درخت شاه توتکتاب: زادهی جرم / فصل 12
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THE MULBERRY TREE
At the end of our street in Eden Park, right in a bend at the top of the road, stood a giant mulberry tree growing out of someone’s front yard. Every year when it bore fruit the neighborhood kids would go and pick berries from it, eating as many as they could and filling up bags to take home. They would all play under the tree together. I had to play under the tree by myself. I didn’t have any friends in Eden Park.
I was the anomaly wherever we lived. In Hillbrow, we lived in a white area, and nobody looked like me. In Soweto, we lived in a black area, and nobody looked like me. Eden Park was a colored area. In Eden Park, everyone looked like me, but we couldn’t have been more different. It was the biggest mindfuck I’ve ever experienced.
The animosity I felt from the colored people I encountered growing up was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with. It taught me that it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider. If a white guy chooses to immerse himself in hip-hop culture and only hang out with black people, black people will say, “Cool, white guy. Do what you need to do.” If a black guy chooses to button up his blackness to live among white people and play lots of golf, white people will say, “Fine. I like Brian. He’s safe.” But try being a black person who immerses himself in white culture while still living in the black community. Try being a white person who adopts the trappings of black culture while still living in the white community. You will face more hate and ridicule and ostracism than you can even begin to fathom. People are willing to accept you if they see you as an outsider trying to assimilate into their world. But when they see you as a fellow tribe member attempting to disavow the tribe, that is something they will never forgive. That is what happened to me in Eden Park.
When apartheid came, colored people defied easy categorization, so the system used them—quite brilliantly—to sow confusion, hatred, and mistrust. For the purposes of the state, colored people became the almost-whites. They were second-class citizens, denied the rights of white people but given special privileges that black people didn’t have, just to keep them holding out for more. Afrikaners used to call them amperbaas: “the almost-boss.” The almost-master. “You’re almost there. You’re so close. You’re this close to being white. Pity your grandfather couldn’t keep his hands off the chocolate, eh? But it’s not your fault you’re colored, so keep trying. Because if you work hard enough you can erase this taint from your bloodline. Keep on marrying lighter and whiter and don’t touch the chocolate and maybe, maybe, someday, if you’re lucky, you can become white.” Which seems ridiculous, but it would happen. Every year under apartheid, some colored people would get promoted to white. It wasn’t a myth; it was real. People could submit applications to the government. Your hair might become straight enough, your skin might become light enough, your accent might become polished enough—and you’d be reclassified as white. All you had to do was denounce your people, denounce your history, and leave your darker-skinned friends and family behind.
The legal definition of a white person under apartheid was “one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person.” It was completely arbitrary, in other words. That’s where the government came up with things like the pencil test. If you were applying to be white, the pencil went into your hair. If it fell out, you were white. If it stayed in, you were colored. You were what the government said you were. Sometimes that came down to a lone clerk eyeballing your face and making a snap decision. Depending on how high your cheekbones were or how broad your nose was, he could tick whatever box made sense to him, thereby deciding where you could live, whom you could marry, what jobs and rights and privileges you were allowed.
And colored people didn’t just get promoted to white. Sometimes colored people became Indian. Sometimes Indian people became colored. Sometimes blacks were promoted to colored, and sometimes coloreds were demoted to black. And of course whites could be demoted to colored as well. That was key. Those mixed bloodlines were always lurking, waiting to peek out, and fear of losing their status kept white people in line. If two white parents had a child and the government decided that child was too dark, even if both parents produced documentation proving they were white, the child could be classified as colored, and the family had to make a decision. Do they give up their white status to go and live as colored people in a colored area? Or would they split up, the mother taking the colored child to live in the ghetto while the father stayed white to make a living to support them?
Many colored people lived in this limbo, a true purgatory, always yearning for the white fathers who disowned them, and they could be horribly racist to one another as a result. The most common colored slur was boesman. “Bushman.” “Bushie.” Because it called out their blackness, their primitiveness. The worst way to insult a colored person was to infer that they were in some way black. One of the most sinister things about apartheid was that it taught colored people that it was black people who were holding them back. Apartheid said that the only reason colored people couldn’t have first-class status was because black people might use coloredness to sneak past the gates to enjoy the benefits of whiteness.
