Review: Begging to be Black, Antjie Krog

The following short review originally appeared in Rapport, 26 December 2009 (scroll down). This is the English version of the pre-sub-edited Afrikaans version:

I DON’T want to interfere wholesale, and right now, in a conversation between Max du Preez (Rapport, 18 November 2009) and Antjie Krog regarding the themes of her book, of which the main one Du Preez characterisises as “identity suicide”. But I think it’s an important, interesting and necessary conversation; and I think I should add a few sjieling.

Begging to be Black traces no less than 6 strands in a journey which I think only now starts for Krog: her involvement surrounding a political killing in Kroonstad in 1992, the history of Moshoeshoe, letters from Berlin to her mother, a Berlin diary, conversations with an Australian philosopher during her residency at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, and travels and conversations in Lesotho.

Naturally, the reader is taken on several journeys across different time frames. There’s the 1800s with Moshoeshe, then there’s the Kroonstad murder which is revisited during the early 1990s, then revisited from the vantage point of the TRC, as well as from the present, when Krog looks up the old comrades concerned. The letters to her mother are undated, but are written during Krog’s residency in Berlin, letters of familial wonder and pride from the daughter of a South African teacher of German now coming face to face with the place and culture that her mother would have coddled.

The Berlin diary notes the typical South African amazement at how things work in the everyday of European cities: snow gets cleared, buses run on time even on new year’s, etc.

The conversations with the philosopher form the core of Krog’s ‘journey’: what is it that she, as white South African, misses, misunderstands or can gain in understanding about black South Africa. And how.

Sometimes, the other strands speak strongly to this central theme – Mosheoshoe’s African humanism, for instance. At other times, though, I wonder about this multi-genre approach to the book. Some of the strands touch lightly on her central concerns, but the multiple threads detract from her central quest exactly because these strands are never brought together for the reader. One is left with multiple searches – perhaps for the same thing – but I feel that the writer has not played a strong enough hand in bringing them together.

A long essay on Moshoeshoe, for example, can incorporate the history of the king and Krog’s present day concerns, and that should make an interesting book: the questing self in direct reflection on a historical figure.

On the theme itself, I think Du Preez’s criticism is partly right, but also partly to do with vocabulary – which of course is Krog’s problem as well. Of course Krog doesn’t mean that she is literally begging to be black. And neither is she, as Du Preez has it, wanting to commit identity suicide.

Perhaps the vocabulary we are looking for is something like ‘acculturation’ or ‘deracination’. If we look at Moshoeshoe and his relationship with Casalis, the king was quite prepared to acculturate – i.e. take on and use the cultural frameworks of the missionaries – while keeping his own identity. Krog is essentially asking to what extent it is possible for her to take on Moshoeshoe’s frameworks. Colonial society typically demands acculturation from its colonised. Perhaps Krog is starting to ask to what extent the colonising society is prepared for acculturation to happen the other way round?

8 Responses to Review: Begging to be Black, Antjie Krog

  1. James says:

    ‘Perhaps Krog is starting to ask to what extent the colonising society is prepared for acculturation to happen the other way round?’

    This is a very good question. She is, but most importantly she buts up against the understanding that allows it to happen both ways. Du Preez is either teasing or simply out of the loop. The word assimilation, as understood historically in the east and particularly in China, is the most complete expression of acculturation as a two way street. It cannot be understood unless it is seen that it implies discard as much as it implies acquisition.

  2. BSE says:

    Thanks for dropping by James, and yes, I agree with you re the two-way process. I actually prefer the term ‘de-racination’which I think of as an important part in an educational process.

  3. James says:

    Thank you. It is very satisfying to discuss Krog’s book. The importance of ‘Begging to be Black’ cannot be overemphasised. As to the good word de-racination, ja, well no fine, as the following makes clear.

    The book deals with Black. I deal with Yellow.There are noteworthy parallels.

    When Chinese speak English they mean Chinese. This is often disparaged as ‘Chinglish’, referring not only to the Chinese tongue as it articulates English but also to the structure of diction, and sentence, and meaning they employ.

