Featured Image: Corbis/Getty Images As a young child growing up in Cape Town, I knew that the minstrel carnival my parents took us to each new year and the songs sung by the Malay choirs had something to do with slavery. It certainly wasn’t something that we learned about during history lessons at school and…A History of Silence — reclamation magazine
By: Prof Siona O’Connell, Critical African Studies Project, UP
Dr Nadia Kamies, Post-Doc Dept Historical & Heritage Studies, UP
The forced removal of over 12 million Africans to the Americas was one part of the trade in human bodies. Another aspect, is the people who were shipped to the Cape in the Indian Ocean slave trade. From its inception, the Cape was a slave society, violently established on the backs of men and women who were stripped of their names, cultures and religions, and forced to work in the kitchens and vineyards of their enslavers. In 1652, as colonial administrator of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), Jan Van Riebeeck dropped anchor at the Cape to establish a refreshment station with 100 men and eight women. A year later, the first known slave, Abraham van Batavia, a stowaway on board the Malacca, arrived.
The Dutch were active participants in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades. For brief spells during the 17th century they dominated the Atlantic slave trade and were at the centre of the most expansive slave trade in the history of Southeast Asia. The VOC, formed in 1602, was a sovereign body which acted independently of the Dutch government although its headquarters were in the Netherlands. They were granted a monopoly over trade in the East Indies, where they enslaved over half of the population of Batavia (now Jakarta) and protected their monopoly with brute force, while painting slavery as a “work of compassion”. Racial slavery was an economic, legal, political and cultural exercise based on the refusal to see ‘blacks’ as human and amply justified by the Bible.
In late August of 1791, the uprising in Santo Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) played a crucial role in the abolition of slavery, the slave trade and the weakening of colonialism. The British declared the slave trade illegal in 1807 and abolished the practice in all their colonies in 1834. Slaves at the Cape, however, were forced to serve an “apprenticeship” until 1838. On their emancipation they had nowhere to go and had few possessions, if any. This created a dependency that served to tie many of the previously enslaved to their masters and the refuge the mission stations offered is thought to have ensured a close and steady supply of compliable workers to the surrounding farms. The Masters and Servants Ordinance of 1841 outlined how to accommodate ex-slaves and former “free blacks”, allowing employers to use certain disciplinary measures to control their behaviour. In fact, many of the Apartheid laws introduced in 1948 such as the pass laws and Group Areas Act reflected the restrictions used to control the movement of the enslaved.
Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas. There can be no question that slavery fundamentally shaped South Africa from its earliest days and continued to do so along the continuum of colonialism and apartheid. As author and academic, Gabeba Baderoon (2014) observes “slavery generated foundational notions of race and sex in South Africa” that have largely been forgotten thanks to the propaganda that portrayed slavery as mild. The legacy of slavery continues to influence our perspectives today and is present in the prevailing attitudes towards labour provided by those who are ‘black’, evidenced in the mining, wine and domestic labour industries.
It is even present in the very names given to the enslaved. Whether from the mythological or the Biblical or after the places from which slaves came or after months of the year, these names echo the hope and tenacity of those trying to reimagine a future without chains. The months of December, January and February, for instance, hint at imagined possibilities, evident in recipes, ways of courtship, and the music we sing and dance to as we bask in the sun. In March, April and May, we see the quiet fortitude of autumn, apparent in the clothing workers of the Cape Flats who support up to nine people on their wages. In the blistery cold of June, July and August, we see what it means to achieve against immeasurable odds, of men and women raising their children and urging them to succeed; and in the quiet bloom of September, October and November, we see the promise of youth, who know where they come from, and what they and their forbearers are capable of achieving.
Note: 23 August commemorates the UN International Day of the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition.
Featured image: A memorial wall with the names of the enslaved who lived and worked at the Solms-Delta Wine Estate in Franschoek. The naming shows how slaves were stripped of their identity and given names that indicated where they were born, as in “Van de Kaap” or “Van Mosambique”.
This piece was published in the Cape Times, Pretoria News and The Mercury 25 August 2020 and is also online here.
