Maybe it’s a good thing you no longer wish to live with your father. Which child would want to be in a home where a “voetsek!”, or the threat of an open-hand smack across the face, or even a sjambok is a father’s response for every single honest mistake and minor inconvenience? Even for playing music with your headphones turned all the way up for you to hear him calling your name?
I know it might not mean much now because time moves like the wind, which is to say everything has already happened, but I still want you to know that nothing humiliating he has ever said to you was true. I have noticed that it is true black men, your father not excluded, have always had a problem dealing with sensitivity, which is not an excuse for their misbehaviour, anyways. Black African men deny and despise sensitivity when it comes from within us, and project the same cruel treatment when we see it in our boys, almost as if it’s a sickness to be prayed away. But it’s not.
Your sensitivity doesn’t mean you are a weakling, as your father would’ve had you believe. You are very much a true and complete boy, even if you prefer to be locked indoors with a book glued to your hand, and a cup of tea on a stool. As your uncle, and as one who knows better (because I am as sensitive as you are), I have always admired you from afar. If anything, my wish is for you to grow proud of who you are. Your softness. Your quiet strength. Everything he hates about you, the things he wishes to belt and shout out of you. My dear boy, lift your chin for those things, because they make you.
I believe he intended to make you strong. “Qina,” so our fathers tell us as obaba besiZulu. “Iba indoda.” Reasonable. We must be powerful to survive this life, my son, the voice of your father says. This is one of the few things I agree with your father on. However, I disagree with his approach to it. I don’t think he understands that by forcing you to be a man, as he defines it, he is doing just the same thing our father did that pushed me away.
He made you feel small, that you are less than those boys, chasing and kicking empty Powerade bottles in the streets and using bricks as goalposts. Your father isn’t supposed to construct you. You are a person to be raised, taught, and appreciated, not a Lego playset to be built and formed like you have no soul or will of your own.
Once again, I am sorry, my child, for all the insults he threw at you. He said that uyisthithithi? Why? Because of your fondness for being by yourself? You didn’t deserve it, and I want to do everything in my power with this letter, to show you that I know how you feel, for I have felt the same way before. I know your father, probably more than you ever will. I think he inherited his insensitivity from our own father. That man was hard—the type who slapped the stars out of you for anything not done the way he liked. Let me tell you how my father slowly turned me into a nervous wreck.
I remember how he used to make us take cold showers, even in June and July—the coldest seasons. To toughen us up, he would enunciate, to make us “men,” angempela. Like him, supposedly. Early in the mornings, he would yank us out of bed by our legs like we were only Mama’s cooking logs, and put us out on the streets to sell stuff in our neighbourhood. This was the time when white people still ruled over us.
Once, your father and I asked him what was wrong in deciding to work for them, the white rulers. He looked us straight up and down with a frown too mean to force shit out of your life, making me feel like I’d been swimming in horse urine. “Mina? Ngisebenzele labo?” he said to us.
I have to tell you all of these because you should know that our father shaped your father into the monolith he is today, a cold stone that ricochets feeling, warmth, and gentleness. That is what the society makes us believe; that an alpha father has to pass on those alpha attributes to his son(s), that they have to be tough like real men, able to stand any situation without flinching, unbroken. Simply because they were men, and masculinity is defined by one’s inability to be broken, maybe toxicity even.
“The letter you addressed to me that today lies somewhere in my inbox shows how insufficient your father makes you feel. In the letter, to be more precise, you tell me that your father always draws a comparison between yourself and himself: how much lighter he was with handling you—not with the iron hands of your grandfather that he’d grown with. If he was anything as “harsh” as his father, you would’ve been long forgotten because you did not meet up to his expectations. But that is trash, my boy. Nonsense talks.
I couldn’t keep up with the expectations of my father, so he sent me away to go live with umam’ncane in Pietermaritzburg. I recall the night before leaving, how Papa had shouted at me, called me names, dragged me, humiliated me. While he dealt with me that night, I couldn’t stop my thoughts from the possibilities of getting out of his life forever. This was just too much. He hadn’t caught me stealing. My only crime was that I’d decided to shed a tear, for my heart could no longer store his cusses.
The day of my departure, he did not bid me goodbye. I watched him suck his thumb, laugh and say, “I missed uk’ncela”. For goodness sake, I was just a boy. A boy! At that age, dad was supposed to be my Black Panther. It hurt me… until it didn’t. Until I got numb. But to this day, I still don’t get why he said all those things. That, I feel, was just one of the many times he’d left me with this lingering anxiety that I was an incomplete boy. Is’yoyoyo, as some would say.
