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To Be Rather Than Appear--The Story of Teej
elefuntboy
'ello there.

Sorry if you're wondering where all the entries are. This journal is friends only. If you'd like to be added, by all means, feel free to leave me a comment. ;-)
25 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
As I sat down to work today, a middle aged black man sitting in front of a small gideon bible looked up at me and my stack of books. "You reading all those?" he asked. I nodded.
"That looks like a lot of work."
"It can be, sometimes."
"You studying history?"
"Yeah. African history in the 1800s."
"That's real important stuff."
He then pulled out a series of color photographs. "I went to Chicago this weekend. For my birthday. I'm 56 now."
"My dad just turned 56 this year."
"He's lucky to have a son like you. I'd be proud."
I excused myself and went to the restroom.
2 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
elefuntboy

3 June 2012

Glenwood, Durban

I’m not so sure I believe

I’m not so sure I believe that

I fit in

So I rise up and look down from an eagle-eye view

I watch all you people, you’re like pieces of a puzzle

This I ponder

And it seems it’s all connected and this mosaic is a patchwork sea

And if it’s all connected a shifting mosaic on a patchwork sea

We are all puzzle pieces

We are all puzzles

We are all puzzle pieces

We are all trying to fit in

Now don’t be alarmed

I’m not I’m listening…and observing

But don’t be alarmed

I’m not I’m listening, I’m always listening now, listening now

Don’t be alarmed, no I’m listening

I glide through the clouds, down

I’m asking no questions

As I slip into my place I know I don’t

Need all of the answer right now

Nate Maingard, “Puzzle Pieces,” 2012

I’m currently sitting at my picnic table/writing desk on a crisp autumn Sunday afternoon.  The windows are open, letting in the sunlight as well as a bit of a chill, and I sit here with a mug of tea and bowl of popcorn while an exhausted graduate student sleeps in my bed.  It’s been a busy two months.

For the last two weeks, Irina Spector-Marks, another PhD student in the history program at the University of Illinois, has been in Durban, looking at archival documents as part of her first research trip. It’s been a bit surreal and somewhat full circle to experience the city and country with her, going to archives, restaurants, parks, and beaches with a new visitor.  Part of the trip allows me to see this place I’ve grown to love and care for so intimately through the eyes of both a friend and a neophyte, so to speak.  Things that seem settled or common suddenly get thrown into strange formulations, and things that I’ve believed or thought were knowable take on new character when you’re with someone new to it all.  I guess that could be a rough theme for this entire trip, and these past two months in particular.

Since I last wrote, I turned twenty-eight, went to Johannesburg and back, and plowed my way through hundreds of documents over decades of history.  I’ve pored over legislative debates surrounding immigration, drunkenness, sexual morality, racism, and missionaries; I’ve continued to attempt putting all of these documents in a chain in my mind, somehow selecting, editing, interpreting, processing them, in hopes of eventually making a narrative that explains, decodes, reframes, enlightens us about our purpose and place here.  Things that seem logical or easy continue to unnerve me, and I continue to find new challenges in the archival documents that make me wonder what I’m doing, exactly.

In mid-May, I became painfully aware of my need for a break from researching.  Fortunately, I had several friends graciously offer me places to stay and friendships to deepen while in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and a place I’d not seriously visited since 2004.

Joburg is big. Joburg is intense. Joburg reminds me a lot of the more bizarre parts of Los Angeles, with its sprawl, its juxtapositions of intense poverty and terrifying luxury, it’s history of gold rush rumours and disappointments, and its pretense as a city of dreams and reinventions, where ‘anyone’ can make it big and successfully.  It was no coincidence that I read Stephen Simm’s riotously satirical novel Miss KwaKwa, about a scheming, brilliant, ruthlessly Sotho beauty pageant winner who attempts to make it big in eGoli, the city of dreams.  I read the book while taking buses, trains, taxis, and riding in friend’s cars, and traveling over much of the strange, teeming city.

I walked the depressing corridors of the University of Johannesburg, described as a friend as “clearly the intended backdrop for a dystopian zombie apocalypse,” cringed in the airconditioned perfection of the elite wealthy shopping malls of Sandton, caught mini-bus taxis in the city centre, and pondered domesticity with university lecturers and ironic artists living in the stolid suburbs of Randburg.  What I liked most were the ways in which people shared with me how the city impacted them, how they felt at home.

My friends Stephen and Nafisa are recent transplants to Joburg from Durban, and they kindly opened their home to me, making me delicious food while I plied them with gin and played with their adorable three year old son.  The family that they’d built in the city, and more importantly, the work they were committed to doing with university students in making history relevant, and beautiful and significant touched me.  On a Tuesday afternoon, the three of us piled into their car after leaving the university, as Stephen described a day at work.  His eyes flashed as he talked about connections students were making, as they way that they could piece each thing together, and how words on a dry page instead through alchemy, became keys to understanding their own past and hopefully their future.  For the two of them, I could hear in that moment, the squat houses of the suburbs rushing past my window, that Joburg was about helping people see what was around them all the time, tuning them into the sounds of their history and the connections ahead of them.

With my friend April, the words seemed a bit more bittersweet.  A graduate student from the States, she was back on another research trip. We sat on a sun-drenched patio in the shabbily chic corners of Melville, cradling tiny porcelain vessels of espresso and pouring out from our hearts three years of pent up frustrations and hopes and fears.  I heard about her work—which is brilliant—and about her plans and about what she wanted.  At one point she talked about how Joburg felt like home, or at least one of the few solid ones as a grad student putting in the required work and constant trips back to a site. We smiled, ruefully, at our wandering lives, and at the ways that some places become like lodestars pointing us onward and giving us senses of connection.

On a bright Friday afternoon, my dear friend Sekoetlane Jacob and I walked around the streets of Joburg’s city centre.  We stopped and lingered for a while at the city’s high court.  SJ had originally studied law, but felt more drawn to advocacy work, particularly focusing on combating the institutional and ingrained nature of violence against women.  “This place brings out so many feelings,” he said, staring at the imposing edifice across the street from us.  I adjusted the straps of my bag impatiently, until I saw how serious he looked. “I remember being here, standing outside during all of the madness after Zuma’s rape trial.  How after that woman was villanized openly in the press and public for so many reason, people protested, demonstrated, laid their bodies down on those steps…” He shivered, in spite of the afternoon heat.  I did as well.  “This place matters so much to me,” he continued, crinkling his brow and sweeping one hand outward, pointing across the intersection. “I hate it. I hate what it makes me feel. But I also feel so much here. I feel the struggle, that things aren’t done, that they’re constantly being made and…battled here, Teej.  It’s not over at all—but this place makes me tired.” His features softened as he ran a hand through his hair and turned to look at me, attempting a half-smile.

For me, Joburg was a whirlwind. I felt the shifting of hundreds of puzzle pieces—of friends and fits and hopes and dreams sliding into each other and against each other, making new shapes and each person trying to connect.  It became too much for me to handle on Friday, as I thought of people I loved here, that I knew here, and how soon I’d be returning to the States. In the Sandton mall, in an upscale café, of all places, I began crying uncontrollably.  I did try to stop, really. It just seemed gauche to be surrounded by manicured, seemingly successful people, and for tears to fall, like a slow, salted rain, unbidden into my coffee cup.  It was a lot at once, and I wasn’t quite sure why.  I pushed it away with a healthy dose of mortification and commonsensically told myself I had a few days left before a final month of work in Durban.

Which brings me back to a month of work in Durban.  I’ve been typing frantically, checking archives, working, worrying, wondering.  I was asked to write articles for a very cool Africa-focused blog, one focusing on LGBT rights and another on violence against lesbian women in South Africa.  I have hugged a lot of friends and shared a ton of meals lately.  I leave for the States on June 20th, and I wonder exactly how to get ready for such a happening.  It looks like I’ve been given funding to go on a brief research trip in London in July, and then I’ll head back to Illinois for a year of writing most of my dissertation.  In the midst of all of this, I didn’t really think I’d have a bit of a personal breakthrough, however.

I thrive best

hermit style

with a beard and a pipe

and a parrot on each side

but now I can't do this without you

I never thought I would compromise

I never thought I would compromise

I never thought I would compromise

Let's unite tonight

we shouldn't fight

embrace you tight

let's unite tonight

Bjork, “Unison,” 2001.

Two weeks ago, Irina arrived, and it’s been a wonderful sense of disorientation to ‘show’ her this place I most certainly do not own, and to share the experiences that I have come to claim.  In addition, another friend, Will, a fellow history PhD student from the UK, came to stay for the past two days.  Taking Irina and Will to cafes and the archives, and markets, and up and down Durban streets has been surreal, wonderful, and reassuring.  Yet it’s also pointed out to me quite a bit about myself and my life.

Graduate school is an incredibly solitary experience, particularly if you are pursuing a PhD in history, a discipline which demands hour after hour, week after week, year after year, of writing and reading alone.  It is an exercise occasionally on the edges of sanity, as you lack the ability to sometimes connect your work to the masses of people around you.  It is, simply, an isolating experience, especially for someone who self-identifies as sociable.  In particular our works and triumphs and hopes are often so very solitary because they take place in archives and in our minds and our fever dreams and on runs or in the shower or when typing frantic panicked emails to our supervisors.

The past seventy –two hours have spent me in near constant communication with two other PhD students and budding historians.  We’ve lived and breathed our work; we’ve chatted animatedly about the empire and historiography, and work.  We’ve been in the archives and spaces together, and processed.  And for me, it was just mind-blowing.  As someone who has begun to accept the ‘rules’ of my studies—that I will be alone, that I am a fortress, that my work is solitary—it was a direct challenge to that.

It was only a matter of time before I began to think beyond that. 

Despite the fact that I am insanely sociable, that I make friends easily and frequently, and somewhat deeply, I also live like an island.  I’ve not been in a real romantic relationship of significance in the past four years, I invest in my friendships to a point, but I also keep a series of watertight locks on my interior life.  Yet there was in this moment of intensive community for these past three days, a deep, bubbling desire to be more than my maintained, friendly, ordered self.  What would it mean to more purposefully live in planned sharing, community, and engagement?  What would my life look like if I was open to being vulnerable, to being loved, or to accepting openly that I do deserve good things in this world?  Would it be more meaningful than right now?  I feel that these final days and these encounters are forcing me to ask so much of myself, in myself.

“Facing myself is not something I’m good at it,” SJ said once.  I had the sneaking suspicion that he was talking about both himself and me at the same time.  I keep a tight lock on myself, focusing on work andthen on other people, in order to stay sane and be productive and valuable, and get shit done.  But I find myself wondering, restlessly, what would it look like to be vulnerable again? What would it look like to be open to community, and to be engaged, and to be challenged?

I think of the puzzle pieces I saw in Joburg, the intensive three days here in Durban, and I wonder if I’m spending most of my days avoiding those connections by superficially smiling past them in hypersociality or putting my head down and powering through my work.  If there’s anything I’m challenging myself in the remaining seventeen days I have in South Africa, and onward to London, California, Illinois, and beyond,  it’s to be open to those connections. To the vulnerability. To being committed into being with people and trying to move through life far more integrated with you people that might (and almost certainly will) hurt me.

So I’m going to ask you all to hold me accountable to these choices, and I’m grateful for you all every step of the way so far.  Some of you I’ll see very, very soon.  Some of you I can’t bear to think of leaving just yet. But I demand to be deeper, and more connected in these next few days, weeks, months.  I want to live more in unison with you guys, and less in my own island.

--Teej

Pick up the pen
elefuntboy

2 April, 2012

Glenwood, Durban

I've been most unwilling to see this turmoil of mine

The thought of sitting with this has me paralyzed

With this prolong exposure to mirror and averted eyes

I've feigned that I've been waiting: such mileage for empathizing

And now I see the madness in me is brought out in the presence of you

And now I know the madness lives on, when you're not in the room

And though I'd love to blame you for all, I'd miss these moments of opportune

You've simply brought this madness to light and I should thank you

Oh thank you, much thanks for this bird's eye view

Oh thank you for your most generous triggers

--Alanis Morisette, Madness

It’s a crisp autumn evening this Monday as I sit here to type.  I’m feeling a lot of things at once at present—I’m two-thirds of the way through my time here, and strangely enough, tomorrow’s my birthday.  I mean it’s odd; I’ve never had a birthday in the fall time (or for that matter, in the Southern Hemisphere)—for me, the notion of an April birthday always coincides with the season’s changing, things warming up, and days lengthening.  Yet this morning I woke up chilled, surprised by the sudden coldness of the night before and realizing I’d need more blankets soon for the upcoming season.

It’s utterly bizarre that I’ve been here for six months.  How did that happen?  How did time move that fast?  (Conversely, I wonder, “how have I not done more research!?”  But that’s a neurosis for another day.)  Things feel familiar still here in Glenwood, although perhaps less frustratingly than they did back in February.  With the dawning of April, the increase in anxiety has also seen nostalgia doing its pre-emptive work; I begin to see that things are truly limited, and that this exciting, ridiculous life I have is temporary.  I will not always reside in the granny flat behind Joe Brooks’ house on Laurel Road (he has already taken a tenant for July, which feels very soon), any more than I will always remain a graduate student.  At some point, this stage has to end, and I have to actually buckle down and write the damn dissertation I signed up for, a prospect that fills me with both joy and dread.

On some levels, I look towards to my return to the United States with a measure of trepidation.  This South Africa trip was one of the chief goals I had envisioned when I applied to programs four and a half years ago.  It continued to sustain me during coursework, snowstorms, and institutional racism in Urbana, Illinois.  Part of me feels deep-seated unease at the idea of the thing I’ve been waiting so long to have happen come to an end.  What next?  What will I do?  Will I be able to finish?  These questions echo quietly in my brain as I walk along the cooler streets of Glenwood, watching the way that light plays at different angles than it did a few short months earlier.

Feeling in need of a change of scenery, I took advantage of some saved money and my immense privilege as a graduate student visitor, and took a week sojourn to Namibia earlier this month.  I ‘knew’ only one person in Windhoek, the capital: Nikki, a friend of a friend, a fellow history PhD who was taught by the same Zulu teacher I had when in South Africa in 2009.  Armed with this singular acquaintance, I took a chance and booked a plane ticket to Windhoek, not knowing what I was getting into.  It was a confusing and fantastic experience.

I maintain Namibia is the country that is most likely to be thought to be made up by Americans.  Its independence is relatively recent; it gained its independence on 22 March, 1990 (an anniversary celebrated on my first full day in the capital city) from South Africa, which had illegally been occupying the territory following an international mandate in the 1920s.  Namibia was initially colonized by the Germans in the 1890s, until its capture by British and South African forces in 1915.  The South African government occupied and ruled Namibia as a de facto fifth province for the next seventy-five years, subjecting the population to its apartheid system while an increasingly violent and acrimonious independence struggle erupted between South Africa and SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organization).  Indeed, Namibia is one of the sites of the many proxy battles of the Cold War; South African forces fought Cuban and Angolan revolutionary forces across the Namibian border during the 1970s and 1980s.  Thus, Namibia is a bizarre patchwork of histories—the lone example of German settler colonialism, a different shade of Southern African apartheid history, a Cold War battleground, and a newly independent African republic—all at once.

Namibia, to be blunt, is an insane and fascinating place.  Windhoek is relatively small for a city, yet self-important as the national capital despite the very low population density of the country and its high percentage of desert.  When thinking of Windhoek, it might be best to picture a city the size and geographic layout of Albuquerque but with the sovereign trappings and pretensions of a national capital (and with the kitschy Spanish colonial markers replaced with German ones).  I met Nikki and quickly befriended a strange coterie of ‘cosmopolitan’ sojourners in Windhoek, meeting gay German intellectuals, Japanese honeymooners, American political scientists, Namibian university students and Canadian NGO workers.  I spent the first two days both wandering around Windhoek, taking in the Tintenpalast (“Ink-Palace”, home of the current Parliament and central administration center for nearly a century), the Alte Fest (an imposing German fortress), Post Street Mall (best known for having in its center a collection of meteors discovered in 1911---I know, right?), and other places, while walking up Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street.  On Wednesday, I celebrated Independence Day in Katutura, the township built by South Africa’s apartheid regime to segregate the black majority population; today 60% of Windhoek’s populace lives within the former township’s borders.  Nikki and I as well as another new friend, Mark (a Stanford researcher and an overall winner) ate at an outdoor market in Katutura; of note in these outdoor markets are the somewhat makeshift abattoirs that feature the decapitated and vivisected cow bodies at the entrance, and row after row of rills set up where men are quickly grilling beef for a crowd for very little money.  Despite the nearby smell of blood and the butchery, the beef was delicious.  The evening was spent overlooking a local dam and meeting other friends at many of the local shebeens (relatively informal drinking establishments) while sheets of rain poured down outside.

On Friday morning, I boarded a bus very early and headed out to Swakopmund, the legendary German village by the sea.  Swakopmund is an insane, surreal place, and one that I despair of ever describing even one-tenth as accurately as it deserves.  Founded by the Germans in an abortive attempt to build a deep water harbor during their twenty-five year rule, the town is surrounded on three sides by arid Namibian desert, and on one side by the cold waves of the South Atlantic.  Swakop is self-consciously German; in that way it resembles the Southern Californian Danish kitsch village of Solvang (founded around the same time), although Solvang comes without the same brutal and puzzling claims to colonial power and heritage.  Imagine a tiny German village, selling frosty locally brewed beer, fresh-made schnitzel, and quaint wooden homes on streets like Bismarckstrasse WHILE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NAMIBIAN DESERT and inhabited by Germans as well as black Africans, Coloureds, and white Namibians.  Now imagine being a mixed-race American historian of race and colonialism.  Do you feel the aneurysm building behind my eyes as I walked the streets of Swakop?  You should.