When I turned 50, I decided that it was time to equip myself with the tools necessary to write the stories of where we come from. I was convinced that providing a platform to share and acknowledge our painful past was fundamental to reconciliation in our country. Certainly, after 25 years of democracy we seemed to be no nearer to recognising each other as simply human. Being the mother of two young adults bestowed on me a sense of urgency. However, gaining a Masters in Creative Writing (from the same university that in the 1980s required me to apply for a government permit to attend because of the colour of my skin), opened up the path to a deeply personal journey, one that would lead to a PhD in History and Heritage Studies.
Early on in this journey it became clear that I needed to retrace our history way back to the arrival of the Dutch at the Cape, an event that occurred within the global context of slavery and colonialism in which they were major players. The impact of slavery and colonisation on South African society has receded far behind the more dominant history of apartheid and yet, the racial hierarchy that accompanied it not only laid the foundation for apartheid, but shaped attitudes to race and sex that continue to inform the present.
The benign version of slavery presented to us at school was reinforced by charming paintings of colonial Cape Town, the colourful houses of the Bo-Kaap and images of benevolent masters who wanted only to ‘civilise’ and take care of the black bodies under their care. This narrative concealed the brutality and dehumanisation of the people who were brought here as a source of labour, a commodity, to be sold and traded. After emancipation, other ways to maintain control over workers were introduced, such as the notorious dop system that has left its legacy of foetal alcohol syndrome and high infant mortality rates in the Western Cape.
Racial slavery was about the degradation of the human being and simply being emancipated was not enough to know what it meant to be free, how to recreate ourselves and become independent. Apartheid tried to force us into being the same – we lived in the same areas, went to the same schools, married the same people. We carried our sameness around like a security blanket and retreated within it, afraid of the other; we developed our own stereotypes based on our ignorance of what was beyond those walls. More than simply the dismantling of apartheid legislation needs to be done in order that we may construct ways of life in which we acknowledge our human-ness rather than other-ness.
But, to remember slavery is also to remember the vibrant and diverse cultures, new language, food, music and beliefs that arose, and to honour the spirit of survival and resistance that was engendered. Somehow people managed to find ways to survive and hold onto that which made them human. These practices of freedom – music, art and storytelling – defy and resist the memories of slavery and apartheid and attest to a will to survive. Even the humble family photograph, in spite of it often showing little skill, and found stuffed into boxes or envelopes, has the power to destabilise the dominant narrative that would have us believe that we were less-than. They speak to the resistance of the human to being objectified and it is at this ordinary archive that we need to look if we want to understand what it means to be human.
By connecting the lines between all of our stories, whether they are auditory, visual or written, we may recognise our common humanity; we break down the walls that were constructed around us, to separate us from the other. When we reach out to each other we move beyond the process of othering, and towards freedom and equality so that we may think about how we may live. Only then may we learn how to be human.
Images from my family album.
Read a review of the exhibition here.
Art goes beyond mere entertainment – it is an ancient way of expressing who we are and what we stand for that goes back to the first time that humans left their marks on the walls of caves or fashioned forms out of the earth. Art captures and expresses different ways of living and being, both challenging and negating attempts to fix certain stereotypes.
That people labelled ‘coloured’ through apartheid social engineering have been excelling in art, sports, music, academics (in fact, in every arena possible) throughout our history, is nothing new. What is of note is that almost three decades after the first democratic elections, we have yet to rid ourselves of the negative stereotypes associated with this labelling.
Apartheid policy has its roots in racial slavery, the violent process of othering, that ultimately led to the dehumanisation of people based on the colour of their skin. During apartheid the oppressive regime attempted to silence people, and art became a weapon for political expression, reflecting the injustices and repressive nature of the times. In spite of museums and galleries actively preventing participation by people of colour, they were able to communicate and express the injustices of the day, telling the stories that the world needed to hear. Their work so disrupted and threatened the apartheid hegemony that many were arrested, banned, or forced into exile.
British-Jamaican sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, urged ordinary people to regain control of an image-dominated world and to challenge the stereotypes that are propagated by introducing new ideas, new knowledge and new dimensions of meaning, thus exposing and destroying stereotypes.
