“I wonder if they knew..I wonder if oMama bethu knew that the schools they took us to were violent. Phofu, if they knew [just how violent our schools were] I wonder if they would have taken us out. I doubt. The thing is, uyabona Sihle, my mother is a strong woman,” Phuti said seated at the end of the table. She raised her glass of beyerskloof red wine, gulped and placed it back on the table and continued speaking.
“She is soo strong.” She shook her head.
“What do you mean?” I inquired, leaning closer to hear, curious to gain insight.
“All I ever wanted was to be more like her. My mom is a fixer. Her friend’s friends call her to fix things. She sorts things out. Like no-one messes with my mother. Her only fault is.. (she shrugged her shoulders) her only fault is, that she was and perhaps still is firmly convinced that the only way I could become anything that matters in this life is if I was taught in white schools by white teachers. She saw white schools as a crucial pathway for “cultivating the necessary aspirant dispositions that will allow my entry into formal middle class, employment, and lifestyles.”
So morning after morning, we marched out of our neighborhoods, shunning black and colored schools adjacent to our homes. Refusing to be trapped by geography. Morning after morning, we were transported past railways and bridges, tearing down soft zoning’s and apartheid spatial engineering to find and seek and find. Fueled by the promise of a ‘better life for all.’
Each morning we escaped our anti-aspirant communities and recalcitrant neighbors. Disjuncture. Trudging through, traversing space. Displacement. Continuously in motion to find remote classrooms in the city, indoctrinated by the belief that the material offered in non-whites schools was anti-aspirant. And daily, the strong chords that tied us to our neighborhoods, our cousins, our blackness, our villages and our heritage thinned.
So every morning they packed us full. An exodus in the early hours. Brown girls and short boys with blue socks and gray pants nimbly leaping. Running, to catch school buses, combies, and stallions. Full of yearning to reach a promised land. The early mornings, the long distance travels, a symbol of the popular energies we had to bypass and evade to achieve. This promise, it floated over us [black people] like a rainbow; ever evading, bypassing, fading before our very eyes before anyone could memorize the sequence of its colors. But by faith we stood, we too would-could-would eventually become. Eventually, we too would bud-blossom and everything would be alright.
Every morning our mothers rose early, carrying chained routines, ready to remind daughters of the assimilation script. Ndingabizwa eskolweni ngenxa yakho ke. Subtle warnings. Broken love. Brave love. Afraid love. Love full of fear. Love with no time. Love laboring for fees and camp costs, hockey sticks, and swimming caps. Parenting a Model-C child.
On Sundays she [black girl] shined her shoes, hiding the cheap looking soles. Pairing unsoiled socks. Shirts hanging on a doorknob. A room filled with the scent of iron vapor, pressing flat uniform pleats. Getting ready; searching for gutters so socks would stolidly stick up by the knees, hiding ashen ankles. Morning after morning, the rush broke. French polony slices roughed into brown bread pieces. Children, families, a community in consensus to be at war. At war with self. Waging war against blackness. [They collectively understood] life began when they left home, in the courtyards of whiteness, on grounds with swings and porches and hockey courts and assembly halls.
Model C Schools; this is where the black child’s training program began. The school’s cultural project towards assimilation. It would be 12 years long before she was ready. Processed. A weakening shell housing the “hegemonic cultural orientations” of her school. It is here that she would spend her self-dry. Learning to lose expression. “Reorganizing her reflexivities.” Operationalizing the concept of dying to self to become. Become better. On condition that she paid enough attention to paying attention, losing grip of her restless culture and troubled background. Eventually, she would be OK. And everything would be alright. Much better for having less reference to her lived world.
She’d already passed the initial obstacles. Fee hurdles, defaults on transportation payments, determinately finding the name of a girl [whose a daughter of a friend of a friend] in order to tick yes to the question “do you have a sister who has attended the school before?” Yes, mother had ticked whilst filling in forms. That girl [whose a daughter of a friend of a friend] is her sister. This her younger sister is fit to be enrolled. Fit to be bent to shape. This little one’s blood is purifiable. Her sister is your surety.
So when she [black girl] walked into the big school door: she learned to round her tongue and proudly say her school motto in latin, cackling at her mother who could never pronounce altiora peto correctly.
