“Black Joy” by Koleka Putuma

(Photo credit: Elelwani Netshifhire)

I’m finally posting a poem by Koleka Putuma and it’s her birthday today!  I’ve carried Koleka’s Collective Amnesia in my bag for weeks; everyday I’ll thumb through and read the poems but end up utterly defeated in my quest to settle on one poem to post here.

I heard about Koleka Putuma when someone posted a YouTube link of her performance of “Water”.  I was wow’ed.

Yet every time our skin goes under,
it’s as if the reeds remember they were once chains,
and the water, restless, wishes it could spew all of the slaves and ships
onto shore,
whole as they had boarded, sailed and sunk.
Their tears are what have turned the ocean salty,
this is why our irises burn every time we go under.

December 16th,
December 24th and
December 31st
and January 1st,
our skin re-traumatises the sea.

They mock us
for not being able to throw ourselves into something that was instrumental
in trying to execute our extinction.
For you, the ocean is for surfboards, boats and tans
and all the cool stuff you do under there in your bathing suits and goggles.
But we,
we have come to be baptised here.
We have come to stir the other world here.
We have come to cleanse ourselves here.
We have come to connect our living to the dead here.
Our respect for water is what you have termed fear.
The audacity to trade and murder us over water
then mock us for being scared of it.
The audacity to arrive by water and invade us.
If this land was really yours,
Then resurrect the bones of the colonisers and use them as a compass.
—– from “Water” by Koleka Putuma

When I read Koleka’s name among the lineup of the 2017 Ake Festival, I knew there was a god and her name is Lola Shoneyin. Procuring a copy of Collective Amnesia was my most raging book thirst of 2017. Koleka at Ake meant sales of the collection at the Ake bookstore. The surprise was meeting Koleka, the 8th wonder, and watching her perform her poems.

The Messys at #AkeFest17: Mohale Mashigo, your truly and Koleka Putuma

I shall review Collective Amnesia here soon. But in short, it’s an amazing, essential, collection. I’ve selected “Black Joy”, the first poem in the collection, because it’s representative of Koleka’s exceptional storytelling. Enjoy!



We were spanked for each other’s sins.
Spanked in syllables and by the word of God.
Before dark meant home time.

My grandmother’s mattress
knew each of my
and the neighbour’s children’s
morning breath
By name.

A single mattress spread on the floor was enough for all of us.

Bread slices were buttered with iRama
and rolled into sausage shapes;
we had it with black rooibos, we did not ask for cheese.

We were filled.

My cousins and I would gather around one large bowl of umngqusho,
each with their own spoon.
Sugar water completed the meal.

We were home and whole.

isn’t funny?
That when they ask about black childhood,
all they are interested in is our pain,
as if the joy-parts were accidental.

I write love poems, too,
you only want to see my mouth torn open in protest,
as if my mouth were a wound
with pus and gangrene
for joy.
– by Koleka Putuma


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