Saturday, 12 March 2016

If We Value Education, Rhodes Must Fall

One morning in 1986, Themba Plaatjie made a quick dash home from school for a peanut butter sandwich. His mother remembers him spreading the peanut butter on the bread and then - like distracted children the world over - he dashed out again, leaving the dirty knife lying on the counter. The next thing his mother heard was ‘uThemba, uThemba, nank’uThemba bamdubule!’ - ‘This is Themba! This is Themba! They have shot Themba!’

Themba Plaatjie was eleven-years-old when he was murdered by a white policeman in apartheid South Africa. There is a terrible poignancy in the fact that it was on his way back to school that the little boy was slain, because Themba is just one of tens of millions of black African children whose education was denied them by a system that even used the Bible to justify their subjugation: 'You shall never cease being slaves, both hewers of wood and drawers of water for the house of my God' (Joshua 9:23). 

Like Themba, many hundreds of black children had their education denied in the most callous manner possible - their own murder. Another of those children was Hector Pieterson, the first of 176 killed during the Soweto uprising in 1976, when black high school children protested against Afrikaans becoming the main language of instruction in their schools. Sam Nzima's photograph of Hector being carried - his school uniform covered in blood, his screaming sister running alongside - was seen all over the world and galvanised the antiapartheid movement like few other images. 

Hector Pieterson in the arms of his friend Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector's sister Antoinette on the left.
Most black children had their education denied in quieter, but no less insidious, ways: underfunded schools, a lack of textbooks, badly trained teachers, the necessity to work to support their families rather than indulge in the luxury of sitting in a classroom. This is what the history of education looks like for black South Africans: it is a history fraught with brutality, shot through with cruelty, and drenched with blood.

But there is another side to the story of education in South Africa, and that part of the story lines the walls of the study in my parents’ house: their degree certificates from Rhodes University, a small but prestigious institution in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. In the same year that Hector Pieterson was butchered, my white parents graduated from a university named after Cecil Rhodes, a man who thought that people like Themba and Hector were less than fully human: 'I contend that [the British] are the finest race in the world,' he wrote, 'And that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.' As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Rhodes limited the amount of land that black Africans could legally own and simultaneously increased the property qualifications to be allowed to vote, setting up a disenfranchisement of black South Africans that would last until 1994.

I am an indirect but enormous beneficiary of Rhodes’ policies. I have grown up with all the advantages that come from having educated parents: the economic rewards of skilled work, and all the more subtle benefits of being able to negotiate a path through the complexities of the world. My parents’ education is not unrelated to the stories of Hector Pieterson and Themba Plaatjie: it is an education that was paid for by the punishing labour of black miners in Rhodes’ diamond mines; it is an education that rests heavily on the graves of those two boys and countless others like them.

In her book ‘A Human Being Died that Night’, the South African psychologist and Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela tells the story of Themba Plaatjie, and discusses the psychological phenomenon of ‘lived trauma’. Those of us who have not experienced the kind of intense trauma suffered by Themba Plaatjie’s family often think of trauma as an historical event, as if the murder of a loved one is something that is looked back on and remembered. But for those who experience trauma, Gobodo-Madikezela explains that the trauma does not end with the event that creates it: it stays in the present, following those left behind like a shadow until they reach their own end. 

When Themba’s mother, Mrs Plaatjie, relates the story of her son’s murder to Gobodo-Madikezela, she drifts back and forth between past and present tenses: “He ran out… He is still chewing his bread… Now I am dazed…” When she describes the first moment she saw her son with no life left in his body, the sentence she uses is, “Here is my son” - as if the boy’s body is in front of her at that moment, a mark on her retinas that will never wash away. In the mind of his mother, Themba Plaatjie wasn’t only murdered in 1986: he is being murdered still.

