City Book Review-er Johnna Rocker-Clinton interviews Jasmane Boggenpoel, author of My Blood Unites and Divides. Watch for our upcoming review in the coming weeks.
1. As a businesswoman, what advice would you give other women who have dreams to build their own business and brand?
Carve out the time to focus on what you want to do or create. Initially, it may be spending time after hours until it has enough legs to devote more time to it.
On brand creation, be intentional and unapologetic about putting yourself out there. I feel that sometimes as women we feel we need permission to be visible and vocal. The only permission we need is from ourselves.
2. What initially inspired you to write about this topic?
My inspiration for this book is three-fold. First, I want to use my story and others’ stories to empower those living in marginalized communities to create positive change. Second, I want to tell the story of Apartheid as it impacted communities of colour to an international audience because so much is still not understood about the mixed race community (or as we were referred to, Coloured) in South Africa, especially and particularly during this volatile time in South Africa’s history. Third, we’re at a time when globally the racial divide is greater than ever, and my story brings in the stories of others from around the world and provides a message to all on racial reconciliation.
3. What advice would you give writers who aspire to tackle sensitive topics such as race relations?
Have compassion for would-be readers of the book. While holding to my views I re-read and edited my manuscript so many times specifically to see where I inadvertently wrote something that could be misinterpreted or appear less sensitive.
Also try to incorporate multiple and diverse perspectives. I did not want my book to be an echo chamber and brought in stories of people from around the world, including from groups that have been oppressed and from groups that have oppressed others.
4. You refer to yourself as Coloured with a capital “C” in your bio. In America, “coloured” is not an acceptable term; it has derogatory connotations that you acknowledge in your “note to readers.” For American readers, can you explain the term and how it is used in South Africa?
From the mid-1600s, Coloured people originally arose in the former Cape of Good Hope out of a mixture of the indigenous Khoisan (Khoikhoi and San), European settlers, and slaves traded and imported from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Mozambique, and other lands.
I quote from my book that “this was not really an issue from the time these unions began in the mid-1600s, for during those years, the mixed-race children produced were absorbed into either White society or slave or Khoisan society. From the early 1800s, the mixed-race population—incorporating slaves, former slaves who had gained their freedom, and later the Khoisan—informally coalesced. Yet, Coloureds were still a malleable and loose community living in harmony with other races, with individuals from other races assimilated into its community and vice versa. Yes, the pre-apartheid government had enacted laws to restrict Coloured opportunities, but there was not yet a sense of our being a strictly boundaried group.”
The apartheid regime commenced 1948, and thereafter South Africans were, by law, divided into four primary groups: White, Indian, Coloured, and Black. The Whites, who were of European origin, were at the top of the hierarchy, maintaining strict political, economic, and social dominance over the other groups. Considerably below them were the Indians and the Coloureds (of mixed race). At the bottom of the hierarchy were the Blacks, who were descended from the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The Indians, Coloureds, and Blacks were all treated quite poorly: it was said that the Blacks were given one crumb that had fallen from the White tables, while the Indians and Coloureds were given two.
Under apartheid, Whites, Indians, Coloureds and Blacks were separated by law, went to separate schools and lived in separate neighbourhoods. This was basically our Jim Crow.
When apartheid ended in 1994, while the legal separation between all racial groups ended, the racial category Coloured is still officially used by government on forms for identification and statistics to refer to indigenous South Africans of mixed descent.
*On the origins of the slaves brought to South Africa: An infrastructure was developed at the Cape that included a fort and castle, jetties, a small town, and outlying farms. The aim was to provide fresh food and water, medical assistance, and repairs for the Dutch East India Company’s ships involved in the spice trade in the East. This required a labor force able to carry out the back-breaking work needed to sustain such infrastructure in the harsh Cape environment. About 63,000 men, women, and children were shipped to the Cape as slaves between 1658 and the early 1800s, and many more were born into slavery at the Cape. “Many children were born in the Slave Lodge to slave couples, or to slave mothers with European fathers. Sailors and soldiers were allowed to ‘visit’ women in the Lodge in the evening. Many of these men treated the women as sex slaves, although a few formed relationships.” Furthermore, there were sexual relationships between slave men and Khoisan women. Source: Slave Lodge Museum, Cape Town.
European men could marry slave women only after they attained their free status and had a Christian baptism. These women and their offspring were assimilated into White society. Children conceived in extramarital, mixed unions and their mothers were more likely not assimilated into White society. If the child’s mother was a slave, the child likewise had a slave life. Source: Cape Melting Pot, translated to English in 2000 by Delia Robertson from HF Heese’s 1985 book Groep Sonder Grense.
5. It also seems that you have accepted the term “Coloured,” although you refer to it as a social construct created by oppressors. How have you and other “Coloured” people reconciled the term? Are there people in South Africa who reject the term? Do you find the term empowering or just a social norm that you have accepted?
Different people in the Coloured community have different views on the term. Some have accepted, embraced it and feel it should be retained, while others want the term overhauled and to be referred to as Khoisan(Khoi and San)b. I quote from my book: “Recent mitochondrial DNA studies, which trace ancestry through the maternal line, show that we are largely descended from the Khoisan, the oldest indigenous inhabitants of Southern Africa, whose presence in the area can be dated back 140,000 years.”