    As to the meaning, I have consulted for years with individuals in middle and upper management in Chinese IC companies. It has brought me to understand that Chinglish is a language vastly superior to English. Beware westerner, you are too often a big fool! The value of China is not to be found in the words or the manufactured products coming from their efforts, but in their intentions. In China, the West comes to embarrass me.

    As Krog puts it, ‘The west is like a vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything, mauling it to pieces within the debris of its own failures, and then it tells you: But we have already said this.(Conversation 4 Been there done that.)

    Long before all of this, in 1715, K’sng-hsi the Ch’ing emperor said of the educated westerners who came to China that ‘their remarks are often incredible and ridiculous’, and that too many of them are ‘no different from (the adherents of ) other small, bigoted sects of Buddhism and Taoism.'(Chung hsi chiao-t’ung shih, volume 5, p.140)
    As to prejudice well, K’ang-hsi was appreciative of westerners, of whom some had previously written the imperial examinations and been given powerful positions in government. He also continued to protect westerners, as long as they were not what he defined above.

    In my experience time has not solved the problem.

    I have never met Krog. I have always admired her writing but have found and still find her writing cloyingly Afrikaner, even as she fairly criticises Afrikanerdom because she has been so immersed in self and I am a bloody stupid Engelsman-educated South African. Nevertheless, she is making hugely relevant assertions extraordinarily elegantly in this book.

    The West better take note of this South African. Awkward as it may appear to be in places, this book puts the indubitably elegant Coetzee in Krog’s dust.

  4. BSE says:

    Er, yellow?

    ‘De-racination’ is not literally about ‘race’ or skin colour. It refers to acquired cultural habits. It is indirectly connected to race in the sense that these acquired cultural habits are in general associated with ‘race'; but it’s not automatic or natural. While race is biological, it is simply a phenotype, thus ‘race'; and culture is historical. One is not born with culture, but acquires it. De-racination thus refers to that historical dimension of culture which, for the sake of convenience, we associate with the phenotype known as ‘race’.

    I’m not sure I follow you re ‘Chinglish’. Could you expand, especially re “When Chinese speak English they mean Chinese” and its superiority over English. And how does it square as lingua franca, i.e. as a means of communication between groups who do not share a common language? Also, a 3rd generation American born of Chinese parents and who does not know any Chinese – how would such a person relate to “Chinglish”.

    “I have always admired her writing but have found and still find her writing cloyingly Afrikaner.”

    A lot can be said about this re moments of inclusion and exclusion in cultural groups. It’s something I have experienced too. It could be an unconscious or ideological blindness on the insider’s part even as the insider seeks to escape, say, ‘Afrikanerhood’. But it could also be a sensitivity on the outsider’s part in that, while there is an attempt to open up, there will always be moments of ‘insider camaraderie’ which cannot be shared.

    I think Krog’s main argument re acculturation and deculturation is an important argument, yes; it’s a pity how her book has been received as something about ‘identity suicide’ or ‘gatkruipery’. But the argument around assimilation is complex and the global climate, where people too easily and too quickly want to assert various identities (‘race’, language, ethnic origin, religion, etc) as the be all and end all of their existence, makes it an unpopular argument.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t be so quick to compare Krog and Coetzee. Krog seems to work better on a popular level, but Coetzee takes arguments to other dimensions. Have you read his essays as in Doubling the Point and Giving Offense?

  5. James says:

    I really appreciate this opportunity to air my views and the replies you have composed give me great pleasure. This is written in haste so I apologise for any confusions.

    If Africa is black then China is yellow. I do find myself perhaps more black than Krog but now begging to be yellow (as well, as there are fundamental similarities between black and yellow).

    Your word de-racination is useful in the context of your essays. I prefer assimilation because it is well used and useful in China, where there is a profound lack of racism despite the English media’s insistence otherwise. There are indeed many other English words that are distinctly useless in the discussions about China. The pattern of thinking here is NOT English. This is another planet fellow.

