The Release (excerpt)
The Middletons lived on Princess Anne Avenue in Scottsville, quite close to the University of Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus. Thomas took Jeremy there one night after the digs party to which Thomas had casually invited Jeremy to one late Friday afternoon deep into the second semester of their first year of university. Thomas’s invitation to the party had come soon after Jeremy had, to his mind, miraculously begun to get good marks for his papers at the university. It felt good, as though, at last, his university life was taking off. White life was finally within reach.
Five students ended up at Thomas’ house. Jeremy was the only black person there. It was late at night. The digs party they had attended earlier had been good, and none of the five wanted to end it there, so Thomas had invited the group back to his house. Jeremy followed his new acquaintances back to Thomas’ house where the party was to carry on. He had had to kill five hours on campus and in town by himself, waiting for the first party to start. He did not care that he still had his bag of books with him, that he hadn’t gone home to T-Boz’s house and that there was no transport back to the township that late at night. This adventure felt too good to miss. He wanted to end his reclusive days. He had connected with people at T-Boz’s safe house and wanted to carry on. He felt alive again. He felt secure that the after-party would carry on at least until dawn when he could catch a taxi back to the township.
At Thomas’ house he took dagga for the first time as it went around and was amazed that nobody cared that his lips had touched it and that they carried on smoking it after he had sucked on it. Were these really white people? That night, he was introduced to Lynton Kwesi Johnson. Everybody else was surprised that he, the only black in the group, did not know LKJ. It was odd that he, the very one to whom Thomas was showing off his political enlightenment, had never heard the words:
Mama, mek I tell you wa dem do to Jim?
Mek I tell you wa dem do to ‘im?
Dem thump him on him belly and it turn to jelly
Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im back and ‘im rib get pop
Dem thump him pon him head but it tough like lead
Dem kick ‘im in ‘im seed and it start to bleed
Mama, I jus couldn’t stan up deh, nah do nuttin’
Lynton crooned this pain on this strange night and brought tears to Jeremy’s eyes. All because this white boy, this individual, loved this music so and told Jeremy as much. The night moved to Bob Marley, of course, what with the weed circulating. Miriam Makeba followed and Jeremy was blown away. Where did this boy get all this music? How did he get to love black music like this?
Everybody else left.
Now alone with Thomas, Jeremy began to feel like he was a man who couldn’t do splits having his legs pulled apart by T-Boz and his associates and being forced flat on his crotch. His worldview was starting to shift. The talk at T-Boz’ house now began to feel out of touch and alienating, interfering with his passage to freedom. He had to move on.
On Page 137 of The Release Eric Miyeni writes “At Thomas’s house Jeremy took dagga for the first time as it went around and was amazed that nobody cared that his lips had touched it and that they carried on smoking it after he had sucked on it. Were these really white people? That night, he was introduced to Linton Kwesi Johnson. Everybody else was surprised that he, the only black in the group, was the only one who did not know LKJ. Linton crooned pain on this strange night and brought tears to Jeremy’s eyes. All because this white boy loved this music so and told Jeremy as much.”
The scene is moving on many levels.
No matter how perfectly Jeremy attempts to replicate the tropes of white success, his (replicated) success remains entirely ersatz because success in an anti-black world, what the white world always has been and still is, is always and only against himself. In other words, paradoxically, every time Jeremy succeeds at a particular milestone in his life’s journey he feels a peculiar sense of failure; success in the white world actually drains his life energy, depletes him. The more successful he is the worse he feels about himself. The only way to understand this apparent conundrum is to realise that the world as we know it is anti-black and that, for a black subject, success in this world is self-defeating, a kind of perpetual suicide bombing with all of the pain and none of the closure. It is precisely from this nervous condition that Jeremy seeks his release. Hence the title of Miyeni’s book.
