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The House of Truth--Open Letter to Amy Biehl

Dear Amy,

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 this job.

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 rain!


Sunday January 11th, 2004
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