    As for Chinglish, what I mean is well developed in Krog’s book, but of course with regard to Africa, where I suppose the equivalent would be Afringlish. Chinese speak English with a strange accent and with strange characteristics and tones apprehended as errors by the English ear. My experience indicates it is a very common mistake to think they do not know what they mean and are simple. But meaning is intention, especially when we are listening to a second language speaker and in China from a culture older, other and probably more sophisticated than ours. Accordingly Krog specifically states that Moshoeshoe uses western stories to make Basuto meanings to western people. These meanings are often not fully understood by the English people who hear them. They are not understood even now and discussions with my educated friends indicate they will not be for centuries. (In addition she emphasises the role of the missionaries in writing Mosheoshoe’s letters. Some may believe the missionaries added sophistication while others may believe they became aware of it. I am emphatically of the latter opinion. The west seems astonishingly simple from this perspective in the east)

    Chinese people use English to make meanings unknown to western people. In effect, Moshoeshoe and Chinese take ownership of English by making it express their meaning. As illustrated in Krog’s book, and from my experience here in China, the reason English people commonly misunderstand them is because despite vehement denials, English people believe they are the arbiters of meaning in English; that they alone own English. (re: Mandela’s view of Liberals) This is well illustrated by the insistence on ‘correct’ English here. On the ground here this is clearly a term that implies much, much more than correct grammar or spelling. It is this chauvinistic assumptions that is root of the grand, embarrassing, Western (Anglo-Saxon) colonial failure that continues in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Coetzee does take ‘arguments to other dimensions’ but at the same time I found Disgrace did not take the argument far enough. It did not satisfy me in the end as Krog has. Silly as it sounds to the academic, I have begun to feel Coetzee ended up in Australia because he is incapable, which, given Coetzee’s standing, is of course a slap in the face of the academic, so I make it as soft as a powder puff if possible.

    Thanks for the references re: Doubling the Point and Giving Offense. Presently, despite his evident ability, Coetzee seems limited to me while Krog seems to be covering new ground. I will read further and think about it.

  6. The West is so utterly hypnotised by technology and material wealth that it’s almost incapable of appreciating the riches that come in other forms. We trample invisible treasures and leave invisible wreckage, but it will trip us up in the end.

  7. james says:

    Utterly hypnotised by self love.

    This to the degree that the USA, the king of the West, is not only tripped, it is verifiably buried; a dead man walking; a zombie. It has been for some time.

    My embarrassment at my association in language with this is acute and consequently I have begun to see that my origin is not western, it is African. When I speak and write English I mean African.

  8. james says:

    This is what I mean to write:

    Every time we open our mouths to express a thought and posit meaning we incite a host of ghosts with each word we utter; the ghosts of all who have used the word before complete with their intentions to the last final detail. It is a quantum happening and it is as real and inescapable as the universe, because this creates it. In the face of this undeniable reality the Yanks and Western democrats seem to think if they vote a new president in they nullify the ghosts, bury them and walk free. Circular minded little children! Lick spittle!
    Which is ok if they are less than 5 years old, but they are much more than 5 years old. They are physically adults and the product of their burp guns cannot be wiped up with a rag: they kill and kill and kill and kill and—all in the name of God and Jesus and justice and Democracy and prosperity and the Individual; Good English Words.
    Like GW Bush, it is not an accident or a mistake. It is the reality of Western culture; of its dominant language; of mother tongue English and the people who speak it. He is the prophet of the West.
    And I am against him and his people. When I am finished there will not be any left.
    Mother tongue English is dead—-the language of the zombie. Hugely stinking fucking idiots with smiles on their faces!

    Chapt. 60, Tao Te Ching

    We must rule even a big country with the care needed to cook a small fish.

    Watching in this way, we keep our peace with the resonances of death*,
    Which do keep their powers and will harm men,
    But we will not cause them to do so.

    This leaves us to to refrain from harming each other so that benefits will reign.

    * the good brothers, or unhappy spirits.

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