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If you walk on Long Street, past the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum and the company gardens, you will come across The Crypt. It is situated underneath an old catholic cathedral and its entrance is a black canopy with “The Crypt” printed in a haunting white font. It embraces the crisp, pristine, dated aesthetic that its side of the street is committed to. Cape Town is like that; different sides of the street beget different times, different aesthetics, different histories. The city exists in ebbs and flows and striking juxtapositions, nothing is continuous. And as one becomes more familiar with the streets in this city, it becomes clear that the appearance of each street mirrors the bodies they are able to accommodate. Not everything on these streets is for everyone.

The irony of a mainly white jazz band playing to a largely white audience, 23-years post apartheid, is not lost on us.

As we walk in, the black canopy turns into a museum-like lobby with exhibits in glass boxes that memorialize different anti-apartheid heroes and events. Here history is positioned to be felt in a space that is purposed for a sort of transient enjoyment – a place where the pain of the past should pause to privilege the buoyant jazz that consumes the room in the moment. As we descend from the stairs into the dark enclave engulfed by blue, moody lighting, my skin which was a non-factor walking in and between different streets outside, feels like a mark — here it feels displaced, functioning as a magnet for unwanted stares that betray a sense of confusion or curiosity. Here, black bodies do not blend, they disrupt. They interrupt the uniformity of whiteness that dominates the room, and as our boisterous laughs compete with the music, we throw into relief what it means to consume leisure and our darker skin challenges assumptions regarding who it is that is entitled to this leisure. And yet it is not enough, the challenge that our bodies provide in this room is not enough. In a place where blackness is overwhelmingly a source of destitution, it is a start, an alternative beginning, but it does not feel like enough.

As we sit down, a young black waiter named Mthethu, armed with a smile and some menus, greets us. There are five or so other young people of color bustling through the room, opening wine bottles and serving up food, as a white older man, armed with a glass of white wine and a fedora introduces the rest of the band which is predominantly white as well. This place is not immune to the contrasts of the city it inhabits — contrasts that you sometimes want to remain oblivious to, if it means that the moment can somehow feel wholesome.

At some point during the performance he repeats the refrain and song title “is you is or is you ain’t my baby,” a familiar Louis Jordan classic that remains untitled in so many of our childhood memories. And yet on his lips these words sound so foreign. Almost instinctively my friend who is seated next to me whispers, “It’s so strange watching white people perform jazz, especially in a predominantly black country.” The irony of a mainly white jazz band playing to a largely white audience, 23-years post apartheid, is not lost on us. As the white saxophone player, lost in his own ecstasy, plays his instrument with a passion and rigor I so badly want to listen to without any questions — I so badly want to enjoy his work, uninhibited by the interrogation of the present that the past demands. The apartheid system relegated black children to a Bantu education system that was not interested in black intellectual empowerment, let alone black musical endeavors. So it would only follow that there would be two people of color in a band of seven — a fact that would be easier to swallow as a coincidence. And yet, the way in which the composition of the stage fails to reconcile with what the present should be, forces one to contend with the ways in which the legacy of apartheid lingers; how it seeps and spills into everything, staining things that should feel carefree and clean; leaving stains that no amount of exuberance can bleach away. But just as I was resigning myself to the clubs’ unequal disposition, Mthethu, our waiter and another waitress (whose name I have since forgotten) began to sing an Italian rendition of “The Prayer” and for awhile it does not sink in. Here we have a white band belting out jazz and two people of color serenading us in Italian. This city is restless.

Places like this evoke the questions that one would rather leave detached from the memories they wish to harbor forever. And yet they are the questions that will linger in every moment where one’s happiness is someone else’s quotidian and another’s affliction. These questions are timeless and borderless. These questions point to the ways in which inequity structures cities in such irrational and painful ways. It economizes comfortability and rations leisure in ways that embrace a city’s ebbs and flows; it is not interested in continuity and is instead captured by history and the exceptions of the present. And while it would be easier to remain oblivious to these contrasts, it becomes even more imperative to restructure the ways in which we choose to consume cities; it becomes more pressing to challenge ourselves to understand cities not just as spontaneous happenings, but as meeting points for legacies and futurities — places where the present can also be the past; where contrast is unavoidable.

Notes to self:

  1. The more I explore this city, the more I interrogate my position in it and what I expect of it. Here, I am not the sun, but I also should not find myself looking for evidence of my people, in vain.
  2. People’s poverty does not pause to accommodate your comfortability — their hunger continues, and they will continue to beg.
  3. The shock that blackness presents is not dissolved by foreignness, it lingers. History lingers.
  4. What does it mean that I am able to enjoy a city that is not my own, as others beg in order to survive in a place that is their native? What does it mean that places of leisure do not reproduce the same demographics of the cities they inhabit?