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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Time to Dump “Black” and “White”

On the pavement, surrounded by a tangle of pruned rose branches that would defy a tank, our cousin, Di, has nearly finished a day of rose-surgery. They’ve been mega-bushes, climbing our wall. I’ve just got home. I’m awed. I’m saying “Di, can I get you tea, can I get you coffee, can I get you a whiskey, can I get you band-aid…”

While I talk, branches fly out of the mobile hump that is Di under bushes. She keeps on working: “No. No. No. No.”

I know her Noes will all be Noes, but there is the hostly instinct. Seffricans are good at that. We over-offer instinctively, same as we instinctively say “how are you” to everyone from the speedcop to the talk-show host who has just said “fine” 14 consecutive times to the same question.

I run out of hostly offers, and at last recognise her Noes as “will you let me get on with it now”. I step back and I bash into a passer-by.

It isn’t a big bash; no bruises or pain, but I’ve definitely invaded someone else’s space. I offer the sheepish “sorry” of a person who belatedly discovers that it is not clever to walk backwards into the public walkway of a busy pavement.

The passer-by is a woman, twenties, nice-looking, bluejeans.

We disentangle, mildly humorously. I catch her eye. She gives a fleeting no-problem grin. Fresh attractive face, expressive. She gestures to Cousin Di, attacking bushes, and says: “a worker, that one, look after her”. She flexes her arm in a ripply airpunch like when your team scores a point, gives me a nod, and walks on.

I’m left standing on the pavement, staring after her, on a high.

Anyone driving past would presumably see an old goat ogling a young chick. They’d be wrong. I’m on a different high; a public high, you might say.

This was a milestone; another milestone. We have milestones all the time, new and fuller ways that we mature into being a richer society. Some milestones you see coming, like the dropping of “baas” and “boy”. Some milestones, you irritatingly wait for, like the overdue dropping of “mlungu” as an appellation to pale people.

This milestone took me by surprise. Until now, I’d thought that communication with the previously disenfranchised was coming on alright, nothing much lacking.

But this vivacious melaninned face saying “a worker, that one…” was new.

She was black, by the way. Did I fail to mention? Well, that figures. Those epithets become backward, now, used so much more often than they are needed.

I don’t think her mother ever spoke to any white guy like that. There was always some recognition of blackness and whiteness and a gulf. There was deference, or there was distance, or there was resentment… There was something; to talk across races was to talk a different way.

Whites, too. Maybe whites most. The tone of voice switched, whether to a peremptory bark or to a syrupy patronising tang. In my world the syrupy version ruled. I could cringe at it, and feel snootily superior, until one day in the 1980s I put the phone down and my wife said “you were talking to someone black, weren’t you?” I shouted much-better: “You’re calling me a racist! How dare you!” But the evidence was in her ears. I was mortified.

That was those days. But not so very much has changed. I still catch myself, sometimes, speaking in that way that my wife would identify. I don’t mean where there are language difficulties. You can have language difficulties with someone from Spain or Bulgaria as much as someone from Nongoma. That’s different. It’s the speaking across the gulf of our history.


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