May these words bring wings to your feet
My body lies over the ocean/my body lies over the sea
My body lies over the ocean /Bring back my body to me/to me
Bring back/oh bring back/oh bring back my body to me/to me
Bring back/oh bring back/oh bring back my body to me
Body,I sing this verse sometimes, absently filling you and whatever space I am in, my voice craning backwards to recall a childhood I mostly enjoyed. The parts of childhood filled with song, grazed knees, mgusha; the peach tree whose pageant arms have since been severed from the roots; or mama and papa (the street light standing at the kitchen door) calling my sister and I away from the night and into a bath. I sing this song with the untouched tenderness in my before body. I am boundless-midair playing kgati, my dress tucked out-of-the-way into my panties. I have an appetite. I have to be reminded by an aunt who thinks girls are raised only with words, that ‘girls do not eat standing’ and I swallow-all the while standing. I sing in this now body, an unremarkable tenement that is more sick than not, more mould than home. I am mildewed tongue, from being afraid and holding my mouth closed or being cautious and holding my mouth closed. I am trying to fall out of myself here.I am a plastic dish with a slow leak- I look full only because my bones cannot fall out. And so I am writing about us to feel for the ground.
To catch myself,
I walk backwards
a hummingbird on the night.
I wear my sisters legs as a harness.
A witch walking in someone else’s clothes is
a broken pot.
A witch with a hummingbird in her throat is an
is a witch who cannot eat her spells.
A witch who cannot eat her spells cannot
petition her magic.
A witch without her magic walks forever with a
dead song in her mouth.
I found out recently from a co-worker that the lyrics to bring back my body are all wrong, that the ‘body’ I was singing is actually ‘Bonnie’ and that Bonnie was a sailor. This Scottish folk song made it into a primary school play in Krugersdorp, on a ship or a plane, inbetween the centuries of colonization that brought with them disenfranchisement, apartheid, oppression, and the racially motivated dispossession of people who were not classified as white.
At University I learn lists:
Mama and Papa jog for a long time with the list
tied to their heels
Every night mama checks our ankles for the list.
We read out loud after dinner so that she can
check under our tongues for the list.
In the lecture hall a white girl asks if learning
this (Ritual theatre) is necessary;
listen to the slingshot throat,
the guillotine tongue.
My mother rustles the nest under my throat.
I mean that university was a white neighbourhood, high school was a white neighbourhood, sometimes the work I do as an actor places me in white neighbourhoods. In these places I adjust my body, or starve it, or lower my voice, or wear an accent that sounds less aggressive or confrontational.
In Primary school, a teacher encourages my parents to speak to my sister and I in English only.
She draws a boat on the back of my fathers’ wallet.
wade to the middle of an ocean,
give each one a tongue and jump out,
yes Mr Malulehke, you must leave them there,
their bones are young they will split quickly,
swim to the shore.
do not use any of your people words to look
stand at the shore facing the ocean and break
the bones in your tongue with your strongest
fear is your strongest hand,
(tell them to do the same)
scream swim with the broken tongue (not like
that, take in less air when you say ‘swim’.
Flatten your tongue otherwise you are just
whistling and that sounds a lot like your
do this until they can swim to the shore and
reach English alone.
My parents use all their money to buy the boat
In grade ten my sister and I leave the scrutiny of a co-ed school and move to St Ursulas girls high school, a catholic school in Krugersdorp. I am a teenager with glasses and braces, an awkward emblem that does not look anyone in the eyes. I stand like a wilting willow, or the question-when will you dissolve me? Or the supplication-dissolve me, dissolve me, dissolve me. And though no one who sees me now will agree, today I am still learning to look up from the floor and be here. I tell everyone who will listen that a girl’s school was the best thing that could ever have happened to me, because for the first time my body could relax (kind of). By the middle of grade ten, I was not too concerned with being delicate. I did not recede. Because no one was keeping count of who the most beautiful girls in school were, and so no one was keeping count of who the ugliest girls in school were. And if it happened, then that was once a year during meetings with our brother school, and no one asked for your number. A year is a long time in forgetting. At this school, I studied Speech and Drama, I sang in public, wrote poetry and studied it and performed it. But in this same paradise, a prefect checks that the back of your skirt is not more than four fingers above the back of your knees. The girls who liked their skirts short broke the rules on purpose. The Black girls whose skirts were shorter in the back and long in the front said, ‘this is my body, what do you want me to do?’
The private school governing body says:
The battle of what you should fold versus what
you should hang comes down to fabric. Ask
yourself, how big is the school? how do you keep
the peace? I suggest you fold Black girls in a
rectangular shape, that way we don’t have to
worry about you losing your shape. Hang your
silk, anything that can wrinkle quikly should be
hung. No, there is no such thing as having too
many white T-shirts.
