Beethoven was one-sixteenth black
the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets no. 13, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135.
Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself.
Once there were blacks wanting to be white.
Now there are whites wanting to be black.
It’s the same secret.
Frederick Morris (of course that’s not his name, you’ll soon catch on I’m writing about myself, a man with the same initials) is an academic who teaches biology and was an activist back in the apartheid time, among other illegal shenanigans an amateur cartoonist of some talent who made posters depicting the regime’s leaders as the ghoulish murderers they were and, more boldly, joined groups to paste these on city walls. At the university, new millennium times, he’s not one of the academics the student body (a high enrolment robustly black, he approves) singles out as among those particularly reprehensible, in protests against academe as the old white male crowd who inhibit transformation of the university from a white intellectuals’ country club to a non-racial institution with a black majority (politically-correct-speak). Neither do the students value much the support of whites, like himself, dissident from what’s seen as the other, the gowned body. You can’t be on somebody else’s side. That’s the reasoning? History’s never over; any more than biology, functioning within every being.
One-sixteenth. The trickle seemed enough to be asserted out of context? What does the distant thread of blood matter in the genesis of a genius. Then there’s Pushkin, if you like; his claim is substantial, look at his genuine frizz on the head—not some fashionable faked Afro haloing a white man or woman, but coming, it’s said, from Ethiopia.
Perhaps because he’s getting older—Morris doesn’t know he’s still young enough to think fifty-two is old—he reflects occasionally on what was lived in his lifeline-before-him. He’s divorced, a second time; that’s a past, as well, if rather immediate. His father was also not a particular success as a family man. Family: the great-grandfather, dead long before the boy was born: there’s a handsome man, someone from an old oval-framed photograph, the strong looks not passed on. There are stories about this forefather, probably related at family gatherings but hardly listened to by a boy impatient to leave the grown-ups’ table. Anecdotes not in the history book obliged to be learned by rote. What might call upon amused recognition to be adventures, circumstances taken head-on, good times enjoyed out of what others would submit to as bad times, characters—‘they don’t make them like that any more’—as enemies up to no good, or joined forces with as real mates. No history-book events: tales of going about your own affairs within history’s fall-out. He was some sort of frontiersman, not in the colonial military but in the fortune-hunters’ motley.
A descendant in the male line, Frederick Morris bears his surname, of course. Walter Benjamin Morris apparently was always called Ben, perhaps because he was the Benjamin indeed of the brood of brothers who did not, like him, emigrate to Africa. No-one seems to know why he did; just an adventurer, or maybe the ambition to be rich which didn’t appear to be achievable anywhere other than a beckoning Elsewhere. He might have chosen the Yukon. At home in London he was in line to inherit the Hampstead delicatessen shop, see it full of cold cuts and pickles, he was managing for another one of the fathers in the family line, name lost. He was married for only a year when he left. Must have convinced his young bride that their future lay in his going off to prospect for the newly discovered diamonds in a far place called Kimberley, from where he would promptly return rich. As a kind of farewell surety for their love, he left inside her their son to be born.
Frederick surprises his mother by asking if she kept the old attaché case—a battered black bag, actually—where once his father had told him there was stuff about the family they should go through some time; both had forgotten this rendez-vous, his father had died before that time came. He did not have much expectation that she still kept the case somewhere, she had moved from what had been the home of marriage and disposed of possessions for which there was no room, no place in her life in a garden complex of elegant contemporary-design cottages. There were some things in a communal storeroom tenants had use of. There he found the bag and squatting among the detritus of other people’s pasts he blew away the silverfish moths from letters and scrap jottings, copied the facts recorded above. There are also photographs, mounted on board, too tough for whatever serves silverfish as jaws, which he took with him, didn’t think his mother would be sufficiently interested in for him to inform her. There is one portrait in an elaborate frame.
The great-grandfather has the same stance in all the photographs whether he is alone beside a photographer’s studio palm or among piles of magical dirt, the sieves that would sift from the earth the rough stones that were diamonds within their primitive forms, the expressionless blacks and half-coloured men leaning on spades. Prospectors from London and Paris and Berlin—anywhere where there are no diamonds—did not themselves race to stake their claims when the starter’s gun went off, the hired men who belonged on the land they ran over were swifter than any white foreigner, they staked the foreigners’ claims and wielded the picks and spades in the open-cast mining concessions these marked. Even when Ben Morris is photographed sitting in a makeshift overcrowded bar his body, neck tendons, head are upright as if he were standing so immovably confident—of what? (Jottings reveal that he unearthed only small stuff. Negligible carats.) Of virility. That’s unmistakable, it’s untouched by the fickleness of fortune. Others in the picture have become slumped and shabbied by poor luck. The aura of sexual virility in the composure, the dark, bright, on-the-lookout inviting eyes: a call to the other sex as well as elusive diamonds. Women must have heard, read him the way males didn’t, weren’t meant to. Dates on the scraps of paper made delicately lacy by insects show that he didn’t return promptly, he prospected with obstinate faith in his quest, in himself, for five years.
He didn’t go home to London, the young wife, he saw the son only once on a single visit when he impregnated the young wife and left her again. He did not make his fortune; but he must have gained some slowly accumulated profit from the small stones the black men dug for him from their earth, because after five years it appears he went back to London and used his acquired knowledge of the rough stones to establish himself in the gem business, with connections in Amsterdam.
