Opinion

Beyond the struggle: SA's past holds pleasures too, let's celebrate them

Why do we have to look to a New York museum to tell us about rounded, joyous black South African lives beyond Apartheid?

14 October 2018 - 00:08
Scene from 'King Kong', Johannesburg: singer Nathan Mdledle (center), as King Kong, dances with his gangster-moll girl friend-played by Miriam Makeba, at an illicit liquor den.
Scene from 'King Kong', Johannesburg: singer Nathan Mdledle (center), as King Kong, dances with his gangster-moll girl friend-played by Miriam Makeba, at an illicit liquor den.
Image: Getty Images/Bettmann

The pages of the Life Magazine 50-year anniversary special edition were thick and heavy to turn for my six-year-old fingers. Not like the tissue paper magazines are printed on today. Each double-page spread was dense with a collection of highlights from the world over - Mark Spitz on one page, Martin Luther King jnr on another and then, unexpectedly, among it all, something about South Africa. Something about Sophiatown, to be specific.

What was this magical place where, in black and white pictures, life was singing? Two-toned Florsheim shoes on the men, topped with Dobson hats, Mary Janes for the ladies with flowers in their hair. The kind of hairstyles and adornments I had only ever witnessed on American singers like Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

I'd heard the music. I knew the trumpet of Hugh Masekela and the kwela of the penny whistle, I knew the swing jazz of my dad's home town Marabastad, but I'd had no pictures except the ones I painted myself.

Here was proof. The women and men danced and their steps on the sticky floor and their energy came alive in the words of a story I would never have known had it not been for my grandfather's incessant need to hold on to books, and this US publication in particular. Now I wish I had asked him how he got hold of it, because I can almost guarantee it wasn't as easy as walking to the corner store to buy it.

A life lived by people of colour was not something to be chronicled and celebrated in SA. In 2018, perhaps it still isn't. Back in 1925, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was founded in Harlem, New York. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 2017 for being one of the world's leading cultural institutions devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African-American, African Diaspora and African experiences.

Let me emphasise - it is not just a division of the New York Public Library dedicated to the lives of black Americans. No. It is a diverse institution that includes programmes and collections housing more than 11 million items that illuminate the richness of global black history, arts and culture in the form of photographs, old newspaper prints, banned books, posters, poetry, paintings and archival content reproduced in new visual and multimedia media.

Here, I learnt about the Black Panther arms in India and Israel. I learnt about South African dignitaries in Ghana and Egypt. I learnt about parties, music, entertaining, and wild, wild debates between Africans and African-Americans. I learnt about how we educated them, and about how they educated us.

But mostly, I learnt about how, while all this was happening, a quiet exchange was taking place in culture. I learnt about how Dobson and Florsheim got to Sophiatown and I learnt about what the EFF's red beret stood for when it was black and worn by members of the black power movement, fists in the air and black leather jackets on their backs.

The beret sometimes worn by Black Panthers (pictured) in the US in the 1960s may find its echo in the red headgear of the EFF in SA in the 21st century, but that sort of link to global black history is barely explored in South African museums and memorials.
The beret sometimes worn by Black Panthers (pictured) in the US in the 1960s may find its echo in the red headgear of the EFF in SA in the 21st century, but that sort of link to global black history is barely explored in South African museums and memorials.
Image: Denver Post/Getty Images

I saw Gil Scott-Heron come to life in a way that a search through a library never showed me.

And his words never rang so true as they did then:

I was wondering about our yesterdays
And starting digging through the rubble
And to say, at least somebody went
Through a hell of a lot of trouble
To make sure that when we looked things up
We wouldn't fare too well
And that we would come up with totally unreliable
Portraits of ourselves.

They made me feel full and empty at the same time.

I'd been to the Apartheid Museum in Joburg. The District Six Museum in Cape Town has seen me more times than I can count. Constitution Hill in Hillbrow is a place of book releases, political party launches and the occasional art exhibition - of course, it's more than that, but there you have it. One cold winter morning, I ticked the Hector Pieterson Museum and Vilakazi Street off my list.

Our yesterdays are rubble and when we look things up, we don't fare too well do we? When you leave any of the aforementioned places you never leave with love, with power, with joy. You leave with anger, pain and sadness. You leave with your head down instead of up. You leave knowing those memorials are the archives of white "artists" resurrected, painstakingly, by black hands.

I know how Paul Kruger wore his beard, I see the aesthetic similarities between the threads of the Boer women and the Dutch. Everyone does. It was in our history books at school, it's in life, all around us now. History is just a collection of thoughts written by those who have the power of the pen and the picture.

It's not until I wrote "Don't Touch Me on My Tekkies", a chapter in Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa about the meaning of shoes to people of colour, that I had a full understanding of how shallow this breadth of knowledge is to an entire European diaspora in this country. Why? Because they are not faced with it. There are no places that tell that story, yet we are subjected to the bland history of their own telling.

To live in a present we're so desperate to call diverse we must start to diversify our pasts

To live in a present we're so desperate to call diverse we must start to diversify our pasts. To isolate the black life, the black experience, to one that is solely political, one that is solely of struggle and one that does not dare travel beyond the boundaries of apartheid, is to dilute those lives because we are not just one thing. We are not just one movement. We are the music we listen to, the instruments we play, the books we write and the stories we tell.

It's not good enough to hope for a diverse future to close the gap between the differences between black and white, to appropriate those tastes, the art, the life, without being made to look it straight in the eye and embrace the difference between what black looks like and what white looks like first.

Our pasts are more than pain. They are also ones of powerful moving pleasure.

Let's tell them.

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