Those who defend Rhodes’ statues argue that he is a part of history, that we should not erase the past, however morally bankrupt it may look with the benefit of hindsight. The flaw in this idea lies in that word ‘history’ - because what many black South Africans involved in the #RhodesMustFall campaign tell us is that Cecil Rhodes’ ideas are not history, they are lived trauma for millions of African people. It is a kind of damage that is present every time a black African watches a white person get a better job and a better home because they are better educated; it is there every time a black African walks past the statue of a man who ruthlessly denied the humanity of her ancestors. Rhodes' defenders claim that we will forget how terrible he was if we don't have statues to remind us, but black Africans are no more likely to forget what Rhodes stood for than Mrs Plaatjie is likely to forget that her child was shot dead on his way to school.

Protests against the statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

As a beneficiary of Cecil Rhodes’ white supremacist ideas, I cannot be grateful to him for the benefits he gave to my family because they were never his to give. Rhodes was nothing but a thief: he stole land, he stole diamonds, and he stole human potential. I also know that however great his contribution to universities in Britain and South Africa, it is greatly outweighed by the crimes he committed against education, for even if his scholarships last for a thousand years they will never educate more than the millions of black Africans whose acquisition of knowledge was made completely impossible by the kind of ideas that he invented, supported, and inspired. 

An enemy of education like Cecil Rhodes has no business being immortalised in the grounds of the world’s best universities, and it is in the pursuit of real education - the kind of education, like that delivered by Pumla Gobodo-Madikezela, which expands our empathy and deepens our understanding of the lives of others - that I hope we will come to see that preserving the legacy of a dead white racist is not worth the tiniest hair on the head of the smallest black schoolchild in Africa. If we are to erect statues in our institutions of learning, they should be of the likes of Themba Plaatjie and Hector Pieterson - for it is from them, not Cecil Rhodes, that we still have the most to learn.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

To the Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss

Halfway through our evening at the Hemingway pub in Hackney, you leaned over from the next table and asked if we were on a date. You were very drunk, and briefly alone; the stranger you had found on the street and brought into the pub with you had temporarily hidden himself in the loo (perhaps he had had a premonition?).

When we told you that yes, we were on our second date, you squealed with the delight of a ten-year-old with their nose pressed against the pet-shop window and told us how cute that was. That word 'cute' - the first thing that made me uneasy.

I don’t know if you’re in the habit of inviting yourself to join straight couples on their second date, and gushing about how adorable they are, but your manner and the things you said lead me to presume that it is an intrusion you save for gay people. I recognised the tone of what you were saying very quickly – you seemed to think that two men having a romantic drink together is like a pretty little water-colour, a tableau of two-dimensional, compliant, sexless beings who represent nothing but subservient sidekicks or bitching partners. Our polite requests to be left alone were met with sarcasm or naked rudeness, which then reverted in the next instant to patronising drivel. It was an unpleasant and deeply unwelcome reminder that even in twenty-first century London there are still occasions that I am not treated in the same way as other people.

There was an aggressive edge to a lot of what you said. As you babbled drunkenly about how good we looked together, and brutally critiqued our skin, our hair, and our clothes, you had the kind of teeth-bearing smile that seethes with danger, like the over-friendly cat that can suddenly switch and scratch. It was clear that your focus was on how we looked, as individuals and as a couple, and not on what we thought or how we felt. You told us that you worked in publishing; you and I disagreed briefly but passionately about the difference between the protagonist and the narrator of a story (you insisted there was no difference; I defined each term, and then you stuck by your line that the words were synonymous, so I let it go). You asked for a summary of the book I am writing, and I gave you a quick overview of a chapter I long ago decided not to write. Instinct told me that my true story would not be safe in your hands.

You told us that you were a fan of stories, that you felt lucky to have a job that allowed you to read and to travel; and then suddenly, upon discovering that our dates had gone well, that we liked each other and that we had not yet kissed, you asked us to do just that.

For you.

So that you could take a photograph.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: your request was extremely disrespectful and I experienced it as an act of oppression.

