One: Cape Town
Lunchtime at Camps Bay Primary School is when things tend to go severely wrong. Outside the structure of a syllabus, beyond the rigorous scrutiny of our teachers, I reliably blunder. These forty-minute daily ordeals typically consist in no small portion of us prattling about what our parents prattled about over the last night’s supper table. Election time is no different.
“Who are your parents voting for?” Joan turns to Catherine first. Joan is my best friend, and the only girl who can legitimately kick my ass at the hundred-meter sprint. Of course, going to an all-white public school does cut out a good chunk of the competition.
“The Nats, obviously.” Catherine nibbles delicately on the edge of her sandwich. Blond, green-eyed, and irritatingly demure, Catherine is the resident beauty in Standard 4P, Camps Bay Primary. At least half of the boys sitting on the other end of the playground spend lunchtime gazing at her with unadulterated longing. I, on the other hand, wend my way from one humiliating, clumsy crush to the next. Any attention I do get from boys is strictly limited to my skinny legs or massive, unwieldy glasses. (Following the purchase of our house in Camps Bay, a sleepy beach suburb of Cape Town, my parents were feeling a tad pinched when it came to finances. My mother succeeded in convincing my sister and me that her old frames were just perfect for us. Given that my vision verges on legally-blind, the abnormally thick, oversized lenses made for a fearsome sight.)
“How about you?” Joan turns to Meredith. At nine, Meredith’s body had blossomed into untimely womanhood. At eleven, she remains the only one among us who can fill a bra without the assistance of socks. “Mer’s tits,” says Jonathan West, who sits behind me in class and torments me mercilessly with sharpened pencil-points, “could feed all of Africa. Even Ethiopia.”
“The Nats,” says Meredith, barely glancing up from her chips. I am growing anxious. Joan is working her way methodically through the ranks. Any moment now, she’s going to turn to me.
“Agh man, the Nats, what do you think? You think they’re dom? My mom says the P.F.P. would hand this country over to the blacks.”
“My dad says the blacks would get rid of us in a minute if they were clever enough,” says Catherine.
“My dad says they would kill us and take our homes,” says Joan. “But I mean, the kaffirs are too stupid to even get the washing done properly, so how would they be able to run a country?”
“Agh please, that’s ridiculous,” offers Meredith, coming to life, breasts a-jiggle as she shakes her head in vigorous derision. “There’s no way a black could be President. They don’t have brains, man, they can only be gardeners and maids. Can you imagine? Hello, Mr Black President,” she pantomimes speaking into a telephone, “can you please bleach Donald’s nappies before you meet with all those politicians?” “Yes, madam, of course madam, the nappies are in the outside sink already.” Meredith says this with a thick Xhosa accent, and we all screech with laughter. I know it’s wrong, though. I know it, but I’m terrified of what’s about to come.
Joan resumes the reins. “Lauren?”
“Marisa?” Her cool blue gaze meets mine. I look at the ground.
These days, the casual observer might wonder: how did apartheid ever happen? When you speak to white South Africans today, no-one ever voted for the National Party. The National Party was the bastion of politically-sanctioned racism for decades; it spawned bigoted leaders like rounded white peas out of some eugenics-concocted pod. Mysteriously, despite this purported dearth of support among the only population eligible to vote, the National Party won election after election. This collective rewriting of individual political history is a rosy indicator of just how rapidly change can happen: a mere handful of years after apartheid officially ended, white South Africans acquired a conscience. Even, I would venture to say, a sense of shame.
Of course, there were many white South Africans who objected to apartheid for decades, and who played more or less visible roles in the anti-apartheid struggle. My mother, marching against apartheid in the sixties at Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, got beaten over the head with a baton and unceremoniously carted off to jail thanks to her wayward conscience. I was lucky. My parents raised us to be critical of the system. “It’s not right that the blacks only live in townships outside the city instead of in places like Camps Bay and Clifton,” my mother would say, her eyes wide, frightening. “It’s not normal to only go to school with white children. This is a very sick country. Do you understand?” I’d nod, attempting to square this insight with the glaring contradiction that was daily life. My mother pointed out time and again that the society in which we lived was unnatural. That, and my parents voted for the Progressive Federal Party—the only party with any constituency that both preached a mild form of equality and, being white, retained legal status. Conservatives alleged the PFP stood for “Packing for Perth,” mocking the white liberals emigrating to Australia in subdued droves. The African National Congress was already long underground by the time I hit puberty.
