I love you, you’re perfect, now where’s your PhD?

Athol Fugard (b. 1932) was a man ahead of his time. The celebrated South African playwright and novelist (of Tsotsi, among many others) had the balls to take on such testy topics as institutionalized racism, township violence, and the color line in daily life–different sides of the same bitter coin in apartheid South Africa.

And he had the courage to write a play, “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act”, in 1972 featuring a naked white woman, a naked black man, and a white apartheid policeman on a bare stage with strobe lights. For the play’s illicit debut, Fugard took off his clothes, put on black paint, and played the black lead–no person of color was permitted on stage in those days. (Naturally, the apartheid government didn’t take a liking to his works and banned the lot of them.)

“Statements”, which Sindiso and I watched last night at the appropriately named Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, is devastating enough and deserves a post of its own. But that’s not what I have in mind right now. Rather, I’d like to confront one of the unhappy background facts surrounding the two main characters–unhappy because of how close it hits to home.

The white woman in the play is a librarian, single, nearing middle age. The black man is the principal of the local township school, six years her junior, a brilliant scholar and respected family man. The white woman is situated somewhere in the middle of her society while the black man sits at the very top of his.

And somehow one is persuaded, subconsciously at least, that only such a pairing of black excellence with white mediocrity (as far as worldly qualifications are concerned) could be possible in the context. Indeed, it would take a black man of considerable ability and self-respect in apartheid South Africa to even approach a white library by the back door (there were few if any libraries in the townships), much less solicit help from a white female librarian to assemble the volumes on his college reading list. It is only because of this peculiar pursuit that Fugard’s tortured heroes encounter one another as full-fledged human beings–and only because he is a man with intellectual questions of the kind she likes to hear (not the familiar black gardener or servant, to whom she scarcely speaks) is there even the prospect that a friendship might unfold.

Falling in love with Sindiso was both splendid and inconvenient. Splendid for reasons many of you know–I’ll let them be for now :) Inconvenient because, on the superficial face of things, the woman I loved did not share my “standing” in the world.

“Standing” is a tricky thing, of course. It consists of things we earn and things we inherit–although the lines may not be quite as bright as we’d like to think. For example, I believe I earned my university degrees; but what do I do with the fact that I obviously inherited many of the preconditions for advanced academic success: well-educated and involved parents, a wonderful primary and secondary education, plenty of books at home…

Regardless, I did not earn my skin, my surname, or my place of birth. Yet thanks to these arbitrary facts, I began day one with a higher standing in life than the vast majority of other people on this earth–and a good few notches ahead of my future wife, a black woman born under apartheid in South Africa. None of these inherited “points” had anything to do with my character or hers, with our ability to strive and love as full-fledged human beings. But the world is a messy and unequal place.

And so the honest truth is that when it came to taking the critical step from being “merely” in love with Sindiso to actually contemplating her as my wife, I could not deny the fact that much of the world–as well as some people I knew–thought us an ill-matched pair. Not illegal any longer, but peculiar and sometimes objectionable just the same.

In moments of self doubt I’d wonder, “Will they see her unfit, like that ‘mail-order bride’ our high school driving instructor had imported from Southeast Asia–to the ridicule of all his students?” “Will they think me unable to find a ‘suitable’ woman of my own race because I am deficient in some way?” “Will they see her as some poor, unfortunate Third World’er hitching her wagon to this spotted American horse?” I can’t deny my pride.

And that’s where the PhD came in, and the Rhodes to boot. That I could say these simple words to whoever expressed an interest in my romantic plans with Sindiso–now Doctor Sindiso Mnisi Weeks, to be precise–made a difference, I must confess. Not to mention her perfect English elocution, her subtle mind, and all the rest. What crusty old white acquaintance could argue with these things?

But that’s not all. What of Sindiso’s side of the story? What of the sense, expressed by some in her community, that being with me means there isn’t a black man “good enough” for her? That she is just a “coconut”–black on the outside, white on the inside? That she “ain’t black enough”? Are we saying that only a black woman with a PhD (a degree I haven’t earned myself) is good enough for me… that the white man keeps on taking what he will from blacks – the “cream of the crop” – as he’s done for centuries past? Unsettling questions for another blog perhaps…

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