The cold ate humble pie and we were left with questions burnt on our skins
The business of good art is to move us. Lebo Mashile’s Threads pushed the writer into the vanguard of calling for a completely new social order. No more men, no more nice girls and no more mothers who carry our burdens. A wickedly clever piece of anarchy.
Lebo Mashile and her family of physical soothsayers, the Moving Into Dance Mophatong, brought their much-acclaimed show “Threads” to Bloemfontein on a cold winter evening. The verbal dance/physical poem tackled a number of issues that plague our society, including homophobia, Afrophobia and domestic violence – and the interconnectivity thereof. The performance explored, through dance and poetry, the threads that bind us. “The threads we break,” Lebo says in the opening poem, “through violent acts.”
Threads was an experience like no other. Words can never do it justice. One could write tomes about themes like the threads of language that connect/disconnect us, tying it together with the importance of a greeting in African cultures; “What language do you greet in?”
One could also go further and explore the “what kind of a woman” poem to ask what exactly is it that the world wants from a woman. And should she even care? There are also the threads that connect words and dance. A case is to be made for dance as a carrier of the emotions words fail to carry. And then there are the words we use as clumsy tools to decipher dance. The body tells stories that words can only dream about.
The thread I wish to explore is that of violence. We must broaden our understanding of violence outside of the physical act of inflicting harm. For instance, as a friend of mine always insists when we discuss manhood; “It is extremely violent to expect someone who has no desire and/or ability to lead to become a leader simply because he was born with a penis.”
This thread is evident in the performance of the ‘family’ set. In this performance Lebo is in the middle of four dancers, two of both sexes. They are all tied together by thick ropes. Each represents a member of the family; mother/wife, father/husband, daughter/sister and son/brother. She recites a poem for each member of the family, exploring their pain. The dancers translate the emotions of the poem physically. It is a majestic performance that leaves us in uncomfortable reflections of our families and our role in them.
Are we the boy-fathers who have replaced words with fists to express their love or the good girls who will forever remain girls. Maybe we are the god-fearing mothers who cry mea culpa in face of tragedy or the over-protected sons raised to become monsters we have come to know as men?
These positions of ‘the father’, ‘the daughter’, ‘the mother’ and ‘the son’ can be, in and of themselves, a violence. And is there no family without this violence? The family is the basic unit of the society, and a microcosm. If the society is violent and oppressive, then this is reflected in the family. No one can deny the violent nature of our white-supremacist hetero-normative patriarchal society – a society that feeds on those raced as ‘black’, gendered as ‘women’ and those not conforming to heterosexuality.
These positions that are imposed on each individual member of the family are too often in the service of sustaining this violence and oppressive for the individual. Of course, what I might deem as violence could be the ideal for most people. This ideal is best exemplified in the O’Jays’ ‘feel good’ anthem “Family Reunion”. They proclaim that ‘the family is the solution to the world’s problems today’. I’m not in disagreement with this sentiment. I rather wish to bring to the fore what I read as a Threads’ exposé of the violence that undergirds this ideal. Maybe the family can be rescued from this violence and thus truly become the solution to the world’s problems.
But back to Lebo Mashile’s production. We are first introduced to the father. The male dancer moves on stage holding tightly to the rope that goes round his torso that also connects him to the poet. We see him frightened, we see him violent, we see him angry. Lebo informs us that “at work he is a boy, at home is a man” and aptly christens him ‘this boy called my father.’ We all know him. He’s the racist stereotype of the black man – the garden boy. Threads’ father who is a boy is Biko’s black man; “a shell, a shadow of a man, completely defeated, drowning in his own misery… deep inside his anger mounts at the accumulating insult, but he vents it in the wrong direction.” On his wife.
“Him kills life in my mother… my father is a boy…that’s why he hits her.”
This might seem like a convenient excuse – but it is neither convenient nor is it an excuse. Threads, by speaking to the pain of the black man-child, refuses to fall into the liberal feminist trap of demonising black men and placing the buck of domestic violence at our door step. Black men are both perpetrators and victims of patriarchal violence – this is the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. At worst, we are conduits of the white supremacist hetero-normative patriarchal superstructure that organises violence on blacks regardless of gender or sexuality. To use the American term, we are the Head Niggers In Charge of what American feminist scholar bell hooks called ‘plantation patriarchy’.
