Monday, November 11, 2013

Coming to Terms with the Skin I'm In: How South Africa Is Already Changing My Life

It's now been four and a half days since my arrival in South Africa, and already, I can feel the stirring of a profound evolution deep inside my soul. It's percolating, bubbling under, almost certain to eventually erupt in a big bang of mental and emotional transformation.

It began with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on Friday afternoon, around the time that I was fully engrossed in the exhibit dedicated to Ernest Cole's House of Bondage, transfixed by images I'd never seen before but looked strangely familiar. As I stood there with tears welling up in my eyes, I felt this unsettling sense of deja vu. I'd seen those images before, not the exact same pictures, but ones just like them. (Not all of them black-themed either, for I couldn't stop thinking of the white Dust Bowl family in Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" when I saw Cole's depiction of a black Apartheid mother and child in House of Bondage.)

I've been bombarded with them all my life -- in stories I've been told, in chapters of history books I've read, on pages that I've pored over in encyclopedias, in movies that I've sat through uncomfortably (most recently, The Butler), all of which revolved around Civil Rights in the United States. Interestingly, the travesties of the Civil Rights era on one side of the world were being committed concurrently with the travesties of Apartheid on the other side of the world, as depicted in Cole's photos.

I suddenly felt connected to South Africa, to Africa, in a way I was always told I was supposed to, because I'm black, because this is where my ancestors came from. Well, if history is to be believed, this is where all of our ancestors originated, whether we're white or black. From what I've been hearing from various local sources, including Solly, the driver who took me to the Apartheid Museum, the cradle of mankind is within driving distance of Johannesburg, roughly one hour away.

As I stood looking at the black-and-white photo of the little boy melting in the sweltering heat of the classroom, struggling to concentrate, I saw myself. I never had to study under those conditions, but I felt as if I knew exactly how he felt -- awkward, uncomfortable, stifled, eager to learn. I wondered where he is now. If he is now. An old but new thought crept into my mind: We are the world. We are one world. For the first time in my life, Africa truly felt like the mother land. It had nothing to do with black pride and everything to do with what I saw in the eyes of that little boy: myself.

If nothing else, I expect my time in South Africa (which will be at least one more month, but likely longer) to be a time of intense healing and self-acceptance. The latter because I'm already beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It's partly because for the first time in years, when a non-black person looks at me for too long, I actually will have to wonder why. It won't be because they so seldom see people with my coloring. It won't be out of curiosity (Is it true what they say about black men?). It will likely be for something that's uniquely me and belongs to me only.

That's the self-acceptance part, which is already beginning to be be overshadowed by the healing. That part actually has nothing to do with white people and everything to do with black people, with whom I've had a life-long complicated relationship. It began when I was 4 years old, and my family moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland, in Kissimmee, Florida. We eventually settled in an all-black neighborhood, and despite the physical similarities I shared with our neighbors, I probably wouldn't have felt more like an outsider had we ended up in the whitest community in town.

The racism I felt coming from a certain segment of Kissimmee's white population while I was growing up couldn't compare to the racism and xenophobia I often encountered from portions of the American black community that resented my entire family and me because we were black and foreign -- "noisy Jamaicans," they called us, pejoratively (more for the second word than the first), apparently because to them, the Caribbean equaled the land of reggae and Rastafarianism. (Some day I'll have to explore the relationship between American blacks and Jamaica, which has always struck me as being somewhat uneasy, considering that in the U.S., reggae has always seemed to be more embraced by whites than by blacks.)

We spoke with strange accents, and we kept to ourselves. Who did we think we were? What did we think we were: better than them?

When I was in first grade and people asked me where I was from because of the funny way I spoke (coming from me, the number three sounded like "tree," and at the hardly ripe young age of 6, I still couldn't tell the difference), I sometimes lied and said the Virginia Islands, hoping they wouldn't realize that no such thing exists. I was too ashamed to say the Virgin Islands. I wanted to fit in, and if the way I talked was going to lead to my being singled out in a negative way by some of my black classmates (interestingly, I can't recall a single white kid ever ridiculing me for that), at least I could come from a place that wasn't so exotic, one that was associated with a U.S. state.

The white racism directed toward me while I was growing up was contained to strictly verbal cut-downs. It never touched me physically. "I smell nigger" coming from rednecks on the playground messed with my 11-year-old psyche in dangerous ways, but the black-on-black racism left physical as well as emotional scars. It scared me so much more. When they weren't sure that their words were getting to me, the black kids who picked on me started picking up sticks and stones.

The physical bruises healed, but the emotional ones never did completely. It wasn't until I went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville that I finally escaped the emotional and physical cruelty. For the first time in my life, the majority of black Americans I met accepted me and didn't make fun of me. If I eventually overcame the fear and resentment of black people that was borne from the way some of them treated me in my youth, I never forgot it completely. It continued to haunt me, contributing to the racism that I harbored toward my fellow (black) man. (Yes, I choose to own it because, as James Baldwin suggested in Notes on a Native Son, it's immoral not to.)

But in South Africa, being around such a large and diverse black population, I sense something shifting inside my soul. I feel a certain camaraderie with my fellow blacks here, a comfort around them that I've never felt around blacks anywhere else. I don't know if they are able to look at me and tell that I'm from somewhere else, but when I open my mouth to speak, I can't imagine they would ever ridicule the accent that I never quite lost. They speak English with an exotic accent, too!

That's not to say that they don't acknowledge our cultural differences -- when Solly was explaining to me the housing situation in Johannesburg and he used the word "ghetto," he started to explain what a "ghetto" is and seemed surprised that I already knew -- but so far, it's been done with the utmost respect and acceptance. I don't know how far that respect and acceptance will extend into other aspects of who I am, but the fact that I've seen several gay couples walking down 7th Street, holding hands, without onlookers so much as flinching, is encouraging.

Of course, being that I'm a creature of contradiction (beginning with the dueling introvert and extrovert sides of my personality), no profound evolution would be complete without a little bit of contradiction sprinkled on top. With my burgeoning newfound appreciation and acceptance of my skin color has come a different kind of awareness of it. It creeps up on me every time I sit down in a restaurant here. Most of the waiters who have served me in Johannesburg have been black, and on 7th Street in Melville when I go from restaurant to restaurant and I see the mostly black staff, it's hard for me not to feel pangs of guilt.

Are the owners, like the ones at Lucky Bean beside Saffron Guest House, white? Do the black employees commute to and from the townships to earn minimal wages? Who are the invisible occupants of all the beautiful homes in Melville? In my new black fantasy (the first one I've enjoyed since Django Unchained), the black employees work for black bosses who go home at night to the houses here.

I hate that I'm even thinking along these lines, which is something I never did in the United States because the division of labor in the restaurants I went to there didn't appear to be determined along white-black color lines. Most of the people who served me were white, and I never wondered where they lived.

It doesn't matter that the clientele in most of the places in Melville is largely black as well, though it matters more when the clientele is mostly white. Sadly, I'll leave Johannesburg tomorrow, before I can understand why the white people in Melville flock to certain places on 7th Street and not to others, which is one more reason to hate this looming color awareness. Why does it even matter to me?

I'm still trying to process this aspect of my current evolutionary process and what I can only describe as my personal version of white liberal guilt, the seeds of which may have been planted on the way back from the Apartheid Museum when Solly explained the difficulties that blacks continue to face when applying for white-collar work. I never thought liberal guilt looked particularly good on white people, and it's not doing me any favors.

I'm owning it, though, which might the first step in conquering it. I hope that my ongoing evolution in South Africa will lead not only to complete comfort in my own skin but perhaps, at last, it won't matter to me what color anyone else's is either.
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