over town looking for its mother. It asks a crane, a tree, people, if they are the bird?s mother. For any child, the thought of being abandoned by one?s parent is cause for unspeakable worry and sadness.
To what did I owe my feelings of abandonment? The year that I was in the first grade, my mother lost her father to a heart attack. I am reminded of Granddaddy?s death because of my Valentine?s Day Card that year. The card, itself, was shaped as a heart. On it, I?d drawn people and hot dogs and an old man in a casket. The man in the casket was either my grandfather or Fredrick Douglass. I?m not sure. What I?m sure of is that I was having some confusion around, loss, love, and death. Perhaps I thought that losing my father to divorce was tantamount to death. Land. Soil. Bury. Bones. Did those words strike a particular chord for me because Granddaddy was buried around Valentine?s Day? Who knows? For now, these memories are my first remembrances of grief.
What I also know is this. In spite of whatever confusion and feelings I was experiencing, the poem?s typed black characters did for me what my father could not---they were a security blanket, a consolation prize for a little girl missing her father. They could not tell me why I?d lost him to divorce or the struggle for liberation in his country. What they allowed me to do was to be able to live in a world of fantasy when it came to my relationship with my father. With the poem?s final line, I was able to hold on to Papa by engaging in an ongoing conversation with him about land and soil and cultural identity for practically thirty years. Is the United States my land? Is South Africa? What makes me American? African-American? South African? How can I call myself South African if, as the joke goes in my Aunty?s home in Mmabathu, I barely know how to, even, pronounce my own name? Herein, lies the problem: the discussion that I was having was not taking place between two people. That dialogue was between me, myself, and I.
A lot has changed since my father left for Tanzania nearly thirty years ago. I am an adult. South Africa is free. My mother has joined the ancestors. I?ve changed careers twice. I?m living in Oakland, California. For the first time in my adult life, I?m even experiencing a healthy and enjoyable relationship with my father who now lives in South Africa.
There is something else I?ve come to understand over time. I now realize that the main reason I was in such turmoil regarding my identity as an African woman borne in the United States had little to do with me. It was because my father is South African; my mother was African-American; they were experiencing divorce.
When my father landed in Tanzania, my mother and I were living in Manhattan. The building where I was raised was 790, The Riviera, on 157th Street and Riverside Drive. I bring up 790 because it was in this building that I gained my identity as a South African and African-American child. Well, mostly, as a South African child. The Continent was home. South Africa was home. New York was, simply, a way-station until South Africa experienced its freedom.
There is another reason that I bring up 790. It is in the living room of this apartment that I first began wondering whether or not my father would reject me because I am American. The catalyst for this was a summer that my father spent in New York the year that I was seven years old. Papa was sleeping in the living room, on my mother?s couch. I walked in on him one night talking in his sleep, falling off the bed. The source of his nightmare? Whether or not his seven year-old child was going to bring home a Souith African or American husband.
My memory of this event is fright and embarrassment. My crush at the time was a classmate---Chuckie, John Mingo. Chuckie was Black. African-American. So was my mother. From Papa?s fall it becomes clear to me that my being American, my having a crush on a classmate who was not South African, is problematic for him. Also, for me. Does his falling out of the bed mean that if I claim myself as American that my father will reject me as he had my mother, African-American?
Will he? On my eighth birthday, Papa?s care package includes a letter asking for my mother?s hand in divorce. The woman he is marrying is South African. Obviously, he will.
I am in my late teens. It is the second time I have seen my father in twelve years. South African-born father and American-born daughter are traveling together on a tour of The United States. Papa is here as a representative of the Arts and Culture Department of The African National Congress of South Africa. The trip is wonderful, but, also, painful. Painful because my being American becomes a sore subject between the two of us.
There is the time that I want him to experience this thing called rap music. The first video he sees is one by X-Clan. Visually, they?re too much. They?ve adorned their bodies with a hodge-podge of accessories from every corner of The Continent. Papa asks that I turn the television off. I spend the next hour or so trying to defend the relevance of hip-hop to a man whose just been repelled by one of rap?s more political groups, X-Clan.
We are at Uncle Themba?s house in Boston. Papa screams at me about the fact that I, who can barely cook or iron, would be of little use in the camps. I?m not sure if the camps he?s referring to are the camps at SOMAFCO or the military camps where the soldiers in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC?s military wing, are being trained. Either way, I?m like, Papa? the camps? I?m a high-school student from New York going to college in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Not my problem.
A couple of weeks later, Papa and I are walking through the streets of Manhattan. I have been inspired by the example set forth by Robert C. Maynard, publisher and editor of The Oakland Tribune. The Tribune?s neon lettering colors the city?s skyline like Johnson Publishing?s logo does in Chicago. Both are black-owned. I want to be like them. I want to publish and own magazines. Papa is mortified. His African daughter, born and raised in the United States, has dreams of becoming a capitalist. He shoots down my dream like lightning. So I go to college with the intentions of becoming a doctor in The New South Africa.
It is nearly, twenty years later, and I am still completing my undergraduate degree. In the middle of midterms, I?m sitting at my kitchen table in Oakland, California, trying to wrap my head around issues of cultural identity as an African woman borne to South African and African-American parents in The United States. I am laughing. Out loud. I realize that my decades-long internal dialogue would never have been part of my experience, would not be part of our collective consciousness if? if? if? Is this the point where I?m supposed to blame the white man? Jamestown, 1619. Jan van Riebeeck and his Dutch settlers. South Africa, 1652. Over it. Who I am is South African and African-American. I?m a displaced African. It?s been the history of my people on both sides of The Atlantic for over four hundred years. Deal with it.
So. Is this my land or merely the soil to cover my bones? Life has taught me that cultural identity is not about citizenship, land, or soil. This would only be the case if there were no such things as slavery, colonialism, apartheid; you get the idea. As Africans, we are displaced, scattered. Period. We are neither the land, the corner, the block, nor the soil that claims us in the end. Who we are is what we are.