To properly understand the violence these boys called our fathers inflict on our mothers (and equally if not more so on their fellow ‘boys’) we ought to look beyond them. Threads correctly directs our questions to the suburban gardens where these boys called our fathers ‘make life grow’. Here a beautiful contrast is drawn between these boys who ‘make life’ in white suburbia and the ‘men’ who ‘kill life’ in the black ghettoes. The discerning eye immediately sees how the hell of Alex sustains the so-called heaven of Sandton – and vice versa. White suburbia is where the violence that permeates the black ghetto is engineered. Every time our father has to “brighten up in sheepish obedience as he comes out hurrying in response to his master’s impatient call”, anger builds, and when he gets home and our mother impatiently calls for him to be a man, that is to provide and protect, it boils over with disastrous consequences.
The mighty O’Jays paint the father “as the head, the leader, the director. Not domineering, but showing love, guidance.” They’re asking too much of our father who is a boy. To expect provision and protection from our landless and powerless fathers is nothing short of violence. We are all involved in a diabolical scheme of father-abuse. Feeling powerless and lacking the tools to lead, direct and guide in a non-domineering fashion – our fathers use the only thing they have left to maintain hegemony over the family… their physical might.
So what is to be done? Well, we can start by doing away with this nonsensical notion that men must lead – that is, do away with manhood all together. I go to this extreme because it seems in most cases the call is made that men must be good leaders, that we must settle for the lesser evil of benevolent patriarchy. The whole notion of ‘a good man’ is an oxymoron if I ever heard one. Much like we did with monarchs, we must dismantle all myths that some have a right to lead conferred upon them by the mere accident of biology. So, someone please call Chumani Maxwele; #ManhoodMustFall! That is what we can do at the intramural level. The big task though is of course the total merciless annihilation of white supremacy.
The female dancer representing the daughter bursts onto the stage in playful exuberance with her clapping game. “Good girls put other people’s feelings first.” She is thus introduced. Almost in nursery rhyme we are told what a ‘good girl’ is: Sweet. Nice. Innocent. Pure. She is expected to be; because otherwise she’s a witch. This is not Hogwarts – we don’t play nice with witches: “Kill the girls who dare break out!” ‘
Good girls must remain good girls forever – but if they don’t, there are plenty more on the shelf. This availability and fungibility of the good girls is what maintains the ‘be good’ violence inflicted upon the girl child. This is no country for ‘crazy black bitches’. As the famous Beyoncé line warns; “I can have another you in a minute.”
We like our sisters ‘good’. Like Gregory Porter’s Be Good, we tell them that they “are made for cages, just to look at in delight.” Jenny B Goode! Our fathers expect it of them, our mothers guide them into goodness, and we brothers keep watch so they don’t stray. They too, these our sisters, police each other; “Did you see her dress?”
We exercise control over every aspect of their lives, until we hand over the reins to the husband – who will then be king unto her.
The girl child exists solely for our pleasure: being a good sister, a nice sister, taking care of us, taking care not to bring shame to the family, making her father proud, becoming her mother – the O’Jays limit her ambition to this (remember, “good girls don’t define their own self-worth”); “Then we have the daughter. Watching her mother. Because sooner or later she’s gonna be a mother.”
And most importantly, she exists to make her husband happy; “Good girls are a lady in the kitchen and an animal in the bed!”
The husband is the head she as the neck must carry. And carry us our sisters do. They’re the first ones to say ‘e seng ngwana wa ko gae’ when the world bares out its fangs at us. When we rape their girlfriends, when we kill their boyfriends; they’re there with their skirts rolled up ready to die for us. ‘My ma se kind,’ they lovingly stroke our sweating foreheads as we suffer from yet another STI. ‘Ngwan’a kgaitsedi,’ they love our bastards.
