“Lotsa Lekker Looney Love.” That’s how my best friend Abby and I would sign the multi-page letters with elaborate folds and glitter gel pen decorations we’d write to each other stealthily during class. After school in our own homes, we’d pick up the phone to talk for a few more hours about how hot the male gap students from the UK were and the boys she had crushes on and the ones who had crushes on her back. We’d watch MTV together through the phone and at the end of the calls we’d say, “I love you.”
For her eleventh birthday, Abby had a sleepover with me and nine other friends at her house, which was on a farm just outside of the city, then known as Pietersburg. That night was my favorite. We had dinner at a long table with her parents and two older sisters, and I was making everyone laugh with funny accents and stories. After we ate, we went to look at the horses she rode for show jumping and freaked ourselves out when the mares snorted and stomped in the dark.
When it was time for bed, her mom set up different sleeping areas for all the girls in Abby’s room and the bedroom on the other side of the bathroom. She and I were paired up on the floor next to the bed and in hysterics because we had unintentionally bought the same night dress—silky and champagne-colored with crescent moons and smiling suns and little stars on it. When the lights went out and everyone else was trying to sleep, Abby and I wanted to see if we could fall asleep with our limbs tangled together and stuck up towards the ceiling, like a dead bug with brown and pink legs. We laughed and laughed and laughed.
We were lucky to have met at all, because technically I wasn’t accepted into Mitchell House Preparatory School when we all applied to enter Grade 1 in 1995. Government schools in South Africa had started integrating in 1993, but many private schools still had the freedom to decide whether they would admit students of color and controlled the numbers if they did. In Pietersburg, Mitchell House was opened in response to the influx of Black students at the only English-government school in town. It was a good school, and my parents really wanted me to go.
The morning after my parents received a rejection letter, my mom dropped me off at preschool and let the headmistress know that I wouldn’t be going to Mitchell House after all. But Auntie Audrie, as the children called her, refused to accept my rejection. She went to the headmaster and told him they’d made a mistake not letting me in. What was the criteria for acceptance, she wanted to know, because I could already read in English and had actually taught myself to, when I was four. My parents thought the school was teaching us to read, and my teachers thought it was my parents at home. I don’t know where I acquired English words. I just remember thinking about how the letters “t” and “h” made the sound at the beginning of “the,” and how that must be a brand-new word in the world.
We’re still not sure exactly how Auntie Audrie won her confrontation with the Mitchell House headmaster, but within two weeks, my mom and dad sat with two different admission letters from the same school: one a “we regret to inform you,” and the other a “we’re pleased to welcome.” I was too young to understand how this simultaneous acceptance and rejection was just part of how things worked when you’re a Black person in the new South African private school system. I was just excited to go to “big school.”
“You speak English so well!” was something white people would say often. They thought it was a compliment to tell me I sounded like I didn’t have an African mother tongue and equated that with intelligence.
One of my mom’s colleagues would always commend her about the way I answered the phone (“You’d never tell you were calling a Black person’s house!”), and when I met him once he bragged to another white woman about how well I spoke while looking at me like I was the true vision of the new South Africa: one where Black people assimilated into white society so they wouldn’t deserve the brutality and humiliation that fell from somewhere upon them.
“Speaking English so well” seemed to be the key to open many doors. It got me cast in school plays (the Wicked Witch of Letterland, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, the evil or funny sidekick to the white girl’s lead) and endeared me to the teachers and parents like Abby’s.
Outside of school, we only ever hung out at her house, but I didn’t mind. I’d go home with her on a Friday after class and we’d sing along to the songs on the radio, squished into the car with her sisters and their friends. We’d spend Saturdays stretched out on a flowery couch watching movies, or sometimes I’d go with her to a show jumping event. After one of our sleepovers, I inherited an oversized sweater with the name of their stables on the back. On those unadulterated afternoons, we’d ask her sister to drive us around the farm to the ruins of an old house. Abby and I would sit in the back of the white bakkie, bumping over the small hills looking for impala between sun-scorched shrubs and Acacia trees.
My mom would pick me up at her house later in the day, coming out of the car to greet Abby’s parents and make sure I said thank you for having me. On the drive home she’d ask me questions in Sepedi, and I’d answer back in English.
My parents had moved us from our house at the University of the North to the suburbs just when Black people were allowed to move into town in 1992. We had Black neighbors on one side and on the other a rotating cast of white families we never met because they each only stayed a year at a time. My parents had never interacted with white people in this way before, as neighbors and fellow parents of kids who attended the same school, and it must have taken them a while to overcome the government-sanctioned sense of un-belonging that had been branded into their skin their whole lives. I would come home grumpy from Abby’s house, not yet aware that the same kernel of insecurity was growing inside me, but too conscious that our households were basically the same yet fundamentally so different.
Nothing had really changed for families like Abby’s after 1994. They had always been allowed to move around freely. Their culture was still the dominant one—the one to which we were all supposed to aspire—and they didn’t have to learn another language or anything about the cultures of other South Africans to be perceived as intelligent and deserving. Except, they could pat their own backs for having post-racial children with rainbow-colored friends who “spoke English so well,” so everything had turned out okay.
