The Negro Whisperer What happens when you wake up and find you are black?

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For the greater part of 2016 the regularity with which I have contributed to my website has decreased.  Work, entrepreneurship, responsibility, and ennui have divided my time amongst themselves like the colonial powers of old. The morning and early afternoon hours are reserved for teaching and fulfilling contractual obligations which pay the bills; the late afternoon hours are kept aside for listlessness and writer anxiety; and, the early evening hours are annexed by running my salsa club. The late evening hours are generally unproductive because apartments, laundry, shopping lists, and life plans do not clean or make themselves.

Creativity, writing, design, photography, and gym—all these lesser powers—must scrap for whatever islands of time are left unwanted or unused. They cannot dictate my daily events; they are spectators in the power plays of the taxpayer’s world.

But I cannot blame the predictable responsibilities of employment and entrepreneurship for everything. It would be dishonest of me. The real problem, really, is that I have been waking up black for the past while.

No, not waking up in a black or bad mood. I mean waking up and being black; physically, emotionally, and intellectually. It is a feeling I cannot adequately express because of its novelty and nuance. It is the state of being which has kept me from penning as often as I desired.

But that is the long and short of it: I woke up one day, I realised I was black, and I did not know what to do about it.

I still do not know what to do about it.

The awakening of a black consciousness is a frightening experience. As soon as one feels a slight connection to the greater sense of blackness, a state of being much larger than one individual life, one is quickly aware that a bite has been taken out of some forbidden fruit. A black person becomes painfully aware of their place in the world: where they are and where they are not, and, worse, where they cannot be. To wake up black is to become intimately conscious of where one is welcome, where one is tolerated, and where one is most definitely not accepted. It is to realise where one stands in relation to whiteness.

As soon as this clarity of vision is achieved it becomes impossible to reside in the Eden of Ignorance. You have to leave, black man. And, “black man, you are on your own.”

Coming to this realisation is disconcerting because it means having to make choices. But more on those later.

To clarify, I am black. I have always been black. My skin is the shade of dark brown which makes sitting underneath a tattoo needle an almost nonsensical enterprise. My hair is tough and resistant to all but the sturdiest of combs and treatments, and, when I am in certain company my accent will drop a hint of an accent which can be traced and grouped by any myopic worldview.

For a long time my pigmentation was my only link to blackness. When I was younger, being black was a question of what you looked like. When I grow older, though, being black slowly took on a different meaning. It was not just a skin colour, it became a lifestyle. Whether it involved cutting, curling, straightening, or braiding my hair, coordinating accents with outfits, or practicing equanimity in the face of ignorant school or work banter, it became a daily and ongoing project. Blackness ceased being a time and a place. It became a process.

It was a conscious thought process which involved choosing which restaurants or clubs to visit; where I could walk at certain hours of the day, who I dated, what opinions to express at the workplace, and deciphering the numerous subtle encroachments made on blackness in news and media culture.

When I think back now, I was not the only one going through this process. My black friends were undergoing the same experiences. Slowly, over time, we were all forced to wake up to our pigmented reality, one by one.

It was fun some of the time, and at other times it was painful. Most of the time, though, it was just confusing and hard. That is because growing older, when you are black, is not just growing up in your skin colour. It is growing up into your skin colour, its history, its present challenges, and its uncertain future. It is not an easy thing to do.

For the greater part of my twenty-eight years on Earth, I did not feel black. I mean, I knew I was black—but I never really felt as though I was part of a larger black narrative, a bigger story which spread around me, past, present, and future. All of the inequalities, prejudices, discriminations, and inequalities which affected black people as a whole affected me, too, but they never affected me to the extent that I saw myself as part of the collective blackness which suffered such injustices.

In my head, I was always a different type of black. Not a “better black,” though. Just a different black. Rémy black—a one-man nation of blackness made by various attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, and actions collected over a long period in diaspora.

My former detachedness from the rest of black consciousness is not particularly new, I think. Over the past couple of years I have met a few black people like me, blacks with shifting frontiers of blackness, citizens of their own intellectual and experiential constructions.

How these other black people came into being is beyond the scope of my writing. I can only speak for myself. I am Rwandan. I was born there and spent six years of my life growing up in relative privilege before my family and I left the country in 1994. We settled in Nairobi, Kenya, for a while—about two years. After that we undertook another exodus to Windhoek, Namibia, arriving in the country in 1997. While in Windhoek, I completed my primary and high school education. Between 2007 and 2014 I studied, lived, and worked in Cape Town, South Africa, before moving back to Windhoek, which I now call home. Tentatively.

On paper, and culturally, I am Rwandan. But due to my duration in the country, I consider myself Namibian. Having never returned to the country of my birth, Namibia is where I tell people I live but not where I am from when I am pressed—still, it is where my immediate family resides and, therefore, home, savoury, sweaty, dusty home.

My formative years were spent in South Africa, specifically, at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where identity constructions were challenged on a daily basis by the cultural makeup of the university’s student body and the greater Cape Town population. In my tastes and habits, I am Capetonian. I complain like one; I swear like one; I talk like one sometimes; and, when the middle class Rondebosch-Newlands ethic is particularly strong within me I will be found on the road at ungodly hours of the morning pursuing fitness perfection or walking my Jack Russell terrier. Oh, and I have the insufferable Mother City nostalgia for life in Cape Town which makes Capetonians insufferable in company.

Throughout all of this geographic and social movement my identity was based on my pursuits, my talents, and my interests, never on my skin colour. At least, I think so.

In primary school I was a reader; in high school I was an overachieving asshole with a sly sense of humour and a violent wit, and an all-rounder track and field athlete. In university I was, first, an English literature graduate with a plan, and then, eventually, a law graduate on the run.

At UCT I was an avid writer, photographer, and graphic designer; I was a budding cyclist; a staunch and dedicated club-goer; and, generally, an eclectic twenty-something with the wealth and wonder of Cape Town open to me and my talents. I never felt black. I was black but I did not feel it. Not really. I had black, white, Coloured, and Indian friends; I associated easily with people from all over the world; and, I had a profusion of interests and distractions which made me an easy dinner guest.

I was never alone, and because I was never alone I never felt black.

So that is me. I have moved around quite a bit, but not nearly as much as some people I know. And because I have moved around, being forced to adapt to whatever social setting I might find myself in, my identity has never really settled. It is the gift and the curse of diaspora: life on the edge of citizenship, of being, of belonging, and, in my case, blackness.

Citizens of diaspora never really choose sides. They are not allowed to. They must adapt to their situations, which means being able to appropriate the cultures around them; they must be able to form connections with people and places quickly or risk perpetual alienation from their foreign communities.

Was I political? If it suited my narrow needs (not being drowned out in a conversation) and wants (when being a well-spoken black man was a shortcut to getting laid) I most certainly was.

Did I experience racism? Yes, of course, I did. Every black person in the world does. But what really defines one’s experience of racism is the level of privilege they have managed to attain. Think of privilege like a thick, warm, winter coat in this instance. Zero degrees is zero degrees everywhere. But to the person wearing nothing but a vest zero degrees might as well be fifty below. But to the person in the coat it is manageable, at best the temperature is a slight irritation.

That is what racism was like for me. It bounced off my intellectual armour. Few instance of racism really bit to the quick when I lived in Cape Town. There was nothing which could not be soothed by a decadent lunch or a cocktail sundowner at this eatery or café here, or a night of debauchery at that club over there with my exceptionally diverse social circle. I saw racism as general ignorance, something for the intellectually weak and, where possible, I surrounded myself with the enlightened so I rarely experienced it.

Was I concerned about blackness, its representations, its deprivations, and its own myopia? Yes, in a nominal sense. I worried about these things when they affected me directly (which they rarely did). For the most part they were other people’s problems. Sure, I was black, but it came as an afterthought in numerous social and amorous situations.

But that was in Cape Town, in another time and place. I was younger. I had early twenty-something worries. It was, in retrospect, a halcyon time when my blackness did not really matter because it did not negatively affect me too much. Blackness, at the time, was not yet a lifestyle. It was not yet a struggle. It was a privilege.

Therein lies the problem: privilege distorts reality.

Windhoek, though, lacks the careful and subtle Matrix coding which makes a certain form of black life (my former life) in Cape Town enjoyable and sustainable. The spaces and places in the capital city are clearly marked and claimed. There are no diverse hipster hangouts where one can wax lyrical about some unknown band’s unreleased LPs. There is a scarcity of clubs and restaurants that can entertain white and black alike without the presence of the latter becoming a devaluing aspect of the establishment. The haves have in huge qualities and the have-nots have nothing. It is hard to ignore the role race plays when it comes to determining which side of the income inequality divide one will wind up on.

Windhoek makes the struggle real. Morpheus is not needed here. You wake up from the dream by yourself.

And my awakening was rough and rude and vexing.

