Everything old can be made new again
The introductory lines of Danez Smith's poem Not an elegy for Mike Brown read: 'I am sick of writing this poem/but bring the boy. his new name/his same old body. ordinary, black.' The poem speaks of the tiring recurrence of the same event to the same kind of body. It is as if this body is the site of a mere naming ceremony as we cycle on a set of facts so similar that the narratives blur into a hazy uniformity. A year ago, we called him Trayvon Martin. A week ago, his name was Michael Brown. Then we called him two names simultaneously, Tamir Rice and Akai Gurley. Different names, same body. Different men, same crime. And today we call him Eric Garner. Tomorrow, he will have yet another name. The _Strange Fruit _hanging from Billie Holiday's trees now stains on our sidewalks.
The decision not to indict the officer who put Eric Garner in the chokehold that killed him, which the coroner had ruled a homicide, has protesters taking to the streets of New York. It is only a few weeks since the same decision occurred in Ferguson, Missouri. The same scene plays out. 'I am sick of writing this poem/but bring the boy. his new name'.
This 'newness' then is, in a sense, false. Beyond the particularities of context, place and time, these events have a long history that belies the idea of their originality. Somewhere between the dystopian fantasy that played out onscreen and the almost unbelievable realities that we deal with daily, a somewhat cumbersome line from The Hunger Games franchise continually circled in my mind. It reflects the profound sense of deja vu that occurs when we deal with such stark replication: 'Everything old can be made new again, like democracy.' While the film agues this in relation to forms of governance, it is not hard to look around and see how certain events appear new to us, but are much of the same - a continuation of the same phenomenon and pathologies, with very slight translations in our context.
On Nikiwe Bikitsha's radio show on 702 last week, discussing police brutality, and race and class in relation to suburban fear and ideas of criminality, a caller argued "people need a reason to be in an area…you need a reason to be in Sandton". It strongly evoked the idea of a dompas, as if a qualifier to the right of freedom of movement (and residence) is necessary in our democratic context. One needs to only give sites like Suburban Fear, which documents these sentiments from 'civic organisations on Facebook', a cursory glance to see how old ideas remain, the language remarkably unchanged on the comment threads on the images posted of 'potential' criminals:
"Any such vehicles with 2, 3, 4, black or coloured males must be regarded as suspicious."
"I honestly felt quite ill that we have these people roaming our streets." "[They] don't play by the rules and any logic escapes them."
In these narratives of fear, criminality is given one face, and it takes the form of Danez Smith's 'same old body/ ordinary. black'. In a country with a high crime rate, it is not to argue that we don't all feel fear in various forms, but rather that through this kind of racial profiling, all black bodies become criminals before committing a crime, their singular crime being their (illicit) appearance in public space. Walking while black. Die Swart Gevaar.
These black men (and women) don't get to be complex figures as fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers and husbands who have unique music tastes or favourite authors. Deprived of full humanity and devoid of any personal history, they are simply criminals, haunted by a cloak of suspicion. It is not a new phenomenon, but a historically entangled one that can be traced back to slavery, colonialism and apartheid, and continues to live in our context - despite any claims to the 'new' South Africa.
The prefix 'new' in relation to South Africa does not itself create a different society or structural change, but a preoccupation with a discourse of difference. We continually turn on old questions, which appear reborn in our context, but more often than not are a continuation of pathologies that never left. They manifest the structure that continues to define the way we live our lives, the white supremacist capitalist hereto-patriarchy that affects perceptions of things, expectations of people, imaginings of who we are and can be, and how we move through public space.
For some, the events or occurrences that reveal this are too messy because race, class, gender, sexuality and other factors are perceived to be too entangled to allow an articulation of the way things are. This logic often leads to diversion tactics that claim 'that is not about race, it is about class', or #NotAllWhitePeople, and #BlackPeopleToo. But this fails to see how self-reflexive critiques often accommodate this apparent messiness, and reflect lived experience, while simultaneously acknowledging nuance and complicity. It was this logic that allowed Helen Zille to argue that 'all lives matter' in relation to Ferguson, failing to see how the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is necessary as it has historical significance and is rooted in the pervasive experience of devalued lives, and draws attention to the fact that reality needs to reflect that black lives are valuable beyond constitutions, political speeches and democratic ideals. As Dr Richard Pithouse writes: "When history is examined at close quarters, its messiness is painfully evident. But when it is examined over the longue durée, the larger picture comes into focus."
This larger picture is evoked in Danez Smith's poem, with its concern with structural violence. It is apparent when you connect Cynthia Joni to Delia Adonis. It is contained in the protestor in Ferguson holding up a banner that reads: "I can't believe we are still protesting this shit". The need for structural change is self-evident. As Peter Vale writes on the idea of the 'new' South Africa: "Instead of the country being held up to the world as an example of successful 'transformation', it might be well be regarded as a microcosm of a world unable - perhaps unwilling - to deal with old social pathologies like race, class and nationalism or even newer ones like the environment, or gender relations, or a post-capitalist world." This is a critique that resonates in multiple contexts. Until we achieve structural change, from the streets of the United States to the suburbs of South Africa, there will always be new names to be given to the bodies that reflect how little has changed, and show us how much remains the same.
Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler