Swim­ming against the racial tide

CityPress - - Voices - PHETOGO MOELE voices@city­press.co.za

A Per­son My Colour: Love, Adop­tion and Par­ent­ing While White by Martina Dahlmanns Mod­jaji Books

214 pages



There are deeds in life that tran­scend life as we know it. Th­ese deeds only tran­spire when “nor­mal” hu­man be­ings rebel against our ac­cepted so­cial codes and swim against the tide. They be­come larger than life and we watch, amazed.

In A Per­son My Colour, Martina Dahlmanns swims against the tide.

She be­comes a South African ci­ti­zen af­ter in­ten­tion­ally miss­ing her flight back to Ger­many at the end of a tour of our beloved coun­try. She has fallen in love and can­not leave – it is a beau­ti­ful coun­try. She falls in love a sec­ond time, with a white South African and they marry. They de­cide against hav­ing their own chil­dren and (un)for­tu­nately adopt a black child, then two more black chil­dren.

Their lives take an­other turn when they are deemed not to be so­cially ac­cept­able by dear friends.

Part one of this mem­oir is the bru­tally hon­est ren­di­tion of Dahlmanns’ shat­tered life – shat­tered by a fam­ily, a coun­try and the age that bore her – and the quest to cre­ate a great life from the shat­ter­ing.

Dahlmanns’ is a tran­scen­den­tal life, a larg­erthan-life life, echo­ing snip­pets of the per­fect rain­bow na­tion story, yet very sad and only at­tain­able by sheer love. The cou­ple’s de­lib­er­ate choice to adopt rather than breed makes for a pow­er­ful story; be­ing white and par­ent­ing black chil­dren and be­com­ing “black”.

But in part two Dahlmanns loses the plot, the pur­pose and the power of her text and she fails her mem­oir, turn­ing a rel­e­vant and re­veal­ing story into just an­other never-end­ing South African saga of race re­la­tions.

Yes, the race nar­ra­tive has its place within this mem­oir and, yes, there are funny, in­sight­ful and some­times em­bar­rass­ing mo­ments that in­form us, but the story would have been even bet­ter had it come from the point of view of her fam­ily, and her chil­dren, as they grew up in­gest­ing their ‘new’ world. As re­veal­ing as the sec­ond part is, it lacks the tex­ture of the black­ness that en­tered this Cau­casian fam­ily and turned it “black”. From the mo­ment Lele is placed in Dahlmanns’ hands, she sings her chil­dren Ger­man lul­la­bies ... and the chil­dren be­come shad­ows ad­dressed as if they were a di­ary. Dahlmanns de­nies the reader the in­tri­ca­cies of this love and of par­ent­ing this fam­ily beyond recog­nised so­cial norms.

The world over, race de­fines us as peo­ple and na­tions. But there is still a sleep­ing South African snake – trib­al­ism – wait­ing for its day to rears its head in the pub­lic sphere and bite. We can have a bil­lion dis­cus­sions on race and agree, but af­ter that we fall back into our cu­bi­cles. It’s our de­fault set­ting. But here, Dahlmanns is cook­ing a recipe within her cu­bi­cle that has some of the an­swers to our race is­sues. Her cu­bi­cle is so pow­er­ful that it trans­forms first her, then her hus­band and their three chil­dren into “new” and bet­ter be­ings than nor­mal so­ci­ety. But this is also the part that she holds back; how her fam­ily re­lates to the cus­toms and tra­di­tions of our peo­ple. She de­nies us ac­cess where it mat­ters most and lets the love, the adop­tion and the par­ent­ing while white re­main be­hind gated sub­ur­bia by of­fer­ing trite racial ob­ser­va­tions that we all know and live with every sin­gle day in South Africa.

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