Identity politics is a source of great discomfort, debate and disagreement in SA. Race has and continues to be a particularly painful and divisive construct, as people of SA make attempts at brokering power and building a cohesive nation state. So, when Lynsey Ebony Chutel and I took on the work of writing a book on coloured identity we knew that we were walking headfirst into raging fires of unattended emotions about the weaponisation of coloured people’s lives as part of racial and political tensions, past and present.
Our recently released book, Coloured: How Classification became Culture dares to confront the term coloured as classification imposed through slavery, colonialism and apartheid. However, as the title of the book suggests, our primary focus is on the lived experiences and culture of people, who by force or by choice, bear the name coloured.
We contend that coloured communities, and the full, textured, colourful and complex languages, practices, music, food and political expressions we have, are the work of people in these communities ourselves. We intentionally decided to centre the people over the politics in presenting colouredness as more than a category or classification. More than history as stories of the past, we present a contemporary history of a people impacted by the past, grappling with the present and looking to the future.
Since the release of the book in early September, we have heard this repeatedly, people saying thank you for a book that allows people to feel seen, heard and to speak freely.
Yes, the term coloured has problematic origins, but if we are never allowed to talk about it then we run the risk of erasing the impact it has on people’s lives. For older people we erase their right to share the damage it did to families. The dispossession it inflicted.. For younger people, an outright rejection of coloured as a term is a rejection of everything many of them have known about their socialisation, culture and their personhood, replacing this term with histories that many families will never be able piece together in earnest because of the erasure caused by colonial and apartheid rule.
Many SA communities suffer the same absence or shame of their histories. In the post-1994 project we are being called on to build a better future without solid foundations of history to lean on. Chutel articulates this well in the book when she says “But how do coloured people begin to embrace a culture based on exploitation? How do we build the codified division established haphazardly by colonial and then apartheid rulers, which reduced rich histories to a number? It is not just coloured people whose memories were erased. The legends and languages of the amaMpondo, amaHlubi and baLobedu that did not fit neatly into the homeland structure of the amaZulu, amaXhosa and so-called Northern Sotho were simply erased by the system, but thankfully preserved by the people who took pride in their histories.”
Ours is not a glossing over the making of coloured as a classification, but an attempt to shine a light on the life-making work of building culture that our communities too have done.
Coloured, is not a call to ethno-nationalism. It is a call to reclamation. Not a reclamation of the term coloured, but a reclamation of our agency as oppressed people to define ourselves on our own terms. It is also a call to reclaim space in the shared anti-racism struggles of black and oppressed people in SA and the world over as we confront ourselves and white supremacy.
Finally, it is a call to reclaim our role in shaping the future of SA by first talking through our histories, through the various divisions we have allowed to fester and talking about the best parts of our communities as a source of pride not in the label we hold but in the people we have become despite it.