"How can you live in that country? she wanted again to
say, although she remembered when someone once said that to her
- a Danish man, on Agnes's senior trip abroad to Copenhagen. It
was during the Vietnam War, and the man had stared meanly, righteously.
'The United States: how can you live in that country?' the man had
asked. Agnes had shrugged. 'A lot of my stuff is there,' she said,
and it was only then that she first felt all the dark love and shame
that came from the pure accident of home, the deep and arbitrary
place that happened to be yours." - Lorrie Moore, Agnes
of Iowa (http://www.granta.com/extracts/793)
* * *
It takes a context to define something, a control to establish a norm. I learned how to be South African in New York.
"Do you recognise the language?" My lover (who was an inveterate liar, but then I've always been attracted to the idea of unreliable narrators) was lying in a hospital bed in a Brooklyn emergency room, his collarbone leaping obscenely, insistently, under his skin. Partially obscured by the disinfectant-green curtains, a black family next to us was murmuring in a foreign language over their loved one against a backbeat of respirators and mournfully bleating machines.
Did I recognise it? As if the borders across the continent were so smudged that there was no difference discernible between Swahili and Sesotho. As if I could be so intimately familiar with the play of vowels and consonants as to be able to identify one tongue out of eleven, let alone a hundred languages, a thousand dialects, because one surely should be the mother of all?
"No," I said.
I think, actually, they were Caribbean.
In 1996, when I first met this man for whom, four years later, I would haphazardly switch continents as if they were apartments, a homeless woman had leant over the boardwalk fence at the San Diego hostel where we were staying.
"So where are you from?" she'd asked, luridly friendly in the manner of the very drunk. When I told her, being polite, she'd been thrilled. "I didn't know they had white people in South Africa!"
"How do you think we had apartheid?" I'd snapped, tired of fielding ignorance, like the guy in Seattle who thought Australia was one of the southern states, maybe bordering Louisiana.
"A party …?" Her eyes had widened. "Yeah! You can't have a party without white people."
Part of the reason I had first been attracted to this man was that I had mistaken knowing something of home for knowing me. When other Americans asked me if I rode a zebra to work (answer: yes and thank god the traffic rangers were around to save me that day when the lions attacked), he said, "So, what's the situation now with Mugabe?" I think it was as much gratitude as love.
Six months after I'd moved to New York the relationship fell to pieces - as relationships do when based on dreams and lies, midnight phone calls and instant messaging. "Just go back to Africa!" he'd screamed at me, my suitcases already packed - because I was undeserving of being here. Just another part of the desperate third-world crush of people and poverty and famine and AIDS. In one sentence, seething with denigration, he reduced me at once to that signature image of Africa: Kevin Carter's photograph of a vulture stalking a starving child (http://updates.takingitglobal.org/read-comments?UpdateID=1924).
I had defied him and his presumptions. Instead of going home, I had moved to Chicago and in with old (black) friends, K and K, who had grown up in the Transkei when their American mother moved to South Africa during apartheid to try and make a difference.
They understood intimately all the complications of being a South African adrift in the world - familiar with that hollow brooding space inside that aches for home, the way other parts, I'm told, ache for a baby.
I'd never felt so much the nagging connection of home as when I was away from it, not so much pulling me back, but inextricably linked, like the strings of a parachute - or, more specifically, a parachute tangled in a cornfield.
Shortly after coming to the Mid-West, I'd taken up skydiving, in an attempt to try and remove that sensation of hurtling from my head. And although I loved the howling sky and the Mondrian blocks of the earth rushing to meet me, I'd often miss the neatly-cropped grass of the drop zone and crash-land brutally in the corn, tangling the hundred strings on the green stalks and severely pissing off the local farmer.
To disentangle yourself in this kind of situation you could either meticulously unwrap the lines one at a time or - less advisably, but if you were worried about enraged farmers, say - just turn and walk out, gently, hoping that the lines would free themselves, which they usually did. But for a moment, before the stalks bent and the lines snapped free, they would pull taut against the dark origami heads of corn and the snarled weight of the canopy. That drag seemed somehow like home. A light, physical tug of connectedness.
I don't know when I first noticed the twisted bodies that were caught up in all of it - that I'd certainly never expected ever to be dragging in my wake.
When I hooked up with a new friend on 5th avenue, she'd brought along a companion to meet me. "Oh," he'd said, surprised. "I'm sorry. I made an assumption." But beyond that had been another assumption, lurking implicitly in the silence, demanding an explanation, because if I wasn't black … And I'd found myself abruptly fumbling to fill that terrible moment of polite expectation that gaped always after any initial introductions were made.
