Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On black excellence: Charlotte Mannya Maxeke

I’ve been reading Zubeida Jaffer’s biography of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, Beauty of the Heart. I was very excited at the prospect of finally having a book available about a woman who is mostly known through the hospital that is named after her in Johannesburg. Beyond the hospital naming, I doubt she is a household name. I discovered her story when I was doing my Honours, and researching Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s poetry. A friend (who was doing her Masters on Tiyo Soga and Nonstizi Mgwetho) and I became obsessed with finding out more about 19th century African intellectuals. I came across the website New African Movement and discovered names such as Sol Plaatjie (who was a contemporary of Maxeke’s), D.D.T. Jabavu, A. B. Xuma but admittedly very few black women who had a public life and reputation in the late 1800s and 1900s.
The cover of Zubeida Jaffer's biography

Maxeke’s story is an extraordinary one. She graduated from Wilberforce University in Ohio in 1901 and became the first black woman in South Africa to obtain a university degree—a BSc nogal! It is significant that she went to Wilberforce given its history as the oldest historically black university in the United States of America, established in 1863. Maxeke joined the university almost by fluke. She had been part of a travelling choir which had travelled to Great Britain to sing for Queen Victoria and moved onto America. When the choir was abandoned by their English managers due to financial difficulties, Maxeke’s plight “attracted the attention of ministers of the African Methodist Episcopalian Church who came to their rescue” Jaffer explains in the biography. She further explains the university at the time as “the cultural and academic centre of the African-American intelligentsia. Charlotte was directly exposed to the thinking of the renowned sociologist and political thinker, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois and to other differing strains of thought. The young Du Bois was Charlotte’s teacher at Wilberforce.” Reading Du Bois’s work and imagining Charlotte as his student one can only be envy-ridden. The experience of being amongst black people who were no longer slaves and who took hold of that by creating their own university gives us a sense of Charlotte’s own identity formation as someone who was from a fast-changing South Africa with the Anglo-Boer brewing back home.
In 1930 Dr A.B.Xuma wrote an essay about Maxeke: “Charlotte Manye(Mrs Maxeke): What an educated African girl can do” in order to make “an argument for higher education of our African women.” The forward to the essay was written by Du Bois who describes Maxeke as someone who has a “clear mind, [a] fund of subtle humour and a straight-forward honesty [of] character”. He further explains “I regard Mrs Maxeke as a pioneer in one of the greatest of human causes, working under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race, but against her sex. To fight not simply the natural and inherent difficulties of education and social uplift, but to fight with little money and little outside aid was indeed a tremendous task”. This writing is further evidence of not only Maxeke’s context but her character as well. Maxeke’s accomplishments and work are extensive and everyone should read Dr Xuma’s essay for themselves in order to fully grasp the importance of Maxeke’s legacy. Her most significant being the establishment of the Bantu Women’s League “for the protection of African Women’s rights” which petitioned against pass books. Apart from Jaffer’s recent book I have only come across Thozama April’s PhD thesis which looks at Maxeke’s political contributions in the 19thcentury. After reading Dr April’s thesis a friend sent me three of Maxeke’s essays titled: “The progress of native womanhood in South Africa”, “The city mission” and “Social conditions amongst Bantu women and girls”. Glancing at the titles alone one can already see the formidability in Maxeke’s voice. The silence and erasure about Maxeke’s life is a travesty.

