Imagination and racism

For years I have wanted–but have been unable–to write to my own satisfaction about life in southern Africa. As a writer and an outsider, I constantly wrestle with moral issues: my own blindness, curiosity, lack of understanding, white privilege; my need to say what I see within an historical context of stereotypes that interfere with seeing; my learned racism always there, though the work is to see it and expunge it, and unless I see it I cannot expunge it. Some White South Africans write about what can and cannot be imagined.Is it possible, they ask, for a White author (what is White? what is Race?) to write fiction with Black (what is Black?) characters? What are the limits of a White person’s imagination? What if the White writer is an Outsider to White cultures? What if the White Outsider is North American, female, queer, and formerly working class? What if half the White Outsider’s children are Black? How much can she imagine? What’s love got to do with it? What are the limits? What is fiction?

In a deconstructed world, everything is fiction. Everything is seen and selected from a biased point of view. There is no objective truth. What is reported or quoted is shaped by a consciousness that has its own history. Who can speak and who must remain silent?

Antjie Krog, White middle-class Afrikaner straight woman, wrestles with these questions in Begging to Be Black (Random house, 2009) in a quoted dialogue with a German professor, as follows:

Krog: “I think I am saying that in a country where we have come from different civilizations, then lived apart in unequal and distorted relationships that formed generations of us, our imagination is simply not capable of imagining a reality as–or with–the other.”

German professor: “So you have changed your position? During our first conversations you were concerned that not being able to imagine might mean a hidden racism?”

Krog: “Yes, now I think that to imagine black at this stage is to insult black. That is why I stay with non-fiction, listening, engaging, observing, translating, until one can hopefully begin to sense a thinning of skin, negotiate possible small openings at places where imaginings can begin to begin.” (268).

I take that in. I am grateful to her for enunciating “unequal and distorted,” “not capable,” “insult.” I agree with her, and I back off. Then I lean forward again. Can we put boundaries on the imagination? Can we say that a man cannot imagine what it is to be a woman? Certainly many men fail, some don’t even try, but there are occasional successes I would not want to be without. How does class limit the imagination? Krog is describing what she feels she can do; she isn’t prescribing (is she?) what the rest of us should do. She is finding her way and allowing us to watch her process. This is helpful.

I think of Sebastian Barry and his 100-year-old woman character in Sacred Secrets. I am not 100 years old, but I think he got her. On the other hand, I have never believed Medea is other than a figment of male imagination. Ophelia and Desdemona are cardboard. But Rosalind? The same author can fail sometimes and succeed sometimes. Perhaps the task before us is to unleash the imagination and see where it leads. Allow the imagination to run wild. Follow it. And let the reader decide.

I lift my head from my notebook and gaze into the rolling sea and the black stick-figures on surfboards. I have no idea what it’s like to ride a wave on a surfboard. None. I will never know that. I look on, my eyes squint against the light, and I imagine it must be like good sex: that upward building tension, that moment of yielding and steering, riding the perfect wave where it goes. But I don’t know. I only imagine.

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About Kendall

Aging drama queen (former professor of theatre) writes, takes pictures, and messes about.
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16 Responses to Imagination and racism

  1. Elli says:

    none of us can see into the consciousness of another person, even if they happen to be of the same ethinic origin, sexual orientation, class, age etc as us. But I think that, in order to attempt to see other people’s reality, we have to understand our own. Then we can see our boundaries and start making little excursions over other people’s. And we can take our experiences and try and relate them to other activities, even things we have never known. To my mind that cancels out any problematic subjectivity (it’s still subjective but it is a reflective subjectivity) or racism and so on. I think that’s how one can succeed in writing other people.

    • Kendall says:

      Elli, I miss you. Since I came back from Africa I have been off balance in many ways and have not found time to come back to Blip and see what you’re doing. Your comments are treasures. I’m so glad they’re here. Reflective subjectivity is a way through, a way into the center of what we can know. But I think it is by its nature non-fiction, is it not? That is what Krog is talking about–she says she can write non-fiction, but not fiction.

  2. Ann says:

    Your writing today made me think of Elie Wiesel, he says it so well:

    “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred are there. Only you don’t see them.”

    You, Kendall, make us see into those six hundred pages.
    Bless you and may your journey back to Lesotho be safe.

  3. leiflife says:

    Brilliant! And thought provoking. Thank heaven for brave imaginations – especially yours.

  4. John Guarino says:

    You’re pretty insightful for a White Outsider, North American, dyke. Hmm, would that be a WONAD? God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? Be safe my friend, good journeying. And thank you for making me think about things outside myself.

  5. Suzanne says:

    Kendall, sending love to you. Off to see some people you know here, so will tell them I finally checked in on a bright Tuesday morning… So exciting to see that beautiful photo at the top of your blog. Wishing you the best in connection, health, safety… I am in a rush so more soon… Suzanne

  6. suenosdeuomi says:

    Hooray to limitless imaginations, applicable to real life or not, or more or less who cares! Imagination is what we got, where we can experience our freedom and which nobody can take away from us, even if acculturation may attempt so.