That’s what apartheid did: It convinced every group that it was because of the other race that they didn’t get into the club. It’s basically the bouncer at the door telling you, “We can’t let you in because of your friend Darren and his ugly shoes.” So you look at Darren and say, “Screw you, Black Darren. You’re holding me back.” Then when Darren goes up, the bouncer says, “No, it’s actually your friend Sizwe and his weird hair.” So Darren says, “Screw you, Sizwe,” and now everyone hates everyone. But the truth is that none of you were ever getting into that club.
Colored people had it rough. Imagine: You’ve been brainwashed into believing that your blood is tainted. You’ve spent all your time assimilating and aspiring to whiteness. Then, just as you think you’re closing in on the finish line, some fucking guy named Nelson Mandela comes along and flips the country on its head. Now the finish line is back where the starting line was, and the benchmark is black. Black is in charge. Black is beautiful. Black is powerful. For centuries colored people were told: Blacks are monkeys. Don’t swing from the trees like them. Learn to walk upright like the white man. Then all of a sudden it’s Planet of the Apes, and the monkeys have taken over.
So you can imagine how weird it was for me. I was mixed but not colored—colored by complexion but not by culture. Because of that I was seen as a colored person who didn’t want to be colored.
In Eden Park, I encountered two types of colored people. Some colored people hated me because of my blackness. My hair was curly and I was proud of my Afro. I spoke African languages and loved speaking them. People would hear me speaking Xhosa or Zulu and they’d say, “Wat is jy? ’n Boesman?” “What are you, a Bushman?” Why are you trying to be black? Why do you speak that click-click language? Look at your light skin. You’re almost there and you’re throwing it away.
Other colored people hated me because of my whiteness. Even though I identified as being black, I had a white father. I went to an English private school. I’d learned to get along with white people at church. I could speak perfect English, and I barely spoke Afrikaans, the language colored people were supposed to speak. So colored people thought that I thought I was better than them. They would mock my accent, like I was putting on airs. “Dink jy, jy is grênd?” “You think you’re high class?”—uppity, people would say in America.
Even when I thought I was liked, I wasn’t. One year I got a brand-new bike during the summer holidays. My cousin Mlungisi and I were taking turns riding around the block. I was riding up our street when this cute colored girl came out to the road and stopped me. She smiled and waved to me sweetly.
“Hey,” she said, “can I ride your bike?”
I was completely shocked. Oh, wow, I thought, I made a friend.
“Yeah, of course,” I said.
I got off and she got on and rode about twenty or thirty feet. Some random older kid came running up to the street, she stopped and got off, and he climbed on and rode away. I was so happy that a girl had spoken to me that it didn’t fully sink in that they’d stolen my bicycle. I ran back home, smiling and skipping along. My cousin asked where the bicycle was. I told him.
“Trevor, you’ve been robbed,” he said. “Why didn’t you chase them?”
“I thought they were being nice. I thought I’d made a friend.”
Mlungisi was older, my protector. He ran off and found the kids, and thirty minutes later he came back with my bike.
Things like that happened a lot. I was bullied all the time. The incident at the mulberry tree was probably the worst of them. Late one afternoon I was playing by myself like I always did, running around the neighborhood. This group of five or six colored boys was up the street picking berries off the mulberry tree and eating them. I went over and started picking some to take home for myself. The boys were a few years older than me, around twelve or thirteen. They didn’t talk to me, and I didn’t talk to them. They were speaking to one another in Afrikaans, and I could understand what they were saying. Then one of them, this kid who was the ringleader of the group, walked over. “Mag ek jou moerbeie sien?” “Can I see your mulberries?” My first thought, again, was, Oh, cool. I made a friend. I held up my hand and showed him my mulberries. Then he knocked them out of my hand and smushed them into the ground. The other kids started laughing. I stood there and looked at him a moment. By that point I’d developed thick skin. I was used to being bullied. I shrugged it off and went back to picking berries.
Clearly not getting the reaction he wanted, this kid started cursing me out. “Fok weg, jou onnosele Boesman!” “Get the fuck out of here! Go away, you stupid Bushie! Bushman!” I ignored him and went on about my business. Then I felt a splat! on the back of my head. He’d hit me with a mulberry. It wasn’t painful, just startling. I turned to look at him and, splat!, he hit me again, right in my face.
