This is the first of three passages i want to share from Antjie Krog’s magnificent ‘Begging to be Black’ and this conversation explains itself but also raises some really interesting questions about race and identity which i think are worth thinking deeply together about:

From chapter 7:

I am sitting opposite my discussant in one of the smaller sitting rooms at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin. He is a philosopher and has kindly agreed to engage in a series of conversations with me about what I am trying to understand. He has many things in my eyes that should disqualify him as a possible discourse partner (white, male, teaching Western Philosophy in Australia), but I have read a provocative paper he wrote on the concept of becoming-animal in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, and it is this concept of ‘becoming’ that I am interested in. Not becoming-animal or becoming-woman as in Coetzee’s book, but becoming-black.

I explain to him that in order to understand something I have to write it; while writing – writingly, as it were – I find myself dissolving into, becoming towards what I am trying to understand.

‘Tracing the lines of flight is what Deluze calls it.’ The professor is a translator of some of Deluze’s work.’

‘I am not fleeing! This is why I am having this discussion. I’m staying, but I want to understand with what I am staying.’

‘Not flight as in fleeing, but flight as in going in a particular direction. One moves from an established known identity by transforming oneself. But transformation always moves in a particular direction and writing is often the best way to trace these directions. Expressed in different words: the aim of good writing is to carry life to the state of non-personal power.’

I quickly write this down on the cover of the thick manuscript file bearing words in black inspired by The Satanic Verses: ‘BEGGING TO BE BLACK.’ The professor notices mt blunt working title and responds somewhat curtly.

‘Tracing lines of transformation is fine, but blackness/whiteness…,’ he says. ‘You’re not going the essentialist route, are you? A core that makes somebody white or black, or Jewish, or female?’

‘No. And I am not busy with difference either, I think. I want to ask two questions. Firstly, I live in a country that for nearly four centuries was interpreted and organised via Western or European frameworks. Since 1994 I have lived with a black majority that asserts itself more and more confidently, as well as many black people from the rest of Africa who stream into my country. So I find most of my references and many of my frameworks of understanding to be useless and redundant.’

‘As in how?’

‘As in how to understand the “reading” of Robert Mugabe both by the South African government and by the Zimbabweans themselves, for example. I do not want to have a Western perspective on Mugabe; I want an Africa perspective. I am trying to work out what that is. Is Thabo Mbeki’s muteness the perspective? Or is Archbishop Tutu’s criticism the perspective, or the crowds who always cheer Mugabe? Or are these reactions all based on something else which makes them not contradictory, but moral and sensible but diverse interpretations of the same world view or philosophy?’

‘Isn’t that derogatory, at least to Tutu? You must remember that colonisers aren’t always trying to “understand” the colonised in order to colonise and dehumanise them even more effectively. Are you not trying to understand so-called blackness as amoral, or a farce, or simply theatre, in order to keep an ingrained racism more sensitively and subtly alive?’

‘I want to be part of the country I was born in. I need to know whether it is possible for somebody like me to become like the majority, to become “blacker?” and live as a full and at-ease component of the South African psyche.’

‘Now what is an at-ease component?’

‘If Angela Merkel or the Australian prime minister says something, you do not sit dumbfounded, thinking: God, where did that come from? There is a traceable logic from within your framework to understand, even if you passionately disagree with then, the most inane and gross comments even of George W. Bush. At times when my president, Thabo Mbeki, speaks, and he is an intelligent man, I sit like somebody in complete darkness. It’s not necessarily that I don’t understand what he is saying; I do not know where it is coming from, from within what logic it wants to assert itself as “right”. I want to understand him and all the many utterances that daily try to turn me into a racist. It feels to me wrong to simply say, yes, we are now mos all liberated and equal, while in actual fact I have only known the white part of this new constellation. It is like saying: black people should now stop their nonsense and become like “the rest of the civilised world” – meaning they should become white. But, actually, black people are the majority and it is I who should be moving towards a “state of non-personal power” within blackness.’

‘How do I “flee” towards black, to use your term, if I have never cared to know what black means? So my first question is this: is it possible for a white person like myself, born in Africa, raised in a culture with strong Western roots, drenched in a political dispensation that said black people were different and therefore inferior, whether it is possible for such a person as myself to move towards a “blackness” as black South Africans understand it?’

‘With all its hurts and Fanon-identified harms?’

‘Yes. And then, secondly, I want to look at the way in which black people challenge Western paradigms that insist liberal values are the only possible framework for a modern state. If we ignore or gloss over this, is that not simply apartheid and colonisation in a new guise?’

‘Let’s summarise: you accept that all life is changing, is becoming, that black people have been and still are profoundly affected by powerful influences from both inside and outside Africa. But you are saying: because you lived in this apartheid bubble which tried to keep itself whites-only and Western, that this has stunted your own changing and becoming?’

‘Yes. So, I am not necessarily interested in African philosophy versus Western Philosophy, but rather in what kind of self I should grow into in order to live a caring, useful and informed life – a “good life” – within my country in southern Africa.’

‘Are you talking about a kind of entanglement?’

‘No. It’s not about mingling, or the entanglement of roots, but how one root can become or link to another.’

‘A synapse.’

I smile. ‘Perhaps that is the word.’

[To read the next part dealing with non-racialism, click here]