… And my parents were also born and raised in South Africa?
Those were the questions running through my mind during an encounter with a senior member of the English Department, Julia*, at a university here in Auckland where I was studying in 2014. We were pleasantly discussing possible PhD courses I could look at and we got side-tracked into a conversation about “globalising identity”. I said to her, “I am an African”. I was gobsmacked by the way her face changed. It looked as if she had dipped her face in freshly squeezed lemons then spat out the pips, the idea of me asserting my identity as an African was so repugnant to her.
Julia was fine with me referring to myself as a South African. With my biltong and veldskoen accent, it is clear where I come from to any Aucklander. But she was most offended when I removed that humble, place-marking adjective. I said it again, a little more slowly, almost teasingly: “I am an African”. I watched her face as she winced (literally), then looked away. She was now very uncomfortable with me. I shrugged my shoulders, somewhat offended myself, intrigued by my wish to hold onto my “identity”, which I didn’t realise till then was one I had, one I would defend and desire to substantiate. I said, “I was born and raised in South Africa as were my parents who also died there; some of their uncles and aunts and a grandparent were born there.” Julia, probably in her late forties, refused to reply or make eye contact. Her lips were now a string of barbed wire.
“What else can I be?” I then asked. “We were talking about globalised identity … perhaps I am an Irishman simply because I live in New Zealand with Kiwi residency in my Irish passport — because an EU passport is a lot handier than my South African …?” I let my words trail off while she turned away from me to look at her PC screen, switching the subject back to giving me advice on PhD matters. The atmosphere was charged, arctic.
Let me give some background explanation, which is no explanation — in the sense of being any reasonable justification for Julia’s behaviour. Julia is proudly part Maori, part Samoan and partly of British descent, among others. I say proudly because these identity markers are displayed all over her office door along with her resume as a poet and an academic. As an academic and as a citizen she is engaged in restoring and upholding Pasifika (specifically Maori) identity and is opposed to — wait for it — discrimination. Yet, for all the apparent truth-seeking implicit in genuine scholarship and erudition which should go with someone of her high-ranking status in a prestigious English Department, her attitude to me was one of unexamined racism. If I had been a black person, as an “educated” person she would have had no problem whatsoever with my assertion, “I am an African”. So … what if I was an Egyptian or Libyan?
What am I? I am not only an African, of course, but that part of me is inescapable.
In terms of birth, culture(s), and that deep honeycomb of stored memories of Africa: the sounds of Afrikaans, Zulu, South African English and the smells of the land — from the townships I taught in to the wet, earthy smells of the Magaliesberg, the dry fragrance of Namaqualand, or childhood braai smoke combing my face, the ash and dirt ingrained in the soles of my feet … if I am not an African, what am I?
How did our conversation get to that frozen silence? It began just before my appointment with Julia, as I stood outside her door, about to knock. On her door, among the other posters, was a line from a poem which banged my heart open before I knocked. As an immigrant with some personal experience of xenophobia and other prejudices, I breathed in the line of verse, which was as startling and bright as a trail of seagulls lifting off waves. Here it is:
“The only land I have is that between my toes.”
The line struck true and sweet in me while I mouthed it again and again as an itinerant who has not known anything like home for more than a decade. (The verse has been attributed to different poets.) What a majestic line! What a deep sense of history, of living in any country that has been colonised, the original natives oppressed and disenfranchised. Be they Maori victims of the Waitangi Treaty, or all those, including their descendants, who suffered in the aftermath of the Battle of Blood River.
The word “land” is exact, with its sense of both earth and nation. That it is clinging between one’s toes suggests travel, no fixed abode, and “freedom” from possessions, yet the earth is precious in its ephemerality. The speaker avers there is nothing to possess. Some months later, when I thought of the line again, I misremembered it. The words had become the following in that alchemy, the honeycomb of my memory, and because of my own backstory as a “homeless” person: “All that I am is the land between my toes, or “ … the earth between my toes”.
I am and I have. Is there a difference, anymore?
Spiritual values are in danger of fading away. (Think of what that term resonates with: inner transformation through disciplines like meditation, caritas, prayer, art, self-sacrifice, simplicity, even chores like gardening.) In this super-materialistic global culture, the distinction between “have” and “am” is thoroughly blurred. Do not possessions, that which we have, now determine what we are, in ways we cannot fathom, including having a false sense of national or iwi identity? It was more or less in the space of this sort of discussion between a South African wanderer who has finally, legally, settled in New Zealand, and a “learned” academic who constantly asserts her Maori and Pasifika identity, that I unwittingly dropped the bombshell, “I am an African”. After that, we both retreated into our identities. Through her awful silence she showed she did not value my identity. After careful reflection I realise I did not value hers as I felt she was using her sense of jingoist identity as a post-colonial victim (and recipient) of the Waitangi Treaty to impoverish my personal, unique sense of individuality and roots.
To be honest, I am, to this day, some nine months later, quite angry with her and her shitty attitude. I am angry with the fact this deplorable manner came from a “scholarly” person who upholds human rights and dignity for all — or so I readily assumed. It is also because this is only one incident — perhaps a bit more striking than others — among many disturbing moments of racism and other prejudices I experienced while at the university, which came from people I would have thought were more “educated”. My seven years in China have made of me an innocent, a naïve person used to teaching kids. For me, education collocates very closely with enlightenment, with courageous truth seeking, rigorous honesty with oneself, or so one would like to believe — not blinkered, unscrutinised viewpoints or digging yer heels in.
But then, am I not also at fault, in my inability to fully forgive, to not feel a greater compassion for Julia’s background, complex as it is with her politically correct claims to many diverse roots? The key seems to remain identity-less, if that is possible. Is that possible?
Is Julia what I don’t want her to be, an overeducated person, head somewhere up in the cerebral clouds, with a huge chip on her shoulder whilst celebrating Pasifika identity through oral poetry and so forth, yet deeply prejudiced because, as I am not black, how dare I say I am an African?
All that I am is the muck under my feet. All that I have is those crushed diamonds between my toes, the bits of earth through which both kings and ants have been milled.
*Not her real name.
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