It’s funny how two pages of reading can bring together lessons from a multitude of experiences. It really goes to show how interrelated some of these seemingly-universal lessons that I’ve been writing about are. I’ve always wondered how people write hundreds of pages about the same subject, but I’m sure if I took just my first two blog posts and continued to write about every single lesson tangentially related to the central messages within them, I could write hundreds of pages, too! Although I’m far impatient to actually do that, those two pages of reading I referenced showed me a perfect example of the importance of last week’s blog. They proved to me that when someone else takes control of your story, they will at best misrepresent it. At worst, they will completely rewrite it. Those two pages showed the latter.
An ex-resident of District Six named Mohamat gave me two books that he bought. He told me that they would show me the real Apartheid. They were called City of Good Hope and Looking at Cape Town. I questioned why these would be the “real” Apartheid – the books looked like glorified travel books for tourists, not historical treatises. Nothing about City of Good Hope sounded to me like it would reference the dark, twisted Apartheid history. I remained confused until I saw the dates they were published: 1966 and 1972. The books were written about Cape Town during Apartheid by white authors (Brian Katzen and A. H. Honikman). I understood now what he meant by “real” Apartheid – real Apartheid is the voice of those who orchestrated Apartheid while they did so, while the Apartheid I and others my age know is the previously untold story of those who were oppressed. “Real” in this sense just meant “according to the actual authors” of Apartheid. While that distinction contains a discussion about voice and agency in and of itself, it’s not the discussion I want to have.
I started by flipping through the pages and I saw what I expected: gorgeous beaches, delicious-looking food, and a ton of white faces. White children playing cricket, white parents laying out on the beach, white families eating steak and seafood. As I skimmed the text, all I saw for a while was complimentary language. I thought, okay, this isn’t really anything out of the ordinary; what’s so odd about a travel book speaking well of the city it describes?
Then, I turned to the District Six pages.
District six is a slum.
Slums, tattered housing, grey and bleak.
All kinds of odours . . . a not inconsiderable tang of B.O.
It is overcrowded, refuse lies in the gutters.
Ugly, slum-ridden, bleak.
Prostitutes, drug-runners, thugs, violence.
Bloody gang battles.
Scores of urchins, bareleggedly frolicking their way.
Capetonians feel an affection for it, a paternalism, much like a parent does for a child that is ugly.
No sane person is proud of District Six.
My jaw dropped. This was far from the District Six the ex-residents described to me. Whenever they talked about the District, all I heard was vibrancy, dancing, singing, laughing, gorgeous views. Nothing that Mohamat or Farhanaaz or anyone else said suggested some sort of destitute slum that “no sane person could be proud of.” Mohamat himself has told me about the carnivals for which he dressed up in drag and danced every year. He told me about his netball days and all of his friends. I could not believe that any person could look at that community and use those words to describe it.
But, that’s what Mohamat meant by the real Apartheid. The real Apartheid wasn’t just racism and general oppression, it was a conquering of minds and hijacking of stories. How else could a minuscule minority gain control of a country for that long? The Apartheid government had to do more than just pass laws; it had to convince itself and everyone in South Africa that its laws had merit. To do so, it had to convince everyone that their race divisions were based on some sort of racial hierarchy.
Of course, the white people ate steak and lounged on the beach! Of course, they lived in the rich parts of town! Of course, the mixed community was a slum! How could people ever mix races and create anything good? See how horrible District Six is? That’s why we need to separate the races! Nothing good comes of mixing and nothing good comes from non-whites!
The only complimentary things the books had to say about the District were that it was shockingly human. Somehow this slum managed to have some sense of life and people didn’t just walk around like zombies. The only compliment that they could give to District Six was that sometimes it seemed like they shook off their feelings of poverty and somewhat enjoyed life. That’s it.
Mohamat, Farhanaaz, and the rest of the District Six residents had their stories hijacked during Apartheid. They couldn’t tell the world the truth about District Six because the white people controlled the narrative, even in travel books. It just goes to show how important it is that they speak for themselves as guides at the museum.
But even further, this blog is entitled “Watch Your Language” because the language this travel book used about District Six is almost exactly like the kind of language the privileged people of the US use to describe the “hood,” the “inner city,” and the “ghettoes.” We brand them based on the sensational images and videos we see once in a while as if that’s all we need to know about them. Because the people who live in those areas that we label to carelessly are usually poorer, they largely do not have access to any means of telling their own stories. At least, any means that would gain national traction. They rely on people who sometimes go viral or “make it big” to tell the world that those areas actually aren’t so bad.
Part of our DukeEngage training was a session about describing a hypothetical community. We got a piece of paper with writing on both sides. The front side talked about poverty statistics, overpopulation, lack of resources, and other indicators of a “failing” community. We thought, okay this is a place like an inner city or slum. Then, we flipped it over and saw so many wonderful things. The community was vibrant. They worked together to fix their most pressing issues. They enjoyed leisure activities just like the rest of us. It made most of us realize that we had prejudged the community (as the session tried to get us to do) and felt horrible.
One of the reasons that session was so powerful was because the front side was an external view of the community and the back side was an internal view. The front side featured language that people outside the community would write while the back side featured language that people within the community would write. The front side selected statistics to make the community look bad while the back selected categories of vibrancy. It all depended on who was speaking.
The lesson for people like me and whoever reads this blog is that sometimes we can’t help but be in a position where we have the opportunity to control the narrative. I was born into privilege in numerous senses and attend a school whose name gives my words credibility. I can describe whatever I like, however I like #freespeech. But sometimes, I’m going to be the outsider. If I choose to describe a community, I may misrepresent it or hijack its story. I may control a narrative that’s not mine. When that happens, (and this is hard for me) I need to watch my language – just shut up and let those people speak for themselves.