/ 6 November 2021

In the castle of Bheki Peterson’s care

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Excavating memory: Professor Bhekizizwe Peterson, here pictured in Ethiopia, celebrated black culture and taught a generation of black intellectuals to think, and laugh, the authors remember. (Photo: Courtesy of Jill Bradbury)

Take note(s). 

These are some thoughts on how the teaching and learning space became, to borrow from Jacqui Alexander, a sacred space for many of us. It is a reflection of a time when the seeds were sown. Before postgrad and its privileges. Back when there were lecture halls with students with note pads, waiting for the Professor…

Many of your peers — like you — are taking this course as an elective, and there’s always that one student ready to remind everyone that “Gaahhz, if the lecturer does not show up in 15min we can all leave”. That same person will raise their hand to remind (interrupt) the lecturer that it is time for a 15-minute break. This is a 2pm lecture, Prof used up this slot because we have a lot of ground to cover. It’s after lunch, some of us are fatigued and are about to sit through a discussion of sexuality and colonial contact in Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy. While chattering or trying to finish the novel your tutor said would only take two hours to complete, you do not hear Prof Peterson make his way to the front, because he’s wearing Crocs — before they were fashionable! Prof says: “Have any of you heard of Salt-N-Pepa?” 

Quiet. Sigh. Maybe they are tired, maybe it’s “the itis” from all the chips from Matrix. Maybe they are uncultured philistines who can’t appreciate that this man is trying to lighten the mood. “Let’s talk about sex, baby! Let’s talk about you and me!” 

Yoh kumnadni ukuba la, it’s nice to be here!

“Sometimes people are caught up in a past that will not pass,” Prof says in a lecture on Yizo Yizo, where we are reflecting on how the text invites us to consider the legacies of apartheid. He helps us ask and walk through these questions: What happens post-liberation? When does the trauma end? It is also during this lecture where we learn how Yizo Yizo complicated the notion of its publics. A text’s circulation will convene a particular audience with oppositional readings, preferred readings, and subversive readings. Those who know will know … that at this point Prof is introducing you to Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding. But of course, this is to make way for a lively discussion about the politics of the family space; where many of us are now coming out about the fact that growing up, we were forbidden from watching that show. 

The discussion has taken many turns. Prof is perplexed at how our generation will, out of embarrassment, quickly change the channel from whatever raunchy music video we were enjoying before an older person walks into the room: “uBaba ka bani lona?” we ask ourselves. 

Of course, Prof is now discussing youth culture. He is not talking down to us; this is a consensually driven engagement — a conviviality among all of us in the classroom. How can we think about youth culture, expressive culture — not just what you do, but the manner in which you do it?

After a 15min break. Again, expressive culture: What are its limits and possibilities? Prof says: “Because it is young and ‘new’, it does not mean that it does not have a history. We need to engage with that history.”

Lo and behold his passing had its own poetic justice. We were all devastated at the news on 16 June of this year, a public holiday that is now characterised by the outdated tradition of the republic wearing school uniforms to pay tribute to the student uprisings of 1976, and mostly, drinking alcohol. 

In his lectures we would bamboozle ourselves with history and always Prof Bheki guarded us against certain rehearsals of mourning and uprising. Prof was a master of anecdotes; his lectures were filled with wisdom and often we would “ohh” and “ahh” away at the many anecdotes he threw our way in and out of the designated lecture times.

We feel and will always feel privileged to have sat through his pedagogic exercise of critical care work. We were warned, always, against the frivolous desires of the intellectual mind and heart. We were guarded and filled, all the time. His lectures on George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin helped us find our own pebbles and stepping stones in the academic journey. And in the castle of Bheki’s care, we were safe. Always his, “the motion of the notion” will help us make sense of the various movements in the black diaspora.

Bheki loved black people, he celebrated black culture and was at the forefront of raising a youth of black thinkers that will someday shapeshift the current trajectories of black life. He loved to laugh! Both at himself and at us. Yes, he laughed at himself all the time. He was always ready to admit his love for Antonio Gramsci, and for socialism, he also always referred to himself as a “wannabe socialist”; he was that gracious and honest about one’s sensibilities and one’s position in society, how sometimes those two can be lifetimes apart.
We hold on to ideas, to each other, to sentiments, phrases, sentences, sonic epiphanies, visual orgasms because we had, have, a teacher who made all of these tangible. The black intellectual tradition is ever so rich to have been blessed with a mind and soul such as Prof’s. He held all of us. 

To every birth its blood.

Mongane Wally Serote’s To Every Birth Its Blood was first published in 1978 and was taught by Prof Bhekizizwe Peterson in a postgraduate course titled Memory, Violence and Representation. Restlessness is a theme signified through music and silence in the novel. The novel is structured in two parts, the first in first person-narration and centring Tsietsi (otherwise referred to as Tsi). The second part, like the first, is mostly set in Alexandra township with various protagonists and speakers.
The experiences of tragedy and violence of the characters are signified by the layers of silence that should not be mistaken for stillness. Tsi and his brother’s resistance is not (always) packaged in poignant political rhetoric but in the murmuring and singing along to Coltrane. The music plays on and, in turn, becomes a repository of the complexities of life under rigid and disabling conditions. After Tsi and his co-worker Boykie witness a man being killed by the police, Tsi loiters, aimlessly signifying a deep restlessness often associated with a sea of protestors.

The certainty of all births being bloody is shared with death. Death is certain but not final. Peterson himself reminds us that “death … is only one phase in a complex and continuing relation between those who have passed on and those who continue to inhabit the earthly realm”. Indeed, pieces of you, Prof come alive between sighs, cries and laughter, almost withdrawing you from your rest(in)g peace place.
To borrow from Christina Sharpe, we vigil here, refusing to lay you, the dead, to rest. The restlessness is ours too, those of us left behind — to prod through and with the music, murmurs, avoidance, or sighs, even laughter. If the recognition noted by Makeba about losing and gaining life simultaneously is anything to go by, tour death certainly birthed you in each of us, but it is the only birth we know not to have been bloody.