Remembering Differently

Slavery, despite its centrality to South Africa's founding, remains on the periphery of popular and institutional memory there.

Lupita Nyong'o in '12 Years a Slave." (Still from the film.)

The Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot opens his remarkable work “Silencing the Past” by pointing to the ambiguity of the word ‘history’. History is both “what happened” and ‘that which has been said to have happened’, with this duality containing both an ‘irreducible distinction’ and ‘equally irreducible overlap,’ writes Trouillot. In our participation in this process we are simultaneously actors and narrators, engaged in the act of making history, as action or event, and crafting a narrative that will leave an imprint for those who have yet to come. The power to control this story, what will appear as History proper, is a question that energizes the work of scholars of the subaltern, who are intimately concerned with the overwhelming silences and distortions that serve the project of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and Western hegemony.

The act of remembering, in the context of African history, is a complex task, where black histories have been relegated to the sidelines and often eviscerated from popular knowledge. We engage with the past ‘after the break’, as Stuart Hall argues, constructing the past ‘through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth’. And the Ghanaian intellectual Ato Sekyi-Otu writes, ‘all remembering is a political activity’, which requires us to ask: what does it mean to remember in this place, South Africa, for this people, and at this time? Venturing into the silences, working in and with the gaps in knowledge, directly engages the difficulties of memory and the demands of critical historical consciousness.

For a marginalized group, coloureds in South Africa, remembering is a central matter of identity: the act of drawing a map of and to the self that yields no easy routes as ancestral lines are remarkably abbreviated and subjectivities are poignantly absent. As literary scholar Grant Farred comments: ‘Coloured racial difference…registered differently from one historical moment to the next’. Thus thinking colouredness, for this moment, requires an acknowledgement that the identity and concept is palimpsetic in the way that it ‘registered differently’, with each moment leaving a mark for and on the next, which is revealed in encounters with the traces of the past. In this post-apartheid/post-colonial moment the question about what colouredness both delineates and means remains a spectre that haunts race, citizenship and redress, and makes the task of historical excavation salient and politically critical. However, like all marginalised groups, we have to contend with history that exists as fragments.

Writing on Saartjie Baartman, Pumla Gqola comments that despite the fact that she has been extensively written into popular memory, little is known of her subjectivity, and as such she has come to personify an ‘absent presence’. One can extend this critique to the entire battle with coloured memory, and the challenge of how to deal with the absent presence of slave histories and slave narratives in our context – which remains on the periphery of popular and institutional memory.

Two buildings in Cape Town, the District Six Museum and The Slave Lodge, stand as critical markers that allow the past to live in our context. The slave era in the Cape Colony served as the genesis of several founding myths about coloured people and ideas of miscegenation and hybridity, the birthplace of popular logic, and the first known attempts to group together heterogeneous people for political reasons in governance. As such, it is a fundamental site of coloured ontology. Venturing into this space, however, requires working with forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded histories.

Conceptual artist Berni Searle’s work ‘Profile’ (2003) exemplifies this kind of imaginative and creative work required. It dialogues with this uneasy history, as her oeuvre challenges, engages, is frustrated with, expands, condenses and plays with ideas of colouredness, while refusing to be trapped by history and always gesturing towards new imaginings of the self. Using the notion of ‘the body as archive’, ‘Profile’ maps the body, engaging the difficulties of tracing coloured heritage. The work comprises a series of prints in which Searle uses a technique known as “blind embossing: to impress “into her cheek a range of objects loaded with cultural connotations”, which include a Christian Cross, Mulsim rakim, British imperial crown, an apartheid shield, Dutch windmill and African “love letter”. Through this she evidences how research into the archive of coloured history reveals ambiguities and absences, a limited archive that does not yield finite answers as the coloured body is rooted to all, yet tied to none.

Searle excavates a past that shows the complex relationship between colouredness and issues of belonging as the objects she uses denote multiple places of coloured belonging. By drawing attention to multiple roots, Profile bears an intertextual reference to the poet Arthur Nortje’s (1973) existential anguish, particularly a line from Dead Roots that reads: “He who belongs to nowhere/is to nothing/deeply attached.” The double meaning, being attached to the lack of a clear place of belonging or ambivalent to this fact, articulates the historical dilemma at the heart of coloured belonging that arises out of the mutedness of coloured history.

In the act of taking coloured, and greater African, history seriously we should ask ourselves: ‘where do we speak from, and with whose vocabulary?’ The grammar of history is embedded in a power structure, and the task of upending it demands a commitment to tell our own stories, in our own voices, while simultaneously critiquing the manufacturing and appropriation of these narratives. Our task is to ensure that contemporary histories are rescued from the current state that Gqola argues replicates the “sameness and anonymity” that oppressed people faced within “colonial epistemes”. It is not just asking that we remember, but that we remember differently, and in a way that allows the past, and our ancestries, to emerge with full humanity intact. We can take our genesis from Trouillot instructional statement that ‘History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.’

Our relationship with the past is a strange entanglement, a play with light and shadow, what is seen and unseen, there and yet frustratingly elusive. We undertake a mournful dance with memory as we ponder the terms and conditions of who we are and where we have come from. The act of engaging and wrestling with historical memory remains a fraught undertaking. But remember, we must.

  • I take the title of the post from a quote about Toni Morrison’s work by Paul Skenazy: “Her ability in that book to move across fantasy and the hard terms of black life; to turn folk stories into palpable mythologies that rule the everyday; to make a quest of forgotten, unspoken, hidden, and discarded history: These are beautifully entangled in that book.”

Further Reading

Reading List: Mutt_Lon

The books that the author, a Cameroonian novelist, has been reading share an ethics of political engagement, a quest for identity and cultural inventory, and an ear for the voices and harmonies of African languages.