Monday, December 3, 2012

The Child is Not Dead

The other day, talking with a woman who I had not met before, we got into a discussion of poetry. She told me that she recently watched a movie about a South African poet called Black Butterflies; it is fictionalized history about the life of Ingrid Jonker, a white South African writer. Jonker, like a number of other white female poets of the 60s and 70s such as Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton, committed suicide. Like Plath and Sexton, her words could not save her. Jonkers, like Virginia Woolf and the fictional Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, walks into the waves and drowns herself.  

The woman I met told me that Jonker struggled with her racist father who supported apartheid. She said that Nelson Mandela had used lines from a poem by Jonker when he gave the first address to the first African Congress. The story goes, Jonker had written the poem for her father, to help him move beyond his apartheid thinking; instead, after she read it to him, he tore the poem in two. I guess she must  have expected that as he had a high-ranking position in the National Party as a censure of writing.

When I looked up her poem and read it, I immediately thought of how her narrative thread leads to Palestine and resonates with other poems written by other women who are also writing about children who live--and are killed--within racist apartheid violence. I thought of poems by Ibtisam Barakat, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Lisa Suheir Majaj. The lines of hope with which Jonker ends her poem, hopefully, will one day come true for Palestinians as they have for black South Africans: no more passes. The demonstration in Sharpeville in 1960 was an anti-pass rally; 169 black people were killed by the Afrikaners police; today we commemorate this massacre on March 21, the International Day Against Racial Discrimination. 
Al-Dalu children killed by Israeli missiles in Gaza this November 18. There names and ages: Jamal Mohammed Jamal 6; Yousef Mohammed Jamal 4; Sarah Mohammed Jamal 7; and Ibrahim Mohammed Jamal 1. You can find the names of the 33 children killed by Israel this November on the Palestinian Centre for Human Rightswebsite.

When will Palestinian children be able to travel the land without passes? When will Palestinian children be able to step from behind the shadow of an Israeli soldier? Not be dead? When will Palestinians no longer be subjected to a racist and humiliating pass system? Gain the human right of free movement not policed by Israelis? No checkpoints. Without a pass. When will that day come?

The child is not dead 
by Ingrid Jonker

The child is not dead 

The child lifts his fists against his mother
Who shouts Afrika ! shouts the breath
Of freedom and the veld
In the locations of the cordoned heart

The child lifts his fists against his father 

in the march of the generations
who shouts Afrika ! shout the breath
of righteousness and blood
in the streets of his embattled pride

The child is not dead not at Langa nor at Nyanga 

not at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station at Philippi
where he lies with a bullet through his brain

The child is the dark shadow of the soldiers 

on guard with rifles Saracens and batons
the child is present at all assemblies and law-givings
the child peers through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
this child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child grown to a man treks through all Africa

the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world 

Without a pass

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