Reflections on my heritage for “Heritage Day”

Stories silenced because of shame, because of fear, because of desires or a sense of urgency to be seen in one way and not another…

“Daddy, where did you get the colour of skin?” I asked my father this questions after attending a conference in Uganda this year. The question stemmed from perplexed looks on some conference delegates’ faces when they learned that I was not White, that I was mixed race, but not in the way they understood that term. They seemed to struggle with the idea that I did not have one Black and one White parent, that both my parents were of mixed race.

As a friend and I tried to explain how it was possible that a whole group of people existed in South Africa that were like us, products of parents who were both of mixed race, I realized just how little I actually knew about the origins of this group of people to which I belonged.

Coming home, I continued to process their questions and reactions, and my responses to their questions and reactions. I continued to reflect on the onslaught of emotions that welled up inside me as another friend offered a heartfelt apology at what “her” people had done to “my” people”. I am stunned by the intensity of those emotions, and sensed a stirring deep in my spirit. It felt like an unfolding… an awakening…  a tentative opening of a door that had been shut inside me for so long.

My father’s answer to my question, “Daddy, where did you get the colour of your skin?” was not surprising – “I don’t know.” It is an answer applicable to many of my questions as a Coloured woman in South Africa, questions such as, “Who am I? Who are my ancestors? Where do I come from? What is my culture?” My parents cannot answer these questions because they do not know. Because these stories were silenced, were not passed on from one generation to the next, because no effort was made by the South African government to keep adequate records that would enable subsequent generations of my people to trace their lineage.

Is this, then, my heritage? Is my heritage one of, “I don’t know?” Will my heritage always be the stories that were silenced

…because of shame,

…because of fear,

…because of desires or urgency to be seen as one colour and not as another colour, in a desperate attempt to hold on to dignity when the South African government appeared to do everything in its power to strip my people, any people who were not White, of dignity

…stories silenced forever…lost, because those who knew them have died?

Khadija Heegers wrote a poem called “Suffering” (one variation of this poem can be found at http://badilishapoetry.com/artists-profile/31/, but this variation was performed at the an event called “songs worth singing, words worth saying, Reconciling through music and poetry in Cape Town); she says,

Suffering, – has a black skin

how am I to be

now that I am made of glass

and my words have no sound except for those uttered in the past

sometimes I am black

when politics parodies a truth

and quantity is king, sometimes I am black

sometimes only in the vagueist sense, do I have a history

a memory

a cultural reality.

easier to keep me in the dark,

easier to talk about the Indian ocean slave trade as if it was one of the stepsisters,

easier to say that I almost suffered

am almost one thing, not quite another

somewhere between here and there, between 1994 and the present

I was lost on the periphery of a South African story

because if memory serves the historical themes

it seems my people were not participants in the resistance

never marched

never fought

never died.

coloured anomaly, forcefully removed, survivors of slave ancestry

the sum total of my past coined thus and by degree I’m the

‘not so bad off’ progeny,

we won’t omit you completely we’ll just be selective and play with the lighting

so it won’t look so frightening

pieces of a story, just enough said so you’ll go quietly to bed and mind your manners

citizen ‘not quite black”…

As a Coloured woman in South Africa, is this my heritage?

But then a gentle voice whispers inside me… “No, this is not your entire heritage. This is not all of who you are.” And a memory slowly begins to surface… a story that I have owned, and told, one that was told to me, one that has become foundational in who I believe myself to be. In one word, this story is one of “overcoming”.

You see, I am a third generation in a line of women who have overcome no matter what life has thrown at them…

I am the granddaughter of a woman who survived a difficult and painful childhood, who married and remained faithful to an abusive and philandering husband, who lovingly raised three children, whose faith gave her the courage to endure and overcome…

I am the daughter of a woman who survived the challenges of her childhood, who remained faithful to a husband who became an alcoholic when life became incredibly difficult (but thankfully is now a recovered alcoholic), whose child-like faith kept our family together and carried us through many difficult, painful years…

Tina Schouw, a South African singer and songwriter, penned these words for a song entitled “beautiful woman”,

Oh sacred tribe of women past

You have circled me

You have blessed this child

She tells the story of the origin of this song in the cover of her album, “winds call”,

“beautiful woman was inspired by a dream I had where all the ancestral women on my maternal side came to visit me. In the dream they danced around me and blessed me. They told me to believe in myself and to honor my body and spirit. I believe that each of us is the sum of the women and men who have grown us on our journey through life. This song celebrates all women, past and present, who have grown and continue to grow us. It is a call to all women to recognize and celebrate their uniqueness.

This perfectly describes my unfolding awakening to my heritage. I am the daughter and a granddaughter of these two amazing women – my grandmother and my mother. Their faith and their lives gave me the courage to rise above

…early childhood experiences of sexual abuse

…adolescence filled with memories of an alcoholic father and family financial difficulties

…crippling self-esteem issues that fuelled the development of various masks in order to survive

…an diagnosis of infertility that plunged me into despair for a couple of years

Last year, I decided to go ahead with something quite uncharacteristic of me… I got a tattoo. And unbeknownst to me, I inked into my flesh what I am now realizing is the key to the question, “Who am I?” and the heart of another aspect of my heritage – overcomer.

My tattoo

My tattoo

So, today, I am embracing my heritage as one of suffering AND overcoming, a heritage that I will, along with all of South Africa, celebrate on 24 September, our Heritage Day.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on my heritage for “Heritage Day”

  1. fiona lynne October 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm Reply

    Wow. Your story is one destined to be shared over and over because I can feel such healing in it. Yes, you are one that overcomes. What a legacy you come from and what a legacy you will leave!

    • findingandowningmyvoice October 1, 2013 at 6:43 pm Reply

      Your comments mean a lot to me Fiona. Thank you, for your words of affirmation. I admire your writing so much, so such praise is much appreciated. Bless you!

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