Through education, she would learn obedience. She would learn to behave. At assembly, piano strings would soothe her blunted soul. She would stand and hum hymns and only on a cultural day she could sing louder, dance, clap and freely ululate. Her transport schedule allowed her not the leisure of learning to read the music notes she sang to. Her place was to hum. Hum humbly, hum harmoniously, hum sweetly. Here she learned that achievement began where she could not be. In the far outfield, where she could not take extra violin lessons, in the box room where she could not pay for extra ADmaths classes, on the founder’s grounds, yards in far away courts where her transport could not drop her off so she could learn horse riding. The black karate belt wasn’t for her or her kind. These rare achievements began on the soft grounds where brown-skinned girls could not be.
Her careful development towards becoming a lady, a gentleman [in brother schools] with strong moral values began. It could only begin when she left her roots, ignoring her cultural identities, clinging to white literacy. In those years she learned to navigate the incongruence in her neighborhood environment and suburban school. She grasped the toolkit she needed to graze off the funkiness, fierceness, passion and high-pitched laugh. This special zest did not belong on school grounds. She could clown, run in circles, generously clap hands with friends in laughter, shout ‘yho-yho-yho’ to express shock when her feet touched the gravel ground of her dust ‘fested streets. On weekends. There she could sway, play, reconfigure and bend herself back to blackness. The school was a training ground. The ground where she learned that uninhabited she was “too much.” Too much too soon. Her lips too thick, her face too full, her round mouth too loud; her nose too flat, her bloomers too tight. The rules were set; ready to arrest, cling, dissolve, destroy her. She did not know it yet, but she would meet her grave still trying to become less. re-configuring. altering. shifting. fading.
So when they [white authorities] walked through the eerie corridors, the [black girls] would stand still, stiller than the rest, hands clutched to the sides. The code of fear transmitted through the years would clench their bellies and wrangle their lungs. The Head Mistress would walk pass unabashed. Unblinkingly. Her face contorted in contempt-suspicion would nestle on her forehead, her luminous eyes would beam across the room- rays of scissoring scrutiny. Numbing the guilty. The guilty knew their names. The fear, the terror, the disdain, the ugliness stayed hot, contorting their chests, muddled in their hearts of darkness. The dreadful self-doubt seeped into their veins, shaping the contours of their existence. Questions about being brown, their hair, their skin, their cracked heels and ashy ankles. Their fears and history, their ugliness had stabbed pit-sized holes through their souls.
In the eerie moments [when white authority] pranced past, heels clicking and soles clamping, they [black girls] collectively understood that their presence was a legitimate source of contempt in the corridor. Theirs was to break, bleed, collapse, hide deeply, silently-quietly into the layered brown bricks. After all, the only piece of their history linking them to this institution was the backs of black men bent & breaking to cement buildings for the sheltering of white bodies. No imbrications or representative images of her on the walls, on the frames or on the achievement boards. Hers was to break, bleed, collapse, hide deeply, silently-quietly, to fall, thin, flat to the floor. There she could trace herself, find a representation of herself on the backs and bones of black women who broke, wiping floors, dusting wooden corners and sprucing window seals.
In the eerie moments, when she wished she could slickly disappear, she tensed her knees, hoping this simple act would deflect any attention that could catch the safety pin that held the bubbling fold on her school dress. She stood, motionless worried that nothing of hers was right enough or in place. The edges of her hair, the length of her dress, the size of her blazer, the flatness of her noise. She’d mask her fear, square her shoulders then bend her back a’lil so her uniform looked longer from the back. All this time her tongue toiling, excreting gobs of saliva. Afraid.
As a young girl, she learned to walk composed through the double doors, into the assembly hall. Still, well-behaved into those precinct walls. She would seal her fears with a hymn. Believe she belongs when she cheerfully sang the school song.
When she was younger, her list of fears was even longer, PT clothes left behind, unsigned reply slips, incomplete homework, no dog food to donate for civvies’ day, the blonde girl whose colleen pencil crayons had gone missing. Even when she was not a suspect she remained suspicious of herself. She’d endured this rain. this chill. this winter. The seasons had bent her. Matric was her spring. By this time, her self-worth was washed-grazed. In places where it sought to drip, or bud or cling, they had caught it young, dripped it dry. Self-love- self-doubt- self-loathing- confidence-enoughness, being almost good enough, fluency, white literacy, hegemonic cultural orientations, thin ties with her Africanness.
She would walk out the big school doors and life would be there to meet her. White-washed. Fit for service.
References: Tonny Morrisons Bluest eye and Aslam Fataar Engaging Schooling Subjectivities across Post-Apartheid Urban Space mixed with my own lived experience alongside real conversation inspired this story. The urgency to publish it today was sparked by the happenings in Pretoria Girls High.