I'd never felt branded by my skin before. But suddenly I was answerable to it, to a history, to all the televised images and newspaper headlines I'd never associated myself with.
It didn't matter that I hadn't been old enough to vote in the 1994 election, which had come two months before my 18th birthday, that my father had been branded a kafferboetie for his work in the townships in the '80s, that my best friends and housemates were black, dammit, and damn the cliché.
I was constantly expected to prove myself otherwise. It was exhausting and anxious-making.
"Now you know what we have to deal with," said K and K, whose favourite joke at restaurants where the service was shoddy was to declare loudly, "Is it because we're black?"
At a poetry reading one night downtown I tried to explain how I felt, in a crude free verse that plagiarised a line from Antje Krog (http://www.womanmade.org/poem.html?24), only to end up enraging a black poet in the audience, who refused to acknowledge me thereafter, let alone speak to me to allow me to explain, even when I slipped her a copy of the poem, scrawled on a napkin.
"Oh, God, Lauren. What did you expect?" K and K sighed, when I told them what had happened.
"But it was in context. I was just saying what you'd said."
"But you're white."
After having drunk too many whiskeys to be able to get up and read in front of 50 people I didn't know, I'd tried to relay what my friends had told me about their experience of the friendly, happy, PC racism in America. While people in South Africa made it all too clear if they didn't like you because you were black, K and K said, the Americans they'd met hid their fear and loathing behind jolly facades. "They'll be like, 'Oh, it's so great to meet you!', but meanwhile they'll be thinking, you fucking nigger."
It didn't go down very well when I repeated it in public, and of course I should have known better, should have found a less provocative way of paraphrasing the point.
The incident and my inability to explain my intentions only made me more miserable.
I confided in an American friend that I wished one of my ancestors had had children by his maid, that there might be some indelible stain of black blood in my veins, no matter how diluted, to redeem me, like in André Brink's Imaginings of Sand. My friend was horrified at the thought - that I actually dared to express hope for such a horrific colonial abuse.
In New Zealand the government introduced a bill that provides grants and scholarships to citizens who can prove they have Maori blood. 1/100th is enough, apparently, to claim tribal heritage. I longed for something similar. A formal acquittal of genetics to belie my blue eyes.
"You should never feel guilty for who you are," another friend said, worried. But it wasn't who I was, so much as the context of where I came from. And it didn't matter that it was old news. Almost ancient history. The "Net Blankes" signs, the 121 nooses hanging in the Apartheid Museum, the AK-47s and the photograph of a dying Hector Petersen, taken a few days after I was born, and the men with their hands tied behind their backs and their heads in wet bags, followed me wherever I went. Like I'd cast out a drift net and caught only bad things.
In his Pulitzer prize-winning book,
Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond writes about the
rise of civilisation over the past 13 000 years and how the West
came to hegemony. Basically, to summarise a 457-page tome of dense
science, it comes down to biogeographics. Domesticated crops spread
more easily across latitudinal lines of similar climate that could
support them, zebras are so unpredictably dangerous as to be undomesticatable,
let alone rideable, and germs caught from domestic animals actually
conquered most of the world by killing off the majority of native
populations in a first wave of attack before the invaders moved
in with their guns and steel. And people have always done bad things
to one another.
It's a masterful, compassionate and immaculately empirical put-down of every racist theory ever devised and reading it went a long way towards absolving me of the motherload of guilt I'd taken on in trying somehow to be representative.
I don't quite know when it was that I figured out the obvious - that other people's suspicions were their problem. That if they didn't want to give me any latitude beyond their suppositions of me, I was under no obligation to try and rewire their thinking. They couldn't saddle me with guilt unless I chose to take it.
There was no great moment of epiphany or absolution, but I realised I was so over it in a conversation with a cab-driver on the way to Union Station. When he asked me the question I'd come to dread, I lost patience. "South Africa. But I'm so sick of people automatically assuming that means I'm a white racist prick and thinking that I have to try and prove myself to them."
"Don't worry about it," he said; "if they can't figure it out, fuck 'em."
But there is a responsibility and there is a history, with thousands of thickly-twisted strings that connect us to it, running backwards through our lives. Like my brother-in-law who works as an advocate now with a judge who'd sentenced him to jail during the struggle, or the Long Street bar-owner who used to print defiant T-shirts in another lifetime, or my 18-year-old adopted black brother who decided not to vote in this last election even though people had died so that he could.
And we shouldn't forget it or gloss over it or delude ourselves that it's not somehow a part of who we are, that it shaped where we are, even when it's easy to forget after ten years.
But we shouldn't let it hold us back either.