At school, Abby and I spent break times with our gang of friends walking around the big field, our arms linked together, or sitting under a tree, eating our lunches and carrying on conversations interrupted only by class time and teachers. The six of us liked the same music and television shows and laughed at the same silly things. We went to the movies at the mall together on weekends and considered ourselves cooler than everyone else. Now that we were in Grade 7, we could wear short blue skirts with our white school shirts instead of the childish pinafore dresses we had to wear before.
Even though we wanted to push the boundaries with the length of our skirts, we were always conscious of the rules about how we looked and behaved when we were wearing our school uniform (especially because four of us were prefects). The dress code called for hair to be tied up if it was long past the shoulders or kept neat if it was short. One day, braids like the ones many of the Black girls wore were banned. I didn’t know of any rules about afros because no one ever had one. Some of us would straighten our hair once a month with smelly, burning relaxers so we could force it into a pony with a scrunchie in school colors; others would stick to cornrows and plaits that were so tight they’d pull the edges of your face taut.
There was a rule about speaking only English while wearing the school uniform, which I always found unnecessary. Especially because I only saw it being enforced when it shouldn’t have mattered, like when a teacher suspected she was being mocked, or when a group of kids were playing a game after school, waiting for their parents to pick them up, and the staff member on duty shouted at them and told them they weren’t at a shebeen. Even then I understood that the use of “shebeen” was a very specific way to tell Black kids to be quiet. We were being compared to those loud and lawless illegal township taverns, and being reminded that, even if we were kids at a private school, those “shebeen characteristics” were innate in us.
I always tried to be impressive to the adults around me, hoping to prove them wrong about what they thought about Black people. At least with my friends, I could happily be myself. We didn’t have all those ideas from the past. We just saw people as people.
Then: “What’s it like to be Black?”
Abby asked me while we were in the bath once. She had been struggling to get the question out and it made me feel super exposed when she did. I could feel my bare back pressing into the coolness of the porcelain, and I hugged my knees to my chest as protection against this new vulnerability.
This wasn’t like a fight, which could easily be solved with a heart poured out in a sorry letter. The stakes felt high for me because, in that moment, we crossed over from a place where I had felt fairly certain about how I was being seen, to questioning whether she was seeing me how the white world saw Black people. Or, was she just asking what it was like to have to be Black in a society that made Blackness out to be a negative thing? The uncertainty made me nervous.
I had experienced real racism out in the world for as long as I could remember—many, many white people didn’t hide their anger, disgust, fear, and hatred for Black people—but I’d known in my idealistic little heart that those people and their attitudes would soon fall out of fashion. Friendships like Abby and mine were proof of that.
But in places like school and even at Abby’s house, I lived with a more subtle tension: you could never know how nice white people really saw you because you were also very aware that negative perceptions of Black people existed, and there was a danger that you could accidentally confirm them at any time.
That moment in the tub was exposing the fact that I had to straddle the line all the time, and I just wanted to protect myself from finding out that Abby might not have seen me the way I thought. I would rather have had us pretend that ours wasn’t a friendship made fragile by a living racial history that could swallow and separate us at any time. So, I said, “It’s not like you’re an alien or something,” and hoped she would just forget about it. Now, I wonder if I had been articulate—what is it like to be Black?—would the answer have made both of us different?
Months and months later, all of our emotional attention was on the fact that we would be going to separate high schools. It was one of those end-of-the-year days when the smell of a dry summer rose up hot and dusty from the ground, and the grass on the field was starting to brown except on the cricket pitch where we were never allowed to walk. We had the restlessness of students who didn’t have to care about school or the rules anymore, and the nervous anticipation of girls on the edge of discovering the mysteries of teenagehood. The hardest thing was thinking about being apart the next year, and we made promises that nothing would really change.
Abby and I were hanging out at the sports field when we saw two students from the high school next door making out behind the auditorium. We crept closer to the fence and crouched between the browned blades of sawtooth lovegrass to get a better look. The girl was Black and the boy was white, and it might have been the first real, live interracial couple I had ever seen, which gave me hope that it wasn’t too outrageous to have a crush on a white boy and have him like me back.
Abby must have been thinking it was gross because that’s what she kept saying out loud. She’d already had her first boyfriend and first kiss by then. I knew she didn’t think it was gross just because a boy was kissing a girl.
It wasn’t a reaction I’d expected from her. This wasn’t a wind-knocked-out-of-me blow, but a puncture wound that caused a slow deflation: I’d just found out the world I had built in my mind didn’t coincide with the real one, and I had to give up, for good, the idea that our friendship was special and real. If it was so disgusting to see a white person and a Black person kissing, how could I be exempt from whatever it was that made the scene gross, when that girl could have been me?
For so long, I’d wanted to believe that we transcended race. I knew Abby probably didn’t have to think about it as much as I did—the world seemed made for her and not me—but I had always seen the fact of our friendship as a hope that one day I wouldn’t have to think about it either. I’d hoped that she wanted that for me, too. But now she’d shown that even though we were as close as two people could be, there would always be a line between herself and Blackness. It didn’t matter what she saw in me; she simply didn’t see me as one-hundred-percent human, the way I saw her.