I got off the bus in Swakop disoriented, and soon blundered into a German student named Conny.  Thin and wiry, with long blond dreadlocks and piercing blue eyes, Conny was on a two year program of service in Namibia working with local African communities (I’m trying not to think of the Peace Corps here).  He radiated a painful earnestness and sincerity that muted even my most staunch of cynical attitudes.  I asked if he knew where my backpackers was located, and he nodded, chatting with me on our short walk.

“How do you like Namibia?” I asked, cautiously.

“It’s so very…German,” he said, frowning.

I laughed.  “So that’s got to be reassuring, right?”

He nodded fiercely, eyes tearing a bit. “This whole place is so weird.  And these Germans,” he said, emphasizing the difference and the sameness at once. “These Germans come up to me and say, ‘we have built everything here.  Without us, these monkeys would still be in sand and tribes and naked.’”

He looked at me, crystal blue eyes wide with confusion, disgust, sadness.  “They think…they think I am like them.  But I am no one like them.”

At that moment, we reached the hostel.  Conny grabbed my hand, shook it, wished me well, and turned to go.

I looked down and noticed that he was wearing a shirt emblazoned in Cyrillic letters.  Dimly, I remembered the image being something from an anti-Fascist poster in the Soviet Union during its occupation during the Second World War.  As he turned to walk away, I noticed the back of his shirt was emblazoned with a giant Swastika—with a giant line through it. 

We all have histories. 

We are often still living through and with our own pasts, I reflected, as I walked the streets of Swakopmund that afternoon.  I turned down a side street and ended up near the Swakopmund lighthouse, standing in front of a simple white obelisk.  In front of the obelisk were two simple sets of numbers: 1914-1918.  1939-1945. Two German style insignia from the turn of the century flanked the monument. My eyebrows furrowed as I tried to understand what was in front of me.

“It’s a monument to all the Germans who died in World War One and World War Two,” said a voice behind me.  I turned around to see a stranger in a loud t-shirt with a thick Eastern European accent smiling at me.  “I’m Alexander.  That statue? It’s for the dead Germans. Including the Nazis.  Someone keeps leaving fresh flowers. This place is weird.”  I nodded, disoriented by what I was seeing, before my new friend Alexander grabbed my arm and led/talked me to the other nearby statue, of two German men in military gear, standing on a rock.  It was a tribute to all of the German soldiers that died in the ‘violence of 1904-1906’ against the Herero and Damara peoples, the indigenous peoples of the region.  For the record, that ‘violence’ resulted in the systematic massacre of nearly 80% of the Herero population, an event that some historians have said served as a psychic and logistical ‘dry run’ for the Holocaust.  There are no statues to the Herero or Damara in Swakop.  I walked away uneasily from Alexander and the twin statues, trying to catch my breath and figure out this place.

I eventually made my way down several side streets and found a coffee roastery and café.  Inside were clean small benches, a giant roaster, an impressive sea view from the windows, and a friendly blue eyed man behind the counter.  He asked me what I did, and I told him.

“Well if you’re studying Southern African history, you have to study Namibia as well,” he said, with a half-smile.

I nodded ruefully.  “I would, but I’m focusing on the mid to late 1800s.  I end in 1897, and Namibia’s just starting up around 1890, 1895.”

“Well, if you’re counting since recorded history,” he said, the half-smile stretching into a gentle smirk or reproof. 

I nodded, chagrined.  “A needed criticism, man.”  Thanks for calling me out.”

So much of Namibia passed in a fantastic blur—I toured impressive sand dunes, walked around a gigantic German castle built pointlessly and futilely in the empty scrub of central Namibia (and now a museum), was aided by a kindly German farmer when I ran out of petrol (and teased kindly by one of his assistants, a Herero woman named Elizabeth who couldn’t believe that I was a ‘white person that spoke Zulu’ until I shook my afro free of its hat and she believed I was ‘mixed’); each place offered another competing view of the colonialism I studied in nearby South Africa, and forced me to confront the familiarities and issues of my work that I often don’t want to think about.

There is something seductively generative about colonialism—‘Look we made this!  It has been built from nothing, forged into reality from a wilderness!’

But part of my training is to see through that—to judge the façade and to see that on some levels the perfume of 'civilization’ covers the filth of violence and pain, like flowers on a dung heap, or cologne on a corpse.

Yet I am part and parcel of such project.  The cannon and stonemason have made this world one that meets my expectations, that creates a world possessing those contours in which I find comfort—my ease and habitation are intertwined with violence and dispossession that I inherit and critique and reject and embrace, like a Mobius strip. 

“Nothing is neutral, and no one is clean,” I once declared naively and decisively in a discussion in Illinois.  I still believe that, but I am more aware of my own complicity in it, of my own academic navel-gazing, ego-centric celebration.  But what do I do with it all?  Where do I go after turning the critical gaze from the colony to my own heart of (semi)darkness?  Where are the limits and the overall things to be gained?

I thought about this quite a bit as I entered the taxi to take me from Windhoek to the airport, and eventually back ‘home’ to Durban.  My driver was a man about five to ten years older than me, with my exact same skin tone, deep green eyes, and close cropped light brown hair.  His name was Gunther, and he was of the ethnic group known as the Rehoboth Basters, mixed peoples from the Northern Cape that were mixed with Germans, Afrikaners, and native Khoisan and Tswana speaking peoples.  We spent the forty-five minutes talking about race and hope and history and dreams.  He told me about SWAPO and the independence struggle and the continued histories of quiet racism and inequality.  We talked about Trayvon Martin, and American racial politics.  He asked if I saw myself as Coloured, and laughed when I said I saw myself as ‘mixed’ or ‘multiracial’—or black if it was most amenable at the moment.  We pulled up to the airport, and he locked his eyes onto mine.

“We all have histories, T.J.,” he said, smiling.  “We think we live past them, or away from them, but we carry them within us, and around us.  We are parts of them, and we are nothing like them.  We are here and yet not.  But then again, you know all this, historian.  Go catch your flight.”

We shook hands, and I pulled flyaway strands of afro hair out of my eyes, thinking back of my own ‘blackness’ for Elizabeth, of my time in this country, and all that I don’t understand still.

*   *   *

I turn twenty-eight tomorrow, the same age my father was the year I was born.  I find I know so little about this continent, these peoples, and the history I purport to study.  I don’t get so much about my own parents, and I marvel at the idea that two scared, flawed people in their late twenties had the audacity to raise and love a terrifyingly precocious kid.  But maybe that’s where I start today; not using cynicism to smash through facades, not using theory to critique my own positionality or the viewpoints of others.  Instead, how about I start twenty-eight with a quiet wonder—a weird soft moment of gratitude to be alive, a time to embrace my lack of intellectual control and to take comfort in my inability to make sense of all of this?

Oh thank you, for this bird’s eye view.  Oh thank you for these most generous triggers.

Happy birthday. Happy Spring. Happy Autumn. Happy Easter.  Thanks, as always, for reading, and for putting up with me.

Pick up the pen
elefuntboy

19 February 2012

Glenwood, Durban

Don’t try to figure me out

Don’t try you’ll only fail

I’m not a reed in the sand

You’re already starting to pale

Everyone’s gone for the summer again,

Something is building, I don’t understand

A hummingbird larks in my hand

But I’m too busy chasing parades

To ever love you the same

Just breathe, he’s going away

                                                                                                                Rachael Yamagata, “Parade”

I find myself typing on a typical Sunday afternoon here in Glenwood.  I’m at ArtsCafe, the coffee shop that adjoins the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Art Gallery.  It’s the only café in the neighbourhood that’s open on a Sunday, and it’s a mixed indoor/outdoor space, with well-worn tabletops, sleek wooden furniture and a terraced platform of brick steps that local children delight in running up and down at top speed, heedless of the effects of gravity.  As I sip the last dregs of my lukewarm black coffee, I feel myself swallowing down the mild irritation I’m feeling all around me—with myself, with the neighbourhood, with my work, with, well—everything.

Tomorrow marks five months since I got on a plane and left the United States.  I have become somewhat established here, I have friends and people that I see regularly, make plans with, and feel a part of a larger community.  I feel, on some levels, “settled in”—which is no small amount of irony for someone who critically studies settlement, occupation, and making of space.  Some of the odd paradoxes of gender, race, and space have become increasingly familiar by my staying here, and while I am occasionally jolted out of my newfound familiarity by a strange remark or the rough edges of research, things have become rather…well, routine.

Part of me is rather disappointed by routine (and deeply amused, since that’s what I craved more than anything else when I got here in September, being the ungrateful postmodern introspective grad student that I am), by the notion that things have become comfortable and therefore less challenging in a way.  I find myself asking what my role and purpose is here: is it to continue to gather the best and most helpful archive materials? Is it to live in a space and therefore be accountable to the work that goes on here? Is it to continue to push myself to be more than just an easily comfortable historian of empire in general and South Africa in particular?

I’ve been meditating somewhat on the effects of routine of late, but it really came to the fore for me when I was having an online chat with my advisor last week.  She gently pointed out that, with few exceptions, I have been focusing on nearly one sole archive for the past few months.  While incredibly rich in information, it might not be the best approach to spend the entire trip mining the depths of this particular space, she offered politely.  I nodded in ready agreement, beginning to realize how easily structured my life had become—Monday through Friday poring over newspapers and journals and letters with the intermittent indulgence in social media sits to entertain a conversation about race or gender or sexuality or kittens before a stop for coffee in town, a quick run in the neighbourhood and either dinner quietly at home with a book or an outing to a local pub with friends in the area.  All of these are perfectly fine, or course, but I began to wonder just how dependent I had become upon routine to make sense of the madness of my life and to provide stability.

Nowhere was this more apparent than this morning, when I went to my beloved ArtsCafe, where I spend most Sunday mornings/afternoons poring over research books and typing notes over a coffee (or three) and my personal favourite menu choice: buttermilk French toast coated in lemon curd and served with hot, crispy bacon.  I ordered it automatically today, smiling at the idea of eating the best breakfast in the history of the universe and enjoying my weekly dose of bacon-related happiness.  Alas, the café has chosen to reinvent its menu for the month and discontinue many items including the French toast that I love so very much.  The sheer power of my emotional reaction—absolute disappointment mixed with a ludicrous amount of anger—demonstrated to me just how deeply I’ve allowed my reliance on routine to make my life comfortable. Also, I live in a country where the unemployment rate is staggering, people live in abject poverty, and my painfully bourgeois self is bemoaning a lack of fancy French toast that I could a) make at home and b) should just get over?  It’s occurred to me that for starters, I need to get out of the suburban bubble that is Glenwood more often and remember that it is not the center of the universe, although it is so very, very easy to make it so. 

Pack up your jacket and shoes

Kiss all my friends one more time

Don’t take a minute on paintings you see

There’s a curtain of red on the blinds

One aspect of living in a space for some time is that you grow attached to people, and then they leave.  I occasionally—believe it or not—forget that I am part of the coterie of foreigners that traipse in and out of South Africa frequently, and I begin to think that I belong here in a sense (a dangerous aspect of settlement that is entirely natural and even more disconcerting).  This past month a group of foreigners—mainly Canadian—have moved on from Durban as part of the natural order of things.  It’s strange to see them go, to attend their good byes, their sending offs, the ritual exchanges of sadness/happiness/excitement/regret that accompany these social gestures.  In my narcissistic way, I remember that I, too, am leaving at some point, and that these people, this space is temporary.  I will be moving on, and taking these experiences with me.   Remembering this pushes on me further—how am I responsible to this location? How do I appreciate the shit out of being here (and not mourn over a lack of French toast?) and respect the privilege that it is to occupy this space, for all the inequality of power and space that entails?  I’m thinking about this a lot, I’m worried about it a lot, and I don’t have an easy answer, amigos.

One thing I do tend to have a lot of is opportunity to get into conflict.  I think that one aspect of being comfortable in this space is that the ‘guest’ attitude has in many ways worn off in my interactions.  I’m looser, warmer, blunter, and less self-possessed; I’m far more likely to say what I think (which is hardly a problem to begin with) after a few months in this country.  I’ve found myself of late getting into a bunch of heated arguments, quarrels, bickerings, and snipings with people.  In particular, I grow frustrated with my fellow members of the coterie internationale, those lovely foreigners sharing close quarters and space with me.  Like high schoolers in an artificial and tiny social bubble, we bicker over things said and unsaid, perceived slights, and the rough edges of one another’s personality.  I’ve gotten into falling outs of late due to my unfortunate tendency to defer to snarky defensiveness when I encounter a comment or action that I feel disrespects me.

Perhaps that, then, is another negative result of routine in my Glenwood-bubble.  I’m strangely invested in ‘belonging’ here, and sometimes I default to kneejerk responses, snapping at people in pursuit of my own claims to space, to say that I am here and I deserve to be here.  Hours later, I find myself taking routine long walks through Glenwood’s leafy streets, or occasionally on the seashore, reflecting on my own hasty self-protectiveness, and regretting the turn of words and exchanges of the day.  This, I feel, is the rough truth of settlement, in a way; occupying a space means that you now must defend your claim.  Imagine how difficult that is if your claim is predicated on the manifest unfairness of theft and dispossession.  I think of the privilege I did not ask for but did both inherit and worked hard for to enable me to live semi-comfortably in a country where the majority struggle to make ends meet.  That I can expend my energy being irritated at what the Canadian environmentalist or Norwegian social scientist said in the bar on Tuesday rather than recognize my how fucking lucky I am to be here doing this work that matters so much to me is a humbling and terrifying realization to make.  And then I have to apologize.

Peeking is stealing the life you don’t share

There’s a map of memory, of us over there

Dangerous questions are near

I’m too busy chasing parades

To love you the same

Just breathe

I’ve begun a bit of a strange new friendship with two neighbours that moved into the recently vacated home two houses down from mine.  Clint and Roxy are an engaged couple around my age, who, with two over-eager dogs and an amazingly haughty cat, have set about occupying the house formerly owned by an octogenarian couple.  Clint owns and manages a successful plumbing business, and is in every way shape and form involved in its day to day affairs.  His cracked fingers, dark tanned white skin, frequently dirt encrusted arms, and well-worn work boots are proof of that every day.  He’s got a scraggly mustache a shade darker than his light brown hair, and his blue eyes are constantly alert and watchful.  His fiancée, Roxy, is a dark eyed beauty with bleached hair, a ready grin, and a quick wit.  Some days, when I’m walking home, thinking either about settlers, sexuality, or maybe what to have for dinner, they call from the ancient walled in front porch with its beauteously incongruous zebra print furniture, seeming to mock the stately order of the home, built during the high years of apartheid.  Without fail, if I exchange more than four sentences with them from their front gate, dogs barking good naturedly at me through the fence, I’ll be invited in, offered a beer (or three), asked (pointedly) if I want to share dinner with them, and spend the next three to five hours talking about life, family, and friends. 

Clint and Roxy’s hospitality is incredibly gracious, and their good humour is infectious.  They are both fans of rough humour, long drinking parties, the occasional fisticuffs, and bad internet photos.  They regale me of stories of Clint’s past, where he’d get blindly drunk or some oke would foolishly threaten him or his family and get a good hiding in response.  In Clint and Roxy I see a very intriguing set of South African characteristics—they have taken a dubious stranger with a fly away afro, strange fashion sense, and an overly bookish temperament, and invited him in to share their life and hear who they are.  We have silly in-jokes, and I find myself weirdly amused as the lines between ethnographer and neighbor become blurred very quickly.  Occasionally jokes are highly racialized or would be just impossible to relate back to another human being, but in it, I am offered glimpses of another aspect of what life is like in South Africa for these working/middle class identified white South Africans.  They have accepted my penchant of the absurd, and for combining ridiculous swear words in silly combinations, and the fact that I am genuinely interested in learning about them, and they help in some ways to make me feel a part of the neighbourhood that I live in.

But of course, my existence here is temporary, and I’ve begun wondering what next year will look like for me.  This is no small feat, as I have spent the last few years preparing for this trip—it’s hard to imagine what my life would look like post-South Africa.  Yet, I’m now waiting for replies to a spate of applications I’ve submitted for teaching and research fellowships across the country next year—I’ve applied to the University of Illinois, Ithaca College, University of Virginia, Marquette University, and the University of California, Santa Barbara for positions.  So as I find myself critically wondering about my relationship to this place in the present, I am also facing an uncertain future, as I wonder where I am supposed to go and what I am supposed to be doing.  I’ll be sure to keep you in the loop, but it’s another reason that I want to cling to routine—it seems safe and making sense for me as the future begins to appear on the horizon, disconcerting in its blankness.

So here I sit—sans the toast of the French—typing, aware of the ludicrous nature of my privilege, and grateful for the chance to be here.  Now I need to push myself to new horizons and places, to be and do more.  I am grateful for you all in listening to my ramblings, for offering love, support, and silliness, and I genuinely miss each of you.  Don’t be strangers; I’d love to hear how you’re doing.

Fondly,

Teej

Pick up the pen
elefuntboy

27 January, 2012 | Glenwood, Durban

“Even in a strange or unfamiliar environment we might find our way, given our familiarity with social form, with how the social is arranged.  This is not to say we don’t get lost, or that at times we don’t’ reach our destination.  And this is not to say that in some places we are not shocked beyond the capacity for recognition.  But ‘getting lost’ still takes us somewhere; and being lost is a way of inhabiting space by registering what is not familiar: being lost can in its turn become a familiar feeling.”

–Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, 2006

“Do you remember the early morning                                              Do you remember the scars I showed you?

When we went back to bed?                                                                                                         The stories I told you?

When we found the first position?                                                                                 How I always said ‘Forever!’

And every muscle rested?                                                                                        When you asked me to stay true.

I do remember that I already knew                                                         Do you remember when we forgot how

It was the last time                                                                                                                           To smile at each other?

The last time for first positions                                                                                                To believe that the other

The last time you’d be mine.                                                                                   Wants only what’s good for you?

--Ane Brun, “Do You Remember”, 2011

It’s been awhile.

It’s a balmy Friday afternoon here in Glenwood, where I sit at my kitchen table-cum-desk.  It’s one of those rare days when it’s not overwhelmingly humid, in the good tradition of a Durban summer, and I have taken a strange gratitude in the quiet joys of wearing long pants for the first time since the season started.  The next door neighbor’s cat, whom I have secretly named Truganini, is eyeing me from my windowsill, yawning with that weird mix of disdain and intense interest that only cats and serial killers seem to possess.  It’s been a strange month, to be honest, and I’ve continued to feel the weird jostlings and discomforts of calling Durban home while continuing to be very much a foreigner, or studying the colonial past of a place where histories leave deep shadows over the present.

                I’ve been trying to write, and it’s been a difficult experience.  Inspiration comes at odd and convenient moments, when it chooses to come at l.  I’ve instead spent most of my days diving deep into my archival sources, drinking worrying amounts of coffee, and reading a fantastic array of novels, hoping that the fermenting mash of ideas I keep pouring into my brain will ripen into some heady brew that I can properly bottle, feel clever, and justify my excessive lollygagging about.  I am loving Durban, and I’m glad to be back here from Cape Town, even more aware of the fact that I have become part of a community (or a series of communities) here in eThekwini, and I am grateful to continue to be around inspiring and awesome people.

                And yet, things have been weird.  I have a sneaking suspicion that I am fundamentally incapable of actually just existing in a space without questions, anxious self-reflexivity, or Camus-style existential angst, but sometimes such a worldview gets tiring.  I’ve been told by more than one person here that I “think too much” about life (and then promptly overanalyze such a prognosis), but I honestly don’t know if I can or want to be any other way.  At any rate, it means that I get all of these crazy thoughts in my head, and I have to work through them slowly but surely, feeling as if I’m pushing my way through dimly familiar corridors, looking for spaces that make sense, that I can understand and recognize and embrace and feel marvelously in control about.  As usual, this means that I open my copy of Sarah Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology and thumb through its pages on finding a place, feeling lost, and getting (re)oriented around spaces.  This week has found me struggling on sort of deep-seated emotional levels to grapple with thigns around me, and Ahmed, prayer, and excessive cups of caffeine have been proving moderately helpful in ‘finding my way.’

                As I’m sure many of you are now tired of hearing, my research here in South Africa focuses on race, masculinity and questions of belonging in the colonial period, roughly 1850-1897.  I look at ways in which race and masculinity can be mobilized not simply as identities, but as forces that justify claims of sovereignty or belonging amid differing groups in the region.  It also means that I am constantly thinking about ways in which sexuality, modernity, race, and all of those good things overlap, interplay, and confuse the hell out of each other.  So it was with great interest that I read an article in the South African news on Monday where King Goodwill Zwelithini, the head of the Zulu nation, made pretty derogatory statements about homosexuality, calling gays “rotten,” saying that such activities were untraditional, and an affront to culture.  This rhetoric is not new, and is fascinating in the way that different groups push with and struggle with claiming authenticity, and validity in a modern South African state.  In particular, Zwelithini’s comments line up with the deeply problematic statements made across the continent by civic and religious leaders in Africa that call ‘homosexuality’ foreign, unAfrican, and deeply wrong.  Of course, many base this on a reading of imported Western Christian traditions, which apparently can be indigenized with less of a problem than the Western conception of same-sex attraction as a personal identity, but that’s an article for another time.  I shook my head in irritation and anger at Zwelithini, made a mental note to add it to my file on African nationalism and sexuality, and thought I had moved on.

                The next day, however, I logged onto facebook and saw that one of my friends in Durban, a gay white Afrikaner in his thirties, had written specifically about the event.  “So Zwelithini thinks we’re dirty, eh?” he wrote.  “Well then I can say he’s a Kaffir.”  I blinked in quiet shock at those words.  I could understand immediately the anger at the Zulu king basically supporting outright homophobia in a country rife with anti-gay violence despite the protection of all sexual orientations under the South African constitution.  Yet, it was a classic moment racial vitriol that stunned me. 

                For non-South Africans, the word Kaffir has decidedly negative, derogatory, and racist colonial implications.  It is rather analogous to the word nigger in North American discourse; originally an Arabic word for unbeliever, it was adapted by Dutch settlers by the eighteenth century to mean any and all black Africans living in the region, and soon became a term of outright abuse and disdain.  It is complex, of course, in its meanings, but for a white person to call a black person a Kaffir produces a very similar sense of de-humanizing destruction that the word nigger does in the United States.  To see someone I considered a friend write this about black Africans was incredibly conflicting and difficult to read.  I felt personally hurt, and unsafe on a lot of levels, and I struggled to understand why.

                Confused and upset, I went for a walk the next morning, trying to think exactly why I was so bothered.  I kept Ane Brun’s song “Do You Remember” on repeat as I walked around the neighborhood.  It’s a song about loss, about memories that no longer match up to realities, and about broken relationships, severed connections.  It felt right.

 I am not South African, I reminded myself as I walked.  I am not even seen as a black person in this country.  That word does not describe me.  Yet it still bothered me, immensely.  I thought more about it, and I thought about how in the United States, despite my mixed status, I am often immediately interpreted as black.  My white mother becomes part of a larger swallowing of ‘blackness,’ and the discourses around that make me strangely aware of the way terms are used and developed.  Thinking about this, I rounded the corner of a leafy, tree-lined street in my neighborhood, the guard dogs and my hair both wilting slightly in the heavy summer humidity.  I paced further, thinking harder, ignoring laughing school children, blaring minibus taxis, and the world around me. 

                Two things came to me immediately.  First, I could see the intersections of sexuality and race that were occurring here in this incident.  Hurt by the king’s hateful words, and rightfully unsettled, my friend had responded with a word in his deck—a deeply dehumanizing word steeped in an oppressive, colonial past (and I’d argue a constant present).  That someone I knew could find a racist term as a ‘backup’ in case of offense was alarming enough, but it still didn’t immediately impact my sense of deep involvement, a feeling of being unsafe.  And then I realized that this was acting somewhat as an emotional trigger for me, reminding me of one of the worst parts of graduate school back in Urbana, Illinois.

                In October of 2008, about five weeks into my education at the University of Illinois, I attended a party with a group of graduate students, mainly first years in the history department, but a few older students as well.  After a while, we decided to play Trivial Pursuit, as nerdy graduate students are wont to do—especially after a few glasses of wine.  One of my male friends in the department continued to roll the dice in a way that put him on the “roll again” square in the game—three times in a row.  Upon the third roll, I looked at my friend and said, “Roll again, bitch!”  Which he did, landing for the fourth time on “roll again.”  I laughed and said, “roll again, bitch!”  At which point, a white female student in our department, annoyed that I had said the word ‘bitch,’ looked at me point blank and said very loudly, “Nigger.”

                I remember everything froze.  I was suddenly aware of being one of only two people of color in a room filled with white students.  The other student of color took one look, and left the party.  I had no idea what to do or say.  And I remember that not one of those damn grad students did a thing.  They looked at me to explain it, to make sense of it, and to help them out.  The older ones in particular were egregious in their cowardice, and left me to sort through a tangled set of feeligns involving humiliation, alienation, and questioning whether I even belonged in such a space.

                I almost quit graduate school over that.  It may sound silly to have been so ‘sensitive’ over such an issue, but when you are visibly a minority in a space that you don’t know, that you have yet to understand, and one that you struggle to know your place in, such an instance can be severely demoralizing.  I had come to an ostensibly activist department in what I believed was a progressive minded university and felt safe among this circle of academics.  Yet here was a progressive white woman who felt at the end of the day, that she could call me a nigger. Dehumanize me. Name me. Make me less than. 

                I understood why she was upset; yet, the scope of her response to me—not a simple “why are you using the word bitch?” Or “could you not say that, even to that male student?”—was so disproportionate, so blindigly personal, so unexpectedly hateful, that I was caught off guard.  I thought I’d processed it, dealt with it, put it all away after three years.  I was wrong.

                I cried thinking about it yesterday, and realized that I was feeling echoes of that dehumanization again, and that I was trying to figure out why my South African friend’s words had stung so personally, besides their obvious racism.  The memories of that incident, the realizing that this world is broken so fundamentally through its histories and legacies of racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry overwhelmed me again. 

                I emailed him and said that I was hurt by what he’d said, even though it wasn’t directed at me.  He’d thought better of it since I’d first read the posting, and had already deleted it, but the memory was still there.  I told him that I couldn’t reconcile my friendship with him with the action that he had taken—the idea that he could name people by a dehumanizing, foul term, one that denied the humanity of other people.  I said that I needed to not be friends any more.

                Why am I writing all this?  Because I’m so painfully aware that Kaffir is not Nigger, that their histories are intertwined, linked, but not identical.  Yet, I am a multiracial American living in South Africa, and this is one of those points of friction that hit hard.  The traumas of pasts personal and historical, are lived in our presents.  I had the theoretical wind knocked out of me by someone’s racist posting online in response to someone else’s homophobia.  Does this mean that I need to figure out what triggers are and how to respond emotionally? Yes.  Does this mean I’m being over-sensitive? I don’t’ think so.  What I am taking most out of this incident, however, is that my own histories are constantly at play as I try to understand the history of this place, and that I am never a neutral observer.  I’m once again trying to feel my way through a social corridor that is unfamiliar, as Sarah Ahmed might say.  And even in moments where I am lost, or shocked into new sensibilities, I have to figure out what I’m doing, where I’m going, and why I’m doing the work that I do.

                And so I’m pausing to catch my breath, and figure out what it means to be here, doing the work that I am, and why.

Thanks for reading.

Pick up the pen
elefuntboy

31 December 2011

Loading Bay Café,

De Waterkant District, Cape Town

                I am currently sitting at a painfully hip café in Cape Town’s young urban professional neighborhood, De Waterkant.  The tables are roughhewn wood slabs with clean granite everywhere, uber-attractive men and women punching in smartphones and pretending as if they hadn’t spent hours making their tight v-necks and designer jeans look carelessly thrown together.  To my left, the café opens up to a panoramic view of the impressively massive Table Mountain, its craggy, surface dominating the vista for miles as puffy white clouds spill over its flat edge, making a sort of atmospheric avalanche amid the crystal blue summer sky.

                I am eight days into my stay in ‘the Mother City,’ and fifteen total into my incredibly self-indulgent vacation.  I’m returning to Durban on 6 January, and I am simultaneously excited and reluctant to go back ‘home.’  But isn’t that always the way with vacations?  You find yourself excited to be traveling somewhere only to also wish that you were back at home soon enough, in routine and order.

                This has been my first trip to Cape Town in seven years; in September of 2004, as a twenty-year old undergraduate on exchange at UC San Diego, I went for a week with friends, and stayed at a backpackers on Long Street, still a bustling hub of foreign transit.  It’s strange to be back here, a changed person occupying space in markedly different ways.  I can at least stumble through conversations in isiXhosa when the occasion demands it, and I can read the frequent Afrikaans language signs I find, although Cape Town’s cosmopolitan posturing makes it still a primary English language city on the surface, it seems.

                I have to admit, however, that in nearly every way, Cape Town is more beautiful, more impressive, more grandiose than Durban.  It’s self-consciously impressive, well-assured of its status as a major ‘cosmopolitan destination’, and it definitely throws me for a loop to walk its many streets, confused if I’m in Europe, Africa, or California sometimes. 

Of course, none of this is neutral, and I keep pounding the pavement, hitting museums, and talking to people, trying to ‘make sense’ of this place.  Granted, making sense is one of the hardest things possible to do.  I get that as a historian of South Africa, part of it is my job to ‘figure out’ this place, and to comprehend, map, understand it.  But that shit is hard, people.  It’s weird, and it’s hard, and it’s a creepy project if you think about it in a certain way.  It is entirely human to want to comprehend something, but those of us tragically overdrilled in postmodernism are painfully aware of the fact that such knowledge searches are not neutral, not objective, and fraught with power relations.  I’m both grateful for and immensely frustrated by the fact that I can’t turn off my ‘grad student brain’—for every second I seek to understand, describe, inscribe, make legible the world around me, I’m aware of my own lack of neutrality here, my own positionality, and my attempts to make sense of things that may not be so simple.  It’s funny, because I didn’t’ feel this way as an undergraduate, as a high school teacher, a master’s student, or even early in my PhD.  It was living in a rural Zulu village in 2009 that showed me most viscerally how my project to ‘make sense’ is fraught in its own way.  And so I seek to humbly understand, process, debate, and learn from the people around me.  I’m grateful for people like Rina and Joe (my landlord), who challenge me to look past simple black/white archetypes; for the history faculty at Howard College, for expat friends helping me deal.

I’m struggling to ‘get’ Cape Town (and South Africa in general), and I usually let people know that early on in our conversations; the results are often pretty interesting.

---

“But it’s only natural to want to understand people,” sputtered Jon, a twenty-four year old Canadian staying in the Cape for an indeterminate time on funding I don’t really understand.  “How can we understand each other if we don’t try?”

My friend Dane and I, sitting on low couches in another friend’s apartment in the trendy neighborhood of Green Point, talked about Steve Biko, about his chastising of white liberals who wanted to ‘understand’ but never saw that they could never truly grasp/maintain/know certain people’s lives.  “Perhaps what we can hope for is building alliances, knowing, working with, loving people and trying to be in place with them, and never speaking for them, or attempting to ‘know’ them,” I said, thinking hard about my own work and feeling all of the disorientation come creeping back to me in my work and my life.

“This is my home,” Shari said, looking me directly in the eye, sweeping a long, highlighted strand of honey brown hair out of her large hazel eyes as she did so.  She gestured out the window to demonstrate the entirety of Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay/Muslim Quarter that had survived apartheid predations and was in the midst of its gentrification throes in a post-1994 world.  “We live here, we love here, we are here.  You are welcome here.  These are our lives, and we will keep living here.  Tell your friends in America about that.  And don’t stop coming back here.”

I love Bo-Kaap best of all the places I see in cape Town, with its brightly painted houses, its well worn pavements, the sounds that call the faithful to prayer five times a day from its many mosques, and its palpable sense of place and community.  I want to live here one day, but I keep remembering as well that there are plenty of people before me who have ‘fallen in love’ with parts of Africa and want to make it their own, to live in it, to claim it.  I don’t want to be one of those people, but I do want to be part of this in an increasingly meaningful way.  “I would give my eye-teeth to get a decent professor job in the Cape,” I say after too many drinks with a friend.  “Well you’d blend in more, missing those teeth,” he snarks back, referring to the prevalent image of the Cape Coloured with missing teeth.  I swipe at him with a mix of amusement and irritation and miss.

“WHERE AM I FROM?” thunders the Coloured cab driver in response to the question. “I AM FROM HERE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? I AM INDIGENOUS. DO YOU KNOW THAT WORD? IN-DIDJ-EE-NUSSS.” I blink back in surprise, both at the volume of this delivery as well as the opinion expressed wherein—what is indigeneity in a Cape context?  Is this man a pure Khoisan? Is he a Cape Coloured in a different way?  Should I even ask? “NOWADAYS, THERE ARE SO MANY BLACKS HERE,” he booms dismissively. “I SHOULD ASK HIM WHERE HE’S FROM, HAH! I’M INNNDIIIIIIGEEEEEENUUUUUS.”

Like the rest of South Africa, Cape Town is a mass of very particular realities and a larger history of raced and gendered collisions all over the damn place.  To be ‘Coloured’ means generally to be descended from the Dutch and initial Khoi-san inhabitants of the Cape, or perhaps mixed with some of the many slave people the Dutch brought in from 1652-1808, people from as far away as India, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mozambique.  These slaves built the infrastructure of the Cape, and their descendants toiled in unequal discriminatory worlds for centuries after.  Sometimes South Africa sounds very familiar to my American ears.

Yet despite government attempts over the centuries, people do not stay put.  They move.  isiXhosa speakers, Indian immigrants, British adventurers,  Jewish refugees, all move through, claim a space of the Cape.  And in some way, the Cape is right to call itself cosmopolitan, or international and even ‘global’.  But what is obscured by calling oneself ‘cosmopolitan’?  What local connections vanish?  I bristle every time I hear a Capetonian tell me that “real Africa” extends beyond the metropolitan confines, and continues somewhere beyond.  It sounds to much like this place is still a colony, or a colony within a country, of European internationalism and modernity while the rest of the land must stretch on, traditional, unchanging.  Perhaps I’m overthinking it, as usual.

                “This is a place unlike any other,” Blue agrees as we sip our second beers in a small café off the tourist mecca of Long Street.  A fire has flared up and been quickly extinguished next door, and white smoke billows everywhere.  People scurry like ants, and sirens wail.  We do not move.  Nor does anyone else.  Blue runs his hands over his knit cap and smiles as he talks, relating twelve years of life in Cape Town after a childhood in Polokwane, in the far distant Limpopo province. “This place is full of bullshit, but it is great.”  We talk for hours about being labeled an ‘angry young man’ by well-intentioned white liberals that don’t want us to raise our voices too loudly, about living in new cities, about interracial boundaries, and lines that still exist, about being told by the police that we don’t belong in certain neighborhoods.  I leave grateful to be alive, to be in a city that I don’t’ ‘get’, that I feel uncomfortable in, and that I feel thankful for.  We pay and leave. The people are still milling about, aimless, and looking a bit cheated by the end of the fire.  The police have long since left.

---

                2011 has been a very strange year.  I helped bury my grandfather, deeply developed my intellectual and personal work, spent a tremendous amount of time in Los Angeles, ran three conferences, turned twenty-seven, obtained a monocle, and moved back to the country that challenges me so deeply.  I ended long-term friendships with people I never thought I’d stop knowing or loving. I’ve met fantastic new people who challenge me differently.  I’ve traveled to Lesotho and Swaziland and Mozambique; I’ve spoken a ton of languages, I’ve pushed myself, and plan to keep doing so.  And I’m grateful for knowing you guys this year and into the next.   If there is a theme for this year, it is disorientation, confusion, and feeling out of place—these can be wonderful things I’m discovering, and not the horrible things I‘m frequently afraid they are.  “All the mental confusion is absolutely excellent, it means that SA is unsettling your certainties,” a professor and good friend told me via email last week.  “And what could be better than that! It means you are letting go of the things you need to let go of in order to see where you are going and what is around you.”  Here’s to hoping that 2012 brings more confusion, and more ‘letting go’ in order to see and study and humbly describe the world around me.

Happy New Year// Unyaka omusha omuhle//Voorspoedige Nuwe Jaar

Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
20 December, 2011
Nature’s Valley, Western Cape
 
                I’m currently sitting on the patio of a hostel in the Nature’s Valley, a relatively remote spot on the Garden Route, part of the long stretch of beautiful coastline between Cape Town and Durban.  It’s 10 am, I’m sipping coffee, and listening to music, relatively alone for the first time in a few days.  I’m trying to work through a lot, and I’ve been traveling pretty much nonstop in a van with five kind-hearted, free-spirited Canadians since Friday.  We’re on our way to Cape Town, where I’ll spend Christmas and the New Year, heading back to Durban around 6 January.  I don’t really have the energy or desire to write a coherent narrative of how things are going, so I thought I might just write four short sketches of what’s happened over the last few weeks.
 
I.A Question, Friend
Most Wednesday nights I do trivia at Jackie Horner’s, a local bar in Glenwood.  We’re a motley group of folk that compete, and we usually down a pint or three as we rack our brains for useless knowledge in hopes of winning one of the many great prizes—ranging from bottles of wine to 200 Rand ($25) gift certificates.  Last week just felt off—even though the game went well, I just didn’t feel a part of the event.  The small, slightly enclosed space usually feels inviting, this time it just felt suffocating.  I had the odd sensation of feeling like a spectator on my own life; I could see myself writing down answers, drinking beer, laughing with people, but with an entire sense of detachment that I found unnerving. 
Jackie Horner’s is a relatively straight walk to my house, just off Esther Robberts Road.  It takes about 20 minutes by foot, and the stretch is a bit lonely although pretty safe.  As I stepped out into the cool Wednesday evening, I looked around and walked quickly, nervously, the wind blowing tendrils of hair in and out of my eyes as I distractedly ambled home.  I passed the old tennis club, long blocks of flats that had been clearly built for a different populace at the height of 1960’s apartheid modernism, a preschool, and began to pass the Grace Presbyterian Church, on the corner of Brand and Robberts.  As I did, I heard, rather than saw three figures standing on the church steps.
hey, friend!” a female voice called out, in a curious mix of recognition and pleading.
Disoriented by the disembodied voice and its claims to familiarity, I slowed a bit, and pushed more hair out of my eyes where it’d fallen.”Yeah?”
I saw them now, three women, relatively formless shadows standing on the steps of the church, clothes somewhat tight, hair arranged hurriedly.  I could see them, but they were still across the street and hard to make out.
What are you doing tonight, friend?  Do you want a blowjob?”
I almost stopped dead, suddenly realizing what was happening.  I was being propositioned. Across a street. From church steps. By three women.
I stuttered, and unconsciously switched to Zulu, but the sentences were stiff, formal.  They sounded like they came out of a text book.
Ngiyaxolisa, kodwa ngidinga ukubuyela ekhaya manje. Angifuni ukwenza lutho manje, sisi.”
[I’m sorry, but I am needing to return to my home now. I do not want to do anything now, sister.]
We can have fun, friend” the voices lost form again, melted into shadow as I walked on, disturbed, confused.
What was this? How did I process this? Why was it particularly strange for me that the proposition happened on the steps of a church?  Why did I think of my own masculinity? My own sense of occupying space, my own privilege to walk through the space and ask questions and be asked questions?  To be inquired of a blowjob on a street corner by a shadowy trio?  How and why did I rattle in a formal isiZulu, like a computer printout?
 
I slept poorly that night.
 
II.You never know who you’re going to meet
The Killie Campbell Africana Library, which I often just refer to as “The Archive,” is the center of most of my ‘working’ and intellectual life here in Durban.  Nellie Somers, one of the head archivists, is a woman of boundless energy and determined will.  She constantly works to increase the exposure of the archives, to get researchers to come in and visit, and she is dead-set against the idea of digitization, which she rightfully foresees will limit visitors, and thereby halt funding for the overall program, leaving the restoration itself at risk.
Often, she walks up to me, wearing multiple bracelets, bright colors in a business practical cut, and with the light glinting of her gold jewelry, will remind me that we need people to come visit the archive. 
“It is a fundamental part of the experience, meeting people in the archive…talking through work.”
I’m hard pressed to disagree with her.  This week really brought that home for me.  On Thursday, my last day of the archive for the year, I sat down in my usual place, with computer in hand, typing away notes on Zulu polygamy, cattle, and missionary reports on sexuality when I saw a man walk in with a book in hand.  Nellie looked at me, and I took out my headphones, letting Thomas Krane’s melancholy guitar fade from my mental landscape for a second. 
“T.J., this man is writing on Indian Muslims and their lives in Durban.”
The older man with close cut grey hair, bright brown eyes, and skin like stretched, dark parchment, looked at me and smiled. “Are you interested?”
“Very!”
The professor and I sat outside on a bench under a leafy walkway, chatting about Indian men, immigration, hopes, dreams, and the challenges of moving to a new place.  I began to discuss in detail what it might have meant to be a Muslim man arriving from India, not as an indentured laborer, but as a trader or commercial lawyer in the 1870s and 1880s.  I began to think about how white men in Durban would respond to this, men who were used to the homosocial space of the Durban Club, a place where rich white men were only allowed, and who were served by the willing bodies of Indian men attired in ‘traditional’ clothing.  I read about an 1897 dust up that occurred when Durban men protested the winning bid made by Muslim Indian men (called ‘Arabs’ in the newspapers) on the land right next to the Durban club.  What would it mean to have ‘your space’, a place that was defined by brown bodies in subservience that mirrored your sense of power, to be right next to a place purchased by men similar to your servants?  What would happen to your sense of place, your certainty in the world?  As we traded stories and words, I began to imagine an article—a study of West Street, Durban, where the early gentleman’s club called white Durban men into a state of ‘specialness,’ and where industrious Indians began to acquire land and build mosques, where new Jewish immigrants began to construct synagogues, where the first Indian markets and trader stores went up, where African rickshaw drivers yelled commands in isiZulu, and everyone tried to ‘order’ or comprehend the chaotic mix all around them.
“Now that’s an idea!” chirped Joan Wardrop, a short, friendly Australian professor who squinted through spectacles underneath her close-cut black hair.  She beamed from behind a pile of 1920s almanacs that afternoon.  “Walk around West Street, feel it.  Take yourself back, imagine the smells, the shapes, the geography.  Stretch your mind out, feel the world around you, and feel what it would mean to be at this space—what is at stake? What do you fear, need, want?  Tell that story, T.J.”  Joan and I have become friends in the three months we’ve spent researching in the archive, and her indefatigable good cheer and similarly perverse interest in gender and race history in Natal have made us ready friends.  “You can do this, and I want to read it!”
“When you go to Cape Town,” Nellie said, placing a maternal hand on my shoulder. “Take out a notebook, find a quiet spot, and let all the words in your head just spill out and write.  Write your thoughts, write your processing.  No rules.”
And this is why you must go to an archive rather than simply read documents online.
III.Hipster Colonialism
“Daniel Houghton has invited you to DEATH” the facebook event update read.  I blinked a bit.  That was a strange invite to receive.  Daniel is the mastermind behind the local performance venue Unit 11, a large warehouse space off Stamford Hill Road in Durban that hosts a variety of acts during the week and a local gathering place for indie music lovers, community builders, and the like.  There is even an edgy pseudo-postmodern evangelical church service on Sunday nights.  Daniel is a tireless promoter and all around cool guy who also finds time to be the driving force behind a trippily creative band, Thomas Krane.  Unfortunately, a series of events have forced the Unit 11 crew to close down, and the space was marked for closure at the end of December.  Thursday nights were a regular performance event, featuring cheap slices of cake and sweet music; an Eddie Izzard fan, Daniel had named the event “Cake or Death” after one of Izzard’s best sketches.  Unfortunately, it was now time for DEATH.
                So I pulled on my knit cap, v-neck, smaller jeans, and converse, and headed out to the warehouse space that is home to all of Durban’s strange indie music crew.  It is very very hard to describe accurately and completely what goes on at Unit 11.  It is an anthropological tour de force of South African hipsterdom, to put it mildly.  Every cliché uniform idea that you see in the States is here.  Skinny as possible jeans on men? Check. Oversized black frames, knit caps, and bleary eyed sneers on women? Double check. Everywhere converse? Yes.  Tight 1970s ironic vintage tees rub against stripes and plaids and the adornments that one would most likely think of in Portland or Williamsburg or Silverlake.   Yet the context seems…odd.  Hipsterdom, by rights, should be so ironic, so self-referential as to be safely insulated from criticism, from deep investigation, and from a rooting in context; it is a series of individual images, of fashion statements, of ideas, jumbled, recycled and rehashed post-iron, post-contempt, post-feeling.  It is a performance of distance, disdain, and of belonging—A uniform gathering of individualists that are conforming relatively knowingly and laughing at your attempts to make sense of it.
                And this is where I get lost.  So much of this that I see in Durban looks…”transplanted,” really.  It looks like it is being falsely set down in a new location—but that is the nature of hispterdom right?  Does it need a context/  can I claim that the rich white kids of Brooklyn are more authentic than the bored and anxious white men and women in Durban?  That this ‘movement’ (were it to be actually one) is predominantly upper middle class and very white is doubtlessly true, and I always feel an outlier as I put on my own imitation of the uniform, sneering knowingly at the irony of it all (like everyone), but it feels strange and foreign in the race and class demographics of a space like Durban.  I see the same anti-rhythmic moving on/off beat that I see in Urbana, Illinois, or South Park San Diego, but with occasional Afrikaans or Zulu words lilting in the background.  ON some levels, this is a hipster colonialism—it is a space that seems ‘invaded’ by a largely American anti-cultural effect, but one that people seem to be embracing with as much eagerness as the post-ironic can muster.  How do I explain my weird sense of familiarity, confusion, and disorientation surrounded by swaying bodies wrapped in kitsch and sweating off teh smell of cheap beer, heavy make up, and disdain?
                I downed a triple gin and tonic (I felt edgy that night, and postcolonial beverages seemed apt) and mingled with friends, got in pointless debates about existence, and meaning, and place, and the douchiness of John Mayer, and then hopped in a cab home, where an Indian driver named Marc asked me if I wanted ‘women or pills’ in addition to my cab ride, and then added in an undertone, ‘I don’t offer men,’ when he saw my obvious, confused refusal.
I got out of the cab, straightened my hat, politely declined any of the offers of the flesh, and closed the gate to Laurel Road behind me, confused at life.
IV.Living in Between
 
Friday morning, I left with a series of Canadians to travel to Cape Town.  This is really my first sustained trip as a ‘tourist’ aside from weekends in Lesotho or Mozambique, and it’s weird to see how I see myself here.  People ask me where I’m from, and I struggle to answer—Durban? Illinois? Los Angeles?  Zulu springs defensively to my lips, and I struggle with understanding what it means to be a ‘tourist’ when one somewhat ‘lives’ in a space.  I don’t know.
 
There has been a massive UN Climate Change Conference—COP17—in Durban for much of the past month.  People have debated climate change, natural resources, justice, and the like, and it’s been unnerving, honestly, to see so many foreigners here.  And yes, I have to remember that I indeed am a foreigner as well, but I grow incredibly confused by the vision of Americans, in that nasal accent that we share, pointing out things that they see as droll or irritating about this country that I love.  I feel my own itching confusion as I move between spaces as a semi-insider; totally aware of the fact that I am NOT a South African, but I am trying to live in and be in this place.
 
Last week, my friend Steven dropped by, and we talked about the difficulties of being in this space and trying to observe as an outsider. 
“It’s good that you are willing to change your frameworks,” he said, looking at me directly.
“It shows me that you are living here, and trying to understand this place that you are not from.”
 
And while I’m not from here, I am indeed in differing dgrees of belonging to this place.  I would not pretend to be from here, but I also live here.  I speak Zulu with increasing defensiveness to make a claim to being here (which unnerves me to no end), and yet I also love being here and want people to know that I want to live here and be here.  This is strange.
 
And so I’m riding for a week in a seven seater van with five Canadians.  It’s been an incredible event so far, just going from hostel to hostel, recognizing the privilege of traveling through a space while trying to be responsible, open minded, and interested in all around me.  We’ve had amazing trips to the seaside, travelled up and down beautiful trails, learned some words in isiXhosa, and have bonded with the ridiculous people I’m traveling with.  I’m learning to love this space, and to try to be okay with my in-between travelling life.  I’m looking forward to two weeks in Cape Town, and I’m really looking forward to thinking through what it means to celebrate the birth of a hope this weekend, in a city far away from my family, and occupying a new space so fundamentally different from the world I easily inhabit.
 
I hope this holiday season sees all of you well, and I am so glad to know you guys.  Thank you for listening, for being with me on this journey, and for your constant thoughts, support, silliness and the like.  I’m grateful for it, more than you know.
 
Fondly,
Teej
Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
5 December, 2011
Glenwood
Durban
 
                South Africans have a curious habit of celebrating the beginning of a season on the first of the month, rather than towards the 21st, like we do in the States.  There’s been a lot of talk about the coming summer, and while a warm Christmas is not new for a Californian, it is a bit strange to hear all about the upcoming summer.  I keep thinking of the Irish rebel song “Óró, Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile” which was sung during the Easter Rising against the British in 1916.  The chorus and first verse go:

Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile,                                                         Oh-ro You're welcome home,
Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile,                                                         Oh-ro You're welcome home,
Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile                                                           Oh-ro You're welcome home
Anois ar theacht an tsamhraidh!                                               Now that summer's coming!
'Sé do bheatha, a bhean ba léanmhar,                                   Welcome oh woman who was so afflicted,
Do b' é ár gcreach tú bheith i ngéibheann,                            It was our ruin that you were in bondage,
Do dhúiche bhreá i seilbh méirleach,                                       Our fine land in the possession of thieves,
Is tú díolta leis na Gallaibh!                                                          And you sold to the foreigners!
 
                This is what it means to be a strange, post-colonial historian.  You hear enough times that “summer’s coming” and your mind jumps across space and time to the Irish War of Independence.  Yet so much of the song seems relevant for southern Africa and for thinking about colonialism as well.  The problems of making an entire nation understood as an afflicted woman notwithstanding, there’s a lot that feels similar, and it does give me much to think about as I ponder what it means to ‘come home’ to a land recently claimed ‘by foreigners’ as summer arrives.
 
                And summer has arrived.  Thursday, saw the first day of December and a breaking of the rainy days in favour of a deep and heavy humidity that settled like a blanket over the city.  Fortunately, earlier that week, my friends Mark and Shela and I had made an impromptu plan to….head to Swaziland and Mozambique.  I’d never been to either country, but I’d long wanted to visit.  We planned to leave on Thursday afternoon, stop at the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastal town of St. Lucia at a backpackers, and then continue on Friday to Mozambique through Swaziland.  Last minute delays in acquiring malaria medication and uncertainties with visas had us unsure if we’d leave before Thursday morning, but on a steamy Thursday afternoon saw me meeting Mark and Shela at their workplaces at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville (sister campus to my own campus at Howard College in Durban), where they work with HEARD (Health, Economics, and HIV/AIDS Research Division).  They were still finishing up, so I took a walk around campus, and stopped in front of a giant mural about HIV/AIDS.  It was 1 December—World AIDS Day—so I stopped and looked at it further.  Surrounded by a wide circle that said “Phansi Nge-AIDS, Phansi!” (Down with AIDS, Down!), people were seen being tested, observing safe sex, and as part of a larger community transformed by the disease.  I stopped to think about how much the disease has transformed the landscape and the reality of life in this place.  When you’re a historian of the nineteenth century, there’s a strange privileging at times that allows you to imagine a southern Africa pre-1977, before the mysterious strain swept through the landscape, laying waste and drastically changing a world around it.  Yet I think of the people I know in South Africa who have changed by it, as well as those in the States, and I am humbled and angry.  I don’t’ understand how we can continue to let such devastation happen, and at such disproportionately insane levels according to power and wealth.
 
                We piled into Shela’s car in the afternoon and made it to St. Lucia, where we stopped at a backpackers called Stokkiesdraai .  It was run by an amazing woman named Debbie, who looked up laconically when we arrived, her eyes rolling up slightly like a lizard, who’d been interrupted basking on a rock.  Debbie, who seemed to be in her mid-fifties, was clearly the missing sister of Patty and Selma from the Simpsons. With a voice roughened by the sandpaper of a million cigarettes, into a flat dry tone that rasped and rustled with a deep Afrikaans accent against her English speech, Debbie was hilarious.  And dirty. 

                “We like to keep it all cheap and simple here.  Everything is itemized on the inventory,” she rasped.  “But I am not on the menu,” she added with a lascivious wink.
 
                “Your place has five beds in it,” she added.
Gesturing to show that of course there were only three of us, I looked at her with a half-smile.  “Clearly that’s not enough. We’ll need at least five more.”
 
                “Well aren’t you a kinky bitch,” she retorted without missing a beat.
 
                We ‘medicated’ with gin and tonics (what? Tonic has quinine—that’s why they drank it!), and chatted into the night.  Then we woke up far too early, and headed across the border into Swaziland, the other little landlocked kingdom in Southern Africa.  Swaziland has some of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world, and everywhere was plastered with posters about HIV awareness.  We stopped for lunch halfway through our short trip through the country, and were rewarded afterwards by spotting an elephant by the side of the road.  It was amazing.  When it came to cross into Mozambique, the border crossing agent looked up at me, looked at my afro, and pointed, saying in broken English—“You are the man from LMFAO.” 
 
                That’s right, ladies and gentlemen.  I am party rocking.  Because I look like these guys (http://www.sweetslyrics.com/images/img_gal/8808_lmfao.jpg). 
 
                Small border troubles notwithstanding, we made it to Mozambique.  We arrived in Maputo on Friday afternoon and were immediately enchanted.  The country is strangely familiar and at the same time so very different from everywhere I know.  The Portuguese influences on some levels made the place feel immediately like Latin America, yet it was also so like the rest of southern Africa.  On top of that, people in southern Mozambique tend to speak either Portuguese or Shangaan.  I speak Spanish and Zulu, which are close enough to both languages to be confusing.
 
                Maputo is a land filled with impressive art deco Portuguese colonial artchitecture left over from the occupation of the country.  Under the Portuguese dictator, Salazar, Mozambique was declared an integral part of Portugal and a lengthy independence struggle ensued until 1975.  Following independence, the country suffered through a two decade civil war that only ended in 1994.  Like South Africa, Mozambique is a country with a lengthy, twisted colonial past and a relatively recent point of transformation.  It is vibrant, beautiful, confusing, and wonderful.
 
                I sipped espressos and ate pastries while wandering old colonial buildings, fumbled badly with Portuguese and Shangaan, and ate my weight in fresh prawns and sizzling hot local peri-peri hot sauce.  Yet there was never a point I could ignore the intense poverty around me, or the awkward relationship between visiting a foreign land and the privilege that allowed me to do so.  There is grinding poverty in Maputo, and conversations would quickly drop from an initial light banter to a refusal of an offer to purchase something to a directly asked, “why won’t you support me, patrão?” Patrão is Portuguese for boss or patron, and it stung and felt heavy to be addressed in such a way as I carried Mozambican money (25 MZM to the USD) in my pockets. 
 
               
In our final hour in town, we stopped at the legendary fish markets, in the north of the city.  They were utterly amazing.  To be in a tight cramped space, filled with Zulu, English, Portuguese, Shangaan, French, more….while fresh prawns, clams, crabs, crayfish, red snapper, and more all hissed and steamed and moved around you is amazing and terrifying.  So many bodies. So many words. So much yelling.  So much all around you.  I felt overwhelmed, terrified, delighted, hopeful, excited.  I felt the cacophony all around me—I felt confused and relieved and anxious after picking out food, and then paid for it to be grilled and sautéed and roasted and made deliciously.  It was the best thing I’ve eaten since I’ve arrived in Africa, but I was humbled by how lucky I was to eat it, and part of the weight hung around me like the smoke of the fiers and the smell of the fish.
 
                We returned late last night, and I’m still exhausted, honestly, but I got up early to go about my daily routine of coffee and archival work.  As I did, I remembered that today was December fifth, and I stopped short on Esther Roberts Road at seven thirty this morning.
 
                Today would have been my grandfather’s eighty-eighth birthday.  Gentry Howard Tallie was Texas at the height of Jim Crow-era segregation.  In many physical respects he and I were nothing alike—he was nearly 6’4”, with a commanding height, dark brown skin, a deep throaty laugh, and a booming voice.  He worked for the L.A. government, did security work for Dodger Stadium, and stood as a strange testament to the ability of African-Americans to obtain middle class economic respectability during the Cold War.  He was a singularly masculine figure: powerfully built, good with machines and numbers, imposing in size, and radiated an easy, mastered authority in his younger years.  I will always remember a picture of him from about 1960: he stands in dark slacks, and buttoned down shirt, clearly posing for the camera, but looking the picture of authority—legs set wide apart, looking into the distance, Gentry Tallie was the epitome of cool manliness, and not the ironic stuff I trade in every day.

                I can see other aspects of my grandfather that feel less remote.  He was the first member of our immediate family to learn to read, and it was he and his older brother John Henry who standardized the spelling of our last name to the unique and vaguely French spelling of Tallie; previous generations had used whatever spelling they could manage, and I’m absolutely certain that there are a host of Tallys and Talleys that I share genetic heritage with in the Lone Star State. He was incredibly welcoming and kind; at his funeral in March, I sat, dark shoes pinching tight as I sat somberly in the wooden pew, as person after person described the way that Gentry Tallie had made them feel a part of their family.  His loud laugh welcomed people in up and down Neptune Avenue in the harbor town of Wilmington, California, and a multicolored tribe of people—Latino, black, white—saw themselves as part of a chain of community.

                This is what most people tell me of Gentry Tallie.  When I remember my grandfather, it is most like looking at the ruined temples of an ancient civilization, and squinting as you try to imagine what the place must have looked like brightly painted and before ivy started to climb ruthlessly over its sun-bleached walls.  My grandfather—and family in general—never recovered from the death of my grandfather in 1982, two years before I was born.  If my grandfather was the heart of the Wilmington experiment, she was the soul—and when she died suddenly everything seemed hollow.  My childhood visits to Wilmington always seemed a house in muted colors, with people living simultaneously in past and present, remembering what was as they were consumed with the day to days of living.  

                And yet, when I remember my grandfather, it is in those squinting moments of half-imagining.  I see in his smile, dimmed with age but still bright, radiating warmth.  I remember his loud raspy voice—so loud, in fact, I frequently had to hold the phone a good six inches from my ear when I called him—twanging in a determinedly remembered Texas accent WEEEELLL HEEEY THERE GRAAAAANDSSON.  I called him last year on December 5th, while I was living in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  Winter was already beginning to spread her cold tendrils across the land, and I rushed out of the warm café I was in, feeling the heat slowly drain from my fingers and face as I called and stood with my phone at the requisite length from my ear.  “I hope I go to South Africa next year,” I said, after wishing him birthday greetings. 

To study some more?” he boom-drawled, despite having lived a half-century in Los Angeles.

“That’s the goal, Pa-pa. I’ve got to go back and read more,” I said, trying to translate the semi-complexity of my work while stamping my feet in the twenty-five degree weather.

Well you go and do it. Make us proud. I’ll see you soon, though?

“Yessir. At Christmas.”

Well then, thanks for calling.” Pa-pa always abruptly ended phone conversations, about three minutes in.  For him, phone calls were more about the act of remembering a person rather than the need for conversation.

As I walked down the street this morning, on my way to the café and then the archive that marked my daily routine, the warm breeze caught me full in the face, and I thought of that conversation.  I started to cry as I rounded Glenwood High School, brushing tears brought by remembrance, tiredness, a selfish missing of a lost weekend, and the simply ridiculous thought that two generations linked a small black boy raised in Jim Crow Texas to a self-conscious multiracial nerd speaking isiZulu in the streets of Durban.

Óró, sé do bheatha 'bhaile, Welcome home, indeed.
 
Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
20 November 2011
Glenwood, Durban

                It’s a Sunday morning here in Durban, and our fourth straight day of rain in what is shaping up to be an unbroken week of hardcore precipitation.  Mercifully I managed to get most of my needed laundry done before the deluge began on Wednesday afternoon, but there’s just something a bit psychically draining about so many days of unbroken rain (I guess my fantasy of moving to the Pacific Northwest should be shelved now).  This morning consisted so far of a grumbling acknowledgement of the weather, a bloodcurdling scream when I noticed the giant millipede on my foot (followed by its subsequent brutal murder—what?) and a quiet bit of Jesus time before breakfast and blog-writin’.

                Work continues to go well overall, although I still struggle with archaic Zulu translations and the daily slog through casual racism in nineteenth century settler archives.  One particularly useful result, however is that my ‘mental map’ of the region is so much greater than it was when I first began.  When a newspaper mentions a mission station, or a particular Zulu figure, or a local festival, or a rumored uprising—I KNOW WHEN THESE THINGS ARE!  For those of you that are not historians (read: sane), you may not understand why this occasions much rejoicing.  But for me, it’s the beginning of feeling like I mentally ‘inhabit’ the space I’m studying.  I can recognize sign posts.  A person who would have gone unrecorded two weeks ago in my notes is now a vital piece of the historical tapestry I’m attempting to weave.

                I’m still making friends and feeling out what it means to live here, although I’m grateful for a mixed expat/local South African circle I seem to be making and can now say that I have become deeply acquainted with four local coffeeshops that provide free wireless internet delicious beverages, and enough bourgeois space for me to feel like I can write in peace. 

                It’s tempting sometimes to pretend that I’ve gone away somewhere far distant where the rest of the world’s events do not matter or are unseen.  But Durban is deeply connected to the rest of the world, and the magic of the internet keeps me in the loop with things happening across the globe.  I’ve been in animated conversations over the political and economic upheavals in southern Europe, the intensity of the Occupy Movement in the States, and the continued unrest in post-Mubarak Egypt.  Next week, Durban also plays host to the international UN conference on Climate Change (with other groups planning vibrant counter-protests), so the city will soon be absolutely full of people from around the planet debating and discussing issues of climate change, industrialization and global inequity.

                Inequality is something I think about constantly here.  The colonial legacies of disparity here are of course incredibly apparent, with the barricaded luxurious houses across the street from corrugated tin shacks, to the yoga studio that overlooks a busy intersection where street children beg for food.  But there are countless other ways in which the idea of ‘inequity’ seems to operate.  One constant one would be continued lack of access to housing, medical care, or education experienced by the vast majority of the (black) South African population, and the failure of the state to meet its 1994 promises is becoming increasingly apparent nearly two decades after the end of apartheid.  The leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC)’s Youth League is a man named Julius Malema, who has made incredible political capital by constantly discussing the inadequate responses of the government in meeting the needs of its poorest citizens.  Malema, however, seems to be rather cynically mobilizing these very real problems in pursuit of his own desire for power, and his highly publicized shopping sprees and luxurious lifestyle has the potential to alienate his large following.  Malema was convincted of hate speech last year for his continued singing of an apartheid-era song titled “Shoot the Boer” and has made increased calls for nationalization of mines and farms that have made wealthy South Africans (and particularly white South Africans whom he calls out in very racially-tinged language)very, very nervous.  He appears, however, to have finally bitten the hand that fed him; the ANC this week voted to suspend him from the organization and strip him of his leadership of the Youth League for five years for openly criticizing government policy and for potentially jeopardizing foreign relations with other countries, namely Botswana.

                Why the lengthy political affairs update?  Because I find Malema fascinating in that he is openly discussing what is very real here—the continued economic inequity of most of the population after nearly two decades of ‘freedom.’  He challenges the status quo with what are obviously self-motivated and cynical aims, but his populist message is undeniable in a country ravaged by poverty and HIV/AIDS.  The inequalities that exist here provide him with a platform to speak at the same time that they continue to prove a weak point for the current government and are lived every day by South Africans.

                I think about the inequalities of language that I experience here as well—South Africa has eleven official languages, yet it seems that the majority of ‘official’ and university business takes place in English.  I am constantly made aware of the fact that very very few white South Africans speak Zulu, and am uncomfortable with my relationship to language here, in a variety of ways.  I do speak Zulu, and I can read it, although I’m certainly not an expert—yet to know the language has placed me in a different space in relationship to different South Africans.  White South Africans look at me, occasionally with a sheepish look, and say, “you know more Zulu than we do!” and I don’t know what to do with this.  I don’t’ know how I fit in this country where I try to actively learn this language well aware of the fact that it was an incredible privilege and opportunity that allowed me to learn it at the University of Illinois and with a federal grant to study Zulu in 2009 in South Africa.  There’s a vast inequity that allows white South Africans to not learn Zulu while expecting everyone else to speak English, there’s a pronounced inequality that allowed me to take advantage of opportunities to learn a language.  When Zulu speakers look at me with surprise or remark positively about my speaking Zulu I experience a very weird series of feelings—gratitude, inclusion, humility, anger,  awkwardness—as I realize that just by being here I am a part of a lengthy series of interlocking histories, power struggles, and inequalities.

                I met this past week with a South African history PhD student I greatly admire to discuss our work.  She is in her final stages of her dissertation from the University of Michigan (she’ll be done in April), and she does fantastic work on race, gender, and marriage in colonial Natal (sound familiar!?).  She’s also a South African from Durban, and I’ve been very lucky to meet with her regularly to talk about our projects.  Excited to discuss things with her, I brought her a copy of my early research paper on race, colonialism, and sexuality in Natal.  She gave wonderful, thoughtful feedback, but also some tough criticism—she reminded me of my ‘outsider’ status here, and of the ease in which I can make theoretical assumptions about a people and a place that I’ve spent relatively little time visiting.  I left our conversation grateful and also frustrated with myself, thinking about the internal contradictions of this whole project I’m trying to do.  As a postcolonial historian, I want to critically challenge how empire works, how people function in it, and to critique the ways in which colonial officials attempted to understand a people and land they were exploiting.  How do I do my research respectfully without creating my own violence against this space—how can I do my work respectfully, thoughtfully, and humbly? 

                I had a tough heart-to-heart with my advisor via email this week about how I was feeling, and she sympathized, although she agreed with me that our work is extractive.  I am building a reputation, a career based on local knowledge I obtain and interpret here in South Africa and take back to the States in order to ‘refine’ into a degree.  How do I attempt to do this honestly, truthfully, and respectfully?  “Ultimately we are all imperialists, extracting the equivalent of rent and revenue from (archival) spaces in landscapes where we are tourists at best, aliens at worst,” my advisor wrote to me. “How you deal with it, is what matters…you have power and you will learn how to use it, temper it, blunt it.  And never stop worrying about or struggling with it.”  This is not to make a direct one-to-one comparison with my writing and soldiers with rifles taking land from people.  But it does call for a deeply reflective way in which I do research and one that is deeply humble.  To that all I can say is Ngiyazama (“I am trying.”)

                The other major even this week would be my planned trip with Rina, a seventy-eight South African woman who is nothing short of a tour-de-force.  I met Rina about three weeks ago in the archives that I frequent.  She is a small elderly woman with a crown of curly white hair, large glasses, piercing eyes, and a direct and slightly highly pitched voice that sounds very much to my year what a South African approximation of the British Royal Family would have sounded like in the 1950s.  She strode up to me one day and asked me, with a forthrightness that would have been wholly offputting if it hadn’t been so incredibly sincere in its desire for knowledge, “So I hear you’re studying our South African history? Why on earth would you do that?”  She sat down next to me for half an hour, and told me of her childhood in East London, her life in late 1950s and 1960s Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in Lusaka, and her life in North Durban since her widowhood had begun.  She then abruptly asked me about my life, inquired if I had “Negro blood,” gesturing to my afro (again with that curious mix of nearly offensive forthrightness and disarming genuine curiosity) and insisted that we have lunch in the near future.  I gave her my cell phone number but didn’t expect her to call, honestly.  Imagine my surprise when I got a phone call asking if I would be willing to get Italian food at half past eleven yesterday!  I said yes, and a well-cared for ten year old red Toyota zipped up to my door in the heavy Saturday rain.

                Talking with Rina was a bizarre and wonderful experience.  I constantly had to figure out what might be the most politic thing to say as an edgy post-colonial multiracial North American graduate student eating at a chic Italian restaurant with an elderly white South African woman telling me very bluntly about life in Durban from the 1970s onward.  I thought of my own positionality as a scholar and tried to just let the conversation flow as Rina spoke about her interests, her passions, and her life.  The flinty blue eyes, magnified behind her spectacles, grew wider still as she told story after story and then asked about my own life, my parents’ divorce, my feelings about Durban, and the world around me.  I was reminded time and again of why I ‘do history’ as we spoke.  Here was a woman who, like me, had hopes, dreams, aspirations.  She made choices, decisions, and mistakes.  She had something valuable to share, and she wanted me to know it.  She could not be reduced to an easy dynamic of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ of the pre-1994 world.  She was Rina, and she was currently enjoying the hell out of a plate of lamb chops while taking to an ‘American Coloured’ who was occasionally suppressing a half-smile and learning a hell of a lot on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

                After lunch, Rina took me to meet her daughter and son-in-law, and we spent two hours on a comfortable couch in a palatial—and well-guarded—home, talking about history, culture, the television show ‘Dallas,’ why Oprah was so popular with South African women (for the record, both women thought she was amazing), our shared distaste for Martha Stewart, the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Julius Malema, and if Sarah Palin was actually a real human being or an elaborate prank.  After our conversation had wound down, Rina prepared to drive me home, but before that, she stopped by three separate houses.  The home she had built with her husband in 1971 in Durban North (“I hated to sell that home, but it was time. We sold it to a very nice man. A black African lawyer.”), the home she occupied later with her husband in his declining years (“He had the Parkinsons.  It was hell watching him fade like that.”), to the retirement lodge she currently lives in (“It’s still near the sea and the grocery store. And I get to play bridge three times a week”).  All told, I spent six hours with Rina yesterday, although our final drive from Durban North back to Glenwood might have been the part that left the biggest impression on me.

               The sky had grown darker with the day’s storm, and the little remaining afternoon light caused shadows to flicker across her face as she spoke, her hands tightly clutching the steering wheel. “We are just so disappointed with the ANC.  The corruption, the continued poverty, the…we thought that they would take better care of all of this—all of” she gestured vaguely, her voice catching for a moment, “this infrastructure.

               The words sprang from my lips before I was even fully aware of them.  “But what if this infrastructure is so inherently wrong—so built on a system of outright inequality and from the marginalization of so many that it’s not possible to ever just inherit it ‘clean’?  What if the system was so broken that it can’t be fixed or reformed?  What if this is how such a system was to end up—if this is the end result?”

               Her eyes fixed on mine, this older woman—so opinionated, so strong, so thoughtful, so decisive.  In that moment something shifted, and she looked…tired. Weary. Uncertain. “I truly, truly hope not, T.J.,” she said, finally.

               “Me too, Rina.  Me too.”  I turned and looked back out the rain-slicked window and gazed out at the Moses Mabida soccer stadium, built for last year’s World Cup at a staggering sum.  Its elegant lines and gentle curves made it look like a thing unreal, a beautiful cloud sculpture hovering delicately just above the shoreline. An impressive piece of infrastructure, truly. “I hope that’s not the case.”
---------------------------------------


It’s stopped raining all of a sudden.  I’m going outside.  Talk to you all soon.
--T.
Pick up the pen
elefuntboy



7 November 2011
Glenwood, Durban


Come here rude boy. Boy, can you get it up?
Come here rude boy. Boy is you big enough?
Take it, take it, baby, baby
Take it, take it, love me love me.
Tonight I’mma let you be the captain
Tonight I’mma let you do your thing, yeah
Tonight I’mma let you be a rider
Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up babe
Tonight I’mma let it be fire
Tonight I’mma let you take me higher
Tonight baby, we can get it on
Yeah we can get it on, yeah
Do you like it boy?
                --Rihanna, 2009.


"There is no 'proper' gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than another, which is in some sense that sex's cultural property.  Where that notion of the 'proper' operates, it is always and only improperly installed as the effect of a compulsory system...Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.” –Judith Butler, 1991
 
        It has been impossible to think through my research without thinking of the ways that it plays out in my own life and experiences.  My dissertation focuses on nineteenth century colonial Natal, and examines how racialized forms of masculinity were mobilized by differing peoples in attempts to claim sovereignty over the colony.  I spend much of my days reading white settler letters, journal entries, newspapers, Zulu mission reports, Indian labor records, and various pamphlets in an attempt to understand more fully what empire looked like on the ground, and how the realities of people’s individual lives came to play in this space.
 
        As such, I think about racialized masculinity in my own life and in my own experiences here.  Much of my life has been spent growing up very specifically separate from institutional forms of masculinity.  My relationship with my father is complex and fraught with disappointments and silences; if he has taught me anything about ‘manhood’ or ‘manliness,’ it has been through negative example, his life stories marking passages into my mind with searing ink.  Having grown up in a family of stellar athletes, particularly in football and baseball (although even my mother is an accomplished bowler, for God’s sake), I rejected sport as part of my identity by the time I was seven, already cynical of the fanatical coaching of my father, and finding no value in a glory artificially constructed along a field, pitch, or court.  I went to a tiny Evangelical Protestant school and then a larger Catholic High School, and did not notice the obviously gendered relationships that took place in those institutions, as they were subtle and didn’t seem to be super-hegemonic.  I’ve continuously slipped across and fallen between lines of race in the Southern California of my childhood, alternating between whiteness, blackness, Asianness, and acknowledging that for many people, my generic brown skin and Spanish language abilities qualified me for a catch-all term of “Latino”.  My masculinity, of what it was, was constructed in opposition to a dominant, aggressive black athlete father, and with no other visible male role models.  It is no surprise to me, therefore, that I am fascinated by the ways that race and masculinity play out in social settings as I feel so often alienated from both identifications, and truly in understanding how they can be mobilized, or manipulated in spaces when seeking to belong.
 
        And that is why every day in South Africa is so very striking for me as I do this research.  Thinking about locations that are highly gendered, and how I move through them, is a regular event.  Every day I walk past the imposing brick edifice of Glenwood High School, a private boys’ school founded in 1910 that is the very picture of the British school tradition.  Here, adolescents wear incredibly traditional school uniforms—blazers, shorts, high socks, etc—and they live and breathe in an institution that is so obviously constitutive of masculinity: the school boasts constant cricket, rugby, and soccer games.  The cheers and shouts of choruses of students often drown out my headphones as I walk about town.
 
        As I pass the school, I think about ways in which masculinity is seen, is understood, reinforced, and created.  Biological sex aside, people have to learn how to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ (or neither), and the artificiality of that experience is always fascinating for me.  Identities only make sense if they are lived out in community.  I can claim to be Korean in the confines of my own home, but that doesn’t make any sense (on multiple levels) unless I encounter the outside world and my identity is tested, negotiated, and understood with the many bodies around me (which is one reason why I obviously do not identify as Korean—people would be like “What the heck are you talking about?” and I would certainly fail to ‘perform’ properly as a Korean in a larger community, no matter how much I want to shout, “만지지 마!”)
 
        Therefore, identities have to be performed in communities to be seen and recognized as legitimate; and then the benefits of belonging can be seen and interpreted by all.  As someone whose relationship with his own maleness is strange and alien, I can still understand this.  I walk down streets, I look at other people, I say certain jokes, I wear certain clothes (or don’t wear other clothes), as a way of performing every day this marked identity in a larger community, and I as a result also work to police other’s identity (Don’t’ think you do so?  How would you respond if you saw me walking down the street in a gold lame muumuu with eye liner?  Or if you saw me dressed in a three piece business suit and then go to use the women’s restroom?)
 
        I can’t help but think of this while I pass Glenwood High School, or more conspicuously, the gym I joined over a week ago. 
 
        'Fitness' is a family owned gym located on the third floor of a slightly run-down shopping mall known as the Berea Centre.  The space, strangely enough is the most racially integrated I’ve encountered so far in this trip to South Africa.  Blacks, whites, Coloureds, Indians—all mingle in seemingly equally numbers with equanimity.  But what fascinates me is what a male space it is—it’s largely men, and men of a certain type, thickly built, rugby-sized men, with huge arms and chests, grunting and joking and posturing in front of mirrors while lifting heavy weights with their arms.  Many of the men look like each other, despite obvious differences in race and class, and you can see how a hot sweaty space is filled with men performing a certain set of identities against and across and around each other.  This largely male space is reinforced and reinterpreted daily by men that act out their ‘maleness’ in front of other men, that lift and stretch, and constantly recreate a sense of who they are.
 
        It is in this milieu that I find myself, no stranger to working out, lifting weights, exchanging comments in English and occasionally Zulu with other guys, while also working on my physique or running on a treadmill, and also enacting a palpable sense of masculinity.  It is entirely disconcerting for someone who often feels so removed to be complicit in this creation of an identity.  More ridiculous is the fact that my workout playlist, a haven for disposable pop music, regularly features Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” a pounding driving pop song aggressively sung by the Caribbean artist.  In “Rude Boy,” Rihanna demands that her male lover ‘rise’ to the occasion (in more than one way), and perform as a man for her—she commands him to “be the captain” to demonstrate his power for her in a way that will be sexually satisfying.  Yet the song doesn’t actually emasculate her lover, which it could do—she is calling him to be a ‘real man’ so that she can ‘be a real woman.’  To be passively ‘taken higher’, she requires a man who is willing to dominate her to her own satisfaction.  To hear this masculinity as it is called out, as it is demanded in a way both aggressive and reinforcing, while walking past a boy’s school or pumping iron in a homosocial space like the gym, is a strange way of constantly thinking about my own work and my own existence in a new location.
 
        Speaking of work, research has been relatively difficult for me lately.  I think the initial novelty and excitement has worn off, and the beginnings of a ‘grind’ are setting in.  One day last week saw me plowing through European boys’ high school histories, records of Indian indentured labor, and a nineteenth century Zulu newspaper.  Sometimes the seven hours just seem brutal, to be honest, and my brain just aches by the end of it, frustrated with a sense of excitement and a feeling of being overwhelmed by all of the information available.
 
In particular, my study of Ikwezi, the 1860s Zulu language newspaper, has been the most difficult personally.  I speak and read Zulu, although my limits become painfully obvious with every day that I spend back in South Africa.  I can have a basic conversation, I can talk about my research, I can ask for directions to the grocery store, I can probably follow a delicious recipe for making cornmeal porridge (try it, you’ll like it, I promise).  I cannot, really respond to complex life histories spoken, and I need dictionary help to plow through newspapers in any century, particularly those written before Zulu spelling became standardized.  I didn’t realize until I got here that my own masculinity, on some abstract level, is connected to a sense of competence.  And while I’m self-aware and ironic and edgy enough to avoid an understanding of competence in a sense of manual skill or athletic ability (really, have you ever heard me brag about basketball or woodworking—no, you haven’t, and not just because I’m miserable at both), I have a sense of value/worth in my ability to extend my mental power into new problems and create solutions. 


Struggling with Zulu language newspapers then makes me incredibly frustrated—not only intellectually am I thwarted, on a secondary level I begin to panic inside, wondering about my effectiveness, my ability to do work, and my sense of deserving to be here.  And the comparisons to the people I study come hard and fast.  I begin on a certain level to understand in ways in which the failure of settlers to grow crops in the new colony raised stakes completely for them far past simply economic provision or sustainment.  At risk was their sense of productivity, of success, of value.  It is an understanding I do not enjoy having acquired.  I feel icky.  So much of my cleverness and postmodern ironic façade has been predicated on an idea that I’m past that, and that I don’t rely on such distinctions.  But to feel the cool trickle of sweat on the back of my neck down my shirt in the air conditioned archive as I struggled, saying syllables under my breath that would not bend to my will and submit to my understanding, I begin to see a bit more how easy it would be to become frustrated, angry, fearful.  These are the insights you acquire while you stare at the hard black text, the rigid print marks scored across nineteenth century paper, and attempt to will them into words you can conceive.  Abelungu bonke, ba na zo izincwadi  Ezinye zi cindezelwa ngemihla yonke kusasa na kusihlwa.”  That it took me twenty minutes to make sense of that was humiliating and exhilarating and terrifying and bizarre.  When my attempts at bibliomancy, of bending words to hand, came to pass, I still felt frustrated and vulnerable. 


                So that’s why I went to Lesotho on a whim.


                No, seriously.  I went to bed frustrated and angry on Wednesday, feeling amazed at the weird highs and lows I experience here, and also of the graduate project in general.  I needed to clear my head, to take a minute, and to just be somewhere else.  To be aware of the fact that such a decision was born from incredible privilege was something I took in stride as I talked to my friend Mark over coffee on Thursday. 


“Want to go to the Drakensburg?” he asked.


“Um, kinda,” I said, surprised at myself.


“What if we went to Lesotho?” he suggested, mentioning the remote mountain kingdom that is entirely landlocked and surrounded by South Africa.


“Let’s do it.”


And so began an impromptu Friday trip.  My friend Erin was coming down to Durban at any rate, and Mark and I caught a ride to Pietermaritzburg with her.  Visiting Pietermaritzburg is in itself a strange and emotional experience for me.  I’ve lived there twice before, and I struggle as a historian, and as a person in general, to reconcile the way I view time and space with my day-to-day life.  As I stood on a street corner in near the University of KwaZulu-Natal campus where I studied in 2004 and again in 2009, I felt keenly aware of occupying three times at once.  I felt twenty, twenty-five, twenty-seven.  I saw myself through three sets of eyes, and I reflected on what hopes, dreams, wishes, and confusions inhabited each space and time.  My friend Sita has acknowledged the grim silliness of feeling that you exist in multiple time vortices, of being aware of your past at the same time that you inhabit a present and struggle to carve out a future.  My narcissistic time travel fiesta didn’t’ last too long, however, because our other friend Sheila arrived, and we soldiered on, through pouring rain, to the Drakensburg Mountains, a journey of about 160 miles or so from Durban.  We stopped for the night at a welcoming backpackers, predictably filled with a motley assortment of Western Europeans and North Americans with sunburnt skin, patched backpacks, and travel stories.  The next day, we took a bus tour to Lesotho in a van that included a Welshman, two South Africans, an Irishman, a Canadian, an American, two Swiss folk, and six Netherlanders. 


                We traveled for two hours over roads of varying quality, and some that were simply potholes with occasional gravel/concrete decorations around them.  The mountains were forbidding and beautiful, the fields filled with waving green grass and surrounding crystal blue lakes.  We stopped at a lonely mountain official post, where our passports were stamped by South African officials, and then crossed over the border….where the pavement stopped, and we passed the ruins of what had once been a border crossing station on the Lesotho side.  Apparently it had broken in a storm a few years back and there was no money for a repair, our guide, a smiling polyglot man named Simphiwe, told us.


                “Lesotho is the third poorest nation on earth,” Simphiwe said, looking at me.  “They know how dependent they are on South Africa, and the government does not have enough money for most things.”


                We rutted along on what only could existentially be called a road, jutting rocks covered with thin layers of dirt, as we continued across the beautiful landscape and looked around.  “Most of the Basotho people are self-sufficient farmers,” Simphiwe went on, explaining that not an incredible amount of revenue was accrued for the government coffer, and that local schools were nearly entirely community supported with the government providing small stipends of rteachers—sometimes.


                We emerged in a small village in the northeast of the country, where truly the state had very little reach.  The only ‘official ‘ presence I could see was a small police building where two men in shirts marked ‘POLICE’ stopped us and asked if they could get a ride to the next town.


                We met with schoolteachers, listened to stories about the area, talked about HIV/AIDS policy, and learned about the history of a kingdom carved out by the clever manipulations of Moshoeshoe I in the mid-nineteenth century, by playing off the British and the Boers.  We met a isangoma (traditional healer), who told us of her life, her children, and her relationship with the ancestors.  And…


I got to ride a pony.
 
I really wanted to ride a pony.  Because I am ridiculous and filled with whimsy.  And because ponies are awesome.  After a long, amazing day, we were taking a break at a local roadside pub/shebeen, when two elderly Basotho men appeared on ponies, wrapped in traditional blanket-cloaks.  They stopped in front of us and one man gestured at me, and his pony.  AND OH MY GOD I GOT TO RIDE A PONY.  I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t amazing or that it wasn’t weird or theoretically problematic.  I could make a clever comment about my own masculinity being mocked by pony riding, or attempting to recontextualize my feelings of discomfort by going to a new country and exploring…


            But I rode a damned pony in a mountain kingdom on a necessary weekend of escape after a long period of deep thinking and frustration.  AND I’M GOING TO OWN THAT AND CLING TO THE HAPPY.
 
            Thanks for reading, guys.
--T.
Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
23 October, 2011
Glenwood, Durban


                It’s another Sunday, and I’m sitting at my ‘desk’, looking out at the night sky while sipping from a mug of rooibos tea.  It’s been an intense week of reading archival documents, living in a new place, and making new friends.  I find myself once again exhausted, and needing strangely to be alone to recharge and reflect.  It’s generally times like this that seem to be ideal processing moments.

                If there’s one thing that stands out to me in a very concrete way about the differences between living in South Africa and living in the States, it’s in the notion of ‘doing things by hand.’    This feeling is somewhat difficult to explain, but it is a constant part of my readjustment to being back here.  On the most obvious level, it’s the fact that I handwash my laundry in a small basin and dry it on a clothesline each week that brings this point home, but there are other instances.   For me, making sure I have enough airtime on my pay-as-you-go cell plan feels a bit less automated, as does having to remember to bring my own plastic bags to the grocery store lest I be charged an environmentally conscious fee, as well as the notion of getting around Durban without a car.  Planning for lengthy walks, or thinking through ways to use taxis or khombi buses, is markedly different than the way that I think through the way I occupy space in the States.  In short, I feel a bit more connected here with the ways in which my actions require direct labor on my part.  In the States, I feel a bit more detached from my labor and the results I want—whether it’s owning a car, owning a washer and dryer, or not taking multiple times a day to boil water for tea (since I rarely drink it at home).  I talked about this feeling with my grandmother last week over the phone, and struggled to vocalize it correctly.  I told her it felt like my work was so much more necessary to get things done, and it was hard to explain what that felt like.  I heard the smile in her voice from the other end of the globe as she quietly replied, “It used to be like that for us here too, when I was young.  Things took a lot more time and required a lot more effort.  Funny how things change.”  Leave it to Grandma to remind the future historian about change over time.

