Being black in my childhood (and to some extent it still does) meant that I was always in a world that I didn’t belong to. My family left Mdantsane, township in East London, while I was doing my first Grade 1. I did grade 1 twice (my mother’s insistence because of my atrocious handwriting), the first time was at a Coloured school on the periphery of the CBD and the second Grade 1 was at a former model C girls school in the suburbs. I was the only Xhosa ( which I prefer to using black) girl in the class, but this didn’t make the class of 27 any less colourful, there were 2 Coloured girls and a Taiwanese girl. I sensed there was something wrong with this picture because most of the Xhosa girls were in other classes. I felt a tinge of rejection but part of me didn’t mind.
My relationship with my peers at school were tense as a result of this obvious separation (I’m not sure if it was planned or a coincidence). When I was with the Xhosa girls I realised I didn’t fit in because I knew little of growing up in a township or a village. When I was with my white (for lack of a better word) peers I realised my working class family conditions set me apart as my friends spoke of going to the movies, art clubs, weekends in beach houses in Cintsa or Haga Haga.
These realisations made me yearn to find my space in the world and find my voice from a young age. I did this by trying to befriend those who were classified as losers, nonentities in the ebbs and flows of the school, but this still had its problems. I tried to assert myself and the heritage my mother would tell me about, but the white supremacy that pervaded in my school eroded the value in many things African. My hair was too kinky so I begged mama to straighten it, when Xhosa girls were together in a group we were always told we’re too loud so we were not allowed to express ourselves in isiXhosa while we were at school (this was also done so we couldn’t gossip about those who couldn’t speak isiXhosa, there was no expectation for those people to learn our language). We were eccentric, outside the centre of the school and we knew it.
My happiest moments were few at school. One of my happiest moments was a friendship circle with an Indian, Ugandan, Chinese and white girls. We didn’t realise our racial differences. We liked the Spice girls, N’Sync and we were discovering our imagination and boys in our world. A happy moment outside of school was a friendship with my Italian neighbours who had a son my age, we became best friends until I moved from the area. Sadly his mother and grandparents were racist so we mostly played in the street no matter how cold the weather. Once he floundered and left me sitting alone after his grandparents found us having a conversation outside their yard. But he always redeemed himself on our many fishing trips on Saturdays with his father and older brother. My happy moments were with people who didn’t look like me, nor speak the same language, but we found a common ground, playing and having fun.
Primary school was tense. I was overtly reminded that I was black and therefore ought to play with black girls. So I conformed and relearned the games I had left behind at my grandmother’s house in the township. But the fun soon ended when I was kicked out of the group twice. So I knew I didn’t belong there because I wasn’t black enough but I lingered on the periphery of the group until high school where I could start again.
High school meant another recreation of myself. I became the kid ozigqatsayo (a harsh way of explaining someone who is an eager beaver), a hated trait by some of my peers. I simply thought I was exploring my talents (high school had a balanced approach to extra curriculars on offer and not just sport). I found refuge in a friendship group with a Coloured, white (but not the tpical kind of whiteness that was common with other white girls because she understood isiXhosa), Ghanian and Zimbabwean girls. My world started opening up again as we shared our experiences from oue different backgrounds that had many similarities. Our common ground was a pursuit for excellence in our academics, our debating talent and our dreams to change the world (We comprised of the future president, Minister of Finance, Minister of Education, Minister of Foreign Affairs).
As high school came to an end, my estrangement from my black peers befell me again. This time I didn’t mind. I wanted a colourful life that didn’t limit me because I was born with more pigment than someone else or that I was located in a certain area until I was 6 years old.
I still wonder what it means to be black because history told me I was black. I’m happy with being me.