It was like the insecurities I held about my own body had been confirmed. My body was the one thing I knew I could never change to please white people, and I’d always felt that something about it was the reason white people thought us closer to animals than to them. I couldn’t hide my big lips and brown skin and heavy thighs behind correctly pronounced English words and knowledge of white culture. Ultimately, it didn’t matter that I was the “right” kind of Black person, who spoke the right way and liked the right things and could be one of your best friends. There was no way to break the barrier where my body, and bodies like mine, could be seen as a desirable and desiring thing.
Abby didn’t seem to register that I was shaken because to her, I think, this was a natural line to draw, and she must have assumed I would draw it, too. Like we were from two different species. It was the first, but unfortunately not the last, time I’d feel a friendship with a white person shift from real to superficial. I could no longer trust her with my basic, tender humanity, and even though we would still be friends, I would never be able to let her in like I used to.
The high school I went to the next year was another private school formed by white parents who wanted to have a good English school to send their kids. This time I received an academic scholarship to attend. Abby, like most of my friends, went to the government school that shared a fence with Mitchell House where all of my former classmates’ siblings went (and where some of their parents had gone before them). We hadn’t hung out solo in a long time, but we still saw each other some weekends at parties and small gatherings with old friends, and one day she let me know she might be moving to my school. I couldn’t help getting excited, thinking about our shared memories and having someone I was already close with as an ally in that new, still-intimidating world. She came to check things out during our Valentine’s Day social dressed as a “hot nurse,” so a few people (boys) suddenly wanted to know me after they found out she would be coming to our school. I was the best friend with intel.
“I was hoping I’d be with you,” said this freckly, pale, too-sure-of-himself kid called Paddington. We were paired together for some group thing in class, but he wanted to talk about Abby. He also liked to talk about all the places he’d been to overseas, and found a way to mention that sushi and McDonalds were his favorite foods every chance he could.
My new school had more rich kids than Mitchell House, and was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by pine trees that smelled so strong I can’t smell pine today without being transported right back there. There was a lake, and it felt like it was always rainy and muddy or misty except at the beginning and end of the year, when it felt like torture to wear our uniform stockings and blazers in the sun. Almost all of the students were boarders, including me, who stayed at the school from Monday to Friday. Our rooms of four were randomly assigned, but we always seemed to end up being grouped by race. When Abby came, she was in a room with all white girls across the hall from the room I was in with all Black girls.
We both made new friends. It seemed to me like the world had righted the freak accident of a friendship like ours, and that maybe the natural order of things was that hot white girls hung out with other hot white girls and got attention from students and teachers, and Black girls had to be exceptional just to be seen. And just like that, it didn’t seem that sad that we were no longer friends. We belonged in different worlds. Mainly, I felt embarrassed that I had talked about her so much and assumed our friendship could continue like what it had been before.
One of the big events on the calendar for new Grade 8 students was a multi-day hike, which culminated in a trek up a mountain you could sometimes see from the hockey field on a clear day. My aunt died the Sunday before the trip. She was hit by a car while walking in the township that sat about halfway between my home in the suburbs and my school in the mountains. We had to drive over the scene of the accident, a darkened patch in the tar, that Monday morning.
When I got to school, I sat spilling tears and telling my friends, the girls I lived with during the school week, what happened. This was the first big loss in my life, and I was grateful to know there were some things about this event and everything around it I wouldn’t have to explain to them. They already understood our traditions around death and the way we mourned.
I also didn’t have to describe the township where white people would never set foot. Where reckless taxis and bad driving were ubiquitous, and lighting and roads were unmaintained, and people who had to walk everywhere were at risk of all kinds of violence. Where communities had been neglected by governments before and after Apartheid. Also, where us private school kids still went to spend joyful weekends and holidays with our families. Where the culture we were supposed to forget kept surviving.
After a long day of trekking, I was one of the lame kids who actually tried to sleep that first night when the teachers called “lights out” under the looming shadow of the mountain I didn’t believe I would be able to climb.
I lay in the dark feeling extremely alone, isolated by the fog of grief and longing to be with my family instead of on this dumb mountain, with all these kids whose biggest problem was how to look cool with a giant backpack on their back. I heard Abby and her friends, whom my new friends and I called “the special girls” because of the treatment they got from some teachers, slip into Paddington’s tent. I could hear the giggling and trying-to-impress talk like it was being transmitted into my tent through a radio.
Someone in that tent suggested they tell racist jokes. But instead of being explicit, Paddington said they should use “Romans” as a placeholder for Black people.
“What’s the difference between Romans and a pile of dog shit?” Paddington asked.
“Romans don’t turn white in the sun.”
This time I wasn’t surprised. I knew more about living alongside people who could be good and friendly and also see your existence as a bad punchline. What did catch me off guard was how it still hurt to hear Abby laughing with the rest of them.
Rumpus original art by Sumayya Ansari.