                While riding in a taxi this week with my friend Mark Daku, he turned to me at one point and asked, “So what is it you actually do here in South Africa?  Like, how do you do the history work you talk about?”  We historians-in-training are only a little bit more sure than you are about how all this works, although we’d rarely ever admit that.  The majority of my work here, the kind that required me to come to South Africa in person, is archival.  What that means is that I spend 4-5 days a week in archives in South Africa, looking through old stuff—settler letters, contemporary travel guides, newspaper editorials, personal diaries, legal documents, and so on—in order to better understand a period and make sense of how the people operated and acted in that time. 

                One of the most immediate practical things to do is to familiarize myself with the immediate historical details of the period I’m studying.  I know the general outline of the history of the British colony of Natal, which lasted from 1843 until it was incorporated into the Union of South Africa in 1910.  My work focuses on the early period, starting around 1850 (when 5,000 British settlers arrived under an unscrupulous land scheme) and ending around 1897, when the colony officially annexed the neighboring region of Zululand, creating the boundaries of what is today’s province of KwaZulu-Natal.  Starting with settler manuscripts, personal diaries, and reading almanacs, newspapers, and legal reports, I’m getting a deeper picture of the colony—identifying several periods of economic depression in the 1860s and 1880s, two military campaigns against indigenous African peoples in the 1870s, the transformation of the region following discoveries of gold and diamonds in the 1870s and 1880s (after a false gold rush in the 1860s, by the way, which brought a lot of consternation that the ‘wrong sort’ of people were trying to immigrate into the colony), and the development of religious and educational institutions in Natal.  It is basically a deeper uncovering of events and transitions that occur—history is at one of its most basic levels the study of change over time—allowing me to get into the human elements that I’m interested in; the stories of men and women who settle and unsettle; resist/collaborate/negotiate/complicate/avoid altogether the colonial project(s), and generally interpret race and masculinity in very specific ways to justify their own immediate situations.

                For me, history is the story of people, their struggles, their hopes, dreams, failings and self-deceptions.  It is the way that they pit themselves against larger forces, create systems, challenge those systems, and simply live in space and time.  Reading in an archive is a creepy feeling of detachment; I get to watch people live, love, grow old, and die in the course of an afternoon or week.  Sometimes it’s a great amusement to ‘know the ending’ in advance while reading; it lends a dramatic irony to people’s schemes and hopes knowing how they eventually turned out (although they could have gone a variety of ways).  Other times, it’s painful and strange to read through the lives of the people you are encountering in the archive.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in the lives of T. Warwick Brooks and Thomas Phipson, two settlers in Natal’s history that were prominently displayed in the Natal Almanac and held considerable positions in the colony.  Brooks was the second Superintendent of Education for the Colony, and oversaw the founding of several institutions, including the first public schools in Natal; Phipson was an early sheriff and keen amateur astronomer, laying out the tides, sunrise/sunset, and other observations for the yearly almanac.  Phipson in particular is a sassy man, writing ridiculous, stinging, angry treatises on everything from race to religion to farming.  Brooks was more reserved, but his presence was constantly felt through the pages I pored over all last week. 

                These two men, their discordant, shrill voices, became my companions last week, until they vanished from my sources on Thursday.  I’d been advancing through the 1870s in my sources when suddenly I noticed Brooks and Phipson were both absent.  Further digging on Friday led me to the revelation that they had both committed suicide in 1876.  I sat back in my chair in the heavily air-conditioned archive, and pulled my sweater a little tighter around me, suddenly cold and self-conscious in the small academic space.  Dead?  Brooks and Phipson?  Well of course they’re dead, I thought to myself.  You do nineteenth century history.  I understood that logically, but the suddenness, the abrupt nature of their passings, hit me through the dry pages of the archive.  These were two men whose lives were ended, in moments of deep despair, dark desperation, one hundred and eight years before I was born.  And here I was, voyeuristically following the life tracings they had left in these collected printed pages, aware that each typed letter and scrawled penmark was leading me closer to that fateful lacuna, that empty space that showed me where fellow people left this earth.  I remembered in that moment of dark discovery that history is still the story of people, and of their lives (and deaths).  And I think of the fact that the archive, despite its claims, is always imperfect, biased, and incomplete.  These were ‘special’ men, whose words were privileged and saved for me to read, safe in their climate controlled rooms and preserved for ages to come.  How many men and women, from the Zulu local induna (minor leader) to the lowly Indian migrant woman, failed to take up the same privileged berth in the archive paper?  How do I follow their lives?  How do I find their spaces in the words, left faintly and briefly, like the slight impression upon a pillow or lingering warmth of a chair since abandoned? 

                And this is what I do.  I follow people’s stories and lives, recognizing that they are imperfectly unevenly observed and recorded.  I try to make conjecture, to draw ideas, to propose theories to explain how our fellow people occupied space, contested those spaces, imagined their lives.  And I’m humbly reminded in small moments, like the empty pages in the archive, that I can’t know everything, and that to even attempt such work is a strange prerogative that the living like to take from the bones of the dead.
                Perhaps it’s the awareness of the very deliberate way that I take from the lives of the dead leads me to critically think through the ways that I live through space with others currently in South Africa.  It’s a strange land, and I’m trying to understand my way around it as best I can.                  
                This month, the country is conducting a nationwide census; the advertisements for it are intriguing.  Print ads all over the country, tacked up to utility poles and streetlights, boast a variety of people in different settings, telling us how they will ‘be counted’.  The word plays on ‘count’ are very deliberate, while being counted, the men and women in the photographs tell the reader that they chose to be seen by the state because ‘they count’ or ‘you can count on me’ to be recognized.  It’s weird to think of the census itself and the politics of counting people, identifying them, and giving them numeric value that will then be rendered in countless government data plans and the dissertations of well-intentioned developmental studies graduate students from around the world, providing background on class, race, gender, access to health care, schools, and the like.  It’s also strange to think of the immense psychic value of an ostensibly post-apartheid state telling its citizens that they ‘count’, and that this value can be understand by being assigned a numeric value through a government institution.  Perhaps I’m making too much of it, but I find it fascinating how state power, individual identities, and the ability to name all intertwine with each other constantly and unceasingly, like a Mobius strip.
                I thought I’d end this missive tonight with a bit on my landlord, Joe.  Joe is a spry eighty-five year old man, who favors baseball caps and occasional track suits or jean shorts.  He is warm, inviting, and yet equal parts diplomatically taciturn and disarmingly gregarious, a completely unexpected combination.  Joe has three sons, two of which are living abroad in North America, and one that remains in Durban.  He is a widower, and you can sense just in our conversations how much he misses his wonderful wife.  We see each other often, seeing as I live on his property and all, but we specifically see each other on the weekends.  On Saturday mornings, Joe drives us both to the supermarket for weekly shopping; on Sunday nights, we watch “Carte Blanche” a ridiculous yet compelling television news program aimed at middlebrow, middle class viewers through a predictable combination of stories highlighting government corruption, individual perfidy, human interest stories, and an inevitable triumph over the odds tale.
                I did not have extraordinarily deep relationships with my grandfathers; my mother’s father, a former West Point instructor turned aerospace engineer, died when I was ten, and my father’s father, a gregarious former security guard and city employee who moved to California from segregated Texas, shared a loving albeit more superficial relationship until his death this year.  As such, it’s mildly surreal and incredibly comforting to have a ‘local grandfather’ in Joe.  He gives me advice, gossips about the neighbors, tells me about his life experiences, and genuinely seems to look out for my welfare.  I’m grateful for him, and for the snatches of insight we get from each other over television, or in the backyard chatting, or in the grocery aisle.  I am reminded of how lucky I am to live here when I see Joe, and I think of him as he lives at the later parts of his story and I wonder how he will be read in the future.                
                Well, it’s a bit late, and I am pretty tired.  This has been a far less cohesive entry than I would have liked, but I wanted to write some things while they were still in my mind.  I hope you all are well—feel free to say hi.  I miss you all.
 
Fondly,
Teej
Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
16 October 2011
Glenwood, Durban
                I am absolutely exhausted.  This is the most tired I’ve been since I slept off all that flying-across-the-world exhaustion nearly a month ago.  Granted, yesterday was a packed day—I went to an art museum in the morning, OccupyDurban  and the BAT Centre (an art community) in the afternoon, made dinner with friends, and then went out to see an amazing Mozambican band called 340 mL play at a hipster mecca called Unit 11.

                It’s been a strange two weeks of making new friends, settling into something of a routine, actually trying to do archive work regularly, and remembering how to be a historian while also trying to appreciate the new spaces I’m inhabiting.  Last week, my dear friend Erin Fourie came down to visit and take me back with her to Pietermaritzburg for the weekend.  We sat and chatted along the Durban Bluff, then went back to PMB for old time’s sake.  It’s absolutely surreal to see Erin here in South Africa—she is the closest friend I made from my time back in 2004, and we’ve stayed in pretty constant contact since; but what makes it even stranger is the fact that she is now a genuine television celebrity, having placed in the Top Ten on South Africa’s “Idol” music program.  I accompanied her to a show at an Octoberfest out in the Natal Midlands, and it was interesting to watch how people approach her with a sense of awe/ownership/incredulity, saying things like, “You’re our Erin from KZN!” “We’re so proud of you!” “I can’t believe I saw you on TV!”  It looks like the experience is dizzying for Erin too, and one that is rendered more confusing by the still impersonal nature of being a TV face—people feel an intimacy with you, and you don’t know them one bit.  Spending time in Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands really brought home for me how far away 2004 is.  I’m no longer twenty, living away from California for the first time, and trying to understand the world in new ways; instead I’m twenty-seven, a bit more experienced, and perhaps cynical, but also personally miles away from so many of these places that felt so formative.  I’m now older, working on a doctorate, and really in a different space, although that fundamental sense of disorientation and displacement, of very self-conscious life-growth, is similar.

                Thursday it will have been one month since I left the U.S.  It sure as hell doesn’t feel like a month is coming up.  How did that happen so fast?  Part of me still feels the quiet fear of the audacity of it all—who am I to move 8,000 miles away and think I can do this? Another part of me is feeling the ending of the ‘honeymoon’ period; it no longer feels like I’m on a vacation—rather, I’m adjusting to the idea of ‘living’ here, and trying out the spaces I’m inhabiting.  Theorist Sarah Ahmed, as usual, puts it better than I do in her book Queer Phenomenology:

“Familiarity is what is, as it were, given, and which in being given ‘gives’ the body the capacity to be oriented in this way or in that.  The question of orientation becomes, then, a question not only about how we ‘find our way’ but how we come to ‘feel at home.’  …Each time I move, I stretch myself out, trying this door, looking here, looking there.  In stretching myself out, moving homes for me is coming to inhabit spaces, coming to embody them, where my body and the rooms in which it gathers—sitting, sleeping, writing, acting as it does, in this room and that room—cease to be distinct.  It takes time, but this work of inhabitance does take place.  It is a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others…”
            
               It is impossible for me to feel all this and not think of it when I do my research.  How do settlers inhabit spaces?  How do they justify them? How do they interpret, what are their ‘orientation devices,’ their ‘homing beacons’ that they set up to allow them to fill this new space with a bodily familiarity?  Likewise, how do Indian migrants do this?  How do African peoples push back against this, create their own spaces to inhabit, and conceive of themselves and others?  Welcome to what goes through my mind most days.

                I can’t help thinking about this when I walk around Glenwood, the relatively affluent subsection of Durban where Howard College is located, and where I reside.  Glenwood, like much of middle and upper class South Africa, is a maze of beautiful, well-situated homes marked by wall after wall, dog after dog, guard after guard, electric fence after fence.  I can’t help but think of the communities in Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series; as the civic enforcement has become privatized and ultimately nonfucnctional, people start retreating behind huge walls, arming themselves, and living lives of mutual suspicion and distrust, with gross inequality being accepted in its own ways.
                
                South Africa is a land besieged, entrenched, walled, and afraid.  There is much to love—so much to love—about this country, but it would be a lie to say that people do not live with a quiet undercurrent of fear in the background.  Cars are stolen, acquaintances are mugged or beaten, someone has been violently assaulted—these things constantly whisper around you.  I feel it pushing around me, the collective fears of a society rampant with violence and threats of violence, and I too feel the fear that Alan Paton spoke of sixty years ago:
                
                “We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog when the fine fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forego. We shall forego the coming home drunken through the midnight streets, and the evening walk over the star-lit veld. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings; and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.”

                
                I do not know the answer, or if there is one.  There are no easy answers here, and my schemas of race and class and gender work best in contemporary America or nineteenth century British Empire, and I’m endeavoring to be as humble as possible in recognizing that I do not have any clue of what I’m understanding here.  Funnily enough, living in Illinois gave me ample practice of this—inhabiting a space where all the markers were slightly shifted, yet seemed familiar.  Where racial comments, or dynamics of space or language were just a little off what I’d been used to, and I had to recognize that Southern California was not Central Illinois—this is a fraction of what I’m trying to understand as I walk the streets of South Africa, afraid, quizzical, not fully comprehending.
Apartheid is over in many ways, and it is still with us in social arrangements, in the guarded stares, in the black maids for white children, in the former/current servant’s quarters, in the whispers and asides and unspoken sentences.  Race and class and gender dance and weave and tie and untie and collide and shatter in new ways every day, and nowhere was that more apparent than in observing Occupy Durban yesterday.
                
                I went with Mark, a Canadian graduate student, and Jenn, a researcher from Boston.  We took a taxi to the city hall, and walked up to see about fifteen very earnest people with countless signs decrying corporate greed, expressing solidarity, Ubuntu (the pan-Nguni concept for ‘humanity’ and a key concept in Desmond Tutu’s own theology), and protesting oppression.  By and large, nine-tenths of the group consisted of middle class white South Africans earnest in v-necks, keffiyehs, skate shoes, and aviators.  There were about three or four Indians and Coloured people, and never more than one or two black Africans present. 
                
                I didn’t know how to process.  I didn’t really know what to say.  I felt a lot of things at once: painfully aware of the class representation at the event (especially including North Americans who can fly in and offer critiques or blog about them later…), and the very minimal attendance on one level.  It’s not that South Africans don’t care about or aren’t affected by staggering inequality—google Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, and the 2009 Service Workers’ Strike for starters—but I wonder if the structure of the movement (or whatever it is) does not translate well or legibly at all when transported en masse to places like South Africa.  In the U.S., masses of newly disenfranchised groups of middle class people are making this movement happen—perhaps because most of us at home identify as ‘middle class’ to the point of nearly making it meaningless except for a powerful identity marker.  Here, I don’t’ know how similar that is, and I don’t’ think I have any business saying I’m “part of the 99%” when I’ve been able to afford (through university grants, jobs, and parental assistance) to spend nine months flying out and doing research here.  I also am keenly aware of the discomfort evinced by my claiming to speak for anyone while here.  In short, the whole thing is complex, and I’m hopeful for OWS and the like in the states, and hope that any nascent movement here in KZN, especially in Durban begin by broad consensus building/alliance building work with other groups already fundamentally challenging South Africa’s own systemic inequalities.
                 
                There’s a lot more to say, but I’m absolutely wiped.  So I will simply end with this:  I went for a run today, and it was necessary.  The morning’s sermon at church was about entrusting Jesus with our anxieties and not holding on to them (Philippians 4:1-8, I’m only focusing on a part of the message), and I struggle with that about every freaking minute, so I felt a good three mile run would be a good way to think/pray/and listen to dance music (three of my favourite things).  It also helped me run against the contours of this new place, learning new streets, and ‘finding my way.’  I passed a professor from Howard College’s history department, and was about two-thirds of the way home, when I spotted monkeys down the street.  They hopped and quietly hooted as they crossed the road.
                
                Then they started to follow me.  Still making their creepy quiet monkey noises. 
                
                For half a block.
                
                As Rihanna trilled in my ear about regretfully shooting a man, I was. Being. Semi-chased. By. Monkeys.
                
                Finally, they stopped on a fence, looked back at me, and quietly made their weird monkey sounds as Rihanna and I ran back home, more than a little freaked out.
                
                This week will be nonstop archive work.  Do not be jealous.  Okay, a little bit.
 
Thanks as always.
 
--T.
 

Current Location: South Africa, Durban
How am I feeling?:: exhausted exhausted

Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
1 October 2011
Glenwood, Durban
 
      It’s been a busy first full week here in South Africa; or at the very least, I’ve kept my self semi-occupied as I began to try to slowly build a routine, gain confidence in my surroundings, and feel more comfortable where I am.  I’ve been on the internet entirely too much for any one human being to justify, and I’ve imbibed more than my fair share of coffee at the Corner Café (seriously, they’re really patient with my just camping out there…so far).  It’s still a bit disorienting to make my way in a space where I feel I have a very strange reason for existing.  Ever since I first moved away from home at seventeen, I’ve lived in a new place either for school or for work (the previous two months in Los Angeles were perhaps the only other exception, and they were disorienting, of course, in their own fashion).  Now, I’m somewhere in between, in a nebulous wedge of knowledge production.  I’m not a student (although I’m in process of getting my visiting scholar ID/internet privileges, and will be ‘working’ to an extent at the Howard College campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal), and I’m not really ‘working’ (which is not to say that dissertation research is easy—it’s not—it’s just not as easily identifiable as say, high school teaching, TA-ing, or working as that schmuck who glazes your pottery at Color-Me-Mine™, all jobs I’ve had, by the way).

