Steve Biko by Therese Mullins. So it’s Black History Month and I decided to invite Steve Biko and my late grandfather to a nice lunch at this great spot in Cape Town. For a reason that I’m still to understand, Shaka Zulu rocked up. I had figured that the best way to understand my black history was to talk to some of those that I believe helped shape what I believe is the black identity today. However, things did not go according to plan.
There are many more that I could have invited to this lunch but, come on, a chat about history, politics, culture, and identity with, uhm, the dearly departed? I’d rather keep it neat and tidy. First to arrive was granddad, looking dapper with that jelled up, parted afro and the three-piece get up. Biko came and sat silently observing the eating place. I gathered, by the commotion and gasps emanating from the door, that Mr. Senzangakhona had arrived, short spear, shield and leather loincloth.
I went straight into it, although I wasn’t sure how to begin. I greeted, shook granddad’s hand. I thought it would be symbolic to give Biko a fist bump because, you know, black power, fist in the air…he just stared and ordered his spirits on boulders. I was not going anywhere near Shaka and his spear.
I introduced myself and gave a brief history. I was in the middle of my “I am not Xhosa I am South African…” speech when my grandfather knifed through my rhetoric;
“Kwedini, do you know your clan name?”
“Yeah, I know my clan, I’m down with Wu-Tang. I’m on that 36 Chambers…it’s a joke, I was…never mind””What do you know about the Mpondo, Mpondomise, Bomvana, Xesibe and Thembu? Do you know what happened during the Mfecane?”
The old man had me on the ropes. He was right in his rhetorical questions. But I’ve watched Ali and I know what a rope-a-dope is.
“You are right, Tata, I don’t know much about that stuff, but do you know why I don’t know? YOU! You left my father when he was a toddler and you took any connection to the Xhosa nation with you. So how was I supposed to know?” VUS, BUMAYE!!! I hear Biko crunch his ice.
It begs the question of; if one does not grow up surrounded by the elements that are supposed to help you define yourself within that particular identity does that you cannot identify with that identity? Like if a black boy is raised by a white family, does he not qualify as black? What happens if he only begins to learn about his black family in his adulthood? Is his blackness redeemed?
I look at my grandfather and marvel at his pride in his heritage. Yet I can’t shake the feeling of irony in the whole thing. The Xhosa nation only came fully into being around the 15/1600’s. Before then the Nguni people could be traced back to East Africa. Why is it then should I draw the line with amaXhosa and not acknowledge the rest of my Bantu roots? I want to marvel at the fact that Swahili is so similar to isiZulu. I want my chest to rise as much when I think about Hintsa the Great as when I think about the possibility that I could be related to King Kashta of the Kushites who came out of Egypt.
Throughout history’s timeline, the black identity will come to be constituted of many different elements. It seems there’s a difference between being black and having a black identity.
“Being black is not a matter of pigmentation – being black is a reflection of a mental attitude”, Biko says, swapping his empty glass for a fresh one from the waiter. As he says this, Mshoza comes on on the eating joint’s speakers, she’s talking about someone in a hat. At this point, I knew things could only get more interesting…
Writer: Vus Ngxande