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Our Heritage Day Book Selection: Coloured by Tessa Dooms and Lynsey Ebony Chutel

Coloured as an ethnicity and racial demographic is intertwined in the creation of the South Africa we have today. Yet often, Coloured communities are disdained as people with no clear heritage or culture — ‘not being black enough or white enough.’

This insightful book challenges this notion and presents a different angle to that narrative. It also delves into the history of Coloured people as descendants of indigenous Africans and a people whose identity was shaped by colonisation, slavery, and the racial political hierarchy it created.

Although rooted in a difficult history, this book is also about the culture that Coloured communities have created for themselves through food, music, and shared lived experiences in communities such as Eldorado Park, Eersterus, and Wentworth. Coloured culture is an act of defiance and resilience.

Coloured is a reflection on, and celebration of Coloured identities as lived experiences. It is a call to Coloured communities to reclaim their identity and an invitation to understand the history and place of Coloured people in the making of South Africa’s future.

Author the authors

Tessa Dooms is a Director at the Rivonia Circle. She is a sociologist, political analyst, and development practitioner with 15 years’ experience. She holds a Master of Arts from the University of the Witwatersrand. Tessa is a trustee of the Kagiso Trust.

Lynsey Ebony Chutel is a journalist and writer. She is a reporter for the New York Times and has worked for South African and international news outlets, along with stints in scriptwriting for an international Emmy-nominated news satire show. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a master's degree in international relations from the University of the Witwatersrand.

Reflections from Lynsey Ebony Chutel:

A very smart woman once told me, “Write your own story or someone else will write for you.” It was an exercise in career guidance, in imagining my future and aligning my ambitions, she advised me to write my own life story like a journalist would. I did that, and seeing the words on the page gave me a clearer picture of the life I wanted, but it also made me realise that I needed to know much more of where I came from. Talking to and learning about my mother, my grandmothers, my great-grandmother, my aunts and friends who have become family, I realised the power of story, especially for women who are still trying to create a world that allows us to be all can be. That’s why our book Coloured: How Classification Became Culture deliberately centres on the stories of ordinary people.

The stories we tell ourselves become our culture and our heritage. They’re how we pass down our history and create heirlooms and traditions. They’re also how we understand our place in the world. In the book, the chapter on language begins as a love story between two people who came from different worlds. The chapter on food is the origin story of the Gatsby, that legendary sandwich that came out of hunger and innovation. My reflections on hair and skin tone come from photo albums of family weddings and Christmases together.

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves also have the power to instil a sense of pride in all of us, and the power to know that we can shape our lives even in the most trying of circumstances. They give us the courage we need to know that others have walked a hard path too, and held on to joy and love. In pain and hatred, joy and love are revolutionary acts of defiance. That’s why the stories of the ordinary people in this book inspired me and gave me the confidence to really embrace a cultural heritage that has been at times difficult to make sense of, not only personally but for our country too.

I’m inspired by the anonymous enslaved woman who probably stole spices from her masters’ table and added it to a deep-fried dessert that become our beloved koeksister. I’m also humbled by the story of Dina van Rio de la Goa, an enslaved woman at the Cape who at 25 and pregnant, tried to escape in search of freedom. I am in awe of how hard Gepasi Emmy Sibisi fought to keep her three mixed-race grandchildren when the apartheid-era social workers tried to take them away, and then how those three girls, the Bodal sisters, held on to a sense of family even when they were removed from their grandmother. I am inspired by my own ancestors, Annie and Katrien, who fled the Boers during the South African Civil War to find refuge and safety, and build a home for themselves in an alien landscape.

These stories ground me, and help me imagine my own future and I hope they’ll do the same for people who read this book, especially Coloured South Africans. I hope that they’ll see their own story, our story, is inextricably linked to the history of South Africa, an integral part of the tapestry that makes this country, and I hope they’ll take up that space, and help create a future of more beautiful stories.

Reflections from Tessa Dooms:

Coloured: How Classification became Coloured is a labour of love written by Lynsey Ebony Chutel and I. In the aftermath of the murder of Nathaniel Julies, a 16-year-old by from Eldorado Park, who was killed by police, we were provoked to respond to the pain, anger and frustrations of Coloured communities in South Africa and the bewilderment of other people who did not understand why Coloured people in democratic South Africa were still feeling so marginalised. We took on the task of writing this book not because we felt that we had all the answers, but in search of the answers through the varied and often unspoken stories of Coloured people. In this book we centre Coloured identity as culture rather than race. Race assumes biology as the basis for shared identity, while culture reminds us that that identity is formed through shared life experiences that transcend biology, hair, skin and complexion and tap into our hearts and souls.

In Coloured, we do not essentialise identity. We accept and explore the multiple ways that people relate to the word Coloured. The many paths’ people took by choice or by force to bear the name Coloured, and the consequences of the creation of Coloured as a classification. But we also spend time introducing audiences to the beautiful, funny, and painful stories that make up our histories and contemporary lives as Coloured communities. We lay bare who we are in the unseen personal spaces, when the stereotypes have long faded. Coloured celebrated who we are even when we do not like all the things we see in the social and political mirror, reminding us to be proud to take up space in South Africa because it is our home too.

Personally, I wrote this book for Coloured young people, particularly girls. My mother, Irene Dooms, is a Coloured women who is a clear example of what it means for Coloured people to have actively formed identity from the shattered pieces of a childhood and family history filled with uncertainty and scant acceptance. My mother took the forced circumstances to make identity around the label Coloured as an opportunity to become a woman she can proudly present to the world. Through religion and community service my mother has garnered respect in a country that has often told women like her they are not worthy. I wrote this book to honour the efforts of my mother, but to also liberate the girls and women who stand on her shoulders. Being a Coloured girl should never again come with a responsibility to prove one’s worth. I hope that Coloured girls will read the book and know, with certainty and confidence that they are enough as they are and can make of themselves whatever they hope to be.

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