Why I am a Coconut
Johannesburg, South Africa
4th June 1948
If you say it in English, my name is love. I am Lerato Dlamini, and I am a coconut. You have to say my name the African way, not the English or the American way; if you say it correctly I sound like a tomato. My name is much more African than I am, because you see, my body is black but my spirit inside it is white. The skin is just a shell, fragile and frail; you have no way of telling that what lies below the brown casing and when you cut into it there is a sense of shock when the white milk is revealed. It’s only a shell, nothing more than that.
I am a racial transvestite because when I was born I was sewn into the wrong birthday suit. Even when I am naked I cannot disrobe myself of my foul and abhorrent skin; the inner part of me which is correct is buried so deeply that nobody else may ever see it. I cannot simply change my clothes so that I may find a better way of outwardly expressing my inner identity. People who are born the wrong gender don’t know how lucky they are; race cuts far deeper and defines you far more than a small thing like being male or female. When God gets your race wrong, the results can be disastrous. Usually it is a forgivable mistake, but I was unfortunate enough to have been born in South Africa halfway through the Twentieth Century; never in all of human history has an individual been shaped and defined by the colour of their skin more than here.
I am a Russian doll. If you split my coconut shell in half and remove it you will see a completely new body on the inside; I think she looks a bit like Marilyn Monroe, only with better legs and juicier hips. I’ve never seen the woman inside me but I had every reason to believe that she was and is voluptuously beautiful. She has a little hourglass figure rather than this hippopotamus of a body I have been lumbered with and she has all the right curves in all the right places. I close my eyes and imagine her piercing blue eyes, her fleshy red lips and her delicate white skin. She has a sharp and dainty little nose. She has skin the colour of honey and she has toes and fingers painted crimson so they look like sparkling rubies. She turns pink and then orange in the sunshine, green when she is sick and blue when she is cold. I am the only white person in the world who can’t do any of those things.
I am not, and may never be, the blonde bombshell that I should have been. My hair is not straight and golden but instead it is thick and wiry, a vast dark ball of wretchedness, and no matter how many times I brush it the curliness will not be taken away. I have big brown eyes and a wide, flat African nose. My feet are huge and wrapped up in darkness. I have chunky toes and fat black fingers made out of misery. My hands have pale palms but I have a big dark belly. I absolutely loathe this mismatched body that I have been mistakenly given. It is a vile abomination; what I really want is for my inner whiteness to shine through and for people to see me for who I really am. I hate it so much that some days it is totally unendurable and I feel like I could burst, that my shell could crack and that my coconut milk could come showering out. I avoid mirrors at all costs; they are vile, dreadful things. But everything will be alright in the end; one day I will soar into the sky because I am greater than what my untruthful and deceptive body limits me to.
Over the years of my life a lot of the monochrome people have called me crazy. They think I am deluded fool, a girl just as black on the inside as she is on the outside. They say that everything I am experiencing is because of mental illness and an inability to understand and interact with the world around me. My mother has always told me that being a black woman is a beautiful thing, a thing to be relished and enjoyed and that all black women should be immensely proud of their identity and heritage, but it is quite clear that she doesn’t understand anything at all. When you read this book I don’t expect you to understand me either; that’s not the reason I am telling you my story. I am telling you these intimate secrets because I want you to understand how South Africa came to be free, not the psychology or biology of what it means to be a coconut. Just trust me when I say that I am one. I don’t know whether or not I expect you to believe me and I don’t know whether or not I care. You can call me insane if you want to; you certainly wouldn’t be the first. Just make sure that you never, ever call me a black woman. I am a perfectly white woman who is completely encased in a false skin, hidden behind a mirage and a total misrepresentation of my identity. My whiteness is total; calling me black or mixed-race is utterly false. Don’t lie to my face.
I am not a bluegum or a buffie, a teapot or a thicklips, a jigaboo or a jungle bunny, a spook or a spearchucker. My least favourite of these names that people found for black people was the rancid and disgusting “munter”, a Bantu word which the Afrikaners used as an expletive to describe people who to get their own back by calling them “hairybacks” or “boneheads” but that didn’t make me feel any better.