      Everyone tells me that this has been unseasonably cool and wet weather for Durban this time of year.  It was in the mid to high 60’s every day last week (Californians can understand how this is cooler weather), and it rained at least in part every day from Tuesday to Friday.  Thursday had a decent lightning storm, which caused Steven to call me and insist that I not walk home from Corner Café yet as I’d be both wet and at risk for a shock (I gladly used another hour and a half of wireless while I waited).  The rain means that I haven’t yet done laundry, although I should have enough clothes to last me through most of the week before I start to feel anxious.  If you’re wondering how the two ideas—weather and clothes-washing—are connected,  I possess both a decent sized bucket and handwashing laundry soap while Joe has a clothes line in his backyard.  I feel it is only a matter of time until I make a hilarious mistake somehow, or that my clothes dry at the most ridiculously akimbo angle or I end up leaving the clothes on the line, forgetting that a storm is coming.  Stay tuned.

     I’ve been making friends slowly, for apparently I am gregarious or something.  While sitting at Corner Café one day this week, I heard the nasal vowel arrangements that sound so similar to my own and unlike anyone else in this city.  I looked up to see a friendly, smiling white woman about my age chatting animatedly with another guy.  I interrupted and inquired after the nasal vowels openly, only to find that her name was Liz and she was a graduate student from Toronto doing her research in economics.  We chatted for about an hour, and then later in the week she called me to go see a standup comedy show.  Thinking that was far more exciting than going to bed at 9pm after two cups of tea and listening to a PJ Harvey album (my life is very exciting), I said yes, and she drove to my little laager on Laurel Street to pick me up.  We ended up having a great time watching standup, and something inside me ached a little, as standup is always something I’ve wanted to do, and I think I’d be pretty decent at.  After a set of four different comedians (all pretty good), the night broke up and we had drinks with the performers on a balcony overlooking the wide boulevard.  I told some of my more ridiculous childhood stories (learning to play the accordion, growing up and being confused as Latino by abuelas in the neighborhood, etc) and they went over well.  I don’t’ know, part of me wonders if I should just get this PhD and then go on the road with Eddie Izzard and do stand-up history.  Meh, I’ll keep my day job for now, whatever that is, exactly.   

     In addition to Liz, I’ve made friends with the history department staff and some undergrads; one of the administrative assistants is a Zulu guy my age named Khayo.  He has a penchant for cardigans and quietly sardonic sentences; his closest friend is a flamboyant, animated, and incredibly sincere guy named Londi who sports oversized black eyeglasses and an obsession with fashion on twitter.  The three of us met up for drinks this week at Cubaña, the Durban location of a chain of South African Cuban restaurants (and yes, the combination of Latin America in South Africa makes my head hurt and want to speak Zuluñol).  I had a caiparinha and we chatted animatedly about race, gender, masculinity, the future of South Africa, and the general state of the world.  Again, no offense to PJ Harvey, but I think I had a superior evening.

      The passing of a first week has also brought about the beginning of a bit of domestic order in my apartment.  I’m getting used to what groceries I need and how much I’ll eat.  In my excitement to buy breakfast goods last week, I neglected to buy proper cookware, however.  Joe had stocked the apartment with two sturdy pots and no pans, something I realized only after having cracked the eggs and put them in a bowl.  Hungry and of limited imagination, I ended up cooking my eggs in a pot, which wasn’t as bad as one might imagine, although a bit odd.  Wanting to avoid such a repeat incident, I bought a small pan this week.  I pulled off the packaging, which strangely enough had a smiling white girl, a basket of eggs, and a small breakfast scene all competing for space.  As I got ready to wash the pan, my eyes were drawn back to the packaging:
20 CM/8” NON STICK FRY PAN” it declared.
Stylish European Surface * Comfortable handle * Dishwasher safe

     Stylish European surface?  My brow wrinkled in mild confusion as I attempted to understand what could be so stylish or European about a simple black pan.  On many levels, this is what my South Africa experience feels like in general—a series of small moments that don’t make immediate sense to my cultural and theoretical frameworks.  I could be cheeky and talk about the ways in which a small black object aspires to European style seems to hold particular relevance for my dissertation, but that just seems excessively cutesy at this point.  Nonetheless…. ;)

     Speaking of the dissertation, I gave in and went to the archives for the first time on Friday.  I took a cab (which is too expensive to make a habit, but it was pouring rain) to the Killie Campbell Africana Library, a massive collection of South African historical documents and manuscripts that I must go through to get sources for this PhD thing I’m writing.  KCAL is stored within part of the original sprawling home formerly owned by the Campbell family, leading Durban society members in the early twentieth century.  Ms. Campbell herself accumulated a sizable private collection that she bequeathed to UKZN along with her home, which is restored and available for tours, if one is interested in that sort of thing (having given tours in a restored Victorian mansion for the better part of my teens, I’ve already visited and it’s worth it.)

     The staff at KCAL are friendly, welcoming, and very warm, and I busied myself with the task of going through miles upon miles of paper for the next few months.  It was then that I realized (with the help of the fantastic head librarian) that one of the premiere South African historians, Jeff Guy, was a table away.  We eventually struck up conversation, and had a fascinating discussion of settler colonialism, history writing, and South Africa in general—and I’m pretty sure he didn’t think I was a moron, which is a plus (also I was neurotically terrified of such an event coming to pass).  We’re going to lunch soon, I hope.

     Archive work is an arduous, lengthy process.  Nerdy excitement gets you through a lot of the slow going and getting a rhythm of reading through, taking notes on, and photographing manuscripts makes it easier.  Yesterday I looked through quite a few settler diaries, letters, and personal papers (but barely scratched the surface).  History allows you the strange experience of standing outside the timeline of someone’s life and to observe it from a distance.  Instantly, I could see how the fears and anxieties of a man arrived in 1850 changed or were justified over twenty-fives, a luxury none of us have in our regular day-to-day experiences.  The hardest part of yesterday’s research trip was reading through the adventure diary of a Mr. Ablett, who went from Mozambique to Durban, travelling through Swaziland and the then independent Zulu kingdom in 1871.  Hearing him tell of roughing it and his excitement to meet new peoples was tempered by his referring casually every three sentences or so to his native servants as ‘niggers.’  It hurt after twenty minutes of reading about exciting or lovely landscapes and new experiences, only to hear “The niggers have got to feed now, so we’re stopping,” or the like.  The universal role of white supremacy of the nineteenth century sprang to mind, as well as the difficulty of being a mixed American man reading the thoughts of a white English settler striding through spaces he was working to bend to only put within the reach of his colour and class.  To see the violences so easily woven in his written text was jolting, and it was hard to focus on some parts as the words continued to crash endlessly across the page, like a roiling, racial surf. 

          Far more interesting than this English settler turned sugar planter turned backcountry invader was his brother, Arthur Ablett, a quiet, unassuming man, who remained a bachelor all his life and worked in the major bank in Pietermaritzburg.  He left no papers behind in the archive, only an enigmatic picture of a man with a slight half-smile, a bit too macho of a posture, and a sense of loneliness (it is far too easy to add personality to yoru archival subjects where none may exist).  I want to know who this older brother Arthur was, and if he was as bluff and arrogant as his younger brother.  Why didn’t he marry?  Did he want to?  What did he think, serving a commercial banking interest that underwrote the entire society that he inhabited?  Did he sleep well at night knowing what he was doing? Did he notice the people he was attempting to displace just by going to work every day in central Pietermaritzburg? These are small questions that come to mind as I flip pages in the archive, looking through letters, diaries, lists, and the like.

     Today Is the first brilliantly sunny day we’ve had in nearly a week.  And I wonder if I should get a book and go to the beach for a bit.  I think I might try.

Thanks for reading.
--Teej

Current Location: Durban, South Africa
How am I feeling?:: optimistic optimistic
What's playing?:: Be Good Tanyas - When Doves Cry

3 penstrokes ... Pick up the pen
elefuntboy
26 September 2011
The Corner Café
Glenwood, Durban
 
It’s a bright and breezy Monday afternoon in Durban, and it’s bizarre to realize that a week ago I was preparing for my last full day in America for a while.  My graduate student (and Protestant?) work ethic has me thinking that this first full weekday means that I should get rapidly into the swing of working, but I’m not entirely certain how that is going to happen.  Do I just dive in to an archive? Do I walk around and figure out what’s going on?

At any rate, this morning at half past seven (South Africans never say 7:30 or the like, I’m trying to adjust and at least sound like less of a rube), my friend Steven’s mom came by and picked me up.  The Dri family has been absolutely amazing to me; it was Steven, who I first met while studying abroad at UKZN Pietermaritzburg back in 2004, that put me in touch with Joe and my kick-ass apartment.  Additionally, Steven’s parents have simply bowled me over with their generosity.  Both of Steven’s parents immigrated decades ago to South Africa from Italy; Steven was born here and has dual citizenship.  Steven’s father is a bluff, friendly mustachioed man with a penchant for long and loud arguments that end in at least seven contradictory statements.  Steven’s mother is kind, warm and thoughtful; she’s the kind of woman who will give you a hug while reminding you that you need a certain piece of paperwork that you’d completely forgotten about.  Although I live about 2 kilometers at most from the university, it was Mrs. Dri’s idea that she drive me up the first day so I’d know exactly where I was going and so I wouldn’t get lost.  Seriously, how sweet is that?
 
It was that thoughtfulness that led me to be driven up the hill to the University of KwaZulu-Natal this morning.  It was like being taken to my first day of school, which was very sweet, except I didn’t actually have any school today.  In fact, that’s a weird thing in general—I don’t have school at all.  I’m connected to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College, almost as an after-thought—it was suggested to me, and the history faculty is quite good, but it’s weird for me to just be ‘in’ South Africa, without an official, regular program to make ‘sense’ of it.  Don’t’ get me wrong, I’m going to be attending UKZN’s History Department seminars, which are weekly discussions that take place on a variety of fascinating topics.  It’s just that this week is spring vacation (remember—there’s that whole equator thing) so no one is here.  The seminars themselves actually start (or rather continue, they’ve been going on all semester, I’ve just arrived) on Wednesday 5 October.  I’m excited.

But back to the beginning.  I got dropped off today at the uni, said goodbye to Steven’s mom, and haggled my way past the security guards at the front gate…

T: I’m sorry [I always apologize when I’m newly somewhere, it’s odd], I’m from America, and I’m here to meet people in the History Department
Guard: Where in America?
T: Ngiphuma eCalifornia (why did you switch to Zulu, Tallie?!)
G: California? You know uTchuwasenega?
T: Um, what?
G: UTchuwasenega? The President of California?
T: Oh, Schwarzenegger?  Yeah.  I know him.  He is, well, um, a better actor than Presid—er, governor.  We have a new one now. He is a very old man. I think he is smarter than Schwarzenegger.
G: (uninterested) Oh, ok.  Have a nice day.
T: Ngiyabonga
G: Yes, All right.

I’m never sure when to speak Zulu or not, and I’m always afraid of whether I’m doing it right or not, so I’m usually just awkward in my own native language instead.

I’d only been on the Howard College campus once—back in 2009, when I was with the Fulbright-Hays Zulu Language Program, and we were there for about 6 hours.  Truly, the highlight was either eating a delicious meal with the humanities faculty, or posing for a series of incredibly sarcastic photos in front of the ostentatious statue of King George V (what? I’m a critical empire historian, damnit).  This time it was nearly 8 in the morning, I had no idea what I was doing, and I was trying to fake it best I could.  I remembered to head for the Memorial Tower (which is like a gigantic phallus of knowledge, pointing straight up into the clouds), and looked for the history department.  On my way in, I paused at the inscriptions in the doorway memorializing (hence the name) the Howard College students that had died during the Second World War (the Pietermaritzburg Old Main Building has a similar inscription for WWI students—it’s intense).  I was most intrigued by a ‘John Ing’ they had listed.  Was he Chinese?  I wanted to know, and I’m including this in my journal as a sort of passing thing to look up at some point when I have a chance.  I then found myself thoroughly lost in the building.  I wandered up and down, left and right, over and under, hither and yon throughout what was clearly M.C. Esher’s African intellectual bungalow.  I eventually found my way to the history department, disturbed a bubbly, friendly administrative assistant named Dudu (it is a common enough name here, no snickering) and had a lovely conversation.  She introduced me to a professor I’d semi-met two years ago via email, and then took me down the hall to meet two end of dissertation stage graduate students…who turned out to be people known to me through my advisor and we had friends in common.

Friends, it is the best feeling when you find people you know even through the most tangential of connections eight thousand miles away.  This is not an uncommon occurrence for me, but I find that every time it happens I’m filled with this amazement and excitement that the world is perhaps not as massive as we think and that connections with people can shrink some of the divides we feel.  We chatted for nearly an hour, and it was awesome.  I felt like there were people that were actually interested in the same things I was, and we talked vaguely of historiography and of our indecent fears of dissertations (although I must scoff as they’re nearly done, so their fears are both more justified and more ludicrous).  Also, this is further proof that my advisor knows everyone on the damn planet.

Flush with success at having survived a stroll onto a campus a mere 2km from my house (I set the bar low, people!), I hoofed it downhill home and smiled with relief at re-encountering the walled in parkland that is Laurel Road.  I live on a cul-de-sac, which is honestly the most reassuring thing ever.  Far from being a dead-end, it’s extremely comforting realizing that you live in a circle; you’re enveloped, warm, connected, even if you don’t know everyone yet.  Laurel Road (much like the church service I attended yesterday) is populated largely by white South Africans born before Pearl Harbor; that the road forms a circle over a beautiful green swath of parkland makes the entire place feel something vaguely like a laager, the old Boer circling of the wagons for protection.  Here thus is the weird relationship I have with settler colonialism; I find mild comfort in a space that reminds me of the circling of covered wagons.  It’s this image that reminds me that I, too, am a new occupant in this space, and that on some levels I’m struggling to make sense of my place in it.  I just hope my rage-based historical practice keeps me from falling into the same complacencies as the settlers I study while at the same time my vulnerability reminds me to keep those self-same settlers human in my mind and not just mustache-twirling villains.

I changed into shorts and flip-flops (for the humidity is making itself felt, even on a mild spring morning/afternoon), and hoofed it for my first trip to the Corner Café, an eclectic hotspot that friends assured me would be perfect for me.

How right they were.  The Corner Café is pretty much the spot I’d have described if you asked me to imagine where the ideal place I’d hang in Durban.  It’s a funky eco-friendly café serious in its environmental pledges (no plastic/paper cups, constant composting, meat-free Mondays and the like), edgy artwork (I am currently typing beneath a massive-ass painting of a cow.  Why not?), and a fun mix of paper lanterns, purposefully chosen graffiti and OH MY GOD FREE WIFI (well, when it’s working—it’s down right now, but I’m not holding it against them. EVER.).  The owners are a kindly white couple who appear to be in their late twenties/early thirties with bright smiles and quick laughs, and the staff all seems super friendly.  Yet I’m aware that I am in a strangely gentrified region between frou-frou bed and breakfasts and inanities like the Ernest Hemingway Bar (do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for beer).  But for now, this is a bit of an extension of my laager, a space that I’m feeling out and trying to understand as I slowly understand more and more of Durban around me.

A final note before I end this ridiculously long update.  Small kindnesses go a long way, and little connections make me feel far less alone.  Last night, I got a phone call out of the blue from a friend of a friend named Marie.  She is a woman my mother’s age who I’ve been facebook friends with for the past few months, linked through another South African who herself had lived both in Pietermaritzburg and Urbana, Illinois.  She has two half black sons about my age, and it’s been a pleasure to read about her family over the past few months, and to feel as if I was getting to know someone across the globe.  She called and said she was in Durban with another friend of a friend, and then they picked me up and invited me out to dinner.  We went to Wilson’s Wharf, which is a bit of a touristy spot, but one that I remembered from multiple visits in the past.  It was incredibly humbling and gratifying to meet two people that I’d not known previously in person that were willing to have a meal with a fuzzy-headed semi-stranger who was feeling a bit unmoored after traveling so far.  I’m grateful and hopeful at the moment, and I’m looking forward to all the connections I’m making.  Now, sometime soon I should get around to doing research.  Although I have to remind myself, it is only my fourth full day here.  I should pace myself.

Thanks for reading, friends.  Btw, if you’re looking to send me a message of encouragement or an uncomfortable death threat (really, I’m narcissistic enough to think they’re both declarations of love), then please please send me some mail at:

T.J. Tallie
30 Laurel Road
Glenwood
Durban
South Africa.

 
If you’re feeling particularly sassy or if you’re actually in country, my phone number is 0767262568.  For you foreigners, that’d be +27767262568. 
That’s more than enough of a bombardment for now.  Until next time, friends.
Teej

Current Location: South Africa, Durban
How am I feeling?:: chipper chipper
What's playing?:: Shawn Colvin - Fill Me Up

Pick up the pen