It is written and believed, by Catholics, that between Heaven and hell, there is a place called Purgatory. Purgatory is where your soul goes for “cleansing,” and once cleansed, it moves onto Heaven. It sounds much like a person aimlessly wandering in the desert trying to discover the way out of there.
For many years before identifying as Black, I felt as if I belonged in a kind of racial Purgatory. I did not look like some of my fair family members, who had blond hair and blue eyes, and therefore not legally able to reclassify as white. Thus, there were no privileges bestowed upon me, including where I could live.
Secretly I used to envy white people for the carefree way they seem to live their lives. As a young person, they always had the money for entertainment and would, it seemed to me, just one day pack up and go backpacking through Europe or work in a kibbutz in Israel. I had responsibilities and have never felt the absolute freedom to be! I met black people and felt a kind of kinship, an affinity with them, but, was told, I am not black! “Those” people were different and violent! I hadn’t known then about the lie of “die swart gevaar,” and am ashamed to confess that I believed the people that told me this.
Until I moved to Johannesburg and discovered upon working and living with black people that they were like me, and so began my journey of educating myself about our history. I loved my black friends, but did that mean that I was racially prejudiced? Or immune to internalized racism? Could I whip out the “I have a black friend,” card as an escape if I offended or hurt a black person? My sense of belonging was something I felt deep inside my soul, even if I never spoke an indigenous language.
I questioned everything because I finally felt as if I had arrived home after being lost in limbo. There was a peace I felt that I was unable to fully articulate.
So my years of racial Purgatory began along with trying to understand the very deep-seated need to identify who I was and where I was from! Growing up in Cape Town, most people I know have extensive knowledge about their white ancestors. So much so, that it is a bit of a joke when you hear about the “Scottish or German” grandfather.
I am not disputing the existence of European grandfathers. I am, however, trying to understand the need to “loudly” celebrate only one aspect of identity.
Given that Black history was destroyed, and distorted, both during colonialism and Apartheid, how does one begin to unravel the mess that this has on my desire to know all parts of my family?
I asked the relevant questions, but it would seem that family members had “forgotten” the Black contribution to my existence. My Purgatory became a place I wanted to escape from but felt unable to.
As the years went by, I started piecing together my family history, and the results will be in my book, but the identification I have simplified in my mind. I am black and have been socialized, as “coloured.” Finally, I feel as if, I have begun to walk away from the racial Purgatory I have been forcefully placed in, and I am embracing, and becoming what is essentially me. Who I was, before the system tore my family apart, and left me to wonder, lost, and unable to find peace in my soul.
I have peace now, and I am enjoying my discoveries and my journey.