She is self-affirmed, walking to nobody’s tune but her own. She rejects conformity and seeks only her own truth. She is ungovernable, and just the kind of woman we love. In the latest of a series of interviews with these remarkable women, MS. TIISETSO MOLOBI unpacks the struggles and paradoxes of identity and growth.
Noted Man[NM]: In a paragraph, please introduce yourself.
Tiisetso Molobi [TM]: My name is Tiisetso Molobi I was born ko Diepkloof, Soweto in 1981 to Eric and Martha Molobi. I have an older sibling who is 12 years older than me. I am a creative – for lack of a better term – person (and the founder of the Urban Mosadi accesories brand). I’ve always been into that, much to my dad’s dismay even though he was quite creative himself. I am a tomboy through and through; I love basketball; I enjoy reading; I have a four year old who is full of shit but she is amazing. She is my CEO, my boss.
NM: What is your earliest recollection of ‘being a girl’, in other words, when you first realised what it meant to be female in this world?
TM: I remember – and this is quite vivid in my mind – chopping up my mom’s stuff cause I thought I’d be a fashion designer and I used to wear t-shirts and jerseys on my head running around the yard thinking “oh my god. Ag, my hare” doing stupid shit like that. It was quite a care-free time, I suppose.
NM: Was there a moment where you felt, officially, like a woman and why?
TM: I used to want to grow up so fast because I had an older sister. I remember I couldn’t wait for my period; I’d go to the bathroom and be like ‘oh my god… oh no!’ I suppose it’s when I got my first period? Oh no, I remember, it was realising that I had stretch marks. My boy cousin was like “what’s that on your legs” and I was like “oh no!” and I’ve just continued to collect those. That was adolescence, I guess that’s when I started realising that my body was changing and doing other things. But I can’t tell you why I just thought I’d be grown up if I could just get my period. We are supposed to celebrate it and now I have a daughter and I’m thinking maybe I should be one of these new age moms and have a moon dance for her when she gets her first period so that she’s not afraid of it. I guess in a way it wasn’t a bad thing that I was looking forward to this thing before I even understood what it meant at the time but I mean, it’s a headache every month.
NM: What is the most beautiful part of black womanhood?
TM: Hair is a very big thing for us. The fact that we can pretty much do anything to our hair, I enjoy that. I like the fact that I can assume a different identity every other week, that’s fun. Maybe it seems a bit frivolous to bring it down to that but it’s like a performance; you can assume different looks. I don’t know, a lot of it (black womanhood) is a lot of suffering; I’m not trying to be romantic about it. On a surface level, it’s just the idea of becoming someone else or like, whatever. We bring people into the world, we are the cornerstones of society but I don’t know if that’s beautiful cause it’s a lot of work. A lot of work that you are kind of born into. Is it a privilege? I don’t know. Why do we have to have things like fucken feminism? It’s like a life of resistance and I want to be positive but it’s hard. But yeah, we are melanin filled, we are beautiful, we have beautiful bodies and our minds are fucken incredible. We know that but we spend the rest of our life convincing the world and it’s very tiring.
NM: Having lived (and travelled) in different parts of the world, do you find that your personal experiences of black womanhood differ according to locations?
TM: It’s like a class thing. You can have a certain amount of money and move from working to middle/upper class but at the end of the day if you are black and you are a woman, you almost always have to prove yourself no matter where you go. Is there anything specific? I kind of move expecting these things to happen. I remember when I arrived in New York the last time, out of everyone in that customs queue at JFK I was the only one that was asked to “come this side and take out all your shit from your luggage” and I was like why? Obviously when you are aware and conscious of who you are you look at them and wonder if it’s because you are black. You kind of move around being aware of things like that. I guess I’m constantly on alert, you expect these things everywhere you go.
NM: How did you grow into your black identity?
