Hidden Nerve

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photo by Judith Krummeck
photo by Judith Krummeck

Baltimore writer and beloved voice of classical music radio (WBJC) Judith Krummeck describes her sense of place — in the U.S. and Africa — and her sense of longing for each land she’s called home.

A hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about.

–André Aciman

I was born in Africa. I am an African. But, because of the color of my skin, I am not truly African. Strictly speaking, because I was born in Africa and I am now an American citizen, I am an African American. But, because of the color of my skin, I am not truly African American. In the truest sense, I am neither African nor American.

Given the complicated, crisscrossing patterns of migration all over the world, every citizen of every country has had to piece together a patchwork of cultures and ethnicities to find out where they come from and where they belong. Finding out where we come from just takes some fairly diligent research. Finding out where we belong, and identifying with that place, can be far more complicated.

The year that my British ancestors arrived in South Africa—1815—pre-dates the arrival of most Americans’ ancestors, I’ve discovered. What is fascinating is that, despite the myriad strands of English, Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Scandinavian or African people, now overlaid with the more the recent influx of Hispanics and Asians, there is still a unique and overriding American identity. Even a man who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, who had a Kenyan father and was given the unusual name of Barack Obama, sounds like an American and projects an American identity. The very fact of multi-nationality has become a defining American identity.

As for the African continent, the roughly fifty nations each have their own identity and culture, but there is an easily recognizable overlay that defines Africans as a whole. Yet—and this is where it starts to get complicated for me—although I am a native of Africa, I don’t fall neatly into that African definition.

When Nelson Mandela referred to the new South Africa as “the rainbow nation,” he was describing a collage that began 200,000 years ago with the Khoisan, the small, light skinned aborigines of Southern Africa. They were gradually displaced by the ancestors of the Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho tribes migrating south from the Niger River delta around the 5th century. Into this mix came the Portuguese explorer, Bartholomew Diaz—South Africa’s answer to Christopher Columbus—who was the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa in 1488. Then, the Dutch East India Company sent Jan van Riebeeck to build the first settlement in the Cape in 1652. In the 1680s, the French Huguenots, fleeing religious persecution, joined the Dutch settlers. The British, to the dismay of the Dutch and the French, began showing an interest in colonizing the Cape in the 1790s. By this time, there was a hotchpotch of ethnicities in South Africa – the aboriginal Khoisan; the Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho tribes; the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British settlers; and not forgetting the slaves brought in by the Dutch from Madagascar, Mauritius and present-day Indonesia.

What was going on in America was not all that different if you think about it. The British also colonized that region, and the influx of immigrants from a mix of countries gradually displaced the indigenous Native Americans. The difference was that the Americans overcame the natives more forcefully, and those populations dwindled, leaving the settlers in the majority over time. And this is at the heart of what makes Africa complicated for me. Although the balance is shifting in America, Caucasians, in the broadest sense, are still in the majority. That ethnic shift didn’t take place in South Africa. Although the indigenous Khoi people were overrun, the black African tribes continued to outnumber the Caucasian settlers and their descendants. In this sense, if you think of South Africa, the identity to match it is black African.

Two distinct and opposing white African groups emerged in South Africa over time—the Dutch and the English. In the context of these two distinct white tribes in South Africa, my family always defined itself as English. It was more than just the language we spoke or the tradition of afternoon tea. We felt steeped in its culture and its ideals. It was our touchstone. A visit to England was a rite of passage. The words of Keats and Austen and Shakespeare were in our blood. Some of us made a point of speaking “the Queen’s English.”

In this way, I had a double sense of not belonging. Not only did I not belong in South Africa because I wasn’t an African in the accepted sense, but I didn’t belong in South Africa because I had been brought up to feel British. I dreamed of England. As it turned out, although I had always dreamed of Britain, America would be the country where I ended up, and I came to love it more than I could ever have imagined. But I don’t belong.

One of the strangest aspects of picking yourself up in one country and putting yourself down in another is that you choose where you will live. It is not influenced by where you grew up, or where your father went to school. You just choose. All I had to go on was a sense—going back to my dreams of England, now overlaid with nostalgia for Cape Town—that I would feel most at home somewhere in the northeast. I still think this is true. But still, I don’t belong.

I no longer dream of England. In the same way that I used to hanker after some filtered down English tradition, believing that it would ground me in something familiar, my nostalgia is now based on what I remember about South Africa. Once, after a thunderstorm, my husband came in from picking up the newspaper and said, “It’s like a Highveld morning.” I immediately knew that he meant it was crisp and dewy with no humidity, the way it is on the high plateau around Johannesburg after a storm. We choose wines according to what we know of the vineyards of the Western Cape outside Cape Town. I have tried to grow kappertjies—“little hats,” the Afrikaans name for nasturtiums—in my Baltimore garden.

Conversely, when I go “home” to Africa now, I find myself referring back to America as I quickly work out in my head that this peach from a street vendor, which costs R5, converts to about 50 U.S. cents. When I drive along the Cape Town streets that I know like the proverbial back of my hand, it’s not as if I never left, it’s as if I am living a parallel life. I follow the curve of the N2, and soon I am taking the exit over the Black River Parkway onto Settler’s Way, driving partly by instinct and partly from memory. I merge onto De Waal Drive, glancing up to my left to catch a glimpse of the Rhodes Memorial on the slopes of Devil’s Peak. I recall that Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, told me once at a luncheon in Baltimore how he had retraced Rhodes’s footsteps in the Cape.

As I round the bend, with Devil’s Peak looming over me, I begin to feel the pulse of coming home. The city drops away to my right, and I can look out over Table Bay. Dusk is coming in, but the day is still clear, and I can see as far as Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. I dip and curve with the road, and then, just before the Roeland Street Bridge, I swing to the left onto Mill Street. And there it is—Table Mountain, looking like a cutout against the clear sky, just the same as always, presiding over the deep sediment of history and memory.

It is all more familiar to me than anything in America. But it is no longer home. Whether I am living in the States and thinking back to Africa, or overlaying my American experience onto Africa, or remembering Africa as the place where I used to dream of Britain, I am constantly referring back to things to make sense of them, filtering them through a lens of familiarity, nostalgia, longing. I seem never to have had a sense of belonging in any one place to ground me in the present place and time.

If, as André Aciman says, a hidden nerve is what every writer is ultimately about, mine is no doubt about belonging and not belonging. I may disguise it as being about place or memory or history, but I write to try to make sense of the idea of belonging. I can’t call myself an exile because I left my country voluntarily and could return at any time. I am not a tourist or a traveler. But I am not a true inhabitant either. In either place. I don’t share an identity with either country. I feel irrelevant in Africa and an outsider in America. That is my hidden nerve.

 

 

 

Judith Krummeck is a writer and broadcaster living in Baltimore. She immigrated to the States from Africa in the late 1990s, and is the evening drive time host of Maryland’s classical music station, WBJC. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore.

 

 

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