From my first exposure to a multiracial environment when I went to study at the university in the early ’90s, I identified more with my Black roots due to our common socio-economic history and did refer to myself as Black or mixed race. But for the purpose of expressing my unique upbringing in the book and to use commonly known South African terminology, I used the term Coloured in the book.
By the nature of its origins, the term Coloured is not empowering. While it is a norm, there is a lot of reflection and discussion on the term underway. Cf. https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/dont-call-us-coloureds-we-are-khoisan-mps-told-20170202
6. “I am the product of newcomer and native, oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized, slave master and slave,” is a line that is sure to inspire many people of the African diaspora to research their own heritage. What advice would you give those people as they look for answers about their identity?
In addition to thoroughly researching the history of your origins as a people and the specifics of your individual family tree to the extent that information is available, consider DNA Ancestry tests as a means to acquiring more information that was once completely hidden from view. The DNA test brought so much fact-based clarity for me.
Then, be open to the results, as there could be some surprises. For one, I had no idea I had any Jewish ancestry and was pleasantly surprised by the 6% dose of Ashkenazi Jewish. Once I found this out, I embraced it and did Jewish quarter tours in Romania and Hungary, where I had deduced my Jewish ancestry traces to. In April this year, I’ll visit Israel for the first time.
The breakdown of my African heritage also yielded surprises. I did not know I had so much African heritage across Africa. While I used 23andme for the original test, I attained supplementary information from other genetic tests. For example, My Heritage DNA and DNA Land traced my African tribal ancestry in more detail, revealing, as quoted from my book, that “in addition to the Khoisan of Southern Africa, my African ancestry takes me back to Somalia, Senegal, the Mende from Sierra Leone, the Mbuti and Bayaka from the Congo, the Maasai of Kenya, the Yoruba of Nigeria, and Akan from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Now, I truly feel I am African, with the blood of many peoples all across the African continent flowing through me.”
There can be tendencies toward tribalism, and a DNA Ancestry test for an African can bring about an awareness of the multi-tribal components in our ancestry and an embracing of the various tribes spanning across the continent.
7. You also discuss those parts of your identity that are “inconvenient.” You chose to embrace them because “essentially [you would] be rejecting [your]self.” Since this is not just your identity but your family’s’ history as well. How do they feel about the negative things that you’ve uncovered?
From the history of colonialism, my family and I knew about the negative parts in our ancestry. I now made a conscious choice to forgive and heal from the past, to recognize our innate human frailty or foibles. I could share this reflection with my family from the book, which has brought clarity and healing to them as well.
8. You mention that you attempt to “hold tightly to selected positive traits inherited from all [your] ancestors.” In your introduction, you discussed the positive traits that you could take from your oppressed ancestors, but what are the positive traits that you take from your oppressor ancestors?
This is a difficult question. As a start, the act of racial mixing brought about me and other mixed race people, which in turn added a new component to South African culture. I am thankful for this.
Their skill-sets and education were conducive to urban life, though while I recognize this, it does not condone in any way their acts of oppression.
9. You mentioned listening to people from other countries who have similar plights. Tell us a little about the most compelling story or stories you’ve heard (without giving out the person(s) private information).
Yes, the book includes interviews with people from around the world, spanning from the US and Mexico across to India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Rwanda.
For example, my friend Tshering is from the Hyolmo indigenous people of Nepal, who have experienced centuries of discrimination. In Nepal, there is a caste system that influences ranking in society, and Hyolmo people don’t even fit anywhere on the caste system. I had the privilege of visiting the rural village in the mountains of Nepal last year where Tshering was raised up to the age of 17.
While Tshering does not feel the country is ready for reconciliation, he had played a major role in rebuilding the village after the 2015 Nepal earthquake when sex trafficking increased as people lost their homes and schools. Tshering has also rallied people from different sides of the spectrum around common causes such as ChildReach Nepal and IdeaStudio, a platform to support social-impact businesses.
In addition, I was very inspired by Patrick Yousef from Lebanon, who is based in Geneva and leads Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Despite Patrick being brought up to believe that the enemy is an eternal enemy, he has made his life purpose reconciliation. He believes in restorative justice. He also works with Red Cross delegations in North and West Africa bringing solutions and speaking to both combatants and victims of war.
10. Many people speculate that the future is a mixed-race humanity. Do you believe this? How do you think a mostly mixed-race human population would affect our world (positively, negatively, or both)? Explain.
I feel that the future will be more and more mixed race with globalization, migration, and mobility. Though I do not feel that the global population will be fully “mixed” race, as some people will retain a preference to “stick to their own,” and this is also okay.
Biologically, a more mixed-race population introduces new genetic variations. This can be positive as a defensive strategy against genetically inherited diseases. Also, with the mixing of diverse cultures, ideas and genetics, new potentials for innovation, creativity, and experiences are created.
Psychologically, a connection to more cultures results in a more diverse and empathic lens on the world, which can only be good in an increasingly diverse world.
Debut author Jesmane Boggenpoel is an experienced business executive and former Head of Business Engagement for Africa at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. She has served on the boards of various South African and international organizations. She is a Chartered Accountant and holds a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. Jesmane was honored as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, is a Harvard Mason fellow and a shareholder and founding board member of African Women Chartered Accountants Investment Holdings. Boggenpoel has extensive global experience having studied and worked on three continents, as well as travelling to over 65 countries.
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