Call me coloured. It’s easier.

Picture by Kim Gurney

I have been following Afua Hirsch’s explorations into her family origins – on her mother’s side – after reading her book, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. (Read a review, here) While I enjoyed the book, and admired Hirsch’s courage, there was little in the book that was surprising or revealing – at least not to me. The specificities of her life in London were interesting, but again, my own experiences in London – mainly North London, I should add – meant that much of what she wrote about was at least familiar. I attended the London School of Economics twice and spent much of the 1990s in London.

The parts of Brit(ish) I found most intriguing, as well as insightful and educational, were the explorations of her African heritage – in West Africa. I wrote a lengthy review of the book which was truncated and published in Business Day. This is a link to the review. The stand-out parts of the final review ran by Business Day were the following passages:

There is some truth in the claim that all politics is identity politics. It is also true, however, that across history, the most unjust political systems — such as apartheid or the Holocaust — and the contemporary persecution of the Roma in Italy and the Rohingya in Myanmar, started with identifying “others”, and then dividing or destroying people, families, and communities on that basis.

As an account of a Londoner, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging provides great insights into Hirsch’s life and times, woven superbly into history and society. To anyone who has felt the full force of oppressive systems driven by racial exclusion, she offers little new or original. Others may get insights into the 2011 riots in Tottenham, and the Boy Scouts.

The search for identity or origins can be harmless, but approached with romantic idealism it can be somewhat ignoble, tending to go in search of differences, purity and nativism, and when none can be found traditions are invented.(Source)

I should not traduce the work Hirsch put into the book, nor its messages, but I felt that the parts about her life in Britain did not improve or enhance what I already knew about London, or about identity politics. Let me say, at the outset, that I have always found identity politics most loathsome. It was the basis of apartheid’s segregation, and of the Nazi’s persecution and murder of millions of Jews, gays, Roma and communists. 

And so, as a person of mixed race, mixed heritage, “of colour”, “coloured” (there have been so many attempts at classifying me and people like me – it becomes tiresome) who grew up in apartheid’s “coloured” community, and associating myself with the black consciousness movement against an oppressive system, it stands to reason that much of what Hirsch wrote was familiar. What did stand out was the African lineage that she traced. It piqued my interests. 

After reading Hirsch’s book, I started watching Henry Louise Gates’ series, Finding Your Roots, in which he used genetic and genealogical research to trace the family heritage and origins of people in the US. While the entire series is fascinating (and not without controversy) I was especially interested in African American stories – although the others were very insightful, too, especially those white family stories that included slave ownership. Like most people, maybe with some justification, I always assumed that all white people in the US could trace their full genetic background back to Europe, with colourful touches from the Middle East or North Africa. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the story of Harry Connick Jr (and Brandford Marsalis) two of my favourite musicians

The African-American story is interesting for many reasons. My first encounter with the idea of “African American” was probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Given how divisive South African politics was, and how we (in the black consciousness movement) sought to do away with the multiplicity of racial categories that the apartheid system established, I had difficulty accepting how people could take pride in calling themselves “African American” or “Italian American” or “Irish American”. I was terribly naïve. What I learned, quite early on, was that because of slavery, most black people of African descent did not know where in Africa their forebears came from. This was the nature of slavery it reduced all African slaves to docile bodies without individual identities – other than being a slave with a name given by their owners. There are some homologies with the slavery story in South Africa, as those of us who are descendent of slaves know only that they were brought from South East Asia (possibly what is now Malaysia and Indonesia)

I enjoyed the episode of CNN journalist, Don Lemon’s, family background, especially the difficulties his family faced during the Jim Crow era. It is also so similar to what we experienced under apartheid. Read a couple of articles by Lemon here and here. As part of the Finding Your Roots episode, Lemon travelled to a slave dungeon in Ghana. Watch the clip, below, for a sense of the retraumatisation Lemon and his mother experienced when they visited the West Coast of Africa.

