I am woefully under-educated about the history of the apartheid government structure in South Africa. I knew it was a key word in many of U2’s songs, especially on the Rattle and Hum album. I knew that it meant something bad, something ugly. I just didn’t understand. I didn’t know.
Over the last decade, I have read a little about apartheid. I came to a really basic understanding and knew that I was supposed to be upset by it. And, in some very minuscule way, I was.
This morning, I was reading in my TIME magazine about the recent death of a photographer Sam Nzima. He documented an uprising in which roughly 20,000 students protested a disciminatory education in which they were required to learn Afrikaans, a language which (I hope I am correct with this) is an off-shoot of Dutch.
During the protests, the police opened fire on the students. A 13 year-old boy was shot, Hector Pieterson. A man gathered Hector in his arms, carried him away from the escalating violence. Beside the man was Hector’s sister, her hand raised in protest, in horror, in grief. Hector was dying in the man’s arms. From the child’s mouth, blood drooled. The man’s mouth is open, contorted with horror. His shirt is freckled with dark spots, likely blood.
The woman’s mouth is caught mid-syllable. Is she saying Hector’s name? Is she calling for justice? Is she merely mouthing sounds that can not give voice to the agony that a child, her brother, is dying. Because he didn’t want to learn a language forced on him by oppressors?
Nzima captured a moment of two people striding away from a massacre. In reading two different sources, I’ve seen that anywhere from 176 to possibly 700 people died. He took a single picture that documented the death of an innocent child.
According to TIME Magazine, this was Nzima’s last photograph. According to Resource Magazine (at least the online version), Nzima claimed that this photograph was the shot that “killed his photojournalism career.” I have to admit, the wording strikes me….
I am struck by this man and the end of his photojournalism career over this one picture. I live such a privileged life in which my opinion is legally protected. This blog is legally protected. My voice, my words, my everything are all Constitutional privileges that I have done nothing to earn but relish and enjoy on a daily basis, even if I am completely ignorant of them. Even if I take them for granted.
I am sitting in my bed slightly listening to The Big Bang Theory. I have been grading paragraphs in which students are discussing the persuasive voice in a chapter of the 9/11 book, 102 Minutes. We have such freedoms that we never consider disappearing.
But as I toggle between tabs alternating between this blog post and Nzima’s history, a picture of him standing outside his liquor store (to imagine giving up on his artwork and living as a liquor store salesman), his picture of a dying child, and my grading, I am struck by his sacrifice.
With courage, he took a picture. A single picture that was published that documented the tragic murder of a child.
And with the publication of that picture, his career ended.
I write. I write because I love the sound of words. I literally love the feeling of speaking words, that the curls and ridges my tongue makes when I say words is fulfilling. I write because I ink is currency and letters are gemstones. I write because not to do so is to force my heart not to beat.
I write because that is my calling. I write because I stare at the world and feel the images collapse into my mind and I must write about what I see, what I experience.
I can not imagine setting aside my pen, closing my laptop, surrendering the ownership of this blog which contains possibly 450,000 words, enough to create at least four books, because to do so is to end the sustenance of my soul.
Writing is my purpose.
And I look at Nzima and herald him because he lived with such purpose, even if he was forced to set aside this purpose as a career. I know that TIME made it sound as though he never took another photograph. I hope not.
But when I was brushing my teeth this morning, reading the 100 or so words that documeneted Nzima’s death, I was stilled. To set aside my words. To be censored. To be thrown aside and exiled from the literary realm which I have yet to truly enter but dream constantly about seeing my novel on a table in a bookstore, in a bookstore’s shelves….
And my novel is hardly a protest piece. Maybe my second one. But I don’t think the first is. It’s just a novel with my voice….
Mr. Nzima. I wish I had known more about you. I wish this elegy was much more about you and your career and your photograph that gave validity to a life destroyed.
I wish, sir, that your photographs numbered far beyond…one. Or that at least the world was given access to more than just your single image that is your legacy.
Not because your photograph lacks credence or voice or beauty. Not because your picture is disturbing (it is….but necessarily so).
But because if this is what your one photograph could do, what more was waiting behind your lenses?
I have so many books on my shelves waiting for me to take down and read. I have more than I can read in years’ worth of time. But I think it’s time for me to start reading more about apartheid. In the name of compassion and justice.
In the name of Sam Nzima.
In the name of Hector.