I find myself praying for my abusive uncle and using my tears to bargain with God for a lesser punishment for him. He has tried to kill members of our family, he sexually assaulted me and he once tried to axe his own mother. His father died wishing his son would die young.
This is a common story in South Africa, where abusers are shielded by the prayers of their family, or by other means. The complexity behind this is never explored.
We laid charges against my uncle many times but justice has never been served. Chasing him out of the house is as shameful for the family as it is for the victim.
I do not remember the day when I became conscious of the fact that the uncle who cut my hair every Saturday to make me look handsome was the same drunk man banging doors because his chicken soup did not have enough potatoes in it.
Darnell Moore, author of No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, writes about his father in a chapter titled Ripples. He invites you into his family and allows you to fall in love with his father. Later, towards the end of the chapter, his father’s abusive behaviour is revealed: “That was the first time my father had used his hands to hurt me. The hands that had only ever held me with tenderness, he used now to break my spirit and bruise my mother’s face. I gave up whatever love I had for him in that very moment.”
The story becomes yet another story of black fatherhood. I use the word to include uncles because any older male in your family is your father. This is how most of us experienced fathers, because our biological fathers were missing — stuck in distant factories and mines.
Moore’s writing is very critical. He posits a feminist intersectional world view as a strategy to navigate the contradictions of his world. For Moore, this means a humanisation of his toxic and abusive black father through imaginative inquiries.
Moore “saves” his father differently — he is sent to jail and he divorces him from his heart — but he uses his politics to evaluate what could have been, a question marginalised people know all too well in moments of pain.
Who would his father have become if the United States was a just society? His father is not denied agency for his actions but he is also dissected as a political subject moving in an anti-black and anti-woman world. As a poor black man, he is moving as the oppressed and the oppressor. His father is an abuser and a victim. Moore is able to give this account without making excuses for his father.
This took me back to my uncle, who is a former freedom fighter. He knows about trading guns to fight against police brutality. He walked in the streets carrying a tot of water, shielded by prayers of women prophets, as his last hope against the violence of apartheid. What could he have become if South Africa provided enough healing spaces for black people?
It is important for men in this country to create healing platforms where the trauma of apartheid can be dealt with. In the process of doing this, ideas about masculinity must be grounded in a political, economic, social and spiritual vision that promotes love between black people.
The love that Moore calls for in his writing is one that does not exist yet; it is one that many black feminists are pioneering. But that work is not enough until broken black men start owning their shit. The failure to provide adequate mental health for black people and healing spaces in post-apartheid South Africa is not a burden that must be carried by black women, who are reeling from pain themselves. These spaces should have been created by the state.
But the current economic climate means this work will be further sidelined because it is not deemed important enough. It is therefore up to us as black men to learn how to love ourselves and each other in ways that don’t sell black women out.
Models of these spaces already exist and can be further developed. Early in August this year, men and women of the violent township of Langa gathered together to explore township manhood in a multicultural, consumerist society. Medical researchers, psychologists, traditional leaders and academics were invited.
We need more of these intimate conversations with assistance from different knowledge bearers. Traditional authorities and healers should question culture and drive it towards a feminist future.