Then, in a split second, before I could even react, all of these kids started pelting me with berries, pelting the shit out of me. Some of the berries weren’t ripe, and they stung like rocks. I tried to cover my face with my hands, but there was a barrage coming at me from all sides. They were laughing and pelting me and calling me names. “Bushie! Bushman!” I was terrified. Just the suddenness of it, I didn’t know what to do. I started crying, and I ran. I ran for my life, all the way back down the road to our house.
When I ran inside I looked like I’d been beaten to a pulp because I was bawling my eyes out and was covered in red-purple berry juice. My mother looked at me, horrified.
In between sobs I told her the story. “These kids…the mulberry tree…they threw berries at me…” When I finished, she burst out laughing. “It’s not funny!” I said.
“No, no, Trevor,” she said. “I’m not laughing because it’s funny. I’m laughing out of relief. I thought you’d been beaten up. I thought this was blood. I’m laughing because it’s only berry juice.”
My mom thought everything was funny. There was no subject too dark or too painful for her to tackle with humor. “Look on the bright side,” she said, laughing and pointing to the half of me covered in dark berry juice. “Now you really are half black and half white.”
“It’s not funny!”
“Trevor, you’re okay,” she said. “Go and wash up. You’re not hurt. You’re hurt emotionally. But you’re not hurt.”
Half an hour later, Abel showed up. At that point Abel was still my mom’s boyfriend. He wasn’t trying to be my father or even a stepfather, really. He was more like a big brother than anything. He’d joke around with me, have fun. I didn’t know him that well, but one thing I did know about him was that he had a temper. Very charming when he wanted to be, incredibly funny, but fuck he could be mean. He’d grown up in the homelands, where you had to fight to survive. Abel was big, too, around six-foot-three, long and lean. He hadn’t hit my mom yet. He hadn’t hit me yet, either. But I knew he was dangerous. I’d seen it. Someone would cut us off in traffic. Abel would yell out the window. The other guy would honk and yell back. In a flash Abel would be out of our car, over to theirs, grabbing the guy through the driver’s-side window, screaming in his face, raising a fist. You’d see the other guy panic. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” When Abel walked in that night, he sat down on the couch and saw that I’d been crying.
“What happened?” he said.
I started to explain. My mother cut me off. “Don’t tell him,” she said. She knew what would happen. She knew better than me.
“Don’t tell me what?” Abel said.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“It’s not nothing,” I said.
She glared at me. “Don’t tell him.”
Abel was getting frustrated. “What? Don’t tell me what?”
He’d been drinking; he never came home from work sober, and the drinking always made his temper worse. It was strange, but in that moment I realized that if I said the right things I could get him to step in and do something. We were almost family, and I knew if I made him feel like his family had been insulted, he’d help me get back at the boys. I knew he had a demon inside him, and I hated that; it terrified me how violent and dangerous he was when he snapped. But in that moment I knew exactly what I had to say to get the monster on my side.
I told him the story, the names they called me, the way they attacked me. My mother kept laughing it off, telling me to get over it, that it was kids being kids, no big deal. She was trying to defuse the situation, but I couldn’t see that. I was just mad at her. “You think it’s a joke, but it’s not funny! It’s not funny!” Abel wasn’t laughing. As I told him what the bullies had done, I could see the anger building up inside him. With Abel’s anger, there was no ranting and raving, no clenched fists. He sat there on the couch listening to me, not saying a word. Then, very calm and deliberate, he stood up.
“Take me to these boys,” he said.
Yes, I thought, this is it. Big brother is going to get my revenge for me.
We got into his car and drove up the road, stopping a few houses down from the tree. It was dark now except for the light from the streetlamps, but we could see the boys were still there, playing under the tree. I pointed to the ringleader. “That one. He was the main one.” Abel slammed his foot on the gas and shot up onto the grass and straight toward the bottom of the tree. He jumped out. I jumped out. As soon as the kids saw me they knew exactly what was happening. They scattered and ran like hell.