This is exactly what the artists involved with the KWAAI exhibition are doing – reshaping and reimagining an identity, and reconnecting with a culture in ways that aren’t necessarily the same as their parents experienced. Perhaps most indicative of the times we now find ourselves in, I met some of the artists via an online meeting platform. It was inevitable that the discussion would touch on how their creative processes were being affected by the national lockdown as a result of COVID-19. The enforced social distancing has encouraged deep self-reflection and the limited access to materials has led them to discover different ways of expressing themselves. It seems serendipitous, this process of examining, reshaping and reimagining, not only their output, but the very essence of what they want to portray to the outside world.
While some of the artists have lived through apartheid, others grew up in a post-apartheid society. However, all of them have been shaped socially, personally and culturally by the experiences of their own generation and the one that came before them. They bear the collective trauma through stories, images and the behaviour of the people they grew up with and those who raised them. They carry the responsibility, the sense of loss and the desire to make sure that their own narratives may be heard to prevent the past from continuing to make an indelible mark on the present and the future.
All these artists are taking charge of the narrative, each in their own unique way, of how they want to be viewed, drawing on the experiences of the generation that came before them.
Jabu Newman, explores the issues of coloured identity through her photographs, drawing on a personal family history, that speaks to the apartheid legacy of forced removals, racial classification and group areas, that continues to inform the present.
Jared Leite uses printmaking and sculpture to deconstruct issues of representation and belonging, and the ambiguity that surrounds a community that continues to dwell on the periphery of a post-apartheid space.
Urban Khoi engages with ancient practices such as cave drawings coupled with contemporary dance and graffiti to examine human consciousness and collective wisdom.
The KWAAI exhibition provides the platform to support the re-presentation of their individual stories. It invites conversation and engagement with these new narratives while challenging us to make up our own minds. These artists very clearly assert who they are and where they come from. They defy and resist the memories of apartheid and speak to what it means to be human.
This piece appears in the latest edition of SA Art Times and the exhibition may be viewed online on the gallery website. Thank you to Christina Fortune for inviting me to be a small part of this project. Featured image courtesy of KWAAI Vol 3/eclectica contemporary.
Read a review of the show here
A few weeks ago I was meant to be on a road trip, doing research with colleagues from the University of Pretoria, and the USA and Denmark, around the theme of Food as Heritage & Archive. Due to COVID-19 our trip has been postponed indefinitely.
Preparations for the trip stirred up many memories, though, since food is so intimately wrapped up in my sense of community – memories of celebrations and funerals where everyone would rally together in support of their neighbour, bringing a plate of something or offering to cook a pot of food. After the gathering everyone would leave with a barakat, or blessing, in the form of a plate of leftovers. Traditions such as these hark back to a time when the enslaved would come together, bringing what little they had to share with one another. Later, during apartheid, celebrations with laden tables were also a way of demonstrating respectability in a society where people had little control over anything outside the domestic sphere.
One of our aims with this project is to look at the food practices that transcend lines of language, religion and economic status. This immediately got me thinking about a dish that seems to embody the history and heritage of the Cape – a uniquely South African dish – the pickled fish, or ingelegde vis, that my grandmothers, one Muslim and the other Christian, would make every Easter. Explanations for the origin of the dish abound, but it seems to have originated in the Cape during colonial times.
Pickling as a way of preserving the fish, possibly came from the Dutch tradition of pickling herring, and would have been enhanced by liberal additions of spices by the enslaved cooks at the Cape. My grandmothers would start the process the week before Good Friday. There would be no fishing boats going out over the Easter weekend so the fish would have had to be bought in advance, either directly off the boats in Kalk Bay harbour or from the fish market on the corner of Hanover and Clifton Street. I remember the merchant, with horse and cart, who hawked his wares through the neighbourhood, blowing his horn to alert our mothers and grandmothers.
The best fish to use was geelbek, kabeljou or yellow tail. Making the dish in advance meant that the fish was able to absorb the turmeric, cloves, chilli and all spice. Enough fish was pickled to last all weekend. This freed up time for my maternal grandmother to spend three hours in church on Good Friday, since she didn’t have to cook. Muslim families would take advantage of the time off to go on picnics, to visit kramats, with an ample supply of padkos (road food) since there would be nowhere to stop and eat along the way since restaurants would have been limited to those catering for “whites only”.
The rituals around food preparation and the coming together to share it, are examples of the everyday practices of what it means to be human, in spite of living through oppression. In the absence of recorded history, they offer alternative ways of remembering how people survived, in the same way that photographs, storytelling and music does.
