As a child growing up in Zimbabwe, my given name, Thando, was a source of angst for me. I resented the fact that I hadn’t been given at least one English name like my siblings. I craved normality. To me, normality was having a ‘Christian’ name like almost everybody else in my primary school. Normality was having a mother who wore pastels and volunteered at the school fete, not a Zulu beauty queen who wore an Afro and ran a design business. Normality was having a father like everyone else’s, not a white South African Marxist with African National Congress loyalties who had married a black woman, in spite of laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
By the time my South African family moved to Zimbabwe in the mid-eighties, the formerly racially segregated schools were integrated. But while our school was majority black, culturally, it was still a very white, Euro-centric environment. The majority of teachers were caucasian and the customs and rituals of school life were informed by a British model, and the racial divides remained.
As a bi-racial child, I never did manage to integrate fully into the Strawberry Shortcake world of white girls. I found myself drawn more to the black girls in my class. They were fun but also mature, aware of current affairs and sensitive to racism and biases within the Zimbabwean system. But, once again, seamless integration was not possible.
I will never forget the day I realised that my classmates were aware of my otherness. After class one day, a girl turned around and called me a ‘fifty-fifty.’ I felt utterly shaken, betrayed even, as if the fundamental truth of being part of the school’s community of black girls which I had always believed in was taken from me.
When I went to my mother that evening distraught, and told her what happened, her response was robust, ‘You are black, Thando. You’re not fifty-fifty. You are 100 percent you and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.’ Thinking about it now, I realise that I had never heard my mother comment on my hair or skin tone. She never compared my brother, sister and I with one another, saying my sister’s skin was lighter or my brother’s hair less kinky. Whether it was out of pride or in the spirit of black consciousness, my mother reaffirmed my black identity. To her, I was not mixed-race or ‘Coloured,’ the official name given to people of mixed parentage in many southern African countries.
My identification with blackness stayed with me well into my teen years. But there are many shades of blackness, even in an African context. As ‘mixed chicks,’ our preferred social circle was not necessarily ordinary Zimbabweans but rather black middle class, private school kids who shared our penchant for R&B and clothes from London.
Later, when I left Zimbabwe for university, the distance brought new perspectives. For me, the African-Caribbean community at my school in the U.K .was a haven. Students were light, dark, Nigerian and Trinidadian but we were all black and bound by the joys and frustrations of our cultural experiences. I was elected President of the Afro-Caribbean Society and was actively involved in our community’s cultural events. I read literature from Africa and the Diaspora. I cut off my relaxed hair and went natural. I went through a politicised pan-African phase, flirted with the black supremacist ideology of the Nation of Islam and by the time I was introduced to Sunni Islam during a trip to Egypt, my racial identity issues were ready to take a back seat. I was prepared to embark on the next phase of my journey towards myself, and that was 15 years ago.
Today, I embrace both my black and white sides because together they make me who I am. Now, my African identity is inextricably linked to a Muslim consciousness and a Western aesthetic. Like so many people, I have carved my own identity out of my parents’ legacy, from the threads of history and the context that binds us as the many-coloured children of Africa.
So, how do I define myself as an adult? I am a Muslim woman, an African woman, a black woman, a mixed-race woman. Each of my labels tells a different story, speaks of a different truth about the experiences that have made me who I am today. As human beings, it is impossible to be defined by our skin colour or a single label. We are so much more complex than any one descriptor. I have learned to appreciate the beauty of this God-given complexity. I hope to teach my children to honour the best of all that has made them who they are and who they will be, that is my inheritance from my parents’ legacy.
Na’ima B. Robert is the author of the award winning novel, Far from Home, about the struggle for Zimbabwe’s land. She is also editor-in-chief of SISTERS, a magazine for Muslim women. Her latest novel is Black Sheep, a gripping story about doomed love set on the streets of South London.