I cannot really pin down one trigger incident which brought reality into clear focus. Maybe it was the “but you are black” comment made by a white Afrikaans student at the first high school at which I taught when I introduced myself and spoke a bit about my interests and adventures in the world. She was so surprised that I could have done all the things that I did in the way that I did them while being me (black) all all of the time. Or it might have been the stares my Afrikaans girlfriend and I received when we made the mistake of winding up in Windhoek’s more conservative locales (mistakes which have not been repeated since). Maybe it was the numerous “I do not work here” scenarios I have had to deal with in grocery stores over the past year or so. It might have been the dinner conversations between friends and family in which issues about land and redistribution of wealth were skirted around gingerly until I nonchalantly and unequivocally sided with expropriation without compensation (much to the surprise of present company).

Or, maybe even, it was the undercurrent of world events in which blackness and the treatment of black bodies, especially in the US but also elsewhere in the world, was being constantly questioned. Or the police shootings in the US which made me feel as though each death could have been mine somehow. The comments about John Boyega starring in The Force Awakens and Jesse Williams’ fiery speech at the BET Awards kindled serious thoughts about the black struggle and my role in it. Then there was Becky with the really bad grades, and Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast about moral licensing and the power privilege brings.

All of these things, individually and collectively, made me pick sides for the first time. And I realised my side was blackness.

Whatever the cause, the symptoms have been the same: everyday for the past year or so, I have woken up and felt back. Finally. Inevitably.

This photograph hangs in my living room wall. I am not sure who took it. I imagine this is what The Negro Whisperer would look like. Cool, confident, coming to explain just what it means to be black. Photo: Rémy Ngamije.

And to realise this, to realise I had crossed the Rubicon, to realise my place in the world, in the local, national, and global order of things was unpleasant. Because once you know you are black you cannot go back. Suddenly, and violently, you realise your place in a long struggle for equality, for belonging, for existing as you are, without justification, without explaining.

You become intimately aware of crimes against blackness.

I am not sure whether my experience is epiphanic, whether other black people have felt it too. I do not mean reading Fanon, quoting James Baldwin, having a Toni Morrison book in your house, or tweeting a rehashed Steve Biko quote. No, I mean a serious realisation that in this wide Earth, this big universe, there is no space for blackness.

To become aware, in that instance, of the numerous injustices black people suffered in the past, the things they suffer presently, and the certainty of suffering in the future, is distressing. Because you realise that a choice has to be made: you have to choose between ignorance and activism, two roads with equally challenging circumstances.

Ignorance births bliss, a quiet existence, perhaps a comfortable middle-class existence. It is a life spent appreciating social platitudes. It is a life of “at least.”

At least things are not as bad as they were when slavery was around. At least segregation and Apartheid are over. At least we can vote now. At least we can work now. At least we can do this, and do that, and go here, and go there.

But an at-least existence is a life of minimums, a stunted, unimaginative life, a life of humbled ambitions. It is grovelling, begging, and pleading, and being happy with whatever scraps are being doled out.

At least…

It is poisonous, destructive.

Activism, on the other hand, means descending into the fray, being constantly “woke” and alert to every plight, and every injustice whether it is slight or substantial, whether it is felt personally or experienced tangentially. Activism requires action, it demands sacrifice. Sacrifice of comforts, sacrifice of privilege; of once fast held beliefs and engaging with shifting, diaphanous concepts of race and power.

Activism means being black all of the time, and realising that there are no fences for the black man to sit on since he owns neither left, right, nor middle ground. There is only constant fighting.

But activism is more than just dealing with whiteness. It also means dealing with blackness in all of its complexity and nuance. It means dealing with its beauty and all of the ugly things black people do not talk about. Like inherent patriarchy, like sexual and gender discrimination, like the exclusion of black people who fall short of an imagined black standard.

Activism leads to an even scarier prospect: becoming a negro whisperer. Being that black person who should, by virtue of wit or charm, become the person who should explain and defend blackness in its entirety and its minuteness. Black activism almost always comes with the duty to be the focal point of the black struggle, a role which is inevitable because of the limited ways in which blackness can make itself felt and heard. Being that focal point, that tip, is hard. It is hard because it means constantly thrusting oneself into the heart of whiteness, but it also means cutting into blackness as well. Fighting whiteness means fighting blackness too.

For me, as a writer, it is even scarier. How do you go back to a quiet life of writing unpublished fiction when the darnedest truth you have ever written was in a domain out of your field. How do you, when you are inadvertently presented with a willing audience and stage, put on a show worth watching without being really prepared for it? The ignorance is comfortable, for a while, but the activism requires knowledge you do not have, wisdom you have not obtained, eloquence which is elusive at the most inspired of times?

Even now as I write this, I find myself wondering, “When you find out you are black, what is the next thing you do?”

Does anybody know?

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