TM: I come from a political family. My parents were quite involved in the struggle. I was brought up aware of who/what I am and how I fit into this whole puzzle. My dad (a Robben Island veteran, philanthropist and successful businessman) was a Bikoist, something I only found out about after he died. I think I’m still growing into it. The idea of identity is so fluid and complex. And that’s the thing, no one can own blackness and say ‘this is what it is’. Maybe the common denominator is possibly a shared experience which is almost always a shared experience of suffering purely because I don’t think we saw ourselves as black people before colonisation, I doubt it. So now we’ve had to reclaim it and say, actually, it (blackness) is not fucked up; it is not this; it is not that; we are gonna take it back and be proud of it. But it’s something that is ongoing. I don’t like the fact that I have to proclaim this blackness. It’s problematic for me because we have to proclaim it because we have been oppressed for so long. And that’s not to say that oppression came after colonisation. The idea of slavery amongst Africans has always been there but it wasn’t as violent as colonisation.
NM: In a world that is hell-bent on hating black women – like you said, women live a life of resistance – self-love is crucial. How do you practice self-love?
TM: The truth of it is, I have to deal with it everyday. It’s not easy but it’s a lived thing. You have to practice it. I suffer from depression so for me it really is an ongoing thing. I have to speak positively and program my mind to be more positive. I try and drink more water. I try the basic things like eating properly. Road running makes me very happy. Simple things like that, it’s self-care. Audre Lorde says it’s revolutionary for you to love yourself. For me those are little battles that I win everyday. Reading also helps. I once read something that said you’ll think that you suffer the most until you read other people’s stories then you’ll realise that you are not the only one.
NM: How do you ensure that you actively impart ungovernability to your daughter?
TM: It brings me back to the idea of hair. This one I tried to convince her to lock her hair. I googled images and showed her and the following morning she told me she wanted dreads. We washed it, did that whole coconut oil ritual and started twisting. When we were done she went and looked in the mirror and she was so disappointed. She started crying and the little conscious, Pan-Africanist woke mom in me was like ‘God damn, you just failed her! You failed as a mom.’ It was heart-breaking. I’m here trying to not chemically manipulate her hair or mine and I try my best to present her with images that are like her but at some point there’s a disjuncture. So as much I try to actively impart ungovernablity, in the end she has her own ideas. I’m trying not to knock myself cause I can only do so much.
NM: When you assess how your tomboy look has affected your social or intellectual capital over the years, has it been a blessing or a curse and why?
TM: On a superficial level, a lot of people think I’m queer which I kind of think is like a compliment. Is that weird? But I’m not. It’s just the way I choose to express myself. I like the way guys’ stuff is tailored; it’s comfortable and easy. In a way I’m able to navigate throughout circles comfortably. To be really honest it’s hindered me in the sense that I might seem a bit intimidating cause I’m so comfortable around guys but that’s cause they are easy to hang with; they are not a challenge in that sense. As a result, I don’t have a lot of girlfriends. Toni Morisson once said “the loneliest woman in the world is a woman without a close woman friend” and I feel like that a lot of the times. It’s been a lonely existence.
I try wearing skirts but it’s so uncomfortable. If I’m too feminine I feel hypervisible and I get shy. So what I wear is kind of like an armour. I would love to own my femininity and sexuality cause I get how important it can be and how you can use it as collateral but I am afraid of my own power in that sense. It’s funny cause my daughter, Mosadi, is the girliest of girls so she won’t have to worry about that. I’m sort of unlearning at 35. Better late than never.
NM: What was your favourite literary discovery this year?
TM: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. He is writing about his own experiences as a black man in fucken America. This book is like a long letter to his son about how shit is fucked up. His prose is great but it’s a painful read and it confirms this idea of having to suffer as this beautiful black person. Black males and Hispanics are moving targets in America, living there I saw that a lot of the time and it fucks with your psyche. I befriended a couple of kids from the basketball court and after 6/7pm they get nervous, they can’t move around in groups and they pull their pants up.
NM: What traits must an ‘ungovernable’ woman necessarily exhibit?
TM: Am I even ungovernable? I’m a contrarian. You need to believe in yourself. It sounds corny but it’s true. Do whatever you want to do which sounds privileged, I guess, cause people have to work but have the audacity to fucken dream.
NM: Who is your iconic ungovernable woman?
TM: Big Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is just incredible for me. She took a lot of bullets in her life for the old man and for the country.