There’s nothing wrong with your sensitivity. It just means you’re made differently, which is something I know we need now more than ever. You’re not strong in the way soldiers are, but you’re strong still. Your country needs you. You might look in the mirror and shake your head “no,” but it’s true. We need sensitive boys who can process, change, and express emotion in their true selves. Not all of us are made to be strong and macho in the same way—we aren’t supposed to be. The uteri of our mothers are human cradles, not cloning capsules.
After I’d left to stay with umam’ncane, she allowed me many liberties I never had during my times in Durban with my dad. I began to write, for one. Never wrote much, though. Only small things. But that seemed fine at the time. Mam’ncane used to work for the de Wet family. Kind and generous enough to pass onto me their children’s old used books. That was how I came to discover poetry, which I write till today.
It took years, Bayanda. Years and years passed before I found the courage and the audience to deliver my first rhymes to. But what had stopped me wasn’t stage fright or this or that other thing. It wasn’t even because I never had anything written. It took me years because, though I had walked away, I still couldn’t entirely escape the wrath that my father was. Whenever I told myself I’d perform my writings, my father’s voice, which was very much alive in my head at the time, would cling to me like dry faeces not wiped off properly. Ngeke uze ube yilutho, his voice would come on in my head, condemning and wrecking.
I was afraid of being seen as a weakling before the eyes of men, even if it was the truth that I was. Not being groomed by my father always had me feeling I was an imposter among the boys I used to hang with, almost like I was a living doll, different from the other normal boys.
It’s a crushing realisation to know your words and emotions mean nothing. It’s something I’d never wish would happen to anyone. Do you remember the card you wrote your father when you were seven? The very letter he didn’t care to have, the one he crushed and threw to one side of his car? Well, I still keep it. I read it quite often, too. Not because your father didn’t see the need in keeping it, but because I’ve always known what art is, and what it means when your effort at doing something beautiful is never appreciated. I didn’t want you to entirely feel that no one cared about your artistry. You have a mind that sees and relates, a soul that feels and creates. And you know what they say about one man’s trash.
There’s one thing I want you to keep very close to your heart: always stay hopeful, my dear boy. Your father might not have thought much of your artistry, but I have always appreciated it. You should know that there’ll always be people out there like me, those who’ll love you just the way you are and love whatever you have to offer them, too.
Boys sink. Boys are lost to hopelessness. They feel the very way you do, but because they have to fit into the societal description of how a boy should react to things, they take it out in much more destructive and uglier ways. They rebel against their school teachers. Some of them even resort to bullying, or turn to drugs and the street. Not that what they’re doing is right, but children, as they grow, tend to lean towards things and lifestyles that promise to silence the haunting echoes of their parents’ harsh words and recklessness. Son, choose life. Choose to keep writing and believing, because by so doing, you renew your faith in yourself—it’s impossible to write without having some glimmer of hope that tomorrow will be better.
After I finished performing my first poem, I moved on to my next and my next—then I found myself in a strange place.
I could no longer hear my father’s voice.
I don’t know when I stopped or when it ceased to have any sort of hold over me; the only thing I know is that I just couldn’t hear it any longer. I’d be lying if I told you how many poems I’d written up until that point, but I do remember that the poem talked about power and freedom. For some weird reason, I found myself looking over my shoulder and back to the days spent with umkhulu wakho. Yes, in case you were wondering, there were tears.
Tears of laughter.
Laughter because I was free. It was finished. I could no longer feel his voice breathing down on me. My collection of poems was a choir of angels, singing praises and declaring how much my voice and existence mattered. And this happened because I had chosen to keep my faith and my hope that I could become something better than this nervous thing I had grown to become.
Because when my father did what he did, I felt like an orphan. In a way. When I was fourteen, tender, and still discovering my name in this beautifully terrifying world, I kept a 2-Quire book. I filled it with writings — roughly half of which were letters to myself, while the other half were sad ramblings about how lost I was because the only voices I could hear in my head were his curses.
The things I wrote? I’ve forgotten. Lol. I don’t even want to lie. What still lives fresh inside my mind, however, are the written yet unspoken questions recorded in those exercise books. Asking myself why my father was the way he was. Wondering if my father would ever be proud of me.
And this was wrong.
I wish I’d had someone to tell me that, that I didn’t deserve it.
This is all messed up. I shouldn’t be sitting down writing these things. This isn’t how my relationship with my father should look and sound. My father is supposed to be the first man I want to be like and the last man I don’t want to be loved by. I sometimes sit back and wonder how my story would be had things turned out differently.
One thing I’ve hated about us Black families for the longest of times is the long-standing rubbish—or tradition or whatever the Hell people call it these days—that adults are never to be questioned. That we are never to be put in line and called out for anything unjust we do to our kids, however heartless and cold. So many relatives and nobodies came to me, years later, on some Uyihlo uyak’zala. They quoted some scriptures about how those who obeyed and did well by their fathers would live longer. It was funny, to say, because I was so sure these same people did not even believe in the same Bible they were quoting to me. They only used it when it suited them.