This year, Easter falls at the beginning of the third week of a national lock down in South Africa, but I do know that mom (whose pickled fish is the featured image) and my friend, Jen (who sent me the three photographs above) have both been making pickled fish, using the recipes that their mothers and grandmothers handed down. I’m sure many others across the country have managed to do the same and, while I might be missing out on actually eating it, I feel part of the virtual community who is sharing in the tradition.
PHOTOGRAPHS: Reza Kamies and Jennifer Hardisty
In spite of dramatic constitutional changes, South Africans remain stuck in the apartheid ways of thinking and relating to each other, living in a society fragmented by racial discourse, and continuing to talk about four distinct ‘races’. Perhaps, this is predictable given a past when artificial concepts of race governed where people lived, went to school, who they loved, what careers they chose and where they would be buried when they died.
Emancipation Day, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1834, was observed on 1 December in South Africa, although many South Africans are ignorant of the impact of slavery on our history. Almost from the start the Cape was a slave society and, as elsewhere, mixing between Europeans, indigenous and the enslaved occurred, giving rise to a group of creolised people, who would later become known as ‘coloured’ under the apartheid government’s Population Registration Act. This heterogenous group of people resisted classification into ‘white’/European or ‘black’/Bantu and the category ‘coloured’ became a residual one, a hold-all for the “leftovers”.
After their defeat in the Anglo-Boer War, the Afrikaners’ desire for a distinct national identity demanded that they distance themselves from the ‘coloured’ people with whom they shared blood, language and religion. Legislation, justified by sociological, ecclesial and political views, was adopted in order to maintain racial distinctions and prevent further mixing, the presumption being that mixing had been minimal in the past. ‘Coloured’ people were thus stripped of a shared history in order to banish all evidence of past ‘indiscretions’.
In 1973 Andre Brink’s novel, Kennis van die Aand, the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid government, was criticised for its vilification of the Afrikaner, inhuman portrayal of the police, and for mocking religion. More importantly, says Vernon February, Brink supplies his protagonist, the ‘coloured’ Josef Malan, with “a neatly constructed genealogical tree … that forcibly accounted for … the no-past, no-myth, heritage of the Cape Coloured”. In 1985 Hans Heese’s book drawing attention to the mixed heritage of major Afrikaner families and listing marriages between Europeans and slaves, was similarly banned. Like Brink, Heese was an Afrikaner, writing in Afrikaans, and I believe that their work coming from within the kraal carried more weight.
In order to maintain the myth of racial purity, it became necessary to perpetuate stereotypes about groups of people that continue to inform the present. In Afrikaner mythology, says February, ‘coloureds’ would only perform a functional role within certain “syndromes”, such as the drunken clown. I found that the theme of alcohol is a recurring one from the first time Jan van Riebeek gave the enslaved a glass of brandy to help them learn the Christian prayers, to the tot system that ensured the labourers’ dependency on the farmers post-emancipation. Mohammed Adhikari similarly refers to the so-called inherent characteristics of ‘coloured’ people – such as dishonesty and recklessness, and supposed tendencies towards gangsterism, drug and alcohol abuse that have often been blamed on the idea that ‘colouredness’ was the product of miscegenation.
The prevalence of these stereotypes and their entrenchment in the psyche of the majority of South Africans is illustrated by Trevor Noah’s descriptions of ‘coloureds’ in his 2016 memoir, a New York Times bestseller soon to be made into a movie. Noah is the son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss (‘white’) father. He distances himself from the apartheid classification (describing himself as “mixed but not coloured – coloured by complexion but not by culture”) and shares his experiences of not fitting into his ‘coloured’ neighbourhood because of the “two types of coloured people” he encountered – those who hated him for being ‘black’ and having curly hair, and those who resented his ‘whiteness’ and “perfect English” and for not speaking “Afrikaans, the language that coloured people were supposed to speak”. Ironically, Noah describes very accurately the space of ambiguity which mirrors the ‘coloured’ experience of occupying the interstitial zone of being neither ‘white’ nor ‘black’, and which was often described to me in my research.
While his story resonates on many levels with ordinary people in South Africa, and offers a lens into what it was like for his family to live and navigate apartheid legislation, his description of the origin of ‘coloureds’ is peppered with stereotypes and inaccuracies, starting with the presumption that ‘coloured’ people speak Afrikaans. He disseminates a popular myth that ‘coloured’ people originated largely from ‘black-white’ sexual unions outside of wedlock; as a result of prostitution and casual sex between colonists, the enslaved and Khoisan.
The apartheid constructs are deeply embedded in our psyche and we continue to live in a society fragmented by racial discourse. The evidence of how successfully this was accomplished by the apartheidists is illustrated by the way Noah describes ‘coloured’ people as “an entirely new race”. I find this alarming coming from such a high-profile South African who recently received two awards from the NAACP. I believe that the concept of ‘colouredness’ is neither a biological nor an ethnic identity, but a direct result of slavery and creolisation and, later, apartheid social engineering.
In spite of attempts by the apartheid government to ‘fix’ ‘colouredness’, it remained an ambiguous and fluid identity, heterogeneous in skin colour, language, religion, and culture, as illustrated by the two photographs of my grandmothers, one classified ‘Cape Coloured’ and the other ‘Cape Malay’, two of the seven subgroups of ‘Coloured’. There is no homogenous ‘coloured’ identity and therefore no essence of ‘coloured’ identity, negative or positive.
More needs to be done than simply remove the laws that entrenched apartheid racial hierarchy – we need to find a new language to talk about the past so that we may address the sense of inferiority and shame associated with racial superiority and the negative stereotyping of colonists and slave masters.
Versions of this article were published in the Cape Argus Thursday 19 December 2019 under the title, Defined by racist labels, and in the Pretoria News on Wednesday 15 January 2020 under the title Misguided notions about ‘coloureds’ and ‘colouredness’, as well as online https://www.iol.co.za/news/opinion/misguided-notions-about-coloureds-and-colouredness-40619261
I hear the key in the door first, then the jangle of coins in his pocket. I race down the passage, trying to get there before my two brothers so that I can lay claim to one of his feet. We scramble to hop on, wrapping our arms around his trunk-like legs. Slowly he hobbles into the house weighed down by two children, with the unlucky third dancing around in front of him.
Ma yells at us, “Stop bothering your grandfather! He is tired!” We know that he leaves home in the dark to deliver bread for the bakery. By the time his shift ends we are back from school. We jump off his giant feet and allow him to enter his bedroom but follow closely on his heels, eager for the treat that he usually has in one of his pockets.
He sits down on the bed and then he opens his dark cupboard door, releasing smells of another era. Carefully pressed suits thick with the scent of mothballs hang, ready for service, alongside stiffly starched white shirts. Two pairs of shoes, one black, one brown, gleaming with polish, sit side by side at the bottom of the cupboard. Underwear and handkerchiefs are stacked in piles on the shelves. Black and white pictures which recall happier days are tucked into the mirror at angles.
In the second drawer from the top is a yellow money box. “UBS” it says in blue letters. From the pockets of his khaki coat he takes out the coins which announced his arrival earlier. He allows me to put them into the money box. “For your education,” he reminds me.
In the photograph of me in my paternal grandfather’s arms in the mid-1960s, I imagine that he is envisioning the different life that I would have because of the education he was determined to provide for me. As far back as I can remember, my grandfather had been telling me that my brothers would be able to take care of themselves but that I would have to study further so that I could be independent. In retrospect this was quite revolutionary on his part, considering not only that no one in the family had completed matric or attended university, but also that I was a girl. He had passed standard six (grade 8) and worked as a driver of a delivery van for Duens Bakery, leaving for work while we were still asleep and coming home soon after we returned from school in the afternoon. From the pockets of the khaki coat he wore, he would take out any loose change and hand them to me to deposit into the yellow money box which said “UBS”(United Building Society) in blue letters that he kept in his cupboard. Every deposit was accompanied by the reminder that this was for my education. By the time I had finished school he had saved enough to pay for my first year of university.
My pride at being the first person in my family to complete matric and make it to university was tempered by the humiliation of having to apply to the Department of Coloured Affairs for permission to attend the University of Cape Town which was for ‘whites-only’. I was granted permission on the basis that the ‘coloured’ University of the Western Cape did not offer the Occupational Therapy degree I wished to pursue.
Entering university was such a cultural onslaught that I might as well have gone to study in a different country. There were social, academic and financial challenges. My grandfather had managed to save enough to cover the fees for the first year and I had to find a bursary or take out a bank loan if I was to continue. As ‘black’ students we were constantly reminded of our inferior status on campus. In our anatomy practical sessions, even the cadavers we worked on had to be ‘black’. During clinical practice in our third and fourth years of study, we were not allowed to treat ‘white’ patients, which limited the placements and experience we could be exposed to. Restricting access to education was one of the ways in which those in power could control the lives of ‘black’ people. By placing limitations on the kind of education and the level of education ‘blacks’ could attain, the government ensured that they would remain less educated than ‘whites’, therefore less qualified and unable to rise above the station in life which the government deemed fit.
My grandfather died of cancer soon after I completed my first year of study and so was not alive to see me graduate, but the learning path he set me on changed the course of my life.
In the later 1800s the demand for cheap labour by the mining industry entrenched segregation and promoted a low wage economy which greatly benefitted ‘white’ South Africans.*
On 1 December 1834, slavery was abolished in the Cape Colony, a year after the Slavery Abolition Bill had been passed in Great Britain. The slaves at the Cape, however, were to spend a further four years as “apprentices”, ostensibly so that they could learn skills to become independent, but it was in effect a way of ensuring a further period of unpaid labour to the slave-owners. When the slaves were eventually freed, it was largely without any means to support themselves, with few possessions or a place to live. This dependency served to tie many of them to their masters and to the refuge offered by the mission stations.
In the rural areas of the Western Cape dominated by wine and wheat farms, families continued to live in slave-like conditions, on the farms for generations, controlled through low wages, tied housing, corporal punishment and the dop system (whereby workers were part-paid with cheap alcohol). There was neither incentive nor opportunity to break the cycle of dependency that workers were caught up in.
Slavery was fundamental to the establishment of the colony at the Cape and laid the ground for later segregation and apartheid. It has shaped our society socially and economically, while influencing attitudes to race and sex that continue into the present. Regulations to control slaves such as restricting their movement with the carrying of passes and the limitation on the size of their gathering, later resurfaced as apartheid laws. It was ‘black’ bodies that were to provide the labour in the mining and agricultural industries, as well as domestic labour, and continues to shape the position of ‘black’ people in South Africa, post-liberation.
Ordinary South Africans are largely ignorant of the history of slavery in our country. The disconnect between this history and the apartheid era makes it “easy” for the lasting impact of apartheid to be minimised, as in the often-heard refrain – “apartheid is over, move on”. While it may be possible to move on from a generation of apartheid, the move from the global legacy of colonialism and slavery and the racism and segregation that resulted, is going to take a little longer. And do the work, we must.
My recent trip to the South of the USA allowed me to reflect on this legacy. I was moved to tears on more than one occasion, as we visited slave plantations, museums and memorials and bore witness to the pain and cruelty inflicted by humans against their fellow-beings. The exhibition, From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, charts the progression from slavery, through lynching, to mass incarceration. The nearby National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates the 4 400 African Americans lynched by white mobs between 1880 and 1950 and was a sobering place of reflection after witnessing some of the atrocities committed on black bodies. Its a legacy that continues to dog present-day USA because it has not been properly acknowledged and accounted for.
As we commemorate Emancipation Day this weekend, consider visiting the Iziko Slave Lodge to explore the history of slavery through its many exhibitions. Entry is free on 1 December – Emancipation Day and World Aids Day. Or join the annual Emancipation Day “Walk in the Night” organised by the District Six Museum.
*From a panel in the Iziko Slave Lodge
**Featured image shows slave routes to the Cape – from an installation at the Iziko Slave Lodge
“Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a son. When something happened to Negroes in the South, I said, “that’s their business not mine”. Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.” Mamie Till
It was Saturday mid-morning in Sumner, Tallahatchie County Mississippi when we pulled up in front of the courthouse. For a moment I wondered whether we had driven onto a Hollywood movie set. Not a soul was in the street. I half-expected tumbleweed to blow down the street. It was unnerving. On one side of the courthouse a sign informed us that we were at the place where, in a five-day murder trial held in the courthouse in 1955, two white men were acquitted of the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till. Incongruously, on the opposite side of the courthouse, stands a statue erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy* to honour their heroes.
As we waited for our guide we wandered around the street, peeking through the windows of closed shops, wondering why no one was out shopping, banking, doing Saturday morning kind of things. That eerie feeling followed me into the courthouse as we took our seats, the majority of our group on the left of the courtroom where the all-white, all-male jury would have sat, to listen to our guide, Ben Saulsberry.
Till was a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who, in the summer of 1955, begged his mother to allow him to travel with his cousin to visit relatives in Mississippi. Mamie Till let her son go with misgivings, worried that he wouldn’t know the ways of the South (i.e. how a black person should behave). She didn’t know that the next time she saw him it would be as a barely recognisable corpse in a wooden box. He had been abducted, beaten, shot in the head, tied with barbed wire to a large metal fan and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His crime – whistling at a young white woman.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, and positive identification by Till’s uncle, the jury acquitted Till’s killers, Bryant and Milam. A few months later they would sell their story to a magazine, confessing to the crime, knowing that they could not be retried for a crime they had already been acquitted of.
What ultimately took Emmett’s life was racism, Saulsberry told us. His message was one of hope, saying that the pain needed to be processed through telling the truth to enable us to move forward. In 2007 the courthouse was restored and is now preserved as a memorial, a community centre and a space to share Till’s story as a way of working towards “racial reconciliation”. Progress is slow but Saulsberry optimistically points out that 20 years ago there was no conversation at all. However, he cautioned that we are not off the hook for doing the work to create a new narrative.
In a powerful exercise, Saulsberry invited us to read a resolution that had been presented to Till’s family in 2007, outside the courthouse. The resolution starts,
We the citizens of Tallahatchie County believe that racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth. We call on the state of Mississippi, all of its citizens in every county, to begin an honest investigation into our history.
Each one of us read a sentence in turn, going around the room until we had come to the last sentence, which we read as a group,
Working together we have the power now to fulfil the promise of “liberty and justice for all”
Striking a chord deep inside me were my two sentences,
While it will be painful, it is necessary to nurture reconciliation and to ensure justice for all.
We need to understand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to occur so that we can ensure that it never happens again.
Later in the trip, I would see photographs of the funeral, a mother bent over double with grief at the graveside of her only child. Her pain from losing her son so violently, is palpable. I wondered if she had blamed herself for not being firmer about preventing him from going South, to a place she knew was not like Chicago. Till’s mother bravely insisted that her son not only be buried in Chicago but that the casket should be open so that “the world could see what had been done to her baby”. Tens of thousands of people viewed his badly beaten body at the funeral, photographs were taken and published in the media … creating awareness and perhaps, ensuring that her son’s death was not in vain, his funeral a protest demonstration of its own.
His murder and the ensuing trial would lead to civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. I thought about Emmett Till and I could not go to the back, she said. Ultimately it would set in motion the Montgomery bus boycotts, laying the foundation of the civil rights movement of the 60s. It was during the Montgomery boycott that a young Martin Luther King Jnr would emerge as a leader.
Many times on our “freedom riders” trip I was confronted by this story, at museums in Jackson, Montgomery and Washington DC (where his casket is on display), and I wanted to believe so fervently that his death and the deaths and suffering of many others, in his country and mine, were not in vain. Many times I wept as I witnessed the cruelty and hatred borne out of racism and traced the path of a past that won’t go away. Many times I wondered how we are meant to move forward to reconciliation when we don’t learn from the past. Perhaps this bearing witness, confronting our history and talking about the pain, is a way that I can contribute.
“This is precisely when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language that. That is how civilisations heal.” Toni Morrison
Read more https://www.emmett-till.org/
The featured image is of a photograph of Emmett Till in the Lowndes County Interpretive Center in the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.
*The organisation was started by Southern women to commemorate their men who died in a war that was primarily fought to protect their right to own slaves.
Poet, book illustrator and artist, Peter Clarke, described his work as a reflection on humanity, on a commonality that surpasses all boundaries. Clarke, who died in 2014, was a former resident of Simon’s Town. His family was forcibly removed to the ‘coloured’ township of Ocean View due to the passing of the Group Areas Act, which assigned people to different residential areas based on their ‘race’.
Having spent some time looking at museums and working on proposals and exhibitions over the last year and a half, perhaps my expectations have dropped. Many of the little dorpies I have visited, have inadequate records of the history and events that affected the majority of their residents and little acknowledgement of the catastrophic apartheid-era events that forever changed the social and cultural landscape of their communities. Thus, I was gratified to see the efforts of the local historical/heritage society and the residents of Simon’s Town on a recent visit.
Apart from the “Wall of Memory”, a display project begun in 2014 by residents past and present, and organisations, there are markers that acknowledge various places of historical interest, such as Hospital Lane (that ran along the Royal Naval Hospital built in 1813) and Drostdy Steps (where the mayor (or landdrost), Christian Michiel Lind, lived in 1828).
Elsewhere, plaques record the place where a stream ran, from which the crewmen of ships filled their freshwater casks, and a building erected in 1772 by the Dutch East India Company for the governor’s visits to Simon’s Town. But the most poignant marker, for me, is the one dedicated
To the memory of generations of our fellow citizens
who dwelt here in peace and harmony
until removed by edict of 1967.
Erected by their fellow citizens
In the many conversations and interviews I have had over the last few years while doing my doctorate, I have been struck by two responses. Firstly, the lack of bitterness or need for revenge – yes, sometimes anger and often heartache, and secondly, a deep appreciation of the opportunity to be heard, to be given the platform to recount their experience and of having their suffering acknowledged. Often, people were disparaging about the value of their stories, almost brushing aside their experience with the observations that their suffering was not as bad as that of others. But always, there was a pride that their story mattered enough for me to write it down, that it could be included in my thesis, or in the exhibition at the museum.
The success of colonial expansion, slavery and later apartheid, lay in the ability of the oppressors to objectify those they wished to subjugate, to portray them as less than human. Clarke’s efforts to reflect the daily lives of people, their emotions and activities, speaks to a resistance of this objectification. He reflects their humanity. In the same way, the markers in the streets of Simon’s Town and exhibitions in its museum give a human face to the people who suffered under apartheid.
Ironically, under apartheid, the arts – music, dance, painting, story-telling and so on – the very practices of what makes us human, flourished. Many artists were forced to give up on their dreams or forced into exile in order to pursue them. Many ordinary people who may have gone on to greater achievements if not for the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair or the shapes of their noses… Former Simon’s Town residents like:
Dr Peter Clarke (2 June 1929 – 13 April 2014): Poet, book illustrator and visual artist whose work was showcased at exhibitions in England, Germany and the USA in the 1960s and who was invited to study printmaking in Holland and then etching in Norway.
Vincent Hantam: ballet dancer and teacher was principal dancer with the Scottish Ballet from 1975-1991. In September 2012, he became the first Artist-in-Residence at the University of Edinburgh.
Christoper Kindo (12 September 1955 – April 2015): ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer who studied at UCT Ballet School and was the only ‘coloured’ person in his class; in spite of being awarded best dancer in his class he was not hired by CAPAB after completing his training. He started Jazzart when he returned from a stint with the Boston Ballet company in the 1980s, before he became the first ‘coloured’ person to be principal dancer with CAPAB and ended his career at Dance for All.
Gladys Thomas (1944 -): poet, short-story writer, playwright and author of several children’s stories. Her debut anthology, Cry Rage, co-authored with another anti-apartheid South African poet, James Matthews, was published in 1971. This publication holds the distinction of being the first book of poetry to be banned in South Africa.
Our lives have meaning when we have been seen, listened to and acknowledged as human beings. I am reminded of the traditional Indian greeting, Namasté, a salutation of respect, acknowledging our essence of oneness. We are more the same than we are different. Namasté.
Footnote: On 22 September 2016 the Frank Joubert Art Centre where Clarke served as Artist-in-Residence, was renamed the Peter Clarke Art Centre. The following quote is from their website:
“My art is about people and the presence of people. The humanistic image is what interests me. I enjoy reflecting on people and their activities, their emotions, what could be events in their daily lives. But beyond that I speak via my symbols of activities on a larger, wider scale that transcends all boundaries…. I speak about a heritage of a common humanity.” – Peter Clarke, 1983
In the featured picture, two elderly men walk along the Wall of Memory in Main Road, Simon’s Town.