“Marisa?” Joan is waiting expectantly. I say nothing. Slowly the other girls turn toward me, wondering at the silence.
“Marisa?” Now she is impatient, wanting to get on with her show. I keep my eyes on the ground. Twelve identical pairs of brown mary-janes. Twelve pairs of grey knee-socks with our school colors on the top: green, red, yellow. Maybe if I close my eyes and then open them again I’ll wake up. I try it. Joan is directly in front of me, feet planted apart, arms crossed, scenting blood.
“Come on man, go already!”
Isn’t it enough that my mother never participates in the carpool, avoids PTA meetings like the plague, and refuses to socialize with the other mothers? Must I be put through this, too?
“The P.F.P.,” I whisper.
There is a moment of stunned silence, then a babble of shrieked responses. I sit glumly through the hailstorm, eyes on the ground. Finally it eases off into shocked half-phrases. I am shrinking into myself, praying to disappear, to evaporate with a soft pop into thin air, or melt down to an innocuous puddle of green uniform and grey socks. Joan remains positioned in front of me, rigid, furious at how I have failed her. The other girls quiet down, appetites whetted, settling in for the show.
“Do you want to hand South Africa over to the blacks?”
“No. I mean, they do live here also. Actually there’s a lot more blacks than whites in South Africa. Did you know that eighty percent—”
“Do you want to hand South Africa over to the blacks?” Joan is very serious now, face still, her stare hard. All of them are watching me in a halo of unearthly silence. I feel waves of panic washing through me. This is my best-friendship on the line. No, this is my entire, precariously-balanced, laboriously-constructed social status. This is, perhaps, my life.
“I don’t think blacks are stupid.” I think of the few black people I know, all domestic workers in white homes. I think of the black man I passed in the street with my brother yesterday, of his courteous “Good morning, madam, good morning, little master.” I think of Maureen with her plump, open arms, of July with his gentle instructions. “I think they’re as clever as us.” A hushed uproar rises from the peanut gallery. Joan steps in menacingly.
“Do you want to hand South Africa over to the blacks?”
I’ve taken risks before. While I want nothing more than to be popular, at times an irksome tendency to do what I feel I should do—prior to calculating the consequences to my social status—pops up. I’m pretty low on the totem pole as it is, but I’ve earned myself an unwanted reputation standing up for “fatty” Felicia Sperling, who’s at the very bottom. Recently I lectured Felicia at length, telling her it was time for her to stand up for herself, that I just didn’t have it in me to keep defending her. Now I meet her eyes. She is sitting somewhat apart from the rest of us, mouth open mid-chew at the drama. Do I detect a glimmer of sympathy? The rest of the girls follow my gaze like spectators at a tennis match. I look back at Joan.
“I think a black person could be President.”
There it is. Frail but clear. My voice.
The tension breaks like a punctured balloon as everyone starts speaking at once. Joan glares at me, jaw clenched. She shakes her head slowly and turns away. That’s it. I’m ruined.
I guess that’s where it begins. Saying no is hardest the first time. When you are sufficiently privileged that yes is handed to you on a platter, when virtually everything around you whispers, hollers, cajoles, winks yes, yes please, yes now, just say yes—well, that’s when saying no feels impossible. And then out of nowhere you just say it. No, thank you. Hell no. Not this time. I don’t know what prompts it. Maybe courage. Maybe bravado. Or desperation. But the next time—it may be the next minute, or the next year, or a thousand yeses later—it’s a little easier.
People often ask me how it was growing up in apartheid South Africa. It felt normal, I say. It was all I knew. Apartheid only became truly odd, wrong, twisted, once we’d left South Africa. It may be grotesquely warped, but if you are a child born and bred in a segregated society, a rigidly stratified and censored society, it’s all you know. I was aware that it was wrong; my mother told me, and when I became very still I felt it. But until I stepped into the multicolored throngs of the San Fernando Valley’s Portola Junior High, apartheid South Africa was simply all I knew. I was living the life that had been handed me. Saying no was the exception, not the rule. Yet this timid no was where it all began for me. Where I started to trust what ran deeper than the assumptions and conventions of my society. Every society assumes that its way is the norm, the natural way. It takes a flying leap beyond the frame—a leap out, or a leap in—to conceive of other possibilities. To believe in them.
