First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
“Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid is one of my favourite prose-poems discovered in the past year. “Girl” is written in the tone of a matriarch, a mother or grandmother passing on advice to a daughter or granddaughter. The advice imparted is both a useful and an admonishing guide on how to be a worthy black girl.
I approached the poem with reticence. The title brought up all the ways I fell short of the societal definition and expectations of a girl. Anything that I was told I had to do by virtue of being a girl was an affront to me. Discordant with the beat of my own drum.
Some of the advice I received growing up from well-meaning women in my life were a variation of the following: do not sit like that; do not eat like that; do not be loud; do not be forward; do not ask questions; do not be aggressive; do not leave your hair crazy like that; do not dress like that; do not run with boys; do not leave the house looking like that; and so the list goes on.
These admonishments stood in the way of me being me. These cautions were born from the personal and political traumas that these women experienced by just being themselves. It was also the genius of patriarchy using women to enforce its rules.
These women’s pain drove them to protect me. However, in protecting me, they denied me full access to myself. Their advice made me feel wrong every time the real me emerged. And the real me defiantly emerged despite the concentrated suppression. I felt the weight of trying to emulate a perfect black girl who could behave herself into love, care, safety, success and respect.
Whenever I was not loved, cared for, safe, successful or respected, it could only be because I failed to yield to the advice.
The message that I got as a young black girl in South Africa was that there was no moment to be idle. Whenever I visited my grandmother in the Eastern Cape, she would wake my cousins and me at the crack of dawn – nevermind that it was the holidays. She would tap on our bedroom door with her cane while complaining about our laziness and how we should be embarrassed to still be asleep so late. It was not even 6am yet.
My grandmother was the heartbeat of our home and that meant if she stopped beating and moving there would be no home. She was that traffic marshal at the intersection of our chaotic home. She busied herself from the moment she got up until she went to bed. I am not sure she knew who she was if she was not busy. That’s how capitalism would have it be too.
A big part of her identity was wrapped in always working, whether it was the small spaza shop she ran from our home, the homes she cleaned for a living, work she tendered at church and at the local hospital, and the never-ending work of being a wife, mother and grandmother. All the while she was perfectly coiffed at all times. She was a lady. She raised us in her image. She raised her granddaughters to be always on their feet and to look good and well mannered while doing it. She raised us this way to survive a racist, sexist, capitalist, white-supremacist, extractive world.
Well, the granddaughters are tired. We want access to our laziness, unkemptness and mediocrity. We realise that we cannot completely escape being the mules of capitalism, but our grandmothers wanted us to work hard so that we could be somebodies in a world that told them they were nobodies.
This pandemic has made it harder for us to put our tools down. In fact, economic precarity in this wildly capitalistic world has deferred our right to rest. So, unlike Naomi Osaka, who has worked hard to earn the millions that enable her to call the shots, most of us still have to heed those old admonishments in order to survive. This Women’s Day, I hope all women will find a moment to disconnect, be idle and to take a nap. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.