The reason why I know that it is not all in my head is because since my birth I have felt the agony of being in the wrong body. This is not a psychological condition, for my flesh screams out with the unendurable pain of being the wineskin for a spirit that does not fit inside it, chafing and itching as I struggle to wriggle free. This is not a feeling of depression or unhappiness, a cloud over my horizon that I chose to place there or one which simply vanishes whenever I decide it’s not convenient to be a coconut any more. No; this is a gut-wrenching, spine-tingling, nerve-shredding physical agony which I must endure for eternity in perfect solitude. Mental illnesses don’t hurt you in the flesh; they cause anguish and trauma, not physical pain. I knew you wouldn’t understand, because you are a monochrome and monochromes never understand anything. I would rather die a slow and painful death from cancer than to have to endure a lifetime of being a coconut; at least then nobody would deny my unique medical condition ever existed in the first place, or worse call me stupid or foolish for bringing my doom and destruction upon myself.
I was born in Sophiatown, a township in Johannesburg, in the depths of winter on 4th June 1948. Nobody ever knew the identity, race or whereabouts of my biological parents because I was adopted as an abandoned newborn baby. My adoptive parents, Gloria and Faithful Dlamini, answered a knock at the corrugated tin door of their little shack and saw a white man standing there cradling me in his arms. They knew that I could not have been more than a few minutes old because I still had pieces of fresh placenta stuck to my hair. He told them that he was a taxi driver but to this day nobody has ever told me how he got there and whether or not he had his vehicle with him. He clearly felt very uncomfortable with being in the dangerous gangland at such an hour and he did not want to drop me off at the hospital, so he came to find Gloria and Faithful’s shack and asked them to look after me overnight. He promised that he could return in the morning and admit me to the maternity unit, where I could be cared for and seen to by the social workers who would re-home me like a stray dog. The soft glow of the candlelight shone on Gloria’s face as she examined the white man standing at her door in the middle of nocturnal Sophiatown with a baby in his arms, a baby with black skin. Gloria was no fool, and she must have known that he would never return for me, but I think she wanted to believe and trust him so much that her suspicions were suppressed long enough to fall in love with me. I can fully understand why, because she had never seen a coconut before and once you lay eyes on one of our kind then we are pretty difficult to forget. Faithful was sceptical and he did not want to help, but Gloria begged him.
“Answerme this,” Faithful began as he took me out of the taxi driver’s hands, “what is a pregnant black woman doing taking expensive taxis such as yours late at night? Where did she get her money from to pay you with? I don’t believe it. You would have been too afraid to let a black passenger into your taxi because you would think she would attack you, especially here in Sophiatown where the white men fear to tread.”
The driver’s eyes widened with a mixture of shock and fear. “No, sir, the only passengers that I have driven tonight have been white.”
Just a few short weeks later, it would have been illegal as well as inadvisable for passengers of different colours to share a taxi together as the laws of the Nationalist Government started to bite into the multicultural skin of South Africa as though our country was a grape bursting between the teeth. There is so much about my birth that I will never know; because of that I have always felt that my identity is fragile and shrouded in secret mystery. All that I knew about my origin was the information which had been passed down to me by Gloria and Faithful, and some of the more confusing aspects of the tale gave me the frustrating sense that time may have exaggerated or changed the story which had knitted me together and constructed this coconut shell out of dust. Why was the taxi directed into Sophiatown by white passengers who would have no conceivable reason to go there? How is it possible for a taxi driver to not notice that one of his passengers was in labour? Was it possible that I had grown up being told a corrupted story about my birth, that the very foundation of my life was rooted in something other than the truth? I don’t know at what point on the journey I became a passenger inside that little car, but I do know that the driver of the taxi never did keep his promise to come back and take me to the hospital. I’m still waiting for him.
In good time Gloria and Faithful became accustomed to the idea that they would have to be my parents. They called me Lerato; I’m not sure if my birth mother had a name for me but it would definitely have been something white. Mary-Jane, Elizabeth, Anna, Catherine or Alice would all have done nicely but instead they insisted on shackling me with that ghastly name of slavery. The African name clung to me as tightly as it would have done if it was branded onto my forehead with a red hot poker.
