It’s simple, black, and fits me snugly – like a hug from an old friend, one you haven’t seen in quite some time. Across the front, in large, bold white letters is a phrase, powerful in its simplicity and maybe a little cheeky. Audacious, even:
“Black, Queer, and unapologetic.”
It’s the kind of t-shirt I’ve always wanted to own, and when I eagerly snapped it up at a poetry event overseas, I fantasised about all the spaces in which I could flaunt my obviously political fashion statement. I imagined the conversations it would spark at home, the curious whispers at my back as I wore these facets of my identity with pride, visible on my own terms.
I tried to imagine my mother’s face. Would she be able to find me, and recognise me somewhere within the white printed words on my chest? Or in the black spaces between them? Would she lower her eyes if I entered our kitchen at home with the t-shirt casually paired with a pair of blue jeans? Would I be able to wear it without apology then? Despite my initial excitement, the t-shirt spent more time neatly folded in the dark corners of my cupboard at home, than worn fearlessly in the open Johannesburg air.
I had mostly given up the idea of wearing it anywhere in public, until I heard of an event in Cape Town called the #ForBlackGirlsOnly picnic. The picnic was to be organised by BlackLoveSessions, a South African group that powerfully described itself on its Facebook page as “a radical social movement unapologetically promoting Blackness around Cape Town through a series of events, talks, and exhibitions.”
Reading this, my eyes fixated on the word “unapologetically”, and I immediately knew two things. Firstly, that I would fly to Cape Town to attend, without hesitation. And secondly, I knew exactly what t-shirt I would wear.
After stepping off the plane, I dropped off my luggage at a trendy boutique hotel in Cape Town’s city bowl, switching out the colourful printed t-shirt I was wearing for the above mentioned, appropriately political one. Quickly catching a branded taxi thereafter to the picnic in Observatory, I couldn’t help but feel fake.
Here I was: a young, queer, Black, middle-class girl who not only could afford to hop on a flight to Cape Town at a moment’s notice, but also could stay in upscale comfort in a city notorious for its unapologetic whiteness, and for its misplaced disgust, pity and shame for any form of Black life deemed ‘unsightly’. In the ride over to Obs, I felt unshakably complicit in Cape Town’s whiteness, and in its project to either assimilate Blackness into itself, or marginalise Blackness in its effort to ultimately erase Black people and their supposed unsightliness.
A white sheep in revolutionary clothing, if you will. The much-discussed and much-debated coconut.
Upon arrival in Observatory, I entered the bar where the picnic was to be held tentatively, as an impostor would – with slow feet, always ready to be caught out and exposed.
When I reached the bar’s grassy backyard, what I saw genuinely shook me. In front of me were hundreds of Black woman faces, brazenly dressed in black: sitting, standing, dancing, drinking, eating, selling clothing and products, tweeting, photographing, writing, documenting, meeting each other, laughing.
I stood there, moved in ways I honestly find difficult to describe – a kind of relief and absurd joy, but also a kind of fleeting grief and aching realisation that this was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by so many Black girls simply being.
In one space, gorgeously, improbably, astonishingly.
After shyly introducing myself to the first two Black women I saw (who embraced me with a quick warmth), Sivu Onesipho Siwisa, one of the main organisers of the picnic took to the mic:
Today is for the Black girls who stand on the edge of suicide.
It’s for the Black girls who thought English, the twang, “good” language, “good” education, multiple degrees… would protect them from the violence of a white, cis, patriarchal system.
It’s for the Black girls with beards, and the Black girls with dicks.
It’s for Sizakele Sigasa, Sandra Bland, for Anene Booysen, and for every other Black girl who we will never, ever call by name because the violence on their bodies was not sensational enough.
It’s for the women of 1956, for the women of #RhodesMustFall, for the women of #OpenStellenbosch, for the women of #RhodesSoWhite.
It’s for the feminists, for the queers, for the trans women… a space for breathing, for love, for support. It’s for melanin…That’s it.
From that moment on, I spent the day in a space that pivoted from an overwhelming sense of belonging and support, to a fragile and tense sense of sisterhood. I shout-sang Erykah Badu’s Tyrone with shrill and gorgeous abandon alongside hundreds of other voices, and danced to Thandiswa Mazwai’s Ingoma with no one to gape at my thighs or police my twerk.
I also sat in uneasy gratitude as panellists and fellow black-clad women called out the transphobia, ableism, classism and homophobia that is far too often overlooked in spaces proclaiming a ‘surface sisterhood’ without a thorough acknowledgment and analysis of the ways our privileges and oppressions work to include certain bodies while excluding others.
While there were moments of fist-pumping, “yaaaasssss”-inspiring recognition, the most challenging, and perhaps the most important moments for me, were moments of intense disagreement over issues that exposed our barriers to each other, and our often competing and conflicting experiences, desires and visions of Black womanhood. These difficult, but nonetheless precious moments presented us all with glimpses of ways in which we could improve and build in the urgent and ever-deepening desire to be free, how we are, and where we are.
In an essay written in the early 1980s, half a world away, African-American lesbian writer Audre Lorde touched on this particular issue with an eloquence that resonates in South Africa today. She wrote that:
Often we give lip service to the idea of mutual support and connection between Black women because we have not yet crossed the barriers to these possibilities, nor fully explored the angers and fears that keep us from realizing the power of a real Black sisterhood. And to acknowledge our dreams is to sometimes acknowledge the distance between those dreams and our present situation. Acknowledged, our dreams can shape the realities of our future, if we arm them with the hard work and scrutiny of now. We cannot settle for the pretenses of connection, or for the parodies of self-love. We cannot continue to evade each other on the deepest levels because we fear each other’s angers, nor continue to believe that respect means never looking directly nor with openness into another Black woman’s eyes..
Before I left the miraculous and unforgettable picnic, I was overwhelmed with gratitude, with complex feelings of contradiction and comfort, with thoughts of the myriad ways in which Black women experience violence and feel pain while hurting each other, and hopeful imaginings of how I could immerse myself in the “hard work and scrutiny of now”.
In the final moments, many of us had left the grassy back area to enter the bar to dance, fleeing the grey Cape Town rain. As I left, I sang along to Lebo Mathosa’s voice, amplified by more than a hundred more Black voices who all knew the lyrics but now sang with a new intensity: