I don’t remember my grandmother looking younger than she is today. After twenty years of my life, I feel like her skin has always been a smooth brown, her face clustered with wrinkles and stories of years past resting on the edges of her stretchmarks – I’m sure my mother will be blessed with the same fate. To be beautiful is to be powerful. I know, I know, people say all the time that what is within is what truly matters, and I do not argue that – soul and compassion fuel the world and its inhabitants. Yes, these are things we know, but a beautiful woman is a sorceress whose soft lips, that speak only true words, and eyes that only transmit honesty have the power to burn cities down and rebuild again.
‘Men are weak.’ I thought to myself when I first saw a man who was not my father look at my mother with the eyes of passion. I forget where we were but it happened too many times for me to keep track of these events. They saw the way she carried herself, big pupils and clear face, pencil drawn eyebrows and gloss stained lips. I saw these men, unknown to me in my world but the way they looked at her it was if they already knew her, the way a man knows a woman that is his. She belonged to them, in that moment, when time and space stood to attention at a god stripped of her strengths and banished to Earth to live out life in the cages of motherhood and marriage. My mother, the god – the men, a lucifer complex, and me. Standing there watching them watch her as she walked completely oblivious or numbed from their gazes.
Who would’ve known my mother, the god, with two sons and no more eggs in her womb would pass down the majestic skill to make men weep in desire to me? Her oldest boy, the heir to my father’s dust fortune and inheritor of dirty habits, would one day make grown men wet, lick and cum whilst the stars stood watch and the moon, with its back turned towards us, hidden in-between the darkness that is space. What a blessing, what a curse, what a spell, what a time to be alive.
We never talked about girls with my mother, it just never came up. I think she always knew, even today we don’t speak about them – there was a girl, once. Way before I peeled off the dead skins of heteronormativity that society gives to us all.
We burnt, her and I. We found a way to co-exist even though our hearts desired something else; something deceitful to the church, spirited to our ancestors and pure betrayal in the eyes of those who raised us.
Don’t be confused mama, it isn’t at all what you would think it is. It isn’t at all. Yes, it was everything that it had to be at the time but now, here, as you iron your clothes for what will be another work day, you look at me and ask yourself many questions. Maybe you will be angry too, maybe because I snatched your power away from you. To be looked at, to be called beautiful, to be desired – oh god, it makes my heart bounce within my chest. It isn’t ego, I’ve told myself this for years, to be called ‘beautiful’ is to be welcomed within the mind of a person.
There. In that place. Where on the shelves lies pages of poetry, strokes and bumps from artworks, acres of grasslands, whispers of ocean waves and hymns of pieces of music played on keys and string, there, amongst all those things of the big wide world, you find your face. Bronzed and unaltered, your face – you. And all because you were called beautiful. There, with other beautiful things – you exist.
I’m going to tell you something I thought I would take to my grave – I’m happy you died.
Not in the way sinister people would think it sounds like, you were in pain and life had dealt you an unfair hand. I was relieved that you didn’t have to waste away, become nothingness as you clinched for the last breath and some sort of refuge, you were a man who knew he had to let go. You can’t change your cards once the game has begun, I found out a few days ago that you were two men but I only knew one.
The day you died, I was intoxicated with weed pulls, I could feel everything. The wind had a calm touch to it, it was May 11 and the sun was warm, it was supposed to be Autumn but there was nothing such a season other than Summer where I lived. The blue city bus dropped me where it always did, I said goodbye to my friends and headed home. My blazer, wrapped in shades of blue and white straps, hung on my shoulder like a sash. I walked through the streets on the short distance home like I always did, the old gravel roads were populated with potholes, children at play and the quaint silence of an Afternoon in my hometown of eMlazi.
The gate was open. I recalled being annoyed, because I knew I would have to be the one who closed it after whoever had come in had decided to keep it open. I walked down the small slope of my home to be greeted by the old man who lived down the way, he had sadness in his eyes as I said, “Saw’bona,”
Said with a rehearsed smile handed to elderly people, a sympathetic gesture to recognize their old age, painful joints, anecdotes of struggle and finally, the true conciliation of their grief and soul. But the sadness in his brown bloodshot eyes was for me. He gazed on as I walked away, I felt him bleeding his sorrow on the floor, all this happened internally for him of course.
‘A Zulu man never showed his weakness, that included tears and fragility’, these were the teachings of his times, all he knew, all you knew too, probably.
