During one of her more popular TedTalks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the danger of a single story. As a reader, having access to only one story, and one point of view, can narrow your perception of the world. For young African readers especially, the single story, when told from a Western lens, can cause us to feel isolated and othered since our lifestyles didn’t match those of the Western protagonists we read about.
I myself had grown up reading stories about white, western characters. And while these stories had been valuable in more ways than one, they often made me feel like an outsider looking in. That’s because there were rarely characters like me in these books. Adichie’s reflections reminded me how important it is to broaden our scope of reading so that we can understand lives beyond popular narratives.
When we aren’t exposed to new stories, when we stay in our small circles, we fail to see the real scope of the world. Resultantly, we can easily fall into echo chambers where our assumptions and prejudices are affirmed and unquestioned. In these cases, reading becomes a lifeline that can pull you back to reality’s shore. When we read, we can access stories that would otherwise remain unknown, and discover diversity in opinion, experience and perspective. It is one of the easiest means of experiencing empathy for others.
That’s the thing about reading – just when you start to feel like you have a grasp on reality as you know it, you get transported to another life. With a good book in hand, you’ll learn that there are 8 billion people out there struggling down their own paths and that each of them is dealing with a lot. Sure, the news headlines help to contextualise it all, but what really leaves an impression are those stories about the human spirit, courage and hope amongst adversity. And instead of looking on with pity or envy, we learn to incite empathy, this wonderful thing that allows us to connect with each other, to find common humanity.
For me, there was one book that made me feel closer to others and yet still more in tune with myself in 2022, my first year of real financial independence and adulting, a time when my life had changed dramatically. That book is Black Tax: Burden or Ubuntu? (Edited by Niq Mhlongo)
Black Tax is an anthology that assesses what it means to grow up as a person of colour (POC) in South Africa post-apartheid. The book interweaves narrative accounts and academic research to depict a landscape in which most young POCs are struggling to get by, due to their lack of access to generational wealth. The stories are biographical, with each author offering a different point of view about their take on Black Tax. Some authors believe black tax helps us lift fellow family members and POCs out of poverty, engendering Ubuntu and community, while others believe that Black Tax is a burden that forces many young POC professionals to cut into their meagre savings. Either way, the story is a wickedly blunt account of what it means to be broke, and the expectation that one’s family can place on you to save them.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life worrying about my family’s financial situation. My parents were not afforded economic opportunities like a university education, thanks to Apartheid, and so I was always acutely aware that my own education would be an investment into building my family’s wealth. By some miracle, with the help of my mother’s massive extended family, my father’s pension, and many NSFAS transfers and bank loans in between, I managed to get a degree. This degree was the key to my first well-paying, steady job in Cape Town. However, in the gig economy, nothing is stable. One job wasn’t enough to support me.
I was hustling, balancing multiple jobs and a lot of emotional stress, trying just to make it through the month. And when the money ran dry, I would call on my siblings for help. My mother didn’t have much, although she would always go out of her way to spoil us when she could, be it with a delivery of groceries or some pocket money for new underwear or petrol. And since our father got retrenched we could never really call on him for much else besides words of support. This meant that our sole support system mostly rested on siblings and family members. We lent on each other and always congratulated each other for how far we’d made it, despite our obstacles.
But still, away from the comforts of my own home and far from my mother’s love, this constant hustle and grind began to become overwhelming. This prove-yourself mentality kept me going, but it also wore me down. The more time I spent in the big city, the Mother City, the more I also became frustrated by the massive inequalities that I saw everywhere around me. Why were so many South Africans submitted to horrible working conditions, while others lived in glamour? Was it really fair that I had to grow up so quickly, while many of my wealthy white friends gallivanted on gap years with the help of hefty allowances?
I always tried to talk myself down by reminding myself that the situation could always be worse. My experience was fairly normal for a person of colour in the South African context. Many of us were still fighting against a lot of historical and systemic issues like unemployment. Given this, it was important not to compare ourselves to others. So I reminded myself, time and time again, that it could be worse. But still, I felt alone, at least until I read “Black Tax”. It was in this book that I came to realise how my situation was not entirely unique. In fact, there were tons of South Africans dealing with the same financial stressors, trying to provide for themselves and lead the way to wealth with only a degree in hand and a small income.
This book gave me perspective, and it exposed me to realities far harsher than mine. Although I knew struggle, there were stories in there that felt far more difficult than anything I had known. For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of camaraderie. This book gave me insight into the lives of those who had shared similar problems, allowing me to find hope. I also felt gratitude for the comforts that I did have, finally recognising that my privileges were comparably good.
Overall, this book helped me realise that while you might feel alone, while you might feel misunderstood and even confused, there is a community out there somewhere that feels your pain. If you want to find them, if you want to feel heard, if you want to know more about the worlds you cannot access, then all you have to do is read.
Tell us: what book or story has made a difference in your life?