Swimming against the racial tide
A Person My Colour: Love, Adoption and Parenting While White by Martina Dahlmanns Modjaji Books
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.