I remember turning the corner of the house to see a woman crouching down near the bin where she was assembling a fire. I turned my head, the high now fading down, I saw your bed Baba, on the living room floor, my uncle’s wife sat on it (replacing the seat that would’ve been taken by uMa), with other women who sat on the floor while leaning against the wall. I had never seen this before, so I continued to my room, disconnected from the rest of the house. My aunt followed after and burst into my room. She was broken and hazed by confusion, like a child never before hearing of death.
“You know how your father has been sick, right?” she presented to me.
And in that moment, the present became still, my heart jumped and heated my chest.
You died, Baba. In your sleep, she told me – coughing out a spot of blood as your spirit transcended the physical world. I’m sorry you had to die alone, with nothing to your name, I know you would change a few things if you could do it again.
I know you would do more.
Have you read the Bible yet?
Do you know every scripture like the back of your hand or do you pass through existence being bombarded with verses about this reaction/action in your life that is going against the high order?
These are the questions I ask myself about faith.
So much has been said but it seems that everyone is still confused, always searching. Always looking for something to hold on to, believe in and give it the knife so it can kill you one day.
“Would you die for your belief?” I was asked once by a teacher. She was a short Indian woman, who had a slightly curved back, as a result of a lifetime of bad posture. She spoke with a light and sharp voice, her words landing like a whisper, an inside joke all of us students shared. She had a black dot on her forehead, wore beads and gold embroidered saris hung on her thin body, her mane cascading past her shoulders and naturally ending where her breasts began.
I look at her, slightly puzzled but mostly in debate with myself over what my answer should be. I do not speak.
I don’t know, God, why people think they have the right to lecture you about their religions and try to convert you in a sly way. As if you will not notice that your mind is being curved to look at life in this particular view.
I remain silent for ten whole years.
“Of course, yes, yes, I hear you,” A friend of mine says after hearing my argument to the fact that people need religion to function.
“But they are just putting themselves in a system. Religion is a system and a cooperation making billions.” She is the atypical millennial stuck between the here that is Africa and the there, that is everywhere else. She reads Zakes Mda and meticulously studies every Kendrick Lamar album, she wraps her head in red or orange doeks and sensually sways them off when making love to her white boyfriend. Xhosa is the language of her mother and exile is the past of her father so naturally Canada was home until she was four. The privileged black child is lost in her early years, only maybe figuring herself out at 25, if ever at all. It is written in her eyes that one day she will sit down with herself, equipped with her International Relations degree from the University of Witswatersrand, the trust fund, family friends in high places and the state of the nation’s unrest in her hands, she will debate with herself if she should leave for America in the Fall or ‘stick it out’.
South Africa is my home! She will tell herself.
But you deserve better, you could do so much more! The privilege will shout back.
I don’t know what she will decide but either way she will be fine, she is smart. In a first world kind of way. And today, we sit sipping on wine in her Marshalltown apartment, nestled in Johannesburg’s CBD, populated with posters of an Afro-ed Angela Davis and a gap-toothed Steve Biko along with the other suspects of the 90’s “woke” child: Erykah Badu CDs, Frantz Fanon biographies (for analyses), Octavia Butler novels, kent fabrics etched over sofas and dinner tables, lavender incense filling the air, Bongo Maffin and Boomshaka, Chimamanda feminist clapbacks and chapbooks, “Who Killed Chris Hani?” printed sling bag, admiration for 2Pac’s mother in her heart, jallof rice in the kitchen, a guitar, millennial pink sunglasses, Brown Sugar the movie and Brown Sugar the album, a double-sided opinion about Beyoncé and great internet connectivity. I do not know yet, if I feel sorry for her or if I envy her, these things are never easy to decipher.
Today, as the wine goes down, we talk about religion and how some people depend on prayer, psychologically, to survive the traumas of the world. And other people don’t need religion because they can cope in other ways.
“Cope?” I point out the word, sitting uncomfortably with me.
“Yes, cope. We are all trying to deal with the pains of life. We all need some sort of refuge, it could be drugs, work, alcohol, sex or God. Some are cursed with the combination of all of them. Can you imagine that? People go through a lot, especially black people. Especially black women. Do you want more wine?”
I nod my head, and watch as her silhouette disappears into the kitchen. I look around, and see a piece of paper stuck to the wall, it is a quote by Gwendolyn Brooks, it reads: ‘Even if you are not ready for day, it cannot always be night.’
The quote softly kills me, I wonder why she has it on her wall and sooth my soul by reminding myself that no one has it all together every waking second of every day. My mind runs back to the future then back again to the hunched-back-golden-saried-black-forehead-dotted-whispering Indian woman and I realize that I finally, after a decade, have the answer to her question:
‘Yes, I would die for me, because I am my belief.’
Written by: Negasi
Images: Writer’s Family Photos