ESSAYS | FALL ’20

STILL HERE

WORDS by NKGOPOLENG MOLOI
IMAGES of DISTRICT SIX, CAPE TOWN

Southampton County (1831), Cincinnati (1836), Memphis (1866), Okahandja (1904), Kinshasa (1959),  Sharpeville (1960), Soweto (1976), Bristol (1980), Handsworth (1985), Los Angeles (1992), Brixton (1995), London (2011), Marikana (2012), Minneapolis (2020).

A haunted past. A lifetime of pain and suffering. A lifetime of fighting for dignity. A lifetime of fighting for liberation—riot, upheaval, protest, dissent, resistance, refusal. Despite all that, we are still here. Despite genocides, despite lynchings, despite racism, and despite the violence…..WE ARE STILL HERE.

In 2017, Afro-French Cuban musical sister duo Ibeyi, made up of Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Diaz, released their second studio album Ash. The album addressed themes of racism and misogyny. The third song on the album is called Deathless—a response to a traumatising encounter Lisa-Kaindé (one part of the duo) experienced with the French police at age sixteen. Deathless became a mantra to symbolise strength in the face of racial injustice. 

Whatever happens, whatever happened (oh hey)

We are deathless

We are deathless

Whatever happens, whatever happened (oh hey)

We are deathless

We are deathless

The words are repeated over the thwacking percussion—thump thump thump, deathless, thump thump thump, deathless. In an interview with the Brussels-based music blog HighClouds, Naomi said, “In truth, ‘Deathless’ is a poignant response to racism and an anthem for anybody who feels too little: minorities, the weak, and the deprived.”

Deathless (adjective)

– unceasing

– perpetual

– likely to endure

To be Black and queer and poor in this world is to be in danger, but it is also to be deathless. Not in the sense of immortal but rather as unceasing, perpetual and likely to endure. We have existed before and will remain existing.

Historical deathlessness—the Khoi and the San peoples, the first human communities on the face of the earth, whose direct descendants still exist in Southern Africa.

Symbolic deathlessness—as seen through the great pyramids of Giza and of Kerma, which stand tall four millennia later.

Mythical deathlessness—Black Atlantis, the underwater country populated by the unborn children of pregnant African women thrown off of slave ships.

To be Black in this world is to be in danger but it is also to be deathless.

My aim is not to offer up an explanation for how Black people have survived some of the most horrifyingly wicked injustices, but rather I will echo and reverberate the sound and voices of the many who have come before, highlighting sonic registers of refusals. I refer back to the continua in Solomon Mahlangu’s “Tell my people that I love them and that they must continue the fight, my blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom, Aluta continua.”

In 1950 the apartheid government in South Africa enacted the Group Areas Act which sought to racially segregate the country geographically. Under this law, District Six in Cape Town was designated a “whites only” area, which led to the forced removal of 60,000 residents. The forced removals dismantled the strong communal ties between families and friends that had been built and nourished over the years. Reflecting on the removals four decades later, a former District Six resident Nomvuyo Ngcelwane said:

❝ In August of 1963, my father received a letter asking him to report at the Drill Hall in connection with arrangements that had been made by the local authorities for him and his family. We had been expecting it, of course, because some of the Black residents had already received their notices. The removal was going to bring a lot of change to people’s lives; for immediate neighbours, there was no guarantee that they would be living together as neighbours in Nyanga West. The fear was that we would be scattered all over. To those who walked to their place of work, it meant budgeting for bus or train fares in the future.

Ngcelwane is one of many residents whose histories are recorded and remembered in the District Six Museum. On one of my visits, I noticed a short and striking phrase on a banner outside the museum: “No matter where we are, we are here.” I later found out that this was an important slogan that was carried across by ex-residents of District Six to speak of resistance and persistence following the experience of being forcibly removed. The residents were protesting against erasure, silencing, and the general disregard by those who thought of themselves as superior because of the colour of their skin. The phrase speaks of endurance and can be read through its multiplicity. Here can refer to District Six itself, where their memories and stories linger decades after their physical bodies are removed. But here can also refer to wherever they are. It takes on a more expansive meaning and no longer refers to place or position but rather refers to existence itself…owning objective reality.

No matter where we are, we are here. We exist, We are still here. I started to think a lot about this slogan in relation to protest, refusal and Afrofuturism (to the extent that Afrofuturism suggests to us that Black people have existed in the past and will exist in the future).

I’m interested in these phrases—we are here and still here—beyond their literal definitions, but as powerful philosophies with emancipatory potential. I’m thinking through them as mantras that do not exclusively relegate our existence to suffering or passively accept that suffering. Mantras that refuse the logic of oppression and function within the realm of what Christina Sharpe’s seminal work, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, refers to as “wake work,” which “acts through the contemporary conditions of Black life to imagine otherwise.” Sharpe explains that “wake work” accounts for moments of rupture despite imminent death. It is “a mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme.” Still here disrupts the dominant narrative of Black life as inferior and disposable. Within this philosophy Black life is sacred. 

The philosophy of still here recognises the non-linearity of time and frustrates time. It shifts the contours of radical imagination. It recognises that the past ruptures our present, it touches the future of the past and the past of the future. We are here, guided by the spirit of those who have come before, existing simultaneously as the wildest dreams of our ancestors as well as ancestors of our unborn. Similarly to “wake work,” the phrase still here does not embrace death but rather pushes against it. Still here demands to be seen, and it demands dignity and liberation. Still here demands that breath be put back into the Black body.

This spirit of still here runs through artistic practices of young and old creators on the continent and in the diaspora. When photographer Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo chooses to tell his story of a childhood marked by violence using powerful imagery, he is saying still here. When Sabelo Mlangeni celebrates Lagos’ queer community through his series “The Royal House of Allure,” he is saying still here. When Frida Orupabo cracks open the Black archive and reflects joy, anxiety, pain, beauty, and horror, she is saying; still here. When performance art duo FAKA sing Uyang’khumbula (you remember me), they are saying still here. Still here echoes and reverberates throughout history, sometimes it is a low hum only audible to those paying attention and sometimes it is as loud as thunder rumbling, unmistakable, emphatic.

 

Nkgopoleng Moloi is a writer and photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa, “excited and intrigued by history, art, language and architecture.”

 



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