I was a member of the leadership team in high school, I was a prefect. when I was announced my sister shouted, ‘Thats my sister yal!’ In the announcing voice of someone so full of joy. She was proud of me and so I became more proud. I wore my skirt four fingers away from my knees possibly less; I measured my sisters’ skirt, I checked my friends hair, I allotted detention to the transgressors. Often I was a reluctant officer. I learnt slowly that Black girls’ bodies break the rules. Which is to say that the rules wish to organize us all, but the rules preside more harshly on Black girls.
‘lower the hem’ is a Hail Mary that shouts
loudest at Black girls. They want to get close
enough to the knees and keep them closed and
then store your body in a dry area. They want to
get close enough to your skin and then peel it
back in the direction it grows black. They want
to get close enough to your tongue and then wet
it, so it can soften.
My friends and I spoke about wanting to abdicate from our positions as prefects. I wanted to enjoy my last year, I wanted to join the silly zig-zag formation the girls in my class performed when they were dismissed from assembly, I wanted to be called back to ‘do it again, and this time in straight line’. I wanted to be part of planning the pranks they invented, because it was their (my) last year. And I wouldn’t be able to sing its song in the same clothes next year. Besides, I did not want to spend my last year disciplining other peoples’ bodies or my own.
Schooling is a full body compound exercise.
Which means it is a movement that uses more
than one joint. Think about it, you need your
tongue- that ambles between languages like hips.
You need your sigh, which is the sound of your
mother’s voice in the afternoon. You need your
face, the flame of your parents solace. In high
school I bend my throat and knees while the
catechism rests on my upper back. I keep my
voice closed and tongue neutral, don’t let it
round. I squat down until my throat is below my
knees. Then squat back up and lock my knees
and tongue at the top.
Once a week in a scheduled ‘safe sharing space’ called focus on feelings, we were encouraged to share our sensitivities with our classmates. A group building exercise, which I cynically felt was a way for nosy teachers to collect private information they would otherwise not acquire if they were not in this scheduled room, witnessing it. And though the contract of confidentiality was verbal and largely distrusted (especially when a girl lied about needing a kidney and performed substantive needing-kidney tears). I still used the space to vent about my infrequent frustrations. I didn’t tell the girls about my father, or his stroke, or that my sister and I were running a household and trying to pass matric. I told them instead that I wanted to quit the leadership team, I wanted to zig-zag or plan a zig-zag. I wanted to shorten my skirt and inhabit grade twelve like the rest of them.
I began to ask each time: ‘Whats the worst that could happen to me if I tell the truth?’
– Audre Lorde
Not long after this confession, our principal (she was white) announced in a meeting that she had heard that people wanted to abdicate from their roles in the leadership team. I cupped my shock between pursed lips, I was offended that someone had told her and emptied the shallow trust I had of that space. I suspected the teacher and said so, until she confronted my friends and I. She said that she was a professional and something about studying counselling or psychology (I was too livid to listen) and so it would be unethical for her to do such a thing. She saw me disbelieve her and pointed it out, I said nothing. I was not speaking to a liar. I still cannot confirm who it was, but since I’m brooding; perhaps it wasn’t the teacher (I think it wasn’t her), It could have been the chillingly amiable head girl or her go-getting deputy. It could have been one of the twenty four girls who felt favour could be bartered, over the bodies of other girls, with trust.
The principal said, ‘I would like to remind you that I write your recommendation letters…’ in the calm tone I imagine God used when he said ‘let there be light’ because he knew what he was capable of, he was certain he was God. My friends and I (all of us, people of colour) stayed, to keep the door open. To make the door sing ‘they are twice as good’.We were afraid that the recommendation letter would mention that we were, during our ‘greatest test of leadership’, found wanting. I carried my burden with displeasure, like an impediment to my joy, and often like a weapon against other girls. When I was not enforcing the rules, inspecting bodies like mine and invoking the punishments for deviation, I was asleep; my grades are my sluggish testimony. What the grades do not say is that this was not my greatest accomplishment because back then I had begun practicing how to write about being uncomfortable, about having my body thrown as Hurston says ‘against a sharp white background,’ I was beginning to ‘feel my race’. I was practicing language. I was studying my tongue and the tongues of my classmates.
Every moment happens twice: Inside and
outside, and they are two different histories
– Zadie Smith
I asked my co-worker, who is white, why he had to tell me what the lyrics were and jokingly accused him of spoiling my childhood. But I do not disbelieve myself, I still sing ‘body’ instead of ‘Bonnie’ because this mourning of body makes more sense to me now than it did for the little girl I was. The more memories I count, or cross into in search of my body; the longer I stay in Krugersdorp, the more I am immersed in this lament. I feel with my body the wide tremor of displacements and distrusts. I feel broken from my body, or broken away from loving my body. I am singing across from and not with my sister. I am hanging out of the window of my body and the little language I have for how my body is both blade and bread is insufficient still.
But darling, I am spending the first of these words on you, do you see me begging you back?
(Keep me honest.Keep me open to learning, Keep me accountable)