The portrait of an older Charlotte Mannya Maxeke
Since ‘discovering’ Charlotte Mannya Maxeke I have been able to stand a little taller. In a world that cares very little for the internal world and lived experience of black women, Maxeke’s story matters. Not so long ago black women were seen as minors who had to get permission from the adult males in their families to do something as simple as travelling. In her autobiography, Call me woman, Ellen Khuzwayo tells of a humiliating moment where she had to get her son’s permission to get a passport and travel. This is significant because even at a time like 2016 where black women are able to speak up for themselves, we still share experiences where we are silenced, bullied and infantilised because there is very little space for black women to simply be. I have written about the representation of the black women who are climbing the corporate ladder of success. These stories are a reflection of what is possible when women are given the space to rise; but I also hope they highlight the dangers of exceptionalism that is part of this narrative. The reality for most black women is that most are unemployed, dealing with poverty and violence.
I don’t know how Charlotte Maxeke and the women she worked with in the 19th century trying to establish the Bantu Women’s League would feel about the position of black women today. For me Maxeke is the original example of “black girl magic”. Many young black women across the world have had to confront their lived experienced and some have latched onto “black girl magic” as a way of finding a community of black women who celebrate their successes and share experiences that affirm them. One such example in South Africa is the For Black Girls Only event which was mired in debate over whether black women were being racist for demanding a space where only black women are allowed. I attended the event and loved every minute of it and ignored the haters who didn’t want to have to deal with the expression of what it means to be young, black and a woman in South Africa.
The truth is many young black girls do not know Charlotte Maxeke’s story. And there’s a danger in this. I’ve been told I am ambitious (which I don’t think is true) simply because I studied further than some people. Studying further was not unusual for me because I was and am still surrounded by incredibly intelligent, black women who have done the same. For me, it was normal that I should make use of the opportunity to study further. And Charlotte Maxeke’s story reminds me that the experiences I have and hope to have are normal for a black woman. Charlotte Maxeke’s story reminds me that I can create the reality I want; I don’t have to respond to the small space that is created for black women to occupy. Whenever I face backlash for being outspoken about the black experience I return to Charlottle Mannya Maxeke’s words and story as a reminder that “my soul’s intact” (from Nina Simone’s song “young gifted and black”, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s work) and that my world is alright.
A sketch version of the picture which appears on the cover of Zubeida Jaffer's book. This image is taken from the portraits of the choir which travelled to Great Britain in 1891.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Black life: walking, waiting and mobility

I leave for work at about 6:30am every morning. Everyday, without fail, I will see black people walking somewhere or waiting for a bus or taxi. On my route, I don’t see any white people doing the same. All the white people are in their cars or jogging or walking their dogs (although this has become the work of the gardener as I’m seeing many black men walking dogs at strange hours the same way I see black women pushing prams with white babies). 

This observation isn’t really revolutionary because anyone who lives in the suburbs knows these dynamics (I drive through Emmerentia, Greenside, Parktown, Saxonwold, Houghton, Norwood and sometimes through Melville): in the morning, we see the black people arrive to clean white people’s houses and offices; and in the evening we see the exodus when they return to their homes in townships and far off places where the black majority lives. I’m becoming impatient with this form of mobility because it highlights how very little has changed in terms of how labour is organised as well as the spatial divide in a democratic state that desperately seeks to be post-apartheid.

I drove a friend to Rivonia a while ago and I used Rivonia Road to get home. It was rush hour with the usual slow traffic. The slow pace gave me the opportunity to look around and I was struck by the long lines of black people queuing waiting for taxis and buses. There was something shocking about seeing that many people on the side of the road. Waiting patiently and moving slowly to fill an empty taxi. There was nothing new about it but perhaps for the first time I looked at the image through a lens that is more critical of South Africa and it’s promise of “a better life for all”.

This kind of movement—black people moving in and out or suburban areas— is obvious to everyone and a firm part of what it means to live in an unequal society. I grew up being a part of the same pattern. My sister and I walked to school when we didn’t have money for the bus. This meant we left home at 6am in order to get to school at 7am. We would be part of the morning traffic of black bodies making their way into the affluent suburbs or the jobs in town.
Not just a South African problem.
The image of throngs of black people queuing and waiting also reminds me of my childhood. Home Affairs (which always felt like the one place where I never saw white people), Frere Hospital and the pension office in the part of East London known as esiGinqgini was an everyday occurrence. The identity of the institutions was built around the idea of waiting for service because there’s nowhere else that offers the same service. And perhaps this is the rub: the lack of options one has when they are poor means they have to wait for a service because they don’t have another option. This is why I’m always dumbfounded when I’m at the bank or the shops and people begin huffing and puffing if there are a few people in front and a few tills are operating. The impatience comes as a result of knowing that one can go elsewhere to get a better service. If one has more options they have different expectations for a service.

What kind of psyche does one develop if they spend most of their day in limbo?
Waiting or walking for hours in order to get something done?