Abel was quick. Good Lord, he was fast. The ringleader had made a dash for it and was trying to climb over a wall. Abel grabbed him, pulled him down, and dragged him back. Then he stripped a branch off the tree, a switch, and started whipping him. He whipped the shit out of him, and I loved it. I have never enjoyed anything as much as I enjoyed that moment. Revenge truly is sweet. It takes you to a dark place, but, man, it satisfies a thirst.
Then there was the strangest moment where it flipped. I caught a glimpse of the look of terror in the boy’s face, and I realized that Abel had gone past getting revenge for me. He wasn’t doing this to teach the kid a lesson. He was just beating him. He was a grown man venting his rage on a twelve-year-old boy. In an instant I went from Yes, I got my revenge to No, no, no. Too much. Too much. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Dear God, what have I done?
Once this kid was beat to shit, Abel dragged him over to the car and held him up in front of me. “Say you’re sorry.” The kid was whimpering, trembling. He looked me in the eye, and I had never seen fear in someone’s eyes like I saw in his. He’d been beaten by a stranger in a way I don’t think he’d ever been beaten before. He said he was sorry, but it was like his apology wasn’t for what he’d done to me. It was like he was sorry for every bad thing he’d ever done in his life, because he didn’t know there could be a punishment like this.
Looking in that boy’s eyes, I realized how much he and I had in common. He was a kid. I was a kid. He was crying. I was crying. He was a colored boy in South Africa, taught how to hate and how to hate himself. Who had bullied him that he needed to bully me? He’d made me feel fear, and to get my revenge I’d unleashed my own hell on his world. But I knew I’d done a terrible thing.
Once the kid apologized, Abel shoved him away and kicked him. “Go.” The kid ran off, and we drove back to the house in silence. At home Abel and my mom got in a huge fight. She was always on him about his temper. “You can’t go around hitting other people’s children! You’re not the law! This anger, this is no way to live!” A couple of hours later this kid’s dad drove over to our house to confront Abel. Abel went out to the gate, and I watched from inside the house. By that point Abel was truly drunk. This kid’s dad had no idea what he was walking into. He was some mild-mannered, middle-aged guy. I don’t remember much about him, because I was watching Abel the whole time. I never took my eyes off him. I knew that’s where the danger was.
Abel didn’t have a gun yet; he bought that later. But Abel didn’t need a gun to put the fear of God in you. I watched as he got right in this guy’s face. I couldn’t hear what the other man was saying, but I heard Abel. “Don’t fuck with me. I will kill you.” The guy turned quickly and got back in his car and drove away. He thought he was coming to defend the honor of his family. He left happy to escape with his life.
When I was growing up, my mom spent a lot of time trying to teach me about women. She was always giving me lessons, little talks, pieces of advice. It was never a full-blown, sit-down lecture about relationships. It was more like tidbits along the way. And I never understood why, because I was a kid. The only women in my life were my mom and my grandmother and my aunt and my cousin. I had no love interest whatsoever, yet my mom insisted. She would go off on a whole range of things.
“Trevor, remember a man is not determined by how much he earns. You can still be the man of the house and earn less than your woman. Being a man is not what you have, it’s who you are. Being more of a man doesn’t mean your woman has to be less than you.”
“Trevor, make sure your woman is the woman in your life. Don’t be one of these men who makes his wife compete with his mother. A man with a wife cannot be beholden to his mother.”
The smallest thing could prompt her. I’d walk through the house on the way to my room and say, “Hey, Mom” without glancing up. She’d say, “No, Trevor! You look at me. You acknowledge me. Show me that I exist to you, because the way you treat me is the way you will treat your woman. Women like to be noticed. Come and acknowledge me and let me know that you see me. Don’t just see me when you need something.” These little lessons were always about grown-up relationships, funnily enough. She was so preoccupied with teaching me how to be a man that she never taught me how to be a boy. How to talk to a girl or pass a girl a note in class—there was none of that. She only told me about adult things. She would even lecture me about sex. As I was a kid, that would get very awkward.
“Trevor, don’t forget: You’re having sex with a woman in her mind before you’re having sex with her in her vagina.”
“Trevor, foreplay begins during the day. It doesn’t begin in the bedroom.”
I’d be like, “What? What is foreplay? What does that even mean?”
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