My parents’ decision to emigrate to the U.S. was simply another stitch in an extended embroidery of migration. We are Jews, and the history of Jews is invariably a meandering, punctuated affair—a series of leaps in the direction of possibilities. At the turn of the twentieth century, my great-grandfather on my father’s side, Max Faiman, left his hometown of Gomel, Belarus, on a boat bound for New York. He took a job as an apprentice in a bakery, working such long hours that he never saw daylight. Then someone mentioned South Africa. And again: South Africa. There’s gold there, Faiman, diamonds too. Big as your fist, ripe for the picking. South Africa eased sneakily into Max’s bushed brain, hung drowsily in the air with the flour, stayed resolutely put as palms pressed dough to pastry. Three years after arriving in New York, Max boarded a boat to Cape Town.
I can see my great-grandfather stepping into the harbor, exhausted and stiff-necked, cursing in Yiddish at the goyim pushing and clomping around him. He looks up. There, enshrouded in wisps of gauze, is Table Mountain: massive, rocky, astonishingly flat. She winks at my great-grandfather, stretching her arms like a bride on her wedding night. Below her, the city nestles, a cluster of colonial architecture. And before them all—Max, Table Mountain, the city—before them all: the Atlantic, stretching spreadeagled in sun-drenched abandon, lapping lazily at the quay. Who wouldn’t fall in love with Cape Town? What fool would turn his back upon such calculated seduction? My great-grandfather hastily blessed his good fortune, squared his shoulders, and scurried off to build a life. He bought a property on Hanover Street and industriously set about starting his own bakery. For two decades the Faimans lived directly upstairs from the fragrant font of their livelihood: the American Bakery, with the stars and stripes themselves winking from the window. The American Bakery, smack in the middle of District Six.
If you go to the District Six museum today, you can find my great-grandfather’s bakery on the oversized map of the neighborhood. It was originally an immigrant quarter. As immigrants moved up and out, blacks and coloureds—a culturally distinct population, the product of then-illegal miscegenation—moved in. District Six was one of the only racially integrated urban neighborhoods in the country. Blacks and whites, Jewish immigrants and Muslim descendants of slaves hauled over from Indonesia: you name it, they passed through. Chuckling on their stoops, gossiping over fences, bellowing at each others’ kids.
In 1966, the government invoked the notorious Group Areas Act of 1950, declared Cape Town’s center and immediate environs suitable only for white occupation, and proceeded to categorically remove over 60,000 “unwanted” residents from District Six to distant townships. The neighborhood was then razed to the ground by bulldozers. Yet all the work was in the city proper: those removed were forced to travel for hours to reach their menial, low-paying jobs in the city and its surrounding white suburbs. Most blacks, like our maid Maureen, occupied a tiny, miserable room within their employer’s household for six days out of the week. On Sundays, they returned to their children and families in the squalid, sprawling mazes of Langa, Guguletu, and Khayalitsha.
Between 1950 and 1986, the apartheid government, with its policies of “separate development,” forcibly relocated around 1.5 million people of color from cities to rural reservations. District Six is simply one tragedy among countless wreaked by apartheid, one tragedy in which my family’s history gleams unexpectedly, startled at its own unwitting stake among the ruins. For my grandmother, District Six was the idyll of her childhood. But by the time I was paying attention, District Six had curdled into an ominous place, a name that left only silence or epithets in its wake. How could it be both these things at once? I wondered. Who would tell me what it really was?
For years, the only development on the land was a government-built technical school. When I went back to visit South Africa after graduating from college, I tried to find a trace of District Six. But there was nothing. Undeveloped plots sat eerily in the midst of the city, waist-high grass undulating in an insinuation of lives crushed.
Max left his homeland because he believed in possibilities. He marched boldly into paradise, just like my family would nearly a century later. But as we learned in South Africa and then again in the U.S., paradise is problematic. Paradise, as I discovered after significantly more practice saying no, is cruelly relative. Because paradise belongs to those who own it. As for the rest? Theirs are the lives displaced into ghettos and townships, the dreams deferred.