 I recently taught the film Yesterday where this very idea is considered. Yesterday lives in Rooihoek; a typical rural village in KwaZulu Natal. She is uneducated, her husband is a miner in Johannesburg and she has contracted HIV from him. She realises she isn’t well and decides to walk to the nearest clinic. The film begins with her walking through a barren landscape with her young daughter. We don’t know where they are walking to but there’s a sense that they’ve been walking for a long time. Yesterday does this trip more than once with her daughter (who is about 6 years old but not in school). The walk to the clinic means that Yesterday gets to the clinic too late and each time she does not see the doctor. There’s no appointment that’s been made; it’s first come, first serve. It’s only after her new friend offers to look after her daughter and pays for a taxi that Yesterday is able to arrive at the clinic early enough to see the doctor and she is finally diagnosed with HIV. The film is about Yesterday’s journey with sickness; the road and walking become a motif for the journey. Even though the film is about Yesterday, it also offers some perspective into the lives of people whose psyche is governed by the idea of waiting. You are constantly at someone else’s mercy when you are in waiting. Waiting means a sense of helplessness.

While driving through the Eastern Cape recently I was struck by home many people were always walking along the highway. Presumably walking from one village to another. There were also people waiting on the side of the road waiting for a benevolent drive to take them to the next town. Watching these people made me realise that most black and poor people spend a lot of time walking or waiting. Walking because they don’t have a car of their own. Walking instead of getting on a taxi because you can save more money. Walking because taxis are not allowed in most affluent areas (I think there are bi-laws restricting this; especially in places like the Southern suburbs in Cape Town). I found myself thinking of a train system and how different the Eastern Cape would be if there was a train system connecting key areas in the province.

Of course the danger of writing about black people is that I'm providing a narrow narrative of group of people with complex experiences: the danger of the single story. This is just an observation. Perhaps someone can offer another perspective about black people's lives, but for now, these are my observations.

Friday, July 1, 2016

The invention of women

I'm reading Prof Oyeronke Oyewumi's book The invention of women: making an African sense of Western Gender Discourses after watching the conversation she had with Prof Zine Magubane at Rhodes University last month. I haven't finished the book. In fact, I'm still reading the first chapter and I'm rethinking so many things. I have a bad habit of reading more than one book concurrently. In the past few weeks I've been dipping in and out of Toni Morrison's Mercy and the collection of her essays (which I'm finding very difficult to grasp)I just finished Buchi Emecheta's Second-Class citizen (which just about broke my heart) and The diary of Maria Tholo (a collection of Maria Tholo's diary entries during 1976 collected by Carol Hermer), and now I have added Oyewumi's book. 

This repertoire of titles is not random. I'm quite intent on reading work by black women and work that reflects the experiences of black women. In a world that doesn't affirm or center the existence of women who look like me I find I still have to do the homework myself with the help of conversations with friends and mothers. In a world that refuses to hear and accept that whiteness is still the norm and white, male representation is so dominant, it becomes even harder to explain why my homework is so important: to me and for me. It's a way I can put myself together and remind myself I am not crazy. I also find that apart from conversations with my black girlfriends, I do not have spaces that regularly affirm my existence in a positive way. I don’t know what these spaces would look like. I find myself thinking about my mother’s experience with umanyano: a weekly meeting affirming her beliefs but also a hurtful space when she didn’t abide by the rules. I also find I’m thinking a lot about my experiences in the black Methodist church which built a strong group identity in comparison to my school experience which was an assimilationist project rather than affirmation for the black girl.

So in the midst of this internal work and life that I am doing I stumble upon the revamped version of Women24: This was followed by a garbled Facebook post: 

I don’t know what I was expecting. In fact, I had no expectations at all just a silent hope that when Women24 says it’s revamping the website, the website will reflect some—not all—of the experiences and questions I have as a black woman. But instead Women24 created another platform dominated by middle class, white women with smatterings of black women in order to tick the diversity box. No complexity. I understand Women24 for what it is: it’s about consumption and recreating a particular kind of white, heteronormative womanhood.

Of course I should quit complaining: why not look a little closer on the internet. I know there are other websites such as Crunkfeminist and Jezebel. Is there anything Afrocentric? If there isn’t what would it look like? An African City comes to mind: a mimicry of white womanhood by black women. There’s a plural experience of what it means to be a black woman. I’m not looking for a mirror image of myself and my friends when I go onto the internet but I’m constantly surprised by how absent our experiences are.

So I took to google and searched "African feminist blog" and this is what I found: