Tuesday, 23 September 2014

On Heritage & Silencing the Past

Danielle Bowler contemplates the complexities that come with taking the issue of heritage seriously. Eyewitness News

There is a line from an Arthur Nortje poem that incessantly gnaws at me. It brings to the surface many of the discontents that I have with Heritage Day and the sheer weight of all that we have inherited. In Dogsbody-halfbreed, Nortje writes: “he who belongs to nowhere is to nothing/deeply attached”.

Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, whenever Heritage Day came around, accompanied by “cultural day” at school, a group of us would give each other bewildered glances and state “we have no culture”. As coloured children, we assumed we had no cultural dress, beyond the Levi’s jeans and Dickies sneakers that we coveted, the music of rap group TRO seemed too recent and trivial to be regarded as “heritage”, and the food we had grown up eating was an assortment of English breakfasts, umfino, umgqusho, curries and breyanis, lavish Sunday roast lunches, and the commonplace macaroni and cheese.

Far away from the Cape, it seemed everyone else’s culture was embedded in our own, and we had nothing to call our own. To that nothingness we were, like Nortje, deeply attached. What we were trying to make sense of, and could not name, was an overwhelming multiplicity because embedded in our bodies was a more complex history than the kind Heritage Day sought to privilege. As Angelo Fick writes: “Heritage cannot be more personal or immediate than when it is mapped on and inside the human body.” Our bodies were complex maps that seemed to lead us both everywhere and nowhere at once.

There were many things we did not understand. Fundamentally, that culture is constructed and is therefore not natural or ahistorical, that identity is performance and we have agency in our interpretation of it, and that certain histories and heritages have been systematically silenced. Encoded into our bodies was difference and an abundance of culture that formed a rich and vibrant heritage we could not see because we were thinking culture through the ideology of race, with its problematic notions of “authenticity” and obsession with homogenous experiences.

Years later, two years into a degree at Rhodes University, I found myself sitting on the staircase of the District Six museum. It should have been an innocuous visit, one more item checked off a long list of tourist activities in Cape Town. Instead, it was a turning point. As I sat on a staircase that bore the names of streets I had never walked and a history that had been reduced to a mere footnote, a complex web of emotions surfaced. I was angry, sad, elated, tearful, confused, bitter and torn apart, all at once. The museum had revealed how much of myself I had been given no access to. Chapters missing from the history books that had been prescribed. Parts of my identity that had been so strategically silenced.

On those stairs, my introspection that was at once both painful and liberating. That moment was one of the most important points of my life and the start of a journey of self-discovery. I delved into ancestral lines that remain both frustrating and exhilarating, and contemplated the complexities that come with taking the issue of heritage seriously.

Heritage Day is a reminder of the complexities of the identity that I occupy, and how fraught the question of coloured identity remains in contemporary South Africa. What could have been a moment for contemplation is often reduced to a mere performance of the nation, expressed in threadbare slogans like “the rainbow nation” and the impotent and apolitical celebration that is “braai day”.

As TO Molefe so eloquently argues, braai day’s hijacking of Heritage Day has rendered it “the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’s day of sponsored forgetting”. This interpretation of Heritage Day reduces the complex and critical matter of heritage to surface markers of identity, designed to privilege certain (unthreatening) aspects of the past at the expense of seriously engaging with and wrestling with what it means to be, at this moment in our history. It encourages compartmentalisation of our experiences and endorses the performance of certain markers of identity. It demands that we all stay in our lanes.

For coloured people, this emerges as fundamentally complex because the coloured experience is both marked and defined by difference, which is often problematically reduced to the matter of being “not black or white, yet both”, which hides the way that there is difference within expressions of coloured identity itself.

From Cape Town to Johannesburg to Durban and other cities, there are different and intersecting experiences of colouredness as each different locale has made different sense of what it means to be. However, a logic that is built on racial absolutism cannot accommodate difference. It does not need nor want identities that perform differently and raise questions about the structures that underpin identity and the politics of heritage.

As children, trying to make sense of what Heritage Day meant, we assumed our culture lacked the richness of our Zulu, Jewish, Xhosa, Italian, Indian and Muslim friends. We assumed this because many aspects of our heritage had been silenced, because we thought culture needed to have existed from the beginning of time, because we assumed that we had to be just one thing, and because we had never learnt that our difference was something that could be celebrated. We did not know that if we unhinged ourselves from the logic of race, bringing tripe or bobotie or challah to school would not be a lie, that these were all part of ourselves because our belonging can be found in multiple reference points, and that this does not mean that we are reduced to cultural nothingness. We did not understand that we can be Zulu, Xhosa, Jewish, Muslim, English and coloured all at once.

Exploring my own heritage saw stories emerge of a Malay great-grandmother on one side and a Zulu great-grandmother on the other, and of great grandfathers who had travelled to South Africa from England and Ireland. But accompanying these narratives were the stories that will never be told, vague tales of surnames that had been changed, and a family tree that is difficult to trace. Of dead roots that speak of silences. Of abbreviated histories.

In her novel, NW, Zadie Smith writes: “Daughter drag. Sister drag. Mother drag. Wife drag. Court drag. Rich drag. Poor drag. British drag. Jamaican drag. Each required a different wardrobe.” What she is remarking on is the fact that every identity requires a performance of some sorts, the act of putting on some aspect of yourself in an acknowledgement that identity and culture are constructed and created.
In the years since my school days, I have learnt multiple lessons that challenge the reduction of Heritage Day to braais and beads. I now know that I have agency that allows me to self-identify and revel in my complex multiplicity. Beyond the existential crisis that marked my university years, I live the meaning of Dabydeen’s words when he says: “I have a multiple identity. There is no crisis. There is a kind of delight as well as a kind of anguish in jumping from one identity to the next.” I have learnt that we were wrong when we sat at our desks and said “we have no culture”, because I now know that culture is created, and that “through a combination of resilience, borrowings from other cultures, ingenuity and creativity, coloureds have produced practices distinctly theirs”, as Grant Farred writes.

Contemplating the issue of heritage, I have come to understand that we are a complex, brilliant mix of our ancestry, and this does not need to be filtered through the singular logic that Heritage Day has come to embody. I am everything, and I embrace everything.