    Karl May comes to my mind, the popular German writer of fiction geared towards kids, but loved by my Mom. He created this unforgettable character, Winnetou and his amazing and heroic adventures from, if I remember right, prison, never having set foot to anywhere where the American Indian had roamed.

    Kendall, I hope you will continue writing, even if it is not to your satisfaction, and will not let that inner critic stifle your imagination. We readers are ultimately the ones to judge, for ourselves, if it has appeal and is worth while reading that gives us insight or feeds us in some form or fashion. You do have the right to write, about anything and everything under the sun, including issues, like most, that we understand only in bits and pieces or nuggets, such as racism.

    Hooray, once again for the power of imagination that can liberate us from imagined boundaries that never existed in the first place.

  7. chaiselongue says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post of yours for several days, a week even, wanting to reply but having so many thoughts that I couldn’t organise into a short comment. I’m a bit out of practice at serious writing since the days when I wrote my PhD thesis and taught literature, mostly from a feminist point of view. But here are a few thoughts, rather unsatisfactorily expressed: We can never be the ‘other’ and all we can do is encourage our imaginations to encompass the other or others, even when this may seem presumptuous, because as you point out even a white person can be ‘other’ in different ways. The important thing, I think, is to be open to the idea of otherness and to be aware of its existence – that’s the best we can do and you achieve this everywhere in your writing about Africa. I think that this awareness and the possibility of imagining otherness is more alive in those who are marginalised in some way, because the dominant culture or consciousness can live happily without recognising the marginalised, whereas the marginalised must recognise the dominant because it is all around them. In a much less damaging way than the black/white, male/female or gay/straight oppositions, I have seen this in Wales where some English people come to Wales and simply do not notice Welsh language and culture at all, because it is possible for them to live there through English language and culture. There are many English people who are able to recognise the ‘other’, though, as there are men who recognise women for who they are, exercising the imagination as we should all try to do, and keeping on trying even if we can’t achieve complete understanding. Sorry to ramble a bit, but I hope this makes sense. What I really want to say is, simply, your concerns and your awareness show that you of all people have the best chance to imagine others’ lives. Thank you for all your inspiring posts from Africa.

    • Kendall says:

      You sum up the issues very concisely and powerfully. I should have guessed you were a feminist literary critic by the insights in your comments. I don’t see any rambling, other than the kind that’s involved in thinking thoroughly around things. I completely agree with your observations about those who are marginalised, but what surprises me is that so often people who are not marginalised at all seem to cut through the crap and catch the truth the way prisms catch light. What accounts for THEM, I wonder! I’m also glad you mention the Welsh and their otherness. It’s a distinction most Americans know nothing about, and it’s wonderful to be reminded.

  8. Keith says:

    You always manage to unearth the most fascinating subjects. I grew up in a community where I was conditioned to focus on the differences between people and judge them on those differences. Fortunately, however, I had a mother who, though not well educated, was much more sensible than that. She wasn’t a rabid anti-racist, leading protests and hurling missiles at the purveyors of prejudice; but she had a quiet way of pointing out the absurdity of their behaviour. She wasn’t perfect; and she may not have succeeded in completely indoctrinating me in her ideas; but I tried to pay tribute to the debt I owe her in a piece I wrote called “No pride in prejudice”.
    By the time she died, a little over a year ago now, many of her friends and acquaintances had already passed on and the attendance at her funeral was modest. Some of them were her own friends, some of them were former colleagues of mine who only knew her through my recounts of the many battles we’d had to fight together; but as I looked around that day I was pleased to see that there were representatives of five continents, several theologies, both genders and their sexual permutations, all ages and a range of classes. For my mother, people were just people. If they had time for a chat and a cup of tea, she didn’t much care what colour their skin was or who they slept with or how much they owned or earned. Amongst the attendees at her funeral were some of the carers from the nursing home where she’d spent the last few months of her life. Some of them had migrated to Australia from Zimbabwe. One of them in particular, a single mother with a small child, had formed a strong attachment to my mother (who, herself, had always loved children). She asked me if I had a picture I could give her and I replied, of course. She then went on to say that my mother had been like a mother to her in Australia and she wanted something to remember her by. And that made me very proud; and it made me realise how lucky I had been to have know her for so long.

    As someone who tries to write, I know that I can never fully understand what others feel; and the more different their life experiences have been from mine, no matter what the reason for that, the more difficult it becomes; but I hope that if I can be sympathetic towards them, to write about them without prejudice colouring my opinion, then they might forgive my inaccuracies and shortcomings as a writer.

    • Kendall says:

      Wonderful conclusion, Keith. I hold it up to the light. It has been a great privilege to feel your company through the long day. I hope you’re feeling better, and I’m grateful for your good company and your thoughts and comments.

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