The House of Truth--Open Letter to Amy Biehl
It is exactly a year since I resumed
writing the House of Truth. It is also a year since I
met your parents at Mama Africa and heard about the relationship
you had with this column.
That night at Mama Africa was, for
me, one painful night. After your father spoke to me about
the letter you wrote to them in the States about the House
of Truth, I walked away from your old man into a cold
Cape Town night and a winter embrace of a drizzle that
mingled with my tears.
I was gone. Emotionally depleted and
burdened and angry and unable to see how I would last
in this job and in this town.
It is exactly a year ago that started
Back then many prophesied that I would
not last in it. I am not sure why they thought so. But
out of the many reasons they cited and that reached my
ears, was my lack of experience, a lack of knowledge in
the field of arts and culture and a mistrust in my ability
to deal with English as a first language in an English
newspaper. In deciphered English: I am black and unable.
More precisely, I am black and therefore unable.
These reached me in a furious meeting
two days before I met your dad in that Long Street and
heard that you were a regular reader of the House of Truth.
Up until then I had made up my mind that I was a failure
and a rogue worthy of nothing. This, despite a private
phone call from Bishop Tutu who said I would make it because
of some relationship that he has with "somebody from
above." It was not enough. I felt that his wishes
for me, as well-meaning as they were, still coincided
with his skin color and mine. I needed something else.
And when your dad spoke to me I was
devastated by mixed feelings, part of which satisfied
that deep place inside me, but also on the other hand,
raised a deep guilt about the fact that you died in the
townships at at time when the tag above the House of Truth
still read "Township Life." That is why I walked
into the rain that night. It was to resolve an internal
conflict that would take a year to near some conclusion.
The conflict is still not resolved,
but at least one year has gone by and the inside feels
better. I will tell you why I feel better. I feel okay
because in this one year I have devoted myself to the
truth that you stood for. And whatever bit that I might
have done has been in memoriam. There have been times
when and while walking the tightrope of speaking to the
township where you died and at the same time speaking
to Bishop's Court where Tutu lives I slipped both ways.
And in times like these, people like you and Desmond Tutu
held the hand firmly in the downwards plunge to yank me
back to my truth. Your truth.
In this sense, white woman, you have
not died. I have taken courage in the understanding of
your death. The contradictions speak for themselves and
while they last I want to remain part of the conscience
that says white and black kids in this country have a
right to visit each other wherever they live. White, black
and whatever children have a right to go to concerts wherever
they wish to be together without fear of violence and
death. And in their pledge to do so, they shall not be
hindered by outdated stereotypes and red herrings that
some in my population still keep to themselves.
Just the other day, I was asked by
a reader in a letter why I still write about apartheid
in the Arts pages. My response is "because Amy Biehl
and so many black children are dead and their deaths could
have been averted in a cultural and artistic set-up that
did not have the divisions caused by racism."
Amy, a year later in this job, I am
still attending shows that live up to the racial stereotypes
of our society. Whites and pretentious coloureds go to
see Counting Crows and ballet, blacks go watch Ringo while
coloureds flock to see Meeka.
And while this goes on, I still think
that I have to keep the House of Truth open.
This weekend, Amy, we will celebrate
our National Women's Day and among the many other women
like Lillian Ngoyi, Sister Haard Nouhe, D. September,
Coline Williams, Ellen Khuzwayo, and Helen Joseph, I will
murmur your name in truth, and I shall not cry in the