I know that you like stories, but I never found out whether that includes films. If it does, you may know that the director Spike Lee has identified the trope in American cinema of the Magical Negro, a black character with mystical powers who helps the white (usually male) hero to achieve his goals. You will be familiar with many magical negroes, though you may never have been aware of the subtle damage that they do: Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) in ‘Ghost’, Ellis Boyd ‘Red’ Redding (Morgan Freeman) in 'The Shawshank Redemption', and John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) in 'The Green Mile'. These characters limit the role of black people: they are convenient archetypes, props, assistants – in effect, they are what black people have so long fought to liberate themselves from being: they are the obedient servants of white masters. While characters like Othello and Celie from 'The Color Purple' are angry, passionate and complex (just like real people), the Magical Negro is a humble, obsequious cardboard cut-out whose mission is not to fulfil their own desires, but to help the white hero to fulfil his.

The trope of the Magical Negro is a form of oppression that is only made more insidious by its pretended benevolence. These black characters are reduced in a way that is more subtle but more dangerous than economic or political disempowerment: they are reduced in their emotional status. Through slow, invisible attrition what is breached is the personhood of every black person who lives in the same society as this trope. The Magical Negro is designed to appeal to the delicate sensitivities of a white audience that can only accept black characters who are wholesome and altruistic; not for them the quiet resistance of Rosa Parks, the uncomfortable indignation of Desmond Tutu or the unconquerable dignity of Nelson Mandela. We are told that a good black person is mild-mannered, lacking in complexity and unpleasant or challenging emotions. She or he is self-sacrificing and malleable to the will of a white master.

Just as we have the Magical Negro, our cultural lives are also burdened by the Magical Homo: the sparkling, glittering, bitchy gay man who props up our (usually) heterosexual female heroine until such a time as her knight rolls into town on his shining white steed. The Magical Homo trope is more commonly known as the Gay Best Friend, like the Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell’s Gay Best Friend Andrew Pierce, who she describes resigning from a job on her behalf (‘with a little flounce’) and delighting her with his ‘wonderful, bitchy, gossipy streak’. It is the Gay Best Friend doll briefly offered for sale by Tesco’s, which was apparently ‘ready to give you fashion advice, tell you if your bum looks big and bitch about everyone who doesn't wear Jimmy Choos’. The Magical Homo is at work every time the idea is promoted that a gay man is good at nothing but fashion advice and hurting people’s feelings. Like the Magical Negro, this form of oppression is only made more dangerous by its cloak of well-meaning; it reduces gay men and refigures us as the emotional servants of heterosexual women.

The homophobe is not only the violent monster who bludgeons a gay man to death as he walks down the street, it is also every single person who uses a gay person’s sexuality to reduce our status and place limits on our lives. These attacks are not always overt; at times they arrive heavily disguised as compliments or kindness. They include the woman who told me that she was surprised how ‘butch’ my voice sounded. It is the man at a house party who tried to shake my hand for ‘not acting that way’. It is the obsessive ex-colleague who repeatedly sent me messages begging to be my ‘fag hag’. It is the church that will marry my brother but, apparently as an act of pure love, will not accord me the same ceremony. It is the woman in the pub who views my second dates and my first kisses as spectacles of entertainment.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: gay people do not exist to serve the needs of straight people. Real gay men were not created merely to sacrifice ourselves for women like Amanda Platell; real gay women were not made as a challenge for straight men to conquer and convert. Gay people are varied, complex and complete human beings, just like you. When we fall in love it is with the same excitement and trepidation as you; when our hearts break it is every bit as terrible and total as your heartbreaks; when our lovers are dying we also want nothing more than to hold them tenderly in our arms, and when we grieve it is with exactly the same bleak and wrenching agony as any grief that you have ever felt. Dear Woman Who Wanted to Photograph Our First Kiss, your denial of our dignity is closer than you realise to the attitudes of our greatest oppressors: I refer not to those who have destroyed and desecrated our bodies or excluded us from our societies, nor those who have restricted us with their laws and hounded us with their superstitions, but those people who have pronounced – with casual but catastrophic disdain – that our feelings are simply worth less than theirs; that the love we feel is not real love.