Gloria, or Mommy as she would be known as from now on, could not bear the thought of giving me up whilst Faithful needed a lot more persuading. He claimed that life was hard enough for the family financially and that there would not be any more room for burdens on our livelihoods. Because I had no proof of birth and my parents could not afford the relevant paperwork, I was never officially adopted by Gloria and Faithful even though they called me their daughter and I called them my Mom and Dad. I never had any proof that I belonged to them and was a part of their family. In terms of official documentation I simply did not exist and I had never been born.
So began my childhood as a misfit. I was the crazy one, the outcast and the freakish, lonely dreamer and it was all because I knew that I was not the person that everyone thought I was. I did not feel at home in the Dlamini family because I was not a member of the Dlamini family, and they did not understand how it felt or what it meant to be a coconut. It is an inherent part of human nature to look at other people and judge them by their physical appearance, but this was the absolutely incorrect way of determining who I was. I didn’t match my skin at all, but nobody could see that. I bet you will be no different; you won’t believe a word I say.
I was an anomaly. Sometimes you see people who like to dress up in the clothes of the opposite gender; they complain of being born into the wrong body. Their flesh does not quite feel at ease with the soul it houses and that the two of them are plunged headlong into an eternal battle which is impossible to resolve. I know their pain well, for it is not my gender that has been incorrect since my birth, but my race. My skin does not match or reflect me. I am not who I look like, and I have had to suffer a lifetime of misunderstanding and confusion as my personality and my spirit does battle with my flesh. I am like a homosexual who does not understand what is happening to their hormones, someone who is outcast and rejected and deeply hurt and confused. There is a profound agony in being the wrong colour, and my spirit sings a different lamentation to my flesh.
I have many theories as to why I am so unusual; I had to think them up myself because the monochromes were so terribly bad at understanding my condition. They would tell me a thousand different stories about how I had several types of absurd delusion all at once, that I had something called body dysmorphia or that I was traumatised by not knowing my true parents. Their theories all contradicted each other so fiercely that the only logical conclusion to come to was that everyone who had an opinion—the local witch doctor, my forever family, women in the street, the other children of Sophiatown; basically everyone I ever came into contact with—all of them were just as deluded and insane as they claimed I was. They were spouting their vile accusations against me to deflect the attention from the mental illnesses of their own. My theories were much more sensible: I thought it likely that my tummy mommy must have drunk a great barrel of tar before conceiving me, or perhaps she had munched on coal to satisfy her cravings during her pregnancy. That woman of whose womb I am the immaculate fruit, that woman who carried me into the world and that woman whose name I will never know—she must have had an appetite for cocoa, raw tea leaves, biltong and black olives. The monochromes were all flawed, broken people and I was the only one in the whole world with any sense. The misunderstandings were down to everyone else’s ignorance and stupidity, not mine.
I am absolutely convinced that whiteness is derived from purity, and I am only pure on the inside. When we were made by God, we were created to have white skin. The blackness of my skin is the souvenir of the eviction of man from the Garden of Eden, the scorch-marks of the Almighty’s thunder and the terrifying and beastly Seraphim standing guard at the gates of the garden. White skin is pure skin and white people are pure people. I am scorched on the outside with a pale interior, like an overcooked sausage on a braai.
Put simply, my skin and my soul do not match up. My inside is white, and my outside is black, therefore I am a coconut. The evidence is overwhelming. Gloria and Faithful are not my biological parents so it would be impossible for us to be the same colour even though our skin looks the same. The taxi driver told them that he had only carried white passengers in his car that night, and I was born with an instinctive ability to speak the languages of the white men like English and Afrikaans rather than the black ones like Xhosa and Zulu, which must be learnt and studied with an unnaturally great effort and labour. Coconuts are not mysterious or miraculous, but instead the condition is perfectly logical, diagnosable and explainable. I have absolutely no idea why this is not perfectly obvious to anyone other than me.