We are the first to protest when some fool knocks on our door with emaciated cattle to take them away. They never desert us even after we sell them over to some other family; their necks carry us together with the frail head that is their husbands. Thomas Sankara was wrong; our sisters don’t carry one half of the sky, they carry the whole thing and everything else in it.
The solution? Our sisters must break out! They must brave our insults and threats – which we offer gratuitously in any case. We need more witches. We need more crazy black bitches. Their goodness is a sweet poison. It is their goodness that makes monsters of us. It is their goodness that affords us the opportunity to be reckless. Because we know that, eventually, our sisters will pick up the pieces – we joyfully shout ‘maziwe ke!’
For the sake of us all, the neck must break. Tracy must give them that ticket and fast car; let no one take care of us. Erykah must vacate the window seat. I think ya better call Chumani; #GoodGirlsMustFall! Even though the heavens may fall.
Clutching her bible, our mother steps forward from the line-up. “God is always there” she declares. “God never forsakes”, she turns to her left. “God always protects,” she presents her left side. We blurt out in anger, “where was God when [you] bled from the head!?”
“It was my fault!” she cries. The dancer carries the emotions of the self-flagellating mother, she is weakened by every lash she inflicts on herself; “I am stupid! I am irresponsible! I made him angry!” She confesses in mounting anguish, and her knees buckle as the floor welcomes her beaten body, the rest of the family heaps on top of her.
The line-up is no longer necessary; we have our suspect.
Our mothers have always carried the sins of the world on their shoulders. They avail themselves for the cross 24/7. Mandi Poefficient Vundla, when Word n Sound visited Bloemfontein a week earlier, got the poetry mass on their feet when she declared that, ‘Jesus need not come back coz our mothers have always been here.’
This sentiment rung true even in the hearts of the most hardened Christians. We may not need Jesus, but our mothers surely do. For they have no one else. They’re completely alone in a world that expects everything from them and offers nothing in return. Except of course on the first Sunday of May, when we thank them for taking all the crap with a smile. We might even buy them a bread-maker so that they are more efficient in their servitude to us. Then in August we deny them their pain as we declare them mbokodo – you know mos rocks don’t hurt when you strike them. They’re strong.
Jesus promises them that their suffering in this world is temporary, re bafeti lefatsheng. They will see His Kingdom, their real home, where suffering is no more. It may be an elaborate lie; but it is the only offer on the table. Their husbands delivered hell instead of the promised heaven; their daughters must still take their yoke; and their sons will soon desert them to go deliver hell elsewhere. Therefore Jesus gets the tender – uncontested.
In the post-show discussions, Lebo mentioned that religion seems to be keeping our mothers oppressed instead of freeing them, and like someone who’s tasted the wrath of the pious, she quickly added that it doesn’t mean that religion can’t be liberating. “It can’t!” I quipped in the safety of my dark corner, much to my companion’s shock. I dare repeat this here, in the hope that the editor will find a way to protect me.
One thing the major religions agree on is the supremacy of the male and the concomitant requirement for the inferior sex to submit to the former’s authority. At best be his aide. The O’Jays concur: “mothers…are the right arm of the father. They’re supposed to do the cooking. Raise the children, do the sewing. And help the father to guide and direct.”
Even though some religions are more susceptible for manipulation than others, I’m yet to hear any valid interpretation to the contrary.
Even if such an interpretation (a great fraud it would be) was to be forwarded, we must still deal with the pacifying nature of religion. Biko mistakenly thought he’d dealt with this question when he said “God is not in the habit of coming down from heaven to solve people’s problems on earth.” What he missed was that no one is expecting Him to; they’re rather comfortable with the idea of suffering here and finding joy in heaven. Our mothers have accepted that their lot is to suffer – religion numbs their pain, much like the good girls they once were (or rather still are, since ‘good girls stay girls forever’) they “smile when they really should get angry.” Religion becomes the opium that keeps this calm smile on their faces in the face of calamity.
The sons get their own set. Two of them, much like their sister in the previous set, come on to stage jubilantly, singing a playground melody, and gather around the poet representing the mother.
