IN A TEACUP

CityPress - - Voices - Mil­isuthando Bon­gela voices@ city­press. co. za

Like many of the priv­i­leged caged birds at Rhodes Univer­sity, my friends and I – the sons and daugh­ters of the chat­ter­ing classes – en­joyed dis­cussing our af­ter-school plans.

My black friends from the South­ern African De­vel­op­ment Com­mu­nity would cast their nets wide, ap­ply­ing for jobs at places like MTV in Lon­don or McKin­sey in New York, and my black South African friends aimed for po­si­tions at places like Deloitte or at one of the four big banks.

But my white South African friends didn’t seem to have the same level of ur­gency when it came to find­ing work. They seemed more in­ter­ested in find­ing them­selves, and their prospects seemed more ad­ven­tur­ous and sea­soned with cer­tainty.

When I went home to tell my par­ents that I, like my white friends, was con­sid­er­ing work­ing on a kib­butz in Is­rael for a year, my fa­ther laughed so hard that I was si­lenced.

Those poor am­bi­tions of mine were teth­ered to white lib­eral vi­sions, norms and priv­i­leges. At the time, the idea of a “nor­mal” route for a black girl com­ing out of univer­sity with a BA de­gree wasn’t easy to find.

Ten years later, I am a writer and an in­ter­preter of my sur­round­ings, and I find my­self ask­ing what my role is in a so­ci­ety where the idea of nor­mal is so dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­one, and so teth­ered to dis­par­ity and ne­go­ti­ated anx­i­eties.

In Njab­ulo Nde­bele’s text The Re­dis­cov­ery of the Or­di­nary, the writer im­plores black thinkers and artists to cre­ate a new so­ci­ety by ac­tively choos­ing to paint, pho­to­graph and write about the ev­ery­day lives of their neigh­bours, fam­i­lies, shop­keep­ers and friends – to claim the un­cer­e­mo­ni­ous daily mo­ments of life as a form of lib­er­a­tion, while never los­ing sight of the big­ger strug­gles of our so­ci­ety.

I’ve been think­ing about this idea be­cause I strive to be care­free, I yearn to have a nor­mal ex­is­tence, or just a day where I’m not im­mersed in a race, gen­der, class and space dia­lec­tic as a fact of my brown life.

I re­cently sat next to a ta­ble of five Jewish men at a café in Lin­den, Joburg. They were hud­dled to­gether, ex­pos­ing the backs of their yarmulke­cov­ered heads, deeply in­vested in dis­cussing an ob­ject I could not see. I in­dulged my cu­rios­ity by re­mov­ing my ear­phones. They were dis­cussing crock­ery. This was con­firmed when one of them lifted a dusty pink cup, twirled it in the air, dis­cussed its shape in re­la­tion to the han­dle, put it down and did the same thing to a mint-green mug.

It soon be­came clear that they were in the busi­ness of pro­duc­ing these drink­ing tools.

Pure, green jeal­ousy set­tled in­side me at the thought that these grown white men had the lux­ury of con­ven­ing a busi­ness dis­cus­sion about crock­ery. And that they were prob­a­bly go­ing to make a lot of money from it. I tried to check the jeal­ousy in me in an ef­fort to un­der­stand why it was so buoy­ant, so re­lent­less. When the re­al­i­sa­tion en­tered me, it en­tered as a mat­ter of ne­ces­sity, like breath. If I was go­ing to in­ter­pret my sur­round­ings, I had to un­der­stand their foun­da­tions. The dif­fer­ence be­tween them and me is that they in­her­ited the peace of mind to craft and con­tem­plate teacups on a Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. I in­her­ited the re­spon­si­bil­ity of dis­cov­er­ing, ad­dress­ing and solv­ing a race, gen­der and class dis­par­ity I did not cre­ate.

I did not grow up in hu­mil­i­at­ing cir­cum­stances. I have the abil­ity to start a busi­ness whose sole pur­pose could be self-en­rich­ment – mak­ing and selling nice things – but af­ter try­ing that for a num­ber of years, I even­tu­ally learnt that this am­bi­tion was never mine to fully oc­cupy; it be­longed to those who didn’t find them­selves on the out­skirts of what it means to be nor­mal.

Their nor­mal is dif­fer­ent from the nor­mal of many of my age mates who are black and who have not yet fig­ured out what to call them­selves should history de­mand a name for us. We are not born­frees, we are not democ­racy’s care­free prog­eny. We are not sure what to do with this free­dom. Some of us want to over­throw some­thing, while oth­ers are try­ing to find that nor­mal in the space be­tween their in­di­vid­ual crumbs of priv­i­lege and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that they in­evitably have to the black peo­ple from whom they come.

Per­haps my re­spon­si­bil­ity as a priv­i­leged, think­ing black woman in post-colo­nial South Africa is to in­vent a new path, to cre­ate new am­bi­tions, new stan­dards, to not ape but to recre­ate the world, know­ing what I know and us­ing what was left be­hind by those be­fore me who have at­tempted to reimag­ine the world as black minds.

In this world that my con­tem­po­raries and I are re­spon­si­ble for cre­at­ing, we feel nor­mal, we are seen and heard with­out hav­ing to trans­late our­selves. We have our own spa­ces. We are not al­ways fight­ing to be in­cluded. We can talk about in­con­se­quen­tial things. We can dis­cuss Ri­hanna’s Bitch Bet­ter Have My Money video with­out be­ing touched in emo­tional and de­fen­sive spots. In this world, Rachel Dolezal and Yo­hji Ya­mamoto’s Spring/Sum­mer 2016 col­lec­tion are funny be­cause they are un­wise, not be­cause of deeper im­pli­ca­tions.

When re­dis­cov­er­ing the or­di­nary is not a con­scious act of respite from ac­tive protest or strug­gle in­er­tia, only then can we imag­ine a world where it is nor­mal for all the morsels of a black per­son’s at­ten­tion to be placed and sta­tioned on inan­i­mate ob­jects such as teacups.

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