Every black wants to speak well. You do have the occasional haters of blacks-who-speak-well of course. They are usually other blacks who have a ‘proper black’ accent as they call it. These blacks who persecute blacks-who-speak-well claim to be the true Africans and accuse blacks-who-speak-well of trying to be something they are not. All for speaking English with a non-African language accent. These blacks fear that blacks-who-speak-well think they are better than other blacks. Granted, this is a fair argument. I have heard my younger siblings and their peers many a time making jokes when they hear another fellow black struggling through their words. You have to admit it can get funny but I do not believe in mockery for mockery’s sake. I will never forget a friend of mine earlier this year, whose name I won’t mention, she was to interview someone for a work post. Everything was perfect. The man arrived for his interview he looked the part until he spoke English. After that nothing went well. My friend struggled through the interview because she wanted to burst into laughter every time the man spoke because his pronunciation was like nothing she had ever come across. The black who was interviewing the black from Mthatha was a black-who-speaks-well. Both were black and both were Xhosa. Ask me why the interview had to be in English, my friend argues that the position requires someone who speaks English well there was no other option.
Like girls dress up for girls. All blacks want to speak well because they do not want to be laughed at by other blacks. My brother told a story in his blog last week about how we once spoke English in a bus trip in the rural areas when we were kids. He said we did it to show off. I wanted to die from shame when I read that sentence. Why did we do that? There is nothing wrong with speaking English anywhere it is the motive that filled me with shame. I understand that we were kids straight out of an apartheid state. We were one of the first of our kind and as rare as dodos at the time. Everyone marvelled at kids who went to school with white kids and where we were no one spoke English for any reason let alone had access to such schools. Okay if I look at the scenario again as someone who has just recovered from self-disgust, I realise that something positive did happen. There was a reaction. There was a spark of hope and excitement that opened up as we saw in the person of a former teacher who recognised my brother. She started speaking English even though hers was shocking but who knows what possibilities it opened up?
The question here is why did we speak English?
(I thought this picture is a perfect inspiration of why we want to speak English. Not just well but pretty well ha ha – okay, commercial break over let’s get serious)
Yes it was to be looked at with awe, to be elevated above the rest, but why would we be elevated? Out of an apartheid state people thought the best thing to be was to be white. If you are white you are free from poverty, you are the cream of the crop, you are untouchable and you rule the world. English and education then became the key to finally shake off ourselves from the dust of poverty to attain that problem free white life. This is a black-who-speaks-well in a black context.
A black-who-speaks well in a white context is something else all together. He and she are not what she or he is in the black context. Here the rules are completely different.
In a white context it is about survival. It is about fighting for the right to be accepted for your humanity. It is about wanting your humanity to shine brighter than your blackness so that your blackness is not a hindrance to authentic relationships. Of course many (but not all) of the blacks who speak well were educated in your former white schools. So English is really their first language while most speak their mother tongue fluently, they probably speak English more. I have heard many of these well-spoken-blacks from time to time shrugging their shoulders completely irritated that some white person again said to them “oh you speak so well”. I personally have never quite known what to do with that statement. I did not want to think about it either because I did not want to find the issue about it that never feels quite right. I am often unsure whether I should say thank you. I have to say that when an Afrikaans person who also confesses their struggle with English as they compliment your English always feels like a genuine compliment. You can both empathise with each other. You are not being weighed and measured against some unattainable standard. However I have heard that compliment passed around even in the person’s absence about how well they speak English. It is always spoken with a certain air and tone that tells you everything that is not being said. It says the person is worth something that others of the same kind aren’t. You are not like the other blacks. It is a compliment but it is patronising at the same time. So you take it but it gets stuck in your throat and in your chest and it never settles well no matter how often you take it. I am certain there is not a single person who has given that compliment who would ever say that is what they meant. No one will agree I am sure besides the ones who are a little ahead of us but this is what some of us have felt. We are wrong, right?
There are many more blacks-who-speak-well who enjoy the compliment without thinking twice, especially with the privileges that may come with being that black-who-speaks-well. That’s if no one comes along to disrupt your happy party of course and could not be bothered, that happens too.
I am not trying to kill the compliments. Let them continue. After all it is never about what you say it is about how you say it. You could say those exact words with a different tone and it will go down my throat like honey.
I just want us to listen to ourselves as we speak to each other sometimes. We must also listen to each other if we are to have any more authentic relationships in this rainbow nation. I know there are many people who are far, far ahead in this, they are black, white, coloured and Indian. They make the fabric of this nation so beautiful. It was after all my white friend who was the first one to comment and say that she will write about why this is an issue and then a coloured friend said she will come with her story about this. I can’t wait to read about her journey. This is a rainbow affair. While the majority were perplexed about what my issue was when I initially brought up the topic, I am so thankful for the ones who understood without me having had previous conversations about this. This is phenomenal progress in our rainbow nation. It makes me so proud to know that there are people who care about the deep heart issues of South Africans.
This is so that we can enjoy a nation that is not just united by a flag but united because we hear each other’s heartbeats. We feel each other’s pain and we learn how to heal each other so that we can dance together and laugh together without a hint of mistrust. Without thinking that you assume that you know me but you do not even scratch the surface of my heart.
While I come from the most articulate people group as I like to claim, I have not lived up to it here. I pray to God that someone out there will be inspired by what I have written and write something much better so that we can speak to each other’s hearts better.