This article was published by the South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za) and is reproduced with permission. Picture credit: www.newsone.com
The black man has become the signifier for a host of unconscious fears that lurk within the white psyche
My 12-year-old son has a taste for hoodies, rap and hip hop clothing. He carries a blackberry in his pocket which he reaches for every so often to text one of his friends. He has a friendly face and temperament but has also learnt at a young age to stand up for his own rights and speak out against the injustices of the world. Someone once suggested to me that his face is so sweet no one would do him any harm. But Trayvon Martin had a sweet face too.
The horrible truth is that no matter how sweet his face is, he may also one day be perceived as a threat to some trigger-happy racist with a gun because he reached into his pocket for his Blackberry at the wrong moment – or simply because he is not white. Like Trayvon Martin he would never take abuse lying down. He would stand up to a man pointing a gun at him for no apparent reason.
I can tell by how angry and vocal he became when he heard the story about his father being surrounded by neighbourhood watch men, armed to the hilt with guns cocked when he went to draw money at an ATM in the Walkerville Spar last year. He went to the same ATM twice because he had not drawn enough cash to pay for the thatch he had gone to fetch. The second time somebody alerted the neighbourhood watch. They came like a small army in bakkies and ambushed him as he walked out the shopping centre.
My husband had to suppress his contempt for these white men who thought they had him figured. He knew their type well from his years of being a political prisoner on Robben Island. He had to control his anger because he also knew that in this country an angry black man could get killed in cold blood in front of a bank merely for being black. He firmly let them know that he knew his rights.
They wanted to search his car. He said no – that only the police had the right to search his car. Before he had finished his sentence the cops arrived in ten squad cars and guns at the ready. When they searched his car they found a ladder, some tools and gumboots because, as he had told them, he was on his way to fix the thatching of our weekend home in Magaliesburg.
The black cops said they were getting tired of the neighbourhood watch victimizing black men randomly. The report they received was that my husband was armed to the hilt. They told him that they too were ready to shoot. One wrong move and he may have been killed.
I am the white mother of a biracial male child who has been born into a world in which to be black and male makes you vulnerable to random shootings in suburban settings, where it seems, any black male is a potential threat. It is a message that is deeply ingrained in the global white consciousness. When I think back to my own childhood I have to come to terms with the fact that I too was taught that fear wears a black man’s face. Now I need to teach my child how to navigate this false construct that my white world was built upon.
I grew up in a South Africa that seemed reserved for whites only, where fear came in the form of the dust bin men, or the ice cream man or the old man who hobbled along our main street, probably to some impossible gardening job. And fear always wore a black man’s face. I was often warned. “Don’t eat that ice cream – it may have drugs inside” or “Stay indoors when the dustbin men come… you never know.” My older sister used to quake in her pretty pink shoes and clutch her cat Tammy to her chest when she heard the dustbin men’s whistles. Someone had told her that they stole cats and made hats out of them.
I can’t remember seeing many other black men around as a young child but when my mother married a ‘Rhodesian’ farmer and shipped us all off to a better life on a tobacco farm in the mid seventies, suddenly there was an entourage of black men (who were referred to as boys) who ran our farm house. I came to know and love these men the way I used to love my series of surrogate black mothers back in South Africa.
It was around the same time that the bush war had moved into our area. As children all we knew was that we were surrounded by ‘terrorists’. Now double security fences shot up around our houses along with brick mortar shields built in front of our windows. We were taught to shoot automatic Uzis, which remained under our beds at night. During school hours helicopters would come and drop pamphlets over our playgrounds, revealing to us the atrocities that ‘terrorists’ were meting out on the locals. Images of women with ripped off lips, children swinging upside down from trees and decapitated old folk filled our dreams.
What we knew for certain about the “ters” is that they were black men. For some reason, I used to imagine that they were black men who wore red caps and red clowns noses. I had to differentiate them from the black men that populated my young life, whom, no matter how hard I tried, I could not fear.
At the same time, posters of white war heroes were pasted in our country clubs, on our school walls and any other public space available. Army guys used to patrol our farms when our fathers were away on police reserve and my mother dutifully did her stints in the canteens to feed these “war heroes”. My older sister used to swoon at these handsome white boys armed to the hilt. I began to fear them. They carried dried up terrorists ears in their pockets as proof of their ability to kill.
In my young mind I was not aware of the gross injustice of this slave tenure system that we were benefiting from – until years later when I majored in African Politics at University and things started to fall into place. I also learnt that it was not necessarily the freedom fighters that had ripped off the lips of the women in the propaganda pamphlets. This was long after my stepfather abandoned his farm and fled from a black government and we landed back in South Africa.
Again, we were fleeing from the danger that a black man presented to our safety and again I was flung into a society where black men were all but invisible, except for the occasional gardener. It was only when I went to study journalism at college in Durban that I encountered black men again, and this time on an equal footing. For the first time black men became part of my social circles as we pretended to be hard core journalists, drinking in pubs in the afternoon and discussing all manner of things.
I was introduced to township life at the tender age of 18 and I took to it like a fish to water. Township Jazz Clubs became a regular weekend activity, as did braais at township homes, where I would sit smoking and drinking with the men while the women slipped into the toilet for a drag of a smoke or a sip of cider. I got into the local black music scene and managed a band of black male musicians. I had a regular Jazz and Arts column in a local paper and started to put on concerts at a local community arts hall. Those were the heady days of struggle and jazz that allowed me to improvise and discover my fearlessness and freedom of choice.
Two decades later I am married to Sipho and we have a beautiful male child, now twelve-years-old. We are a normal happy family for the most part. But after the Walkerville experience and the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin I know it is time for me to navigate the quagmire of racial complications that our world presents to us.
Having a male child I realise that I need to teach him to always look inwards for who he is and not to believe what the world tries to tell him he is. I need to help him deconstruct the many mixed messages that abound about the black male as constructed through the white gaze – in popular culture, in the media and in real life.
If you look around you will see the myriad constructions of the black male image. He is touted as the youthful sex symbol in advertising, or the paragon of success in up market media or the rapper with access to endless bling and pussy or the man that wears a suit like no other. He is the face of political power and leadership and wealth, but he is also the man who is accused of corruption. He is the man desperately trying to make a living by selling trinkets on the pavements, the man who has lost his job and is struggling with his dignity. He is the reason that people are building six-foot walls around their properties. He is the black boy-child who is shot with a hunting rifle whilst visiting his domestic worker grandmother at her place of work, in a country that remains silent. He is the young man who is killed by neighbourhood watch whilst walking to the shops to buy Snickers, because he looks suspicious.
Middleclass communities build mini armies under the guise of “neighbourhood watch” to defend themselves from the black male. They say it is only about crime, but I think it masks a deeper fear of blackness. Too many innocent young black men have been killed ‘accidentally’. The fear of black men is so deeply ingrained it has become part of the collective unconscious.
Deep down white society fears the black man’s political power, they fear his economic potential, they fear his poverty, they fear his sexuality. The black man has become the signifier for a host of unconscious fears that lurk within the white psyche. It is this fear that makes it dangerous to be black and male in the world today.
I once told my son to be careful. He was jumping off a high wall in his Superman outfit. He was three years old. He said to me, full of confidence – “I am becarefulling mom.”
And now at twelve, I want to gather him in my arms and whisper in his ear – “Carry on becarefulling son. Don’t let the world’s irrational fear of your brown skin and curly hair and hoodies and hip-hop kill your confidence. Don’t let it kill you.”