But our love is the same as yours, and our feelings are just as real: indeed, they are exactly the same feelings that you experience. It therefore follows that within the broad rainbow of gay people’s emotional lives, alongside the love and grief and joy and sadness that we feel, you should know that we also have the capacity for anger – you seemed to be surprised by this fact when I suggested that you move back to your own table and leave us to enjoy our date uninterrupted. The anger that we feel is, like our love, a deep, profound and righteous emotion. It is an anger that can - and has - wrought extraordinary change in our society. It is the undaunted anger of Harvey Milk annihilating the bigotry of John Briggs; it is the bladed indignation of Peter Tatchell decapitating Section 28, the meticulously articulated fury of Panty Bliss exposing the cowardly homophobia of RTÉ, and the uncompromising rage of Clare Balding when told AA Gill that although he may attack any aspect of her professional life, her sexuality will always be off limits as a target of ridicule. You see, gay people have come to learn, through centuries of oppression, that our anger is one of the most useful tools that we have. It is our anger that has catalysed every single painful step of the progress that we have earned for ourselves.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: I AM ANGRY. I need you to change the way that you think about people like me. I need you to recognise and respect the entirety of my personhood. I am sure that you believe yourself to be liberal and enlightened. I do not for a moment believe that you would have sworn at us for holding hands in the street, like the drunken man we encountered on our way home that night. I am sure you would agree that a gay man’s body no more belongs to a homophobe who wishes to stab or shoot him than a black man’s body belonged to the slave-owner who wished to whip him and make him work, or any more than a woman’s body belongs to the rapist who follows her home. But I need you to remember that my emotional life does not belong to you either. I am not an ornament, an accessory or an object provided for your amusement. Our first kiss was not a ‘#cutepic’ to be emblazoned across Instagram in colours that were never ours to begin with, and we were not made to be tagged on your Facebook page any more than gay people in Nazi Germany were made to be tagged with pink triangles. A first kiss is important precisely because it is a moment of intimate intensity between two people, a rush that will never be properly transcribed into words or photographs, and can only be known by being experienced. A first kiss is not a performance. It is not a piece of art or one of the stories you love to read. It is not a slice of titillation to be invaded and enjoyed and then flushed down the toilet with the bile-thickened bottle of wine you drank last night. A first kiss is real life; it is, perhaps, as real as our lives will ever be.

In the cold light of sobriety, and while I have your undivided attention, I feel I should also take a moment to settle that question of the difference between ‘narrator’ and ‘protagonist’, which seems a useful distinction to be understood by somebody who is attempting to build a career in the publishing industry. The narrator is the one who tells the story; the protagonist is the character who experiences it. In a sense, the narrator is the lens through which the story passes; but the protagonist is the engine that powers the narrative forward, and regardless of the narrator’s bias, he or she only ever owns the telling: it is the protagonist to whom the true events of the story belong.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss, you may narrate a fictional version of my life, and that tale is yours to bend and twist and belittle however your heart desires; but the true story will always belong to me and the wonderful man with whom I spent that evening. I will never write down how we felt, merely so that you can feast your eyes upon our affection; and anyway, I know that no words of mine could ever do our feelings justice. But I do know that however ‘cute’ or ‘adorable’ you believe it to be, you will never come close to understanding the profundity of what passed between us. In future, if you want to know what love is, I suggest that you go home to where it waits or set out to find it in the world for yourself; never again must you attempt to steal your emotional sustenance from the richness of strangers’ hearts.

Dear Woman Who Wanted To Photograph Our First Kiss: the purpose of this letter is to give you notice that the lives of gay people – our second dates, our first kisses, our shared secrets, our public declarations and our private assurances, and all of our most treasured and intimate moments – belong to us, and only to us. In the story of our lives we must never be treated as your supporting characters. We are and must always be regarded as our own protagonists.

Emlyn Pearce
(the human-being on a second date).