It made me mad that these people wanted me to believe that the God they didn’t totally believe in was charging me for every single sin. I wonder how daft they could be, not to know that the same Bible they claimed to profess for their own selfish benefits also admonished fathers not to anger or discourage their children. I know many women who have been molested by their uncles and fathers and brothers, my son. When they spoke out, the very same elders that were supposed to protect them pointed the finger at them. The words of children in Black households mean nothing; they do only once the family finds the child’s corpse hanging from the ceiling the next day or slumped over with wrists smiling with red slits.
I don’t know what’s in the air, son; it’s like our fathers don’t give a damn at all. Fathers shouldn’t be making the lives of their sons a living Hell and expect them to turn out into angels. Life doesn’t work that way.
I don’t hate my father—let me make that clear. Nor do I hold anything against him. I’ve simply gotten to a point where I don’t feel anything any longer. No hate. No love. No frustration. He’s just a person because when I needed him the most growing up, that’s all he was: a person, more than he was my father.
I turned to God and found his Fatherly love in Christ and unconditional acceptance for who I was. As time went on, the hunger for my biological father’s approval and to make him proud slowly died. In that death, I found life. Strength. Self-belief and the things I could do. Not all, I’m now calmer than I normally was around my father. I never was this relaxed when with him. Even as I sat there, eating and whatever, this heavy blanket would weigh down on me — his eyes on me felt like that (I think that’s where I got one of my many anxieties of not being comfortable with eating in a restaurant full of eyes). I always tried not to be too sensitive when he was around, you know? Never showing pain even when it hurt like one of his slaps.
Did I tell you about the time emcimbini?
I remember all the men ganging up on inkomo and taking a knife to its neck. I stood with my back against the wall; the sight petrified me. How its eyes rolled back and became pearls, its gurgling mooing, the flapping of its nostrils, the way its legs trembled—my blood turned into ice. The signs of something sentient dying. The experience lived long in me, even longer than after the moment had died. I was eight when this all happened.
But did my father not make fun of me when umcimbi was over? And my brother, did he not mock me so that our father considered him braver?
“We shouldn’t kill inkomo with him around next time. He might call it animal abuse.”
“He’ll call the SPCA next time there’s umsebenzi.”
Now, I’m not saying such things shouldn’t be done. If you need to put down a cow for a family gathering, then fine. I’m not against that. What I’m against is ridiculing my sensitivity, making fun of what I am and how my mind decides to sort the world, making it look as if it is inherently wrong to show emotion (which is human) and respect for sights that move me, whether a tragic movie or the passing experience of witnessing an animal’s spirit slowly leaking from its body along with its blood. It’s wrong, Bayanda. Wrong!
Our fathers aren’t supposed to be the reason we die in the inside in a bid to lease them. They shouldn’t be the reason we entertain thoughts of self-hatred and questions about self-worth. This is why I was quick to write back, my boy. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your sensitivity is a beautiful thing this world desperately needs. You didn’t miss a step by going to Prince Alfred to stay with your sister. You deserve to be protected.
Sensitive Black boys are endangered species hunted and killed in their homes by their own families. Even those that make it out of childhood (barely), like me, have to survive the crushing expectations of the world that men who grew up without ever shedding their sensitivity are flawed. Broken. Contemptible. Wrong. Girly. All of these are wrong.
I won’t sit here and sell you false hope that things will get better. I’m only your uncle, not the Devil who lives life, promising that life will get better, knowing full well things will only get worse as time progresses. Know that if you hold on to your pen, your faith, and your hope for brighter tomorrows, you will become better.
Do everything you love. Tell stories, paint flowers, dance—create. Read, watch movies that will bring you to tears, and do whatever you wish. Anything and whatever. Not every boy is born to love kicking a ball or geek out over car engines. Never let anybody tell you that you aren’t a boy just because you have no interest in anything they think you should like.
Above all, don’t stop being good to the world and yourself. Everything will be okay. Trust me. It will, you’ll see.
This essay was reprinted with permission in the first edition of the James Currey Anthology, launched on September 3rd, 2022 at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, UK
C. S. Hadebe
is a South African writer, speculative storyteller, essayist, critic, and editor born and based in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. His short fiction has been longlisted for the 2020 SA Writers College Short Story Competition and has also received Honours in the 2021 and 2022 editions. He has been awarded an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest and the 2017 In Focus Contest. He has either written or edited a host of works that have appeared in various publications, such as The Shallow Tales Review, Moziak Magazine, Batswadi Magazine, The Music Review, and elsewhere. Facebook. Twitter & Instagram: @cs_hadebe.
I wish all boy kids could read this and be okay with being soft and loving and emotional. It’s okay to feel we are all human. It doesn’t make them less of a man. Thank you son for this.