7 November 2011
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?
"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.