The big take away for me, though, was just how little I knew about the facts of my own family background, other than the stories we heard from family and friends. The facts have always been sparse. It also does not help that there is a lot of revision underway in South Africa, and that people who are dismissed as “non-Africans” are sometimes treated as alien. Only the most ideologically blinkered – mainly those loyal to the ruling alliance’s public relations statements about “non-racialism” – tend to be duped into accepting that all is well in South Africa, and that we can all hold hands and dance in circles singing kumbaya. What is poorly understood (and expediency dismissed) is the history of the slaves – mainly from the Nusantaran world – who were brought to South Africa by colonial powers from about 1652.

I should add that there have been some outstanding academic work, most notably What is slavery to me? by Pumla Dineo Gqola, which is described by the publisher as:

“the first full-length study of slave memory in the South African context, and examines the relevance and effects of slave memory for contemporary negotiations of South African gendered and racialised identities. It draws from feminist, postcolonial and memory studies and is therefore interdisciplinary in approach. It reads memory as one way of processing this past, and interprets a variety of cultural, literary and filmic texts to ascertain the particular experiences in relation to slave pasts being fashioned, processed and disseminated.”

Pumla Dineo Gqola’s book is exceptional, but does not help me, or any other person of Malay heritage (those of us who are not scholars and academics) understand our history and origins. And so, out of curiosity, I have begun to explore my family heritage.

Actually, let me take a step back a couple of years. In about 2011, after more than a decade of roaming around the world, I returned to South Africa, and was confronted by new waves of identity politics. It was bizarre. I (naively) thought we had abandoned all the racial classification systems of the apartheid state, but no. I had to declare my racial classification “coloured” and was now relegated, once again, to second class citizenship. While I understand some of the thinking, it is difficult to accept, as some scholars have observed, that there was a time when we, coloured people, were not white enough and now we are not black enough. I avoided that topic.

I noticed, however, the swelling of racial and ethnic pride that had crept into South African society. A notable point was on Heritage Day, 2012, when a Jewish friend, a Xhosa friend and another (white person of British descent) asked me what was doing. I said I would spend the day sleeping or reading…. A conversation ensued about Jewish and Xhosa heritage, and I dug up some old stories about my Malay ancestors, the earliest ones who were brought to South Africa as slaves. But, I said, I had no family gathering to attend as I had distanced myself, for most of my adult life from racial, ethnic or religious identities. I used a descriptor of Edward Said, and referred to myself as a non-identitarian humanist.

The penny dropped, that year, when, as so many times over the past two or three decades, someone asked me where I was from. When I was in Europe, the Americas or Asia, I would say South Africa, and they would ask, but where are your family from (stunned, always, by my green eyes and fair skin), I would say South Africa, and the question would be rephrased any number of ways… The point was that I looked white, had an Arabic name, and declared that I was not European. That confused everyone. In South Africa, too, questions were asked during every talk I gave, as part of my job, whether I was white or coloured.

Then, in January this year, one of the students in the Public Economics course I taught at the Wits School of Governance, approached me and asked, apologetically: “Professor,” she said, “I am not trying to be rude, but where are you from?”

I have had an answer to that question filed away for years. The student was from Zambia. She was intrigued that I looked white, spoke a little isiXhosa, and behaved differently. I am coloured, I said. And in that way, I bought into a coloured identity – again – as a way to kill the conversation. Saying that I was born into a family who traced their origins to the Malay slaves that were brought to South Africa more than 300 years ago, and that there was (quite obviously) a European in the family somewhere – hence my green eyes and pale skin – that the apartheid state and the democratic state had classified me as a second-class citizen, was a mouthful.

And so, I said, call me coloured. It’s just easier

Until next time. When I will write about my genetic and genealogical background; that which I know for sure, and that which relies on myth, legend, fables and fantasies before I dig deeper for some scientific and actual genealogical and historical evidence in the coming months.

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