The great-grandfather never returned to Africa. Frederick’s mother can at least confirm this, since her son is interested. The later members of the old man’s family—his fertility produced more sons, from one of whom Frederick is descended—came for other reasons, as doctors and lawyers, businessmen, conmen and entertainers, to a level of society created from profit of the hired fast-runners’ unearthing of diamonds and gold for those who had come from beyond the seas, another kind of elsewhere.
And that’s another story. You’re not responsible for your ancestry, are you.
But if that’s so, why have marched under banned slogans, got yourself beaten up by the police, arrested a couple of times; plastered walls with subversive posters. That’s also the past. The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognises it.
How did that handsome man with the beckoning gaze, the characteristic slight flare of the nostrils as if picking up some tempting scent (in every photograph), the strong beringed hands (never touched a spade) splayed on tight-trousered thighs, live without his pretty London bedmate all the nights of prospecting? And the Sunday mornings when you wake, alone, and don’t have to get up and get out to educate the students in the biological facts of life behind their condomed cavortings—even a diamond prospector must have lain a while longer in his camp bed, Sundays, known those surges of desire, and no woman to turn to. Five years. Impossible that a healthy male, as so evidently this one, went five years without making love except for the brief call on the conjugal bed. Never mind the physical implication; how sad. But of course it wasn’t so. He obviously didn’t have to write and confess to his young wife that he was having an affair—this is the past, not the sophisticated protocol of suburban sexual freedom—it’s unimaginably makeshift, rough as the diamonds. There were those black girls who came to pick up prospectors’ clothes for washing (two in the background of a photograph where, bare-chested, the man has fists up, bunched in a mock fight with a swinging-bellied mate at the diggings) and the half-black girls (two coffee one milk the description at the time) in confusion of a bar-tent caught smiling, passing him carrying high their trays of glasses. Did he have many of these girls over those years of deprived nights and days. Or was there maybe a special one, several special ones, there are no crude circumstances, Frederick himself has known, when there’s not a possibility of tenderness coming uninvited to the straightforward need for a fuck. And the girls. What happened to the girls if in male urgencies there was conception. The foreigners come to find diamonds came and went, their real lives with women were Elsewhere, intact far away. What happened? Are there children’s children of those conceptions on-the-side engendered by a handsome prospector who went home to his wife and sons and the gem business in London and Amsterdam—couldn’t they be living where he propagated their predecessors.
Frederick knows as everyone in a country of many races does that from such incidents far back there survives proof in the appropriation, here and there, of the name that was all the progenitor left behind him, adopted without his knowledge or consent out of—sentiment, resentment, something owed? More historical fall-out. It was not in mind for a while, like the rendezvous with the stuff in the black bag, forgotten with his father. There was a period of renewed disturbances at the university, destruction of equipment within the buildings behind their neo-classical columns; not in the Department of
The portrait of his great-grandfather in its oval frame under convex glass that had survived unbroken for so long stayed propped up where the desk moved to his new apartment was placed when he and his ex-wife divided possessions. Photo-graphs give out less meaning than painted portraits. Open less contemplation. But he is there, he is—a statement.
In the telephone directory for what is now a city where the diamonds were first dug, are there any listings of the name Morris. Of course there will be, it’s not uncommon and so has no relevance.
As if he has requested her to reserve cinema tickets with his credit card he asks his secretary to see if she can get hold of a telephone directory for a particular region. There are Morrises and Morrisons. In his apartment he calls up the name on the internet one late night, alone. There’s a Morris who is a theatre director now living in Los Angeles and a Morris a champion bridge player in Cape Town. No-one of that name in Kimberley worthy of being noted in this infallible source.
Now and then he and black survivors of the street marches of blacks and whites in the past get together for a drink. ‘Survivors’ because some of the black comrades (comrades because that form of address hadn’t been exclusive to the communists among them) had moved on to high circles in cabinet posts and boardrooms. The talk turned to reform of the education system and student action to bring it about. Except for Frederick, in their shared 70s and 80s few of this group of survivors had the chance of a university education. They’re not inhibited to be critical of the new regime their kind brought about or of responses to its promises unfulfilled. —Trashing the campus isn’t going to scrap tuition fees for our kids too poor to pay. Yelling freedom songs, toyi-toying at the Principal’s door isn’t going to reach the Minister of Education’s big ears. Man! Aren’t there other tactics now? They’re supposed to be intelligent, getting educated, not so, and all they can think of is use what we had, throw stones, trash the facilities—but the buildings and the libraries and laboratories whatnot are theirs now, not whitey’s only—they’re rubbishing what we fought for, for them.—
Someone asks, your department okay, no damage?
Another punctuates with a laugh. —They wouldn’t touch you, no way.—
Frederick doesn’t know whether to put the company right, the students don’t know and if they do don’t care about his actions in the past, why should they, they don’t know who he was, the modest claim to be addressed as comrade. But that would bring another whole debate, one focused on himself.
When he got home rather late he was caught under another focus, seemed that of the eyes of the grandfatherly portrait. Or was it the mixture, first beer then whisky, unaccustomedly downed. Excerpted from Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2007 by Nadine Gordimer. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fourteen novels, nine volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.