The reader cannot help feeling a frisson of horror at the sense of self-abjection conveyed by Jeremy as his lips suck on the dagga joint. Jeremy is seeing his lips through the eyes of the white party-goers around him, he dissociates from his own experience of the event and lives the moment as he imagines a white would. He expects a reaction of revulsion from the whites around him when the dagga joint is passed from his lips to theirs. When no such reaction is forthcoming the split is his consciousness is not normalised, he does not feel “accepted” or “human” in the manner of the vaunted non-racial Charterist tradition, but rather experiences the event in the form of a question – “Were these really white people?” – Jeremy (the black) is split and can only ever experience the world as an incessant shimmering between black death and white life. White has life and black has death. Black aspires to white life but can never gain this life because white life is built on black death, is black death. The Release is a novel profoundly grounded in this understanding. Or to put it another way, one cannot make head or tail of this book, of protagonist Jeremy’s inexorable journey into self-destructive violence, without being grounded in this clear metaphysical understanding: whiteness is death to blacks. Blacks cannot succeed in the white world for to succeed in the white world is to be dead as a black. It was his profound understanding of this predicament that made comedian David Chapelle turn his back on a $50 million dollar contract and flee the United States to Africa where he lived for a year avoiding the slave catchers. But there is no release from the perpetual slavery of the black condition. This is what The Release is about.
It is a wonderful leap of the imagination to have Jeremy experience Linton Kwesi Johnson – a seminal trope of blackness – through the mediation of his white “buddies”. Except LKJ isn’t “a trope of blackness” unless one is white. Here something interesting happens. Here we have an example of the kind of thinking that Ashraf Jamal has bewailed does not happen enough in South Africa (if at all). When whites cultivate an interest in black culture it is always an anthropological imperative that is being addressed. When Jeremy discovers LKJ through the medium of the dagga smoking white hipsters his experience of his own blackness is entirely anthropological – Everybody else was surprised that he, the only black in the group, was the only one who did not know LKJ. This sentence presupposes that knowing LKJ is akin to a sense faculty for a black subject, that knowing LKJ is somehow ingrained into black consciousness itself. Here, in their very love of presumed black culture the whites again reduce the black to something essential, to something closer to animal than human. More repugnant than this reductio ad absurdum is of course that Jeremy shares this moment with them as they do. He absorbs their surprise and is made aware that his blackness is always the subject of calibration by whites. Instead of being scandalised by these kboeties Jeremy sucks on the dagga joint passes it around and becomes maudlin in their company. “All because this white boy loved this music so and told Jeremy as much.” Tears come to Jeremy’s eyes as he appreciates his white friend’s love of the trope of his blackness, he is actually grateful for being turned into an animal by the white gaze, it is certainly better than nothing, for is it not so that all striving for success in the white world (by blacks) is based on the assumption that the black world is nothing; not even nothing, but less than nothing, not even a world, a lack. Miyeni’s novel is about this lack, about the yearning to be released from this lack.
All black South Africans suffer to a lesser or greater degree from this condition. Stockholm Syndrome is the condition whereby a captured subject falls in love with the ideological programme of his or her capturers and so fully identifies with this programme that he or she voluntarily joins the capturers and becomes a faithful adherent of the capturers and their ideas. The most explicit example of this national conditioning of Stockholm Syndrome is Nelson Mandela who emerged after 27 years of incarceration in love with the culture of his capturers. When Jeremy’s tears pop into his eyes at the love of the white boy for LKJ’s music we are reading a textbook manual on the operation of Stockholm Syndrome. Jeremy is grateful that a member of his oppressors has validated and vindicated the awful lack of his blackness by loving a music that he did not even know existed until this white man introduced him to it. The ironies are myriad here – Jeremy actually receives a missing piece of his (b)lack self from the white friend who presumes to know what a black should know, why else would he be surprised when Jeremy indeed, does not know LKJ? If the truth be told Jeremy is in the den of his slave catchers and it is a testament to Miyeni’s rigour that the entire pack of them are exposed as such a little later in the book.
Perhaps inevitably there is no release from this so-called New South Africa and the novel’s utterly grim and futile finale sees Jeremy turning his gun on his black brother instead of his white captors. The Release is an implosion of (b)lack on (b)lack violence that exactly serves the white world best. The book operates as fiction but it might as well be called A Manifesto of Hopelessness, in short, it offers no release.
First Published in Chimurenga Chronic, 2013