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The Explicator

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Ingrid de Kok’s “Small Passing”

Simon K. Lewis

To cite this article: Simon K. Lewis (2020): Ingrid de Kok’s “Small Passing”, The Explicator, DOI:

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Published online: 25 Feb 2020.

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Ingrid de Kok’s “Small Passing”

Simon K. Lewis
College of Charleston

South African poet Ingrid de Kok’s poem “Small Passing” is an Apartheid; gendered ways
example of a political poem that transcends the immediate of thinking; motherhood;
political poetry; race
political circumstances that prompted it. Originally written in relations; South
the midst of extreme racial violence in the late 1980s, the African poetry
poem responds to the comment of a man who told the white
mother of a stillborn baby that she should stop grieving for
her child because the loss of a single white child was insignifi-
cant in the face of the daily suffering of black women in
apartheid South Africa. The poem threads the ethical needle
by revealing the impossibility of not grieving for a stillborn
child but simultaneously illustrating the nature and extent of
black suffering. The poem goes further to critique the inad-
equacy of the man’s thinking and suggests that South African
women – black and white – might use a shared sense of suf-
fering to achieve a more humane society. In this way,
although coming at things from a white perspective, “Small
Passing” anticipates the intersectional thinking of the Black
Lives Matter movement in the contemporary United States.

Political poetry is often considered suspect by esthetically minded critics for

being tied to one particular time and place, but the best political poetry goes
beyond its own circumstances and acquires a currency that speaks to lasting
truths. South African poets during the apartheid era (1948–94) frequently
struggled with the desire to produce poetry that transcended its moment and
the simultaneous urgent need to speak out about particular abuses. Ingrid de
Kok, whose work started appearing in the “polarized literary arena”
(Schwartzman 18) of the 1980s, probably the most violent decade of that vio-
lent regime, is one such poet whose work constantly probes a core ethical
problem: how in good conscience to live as a private individual in circumstan-
ces where one’s racial identity automatically confers privilege or disadvantage
at birth. This ethical dilemma is accompanied by an esthetic conundrum: how
to show that the “desire to inhabit the private life” and the “will … to engage
political realities, to assert solidarities” are not necessarily “contrary impulses,
[or] gestures of opposing cultural aesthetics” (Schwartzman 18–19). Self-con-
sciously written from the privileged perspective of a white person, specifically

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a white woman committed to anti-racism, de Kok’s most famous poem, “Small

Passing” (1988), refuses “the easy assumption of a ‘sisterhood’ between women
in favor of forging hard-earned coalitions between women, drawing on shared
biological and social experiences of mothering to build bridges across apart-
heid’s chasms without erasing the legislated differences between women”
(Samuelson 767). “Small Passing” insists on the validity of the individual white
woman’s grief, not as a reactionary “all lives matter” kind of statement but as
a “necessary reseeing” of white experience “in the light of a difficult and hon-
est solidarity with the greater claims of black women” (O’Brien 138). Reading
de Kok’s work some thirty-plus years later in the United States invites us to
think about issues of intersectionality, feminist solidarity, and antiracism that
have been given particular urgency by the Black Lives Matter movement and
ally organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice.
“Small Passing,” which appeared in de Kok’s 1988 collection Familiar
Ground, was prompted by a graphic challenge to the ethics of intersectional
empathy, when a man (race unspecified) told a white woman “whose baby
died stillborn … to stop mourning, ‘for the trials and horrors suffered daily
by black women in this country are more significant than the loss of one white
child’” (de Kok 51). The opening of the poem responds to this provocative
statement with a series of images of the bereaved mother that show the phys-
ical impossibility for a woman not to grieve for a still-born child. It is as if the
poem is taking the question “How could a man make such a statement to the
mother of a still-born child?” as an outraged rhetorical question that assumes
the absurdity of the claim. Following the man’s general injunction to the
woman not to grieve to its logical conclusion, the speaker of the poem suggests
that the injunction would mean that the woman should not move around the
nursery already prepared for her new baby, and should not replay in her mind
the doctor’s inane attempt at comfort – “you can have another” (12). Most
tellingly, not grieving for the baby would mean not touching her “breasts/ still
full of purpose” (6–7). Even when presented as negative commands (“Do not
… ”), these images show the very impossibility of not grieving. How can a
woman who has just endured a stillbirth not be aware of her leaking breasts?
Any empathetic human being would surely acknowledge that it would be
impossible to avoid doing the things that the poem’s injunctions tell her not
to do.
And yet. If one asks the question “How could a man make such a state-
ment?” less as a rhetorical expression of outrage than in the spirit of socio-
logical inquiry—“What are the circumstances that make such a comment
possible?”—then a different set of images springs to mind no less immediately
than the images of the grieving mother. In the second and third sections of
the poem de Kok provides snapshots of the daily suffering of black women in
apartheid South Africa. And here is where the poem zeroes in on specificities

tied to the contemporary context of local politics. Here, the images of the
woman soon to be “on a train/ to a place not her own” (17–19), the young
girls “carrying babies/ not much smaller than themselves” (43–44), and the
image of Mandela’s daughter dismayed that she is not allowed to touch her
father during a prison visit (24–25) almost certainly require explanation for
the general non-South African reader not fully familiar with apartheid circum-
stances. The woman sent to a place not her own, for instance, is a reference to
the consequences of the 1950 Group Areas Act and the forced removals that
were implemented to enforce it. The young girls with children on their backs
indicates the extent to which labor laws smashed up families and left young
children in the care of siblings or grandparents. The reference to Mandela’s
daughter, the most specific of these images, draws attention to the draconian
conditions under which the future first black President of South Africa was
imprisoned for 27 years. In other words, this section of the poem seems to val-
idate, at least in part, the man’s claim that the loss of a single stillborn white
baby is as nothing compared to the daily suffering of black women in general.
Had the poem ended at this point it would have still been an arresting illus-
tration of a particular ethical problem specific to its immediate South African,
apartheid-era circumstances. However, de Kok pushes the poem further to
pose deeper questions of intersectionality that lay bare the inadequacy and
ultimate inhumanity of racialized thinking. The poem’s final section suggests
that the man’s balancing of the white woman’s grief against the daily suffering
of black women in South Africa represents a particularly male way of thinking,
offering a mathematical quantifying of pain that the women in the poem do
not share. De Kok posits this kind of female, particularly motherly, solidarity
with due caution, however; conscious of her own position as a well-off white
woman and of the consequent risks of speaking for black women, she consid-
ers whether black women would agree with the man’s comment. Although her
language is duly tentative (“I think these mothers … ”; “I think they may say
to you … .” “[46, 53; emphasis added]) this concluding section presents a
compelling sense of cross-racial female solidarity in which the black mothers
invite the white woman “to the place of mothers” where they will “stroke [her]
flat empty belly” and “let [her] weep with [them] in the dark” (54–56).
This intimate image of support, however, is not the whole story. In a final
move that asserts the urgency of black activism in the face of apartheid
oppression, the black women do not offer their white sister unconditional
comfort, but invite her to join with them in the struggle: they offer to
“arm” her with one of their own babies (57), effectively inviting the white
woman to move beyond the racial boundaries of her own grief and to share
the daily experience of black motherhood, not as some essentialist sisterly
solidarity but in relation to the specific lived realities of apartheid
South Africa.

In this way, the poem brilliantly threads the ethical needle—asserting the
white mother’s right to grieve, but also validating the rationale for the man’s
comment. In other words, de Kok suggests that private grief is something that
must be felt by anyone, however socially and economically situated, and can-
not be invalidated because of a person’s privilege. Not to allow the grief of the
privileged would be to give priority to ideology over human empathy and
would lead to the kind of stone-hearted ideology exhibited by the man in
“Small Passing.” At the same time, de Kok knows better than simply to
reassert the values of western liberal humanism: in order for the white wom-
an’s grief to be respected by the black mothers around her, she has to actively
show her own capacity for empathy. If her consciousness is not “woke” to her
own privilege, she should no longer count on sisterly support in “the place
of mothers.”
Using the word “woke” in this context indicates how “Small Passing” has
endured well beyond its own time. In many ways what de Kok was grappling
with at the height of apartheid-era violence was similar to contemporary issues
of white privilege and racial violence in the United States. In the same way
that “Small Passing” reveals the man’s comment to be based on a fallacious
logic that pits private grief against collective suffering in a misleadingly exclu-
sive manner, the intersectionally conscious activists leading the Black Lives
Matter movement have pushed back against the logic of those who would use
the counter-slogan “All lives matter” to close down BLM critique of structural
racism in the United States. All lives do indeed matter—any mother must
grieve her stillborn child, after all—but if structural inequality still exists, acti-
vists have every right to point to aggregated figures that attest to it, including
“economic inequality, the epidemic of mass incarceration, and various forms
of unchecked state violence” (Ransby 17). Those who have privilege need to
arm themselves, like de Kok’s grieving mother, with the kind of woke con-
sciousness that works toward active empathy, whether in South Africa, the
contemporary United States, or anywhere else in the world where the struggle
for racial justice continues.

Disclosure statement
No conflict of interest.

Works Cited
Black Lives Matter. Accessed 17 Jul. 2019.
De Kok, Ingrid. “Small Passing.” Seasonal Fires: New and Selected Poems. Seven Stories
Press, 2006, pp. 51–53.
O’Brien, Anthony. Against Normalization: Writing Radical Democracy in South Africa.
Duke University Press, 2001.

Ransby, Barbara. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First
Century. University of California Press, 2018.
Samuelson, Meg. “Writing Women.” The Cambridge History of South African Literature,
edited by David Attwell and Derek Attridge, Cambridge University Press, 757–778.
Schwartzman, Adam. Ten South African Poets. Carcanet, 1999.
Showing up for Racial Justice. Accessed 17 Jul.