IN A TEACUP
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.