In Praise of the Shades: My Personal History and Ancestry
This week’s post is inspired by my favorite poem “In Praise of the Shades” by South African poet Christopher Michael Zithulele Mann (b.1948, Port Elizabeth). The poem offers some insight on personal history and ancestry:
Hitching across a dusty plain one June,
down one of those dead-straight platteland* roads,
I met a man with rolled-up khaki sleeves
who told me his faults and then his beliefs.
It’s amazing, some people discuss more
with hitch-hikers than even their friends.
His bakkie* rattled a lot on the ruts
so I’m not exactly sure what he said.
Anyway, when he’d talked about his church
and when the world had changed from mealie-stalks
to sunflowers, which still looked green and firm,
he lowered his voice, and spoke about his shades.
This meant respect, I think, not secrecy.
He said he’d always asked them to guide him,
and that, even in the city, they did.
He seemed to me a gentle, balanced man,
and I was sorry to stick my kit-bag
onto the road again and say goodbye.
When you are alone and brooding deeply,
do all your teachers and loved ones desert you?
Stand on a road when the fence is whistling.
You say, It’s the wind, and if the dust swirls,
Wind again, although you never see it.
The shades work like the wind, invisibly.
And they have always been our companions,
dressed in the flesh of the children they reared,
gossiping away from the books they wrote,
a throng who even in the strongest light
are whispering, You are not what you are,
remember us, then try to understand.
They come like pilgrims from the hazy seas
that shimmer at the borders of a dream,
not such spirits that they can’t be scolded
not such mortals that they can be profaned,
for scolding them, we honour each other,
and honouring them, we perceive ourselves.
When all I seem to hear about these days
is violence, injustice and despair,
or humourless theories, from cynical hearts,
to rescue us all from our human plight,
those moments in a bakkie* on a plain
make sunflowers from a waterless world.
*Platteland literally ‘flat land’ (Afrikaans), the sparsely inhabited interior
*Bakkie a pick-up truck (Afrikaans)
There’s something unsettling about this poem: from deep within its subtext something arises. It’s the feeling of invisible eyes on my back, that perhaps there’s an invisible body hunched behind me watching, waiting, whistling like the wind. Every time I read this poem I feel a supernatural presence that hangs in the air like fog. I feel it in the way my breath hastily leaves my chest, in the way my spine tingles, in the way the hairs on the back of my neck rise. And at the same time I take comfort in the fact that I am the fleshy, bodily manifestation of the ghosts that haunt the spaces I occupy because Mann eases me out of the poem with a feeling of hope. And in fact, Mann assures me that these are my dearly departed ancestors, suspended within my very existence. They exist because I exist. I exist because they exist. These are my Shades and by acknowledging them, or in praising them, I perceive myself.
African ancestry is hard to perceive sometimes. I’ll use my family tree as an example. The waters of post-colonial heritage and identity from my part of Africa are murky. When I look at my lineage I see a line that is curved by the chaos of colonialism. Erased at some points in history and then re-drawn in a newer shade. My ‘Shades,’ using Mann’s definition, come in different shades: black, white, brown. However, some personal information about the many individuals who make up my personal history and ancestry is lost within the folds of time. More so with my darker-skinned, pre-colonial ancestors whose true traditions I will never know because their existence has been wiped away like their black bodies were stains that tormented the Earth. All I can do now is pin their souls to the many black bodies found in archival photographs. And in doing so I hope to put some names to some anonymous faces.
Their stories were never documented. So I imagine their spirits plastered flush against the edges of the Earth, flattened out of view. The only proof that they were ever alive is in their lighter skinned children and their children’s children. As muddy as it is, my personal history and ancestry gives me a sense belonging. I can see where I come from and where I can potentially head. I can see myself, my interests, my quirks represented in real people with real stories when I look at photographs of my family. I can reconcile with my muddy history because I take pride in knowing that I live in a multi-cultural, multi-racial world, and that in the future, the shades of color we use to classify ourselves will become less relevant. My hope for the future is that my descendants will never have to face the same fate as some of my ancestors. With that said, here are my Shades, the ones that I know of:
MY MOTHER’S ANCESTRY:
MY FATHER’S ANCESTRY:
Since the inception of City Noise I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring and debating the power of photography, and the agency that photography may or may not provide for certain groups of people. I think the same argument could be made for one’s personal history and ancestry. Perceiving yourself in those who have walked before you grounds you to something bigger than yourself. Those who have access their own history have an advantage when it comes to shaping their future. History gives you context, it gives you a foundation and a legacy on which to build something. More importantly, it gives you images in which you can see yourself. That is why I will forever hold onto these photographs of my ancestors. Having seen their fate before my eyes, I must now continue to create my own images for those who will come after me. Junot Díaz drives this point home better than I:
“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.”
*Try and pronounce our names.
Originally published at thecitynoise.com on May 17, 2016.