The past holds plea­sure too. We should cel­e­brate it

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

Sunday Times - - Contents -

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.

Alife 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. 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.

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 — Gil Scott-Heron

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. ●

The beret some­times worn by Black Pan­thers 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.

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