Monday, 9 May 2011

To have nothing to lose

by Danielle Alyssa Bowler

In 2004, an article written by Zenzile Khoisan titled “Crime hits coloureds hardest-study” was published in the Cape Argus. It drew on Phil Leggett’s “research”, which claimed coloured people have a greater propensity for violent crime. The article engendered much discord, particularly over the acceptance or rejection of the term “coloured”. Gino Fransman, an academic from the University of the Western Cape, wrote a response in which he embraced the term, while questioning the homogenisation of the racial group, which triggered this response by (Chief) Joseph D. Little: 

If you truly want to take this matter of your identity seriously, as some of us have, then you will stop calling yourself a coloured. You will call yourself what our first nation indigenous ancestors called themselves: Khoi-Khoi (or Khoi-San). It simply means people or humankind. In order to be a true Zulu or Xhosa, you must have a language and a land… I have not found a coloured who speaks coloured and lives in colouredland (Fransman, 2005: 25, my emphasis)

When viewed in light of Little’s response, W.E.B Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness emerges within Fransman’s attempt at self-description. It raises the problem of articulating the self in “a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets himself through the revelation of the other world” (du Bois, 1905: 3). Thus the self is conscious of other interpretations of their reality, other articulations of their way of being in the world – and has to articulate itself in relation to this other world, not the inverse. 

It is a peculiar sensation: being at once whole and splintered. To occupy a body that has to qualify its existence, that has to measure its “soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (du Bois, 1905: 3). Not because of a lack, but though overabundance the Coloured body articulates itself through ancestral plethora, often simplified through the evocation of the black/white binaries: firmly positioned in the middle. Thus to inhabit the interstices[1] is to occupy a precarious space: a space that inhibits movement within the colour spectrum provided by rainbow nation rhetoric and apartheid’s residue, a space that is both undefined and overly defined, as if defies easy definition yet fixed borders have been delineated . It is a space in which the “basic importance” Fanon ascribes to “the phenomenon of language” operates with great difficulty. 

For Fanon, “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other (Fanon 17).The lack of a speaking “coloured”, does not mean a non-existence, but rather the existence of multiple languages, converging within the mixed-race body. This in my experience, it becomes not about the pragmatics of speaking English, but about the interplay of language and culture, as Fanon would rightly claim to speak a language is to “assume a culture” (17). However, the overabundance of language (and culture) within the coloured body causes a profound complexity in dealing with this phenomenon.

There is a Zulu on my stoep

As a young child, I have memories of Zulu being spoken around me – understanding it as being used for its practicality, as my grandparents owned a farm and it was the language of its farm workers. As I got older, and more existential, enquiring into my history and trying to trace my family tree revealed the silencing of Zulu ancestry – perhaps as it was unpopular to embrace black heritage during Apartheid, within the coloured community. Thus, I began to attempt learning the language, intentionally pulling at the roots, stuttering and stumbling through the familiar clicks and the unfamiliar grammar – aided by the songs of Brenda Fassie and Mafikizolo and a very patient domestic worker as my tutor. However, this language assumes a culture that I have little access to – again, I found myself on the peripheries, on one side of the racial binary that is used to measure a coloured soul. As I further enquired my bodies archive the presence of other cultures and histories asserted themselves, bringing their languages with them. But, from the lessons learned in learning Zulu, I was acutely aware that toa learn Portuguese or French, or any other of the languages in the vast archive that constitutes my history, would not give me direct access to their assumed cultures. 

Poverty of Choice

A cultural poverty emerges within this rich history – a paradox, as having so much to draw on implies an agency, but this very agency is inhibited by the presence of so much. To use so much is deliberate, as what there is, what constitutes much is often unknown – tracing the family tree leaves many loose ends, many (intentionally) severed roots. This is not to deny the strong presence of ancestral roots within some coloured communities, families and individuals. This is only to speak of that which I know, a singular experience that may have resonances for some, but not be the experience of others. Grant Farred (2000: 14) remarks that to be coloured is an “uneven experience” – different for all those who are called by a singular name: a name that implies a singular culture, and a singular way of being. This singularity often draws on the Cape in its attempts to reduce the experience of coloured people and language to Afrikaans (ignoring even the difference present in the Cape). However, with a relationship with Afrikaans gained not in a home, but at school, I find myself even outside the interstices, as the way “colouredness” has been constructed rejects the experience of those who do not fit within the homogenised identity. But if to speak is to exist, then speaking English gives access to existence. However, an acute splintering occurs in light the knowledge of the presence of other ways of existing, of other languages that cry out from within an embattled body.

For who belongs nowhere, is to nothing/deeply attached (Arthur Nortje, in Farred, 2005: 59). 
With language and identity so intrinsically linked, I long for a language to lose. Hearing the narratives of those who lament the dying of their cultures and languages in the face of Westernisation, I long to have a voice in which to assert my loss, I long to have a culture to sever ties with. However I am aware that it is not the loss that I long for, it is having something to lose – to reject or accept myself, for agency. But the loss happened long before me, and in the face of overabundance, the choice was not mine to make. Uncomfortably inhabiting the interstices is to constantly “feel the ground give way beneath one’s feet”, as one is forced to vacillate between binaries and wrestle within. 

Paradoxically, the presence of the overabundance of language, which ostensibly gives proximity to these multiple worlds, causes a profound lack: a nothingness of sorts. I find myself deeply attached to this nothingness: questioning its constitution, pulling out all the strands within the overabundance that caused it. In the introduction to Black Skin, White Masks, Homi Bhaba asks “How can the human world live its difference? How can a human being live Other-wise?” (Bhaba, cited in Fanon,1986/1957:xvii). Thus, I find myself increasingly committed to both understanding and constructing a way of living difference, asserting this difference through articulating what it means to occupy the interstices: what it means to speak and feel the force of other languages as they silently assert their presence.

Danielle Alyssa Bowler is an Honours student in Politics and International Studies at Rhodes University.

[1] See Farred, 2000. The Midfielders Moment