“Mama Jabu beat me up.” One offers.
“Boys don’t cry.” The mother castigates.
We are supposed to be strong; crying is an admission of weakness. We can’t afford to be weak – women are weak, and mother says “no woman [is] your equal”. We must provide, we must protect, we must “be strong and fearsome”, “work and fight for what [we] need”.
“Mama I think I’m in love.” Another admits
“Boys don’t cry.” The mother dismisses.
We are taught to not admit to nor trust our emotions; that also is weakness. “You will marry well and bring a good woman home,” and not to forget; if she breaks out of her ‘be good’ cage, if she decides to grow up, there are plenty more on the shelf, “don’t overthink it.” Just get another one.
“Mama why do you have bruises?” He wonders.
“Shh! We don’t talk about that.” She gags him.
We grow up idealising our fathers, no matter how many bruises (not just physical) they inflict on our mothers because our mothers keep up the lie of the perfect father and hide any uncomfortable truths in a bid to protect us. So we want to become our father; and it is not too hard with our mother’s guidance. “Sons are like imitators of their father,” say the mighty O’jays.
“Boys don’t cry.”
“Shh, we don’t talk about that.”
And thus the monster is born. Our mothers breed and nurture this monster. We become our father under her guidance – provided at his behest. Being heirs to his legacy of poverty and powerlessness; our only might is our strong bodies. And thus another boy called father is churned out from the factory of defaults called the ghetto.
How do we break this thread of violence? Threads unfortunately was only kind enough to offer a diagnosis of the problem. It is our burden to step further. In doing this we must resist the temptation to provide ad hoc solutions – the reliance on temporary fixes rather than on a lasting, structural way out of the impasse.
Threads in recognition of the boyness of the father, opens itself up to the risk of valorising manhood by the suggestion that the problem is that our fathers are not men. It is true that they’re not men, but manhood is not the solution. Yes, our fathers must grow up but not into men. A new form of masculinity that is not defined by lording over the female sex ought to be imagined and realised.
Our sisters, as I have already suggested, must – to be crude – allow anarchy to reign. It is about time they let go of the sky. Of course one cannot deny that it is easy to say this when one still has the comfort to ride his male member into some privilege. However, it is high time our sisters let go of our backs. Let us all suffer – as Fanon advised, let us descend into the pit where a true upheaval might be borne.
It would be cruel to ask anything of our mothers. They have given up so much already.
The greatest burden falls with the sons – to whom much is given, much is expected. The first thing would be to realise that we are our own fathers. We ought to reject our mother’s teachings to be strong and silent. We ought to realise and reject our position as the Indunas of patriarchy’s Bantustans – without falling into the trap of desiring to be patriarchs proper. We need to redefine what it means to be a man in the 21st century – and even go as radical as to ask if there’s a place for gender in our future. And most importantly – we need to give sisters a break.
Bloemfontein is lucky to have witnessed the beauty that is Threads. One must state however that this luck is a pet peeve of Lebo and the local patrons of the arts; that with so much infrastructure and talent we are not making attempts at such beauty more regularly, is to quote her, “criminal”. We can only hope that her voice will be heard and the lights of the theatres shall never go off – barring Eskom rolling blackouts of course.
Lebo Mashile is Kgafela’s ‘Faya Sista’, “she spills her oceans of flaming songs to the soil…she dances with history’s skeletons…she opens her mouth in parables of lyrical uprisings…she speaks in tongues of unbroken eternities.” She breathed fire on the floor of the Sand du Plessis; possessed like Fela’s African Woman, Sylvia Glaser’s Moving Into Dance Mophatong danced majestically around it.
The Bloemfontein cold ate humble pie, and we were left with tattoos of questions burnt on our skins.
Biko, Bantu. "The Church As Seen By A Young Layman." In I Write What I Like.
Biko, Bantu. "We Blacks." In I Write What I Like.
hooks, bell. We Real Cool.
Lebo Mashile, Sylvia Glasser. Threads. Moving Into Dance Mophatong.
O'Jays, The. "Family Reunion." Family Reunion. 1975.