The room has turned into a pressure cooker. You can feel yourself sweating. You want to scream, run, escape. Fear builds up in your throat. You want to scratch it away but if you start scratching you won’t be able to stop, but the fear has infested you. You’re panicking but when you look to your spouse for support, you realize that, like always, he is oblivious to your discomfort. You are drawn into pointless conversations that teem with stereotypes and disrespect and you just want to scream. You look around for someone, anyway who may be able to break you out of your prison of despair. Your eyes are wild from searching and out of nowhere you hear a freedom cry that you wished departed from your lips.
The lid is off the pressure cooker and you are finally free.
T. Kola’s, “A Party for the Colonel” is a story that’s not too preachy on discrimination or inequity but drives home the point that all people should be treated fairly and equally for the betterment of society. There are several minor conflicts throughout the story, but the present struggle of the nameless wife reflects the reality of 1977 South Africa, the setting for this tale. Each main character, the Colonel and his wife, are richly described and never appear one dimensional. This story has a well-developed theme, appealing plot, interesting and real characters, a clever setting choice, and an engaging style; it’s an all around solid story.
Kola introduces us to the Colonel and his nameless wife in a ballroom in the wealthy area of town where the Colonel is being honored because he’d, “become the first agent of the Gold Lion Insurance Company in South Africa to earn more than 25 million ran in insurance sales.” (pg. 2) Similar to the privileged life that she dreamed of as a child, the ballroom was in contrast to her expectations/reality. Instead of being plush and comfortable the ballroom was grubby and depressing. However, blind to the physical state of the venue, the Colonel enjoyed being admired and this party allowed him the chance to be placed on a pedestal for all to do just that; relish him, gawk at him, envy him for all of his accomplishments. The sad yet true part about the entire affair is that the only reason the Colonel was able to attain the vast amount of wealth for the company and rise to the number one salesperson was because Indians, Blacks, Muslims, Malays, and Coloureds weren’t being approached by the white salesmen in the company. The only person willing to ask the masses about life insurance was the Colonel, who is Indian; therefore he’d reached the mountain top because of discrimination not because of raw talent on an equal playing field.
Throughout this story the Colonel believed that, “Money was the great equalizer,” and that if he worked hard enough the people around him wouldn’t see his color/race but they would only see his social status and he and his family would be accepted into the elite. The party celebrating his accomplishments was the fruition of his dream. Although his wife felt like an alien or a caged zoo animal on display during the party, the Colonel felt like he was in the company of equals. The Colonel was unable to realize that despite all of his efforts to assimilate his brown skin made assimilation impossible. Even when a party-goer blatantly shares his opinion about people that look like the Colonel, the Colonel agrees with his discriminatory point of view instead of reflecting:
“I tell you what,” and here the man leaned forward, “if more people were like you, keeping their heads down and making their living, we would be a different country. There’s a lot of complaining here, but no one works hard and gets himself a forward momentum. No matter who or what you are, I believe you have to prove yourself, you understand?”
“That’s what I tell my son,” the Colonel said. (pg. 17)
The lack of self-awareness is undeniable in this scene.
The Colonel came from poverty. He’s the illegitimate son of his father’s mistress and was born in a town in a remote area of South Africa. He dreamed of becoming an important person. When he first married his wife he was a well-respected mathematics teacher and over the years he worked his way into the insurance business. He and his wife wanted more children, but they were only able to have one, Mohammed. Unlike his father, Mohammed never wished to assimilate into what he viewed as the oppressive white culture around him. Instead, Mohammed rebelled and protested against the atrocities of Apartheid which led to him being jailed and his parents caring for his son, Riyaz, on the night of the big celebration for the Colonel. Reality comes to the forefront when little Riyaz finally speaks at the end of the story:
In the space between the Colonel and the guests, Riyaz appeared a solitary figure on two strong little legs, and lifted a fist up in salute. “Amandla!” he shouted, and then paused, giddily proud, looking around at the multitude of faces that stared at him, as though he quite enjoyed the stunned and confused silence that he had, all on his own, been the cause of. (pg. 30)
There is no room for doubt, no space for assimilation and nowhere to run. In that moment, the brownness and whiteness of the people in the room are exposed. This final scene is shockingly refreshing not only because the tension that was building throughout the story was released but because right now all over the world people of color are looking for their “Amandla” moment. Kola is able to capture the feelings and emotions of people of color beautifully and seamlessly in this short story. She writes with such clarity and with perfect pace one would think she’d been writing for decades when, in fact, this is her first published piece.
Now and then the Colonel’s wife could hear the sounds of the distant crowd: the static-filled cries of Amandla! shouted by some young man through a microphone, followed by the responding roar of the crowd’s Awethu! Power—to us! (pg. 8)
Awethu! Power—to us!