the words are too small (reflections on southern africa travels)

i keep thinking, i have to write about this. and in the next breath, i have no words for it.

first of all, there is something about the impact of so much physical space and beauty on my system. in my adult life i have moved from new york to california to detroit. when i saw the sky over south africa, swaziland and mozambique i realized that in some way i have been always in search of a bigger sky. and am feeling, in ways i can scarcely put breath to yet, the impact of this found vastness on my perspective.

i don’t know how to enter this writing about it…i have been driving around southern africa with my sweetheart for a couple of weeks now, in wonder. for context, before i flew into joburg i started reading nelson mandela’s autobiography, and i will admit that most of what i knew about this place was that apartheid happened here, was ended through popular resistance, and that mandela, winnie mandela, walter sisulu, steve biko and others were the kind of people who created change that had global impacts. i studied south africa one semester in college with someone who had been active in the anti-apartheid movement and who was present when mandela was released. i was moved by the spirit of mandela, understanding that he was also a charismatic politician, human, complex, flawed. so overall i came here with a limited lens, a brief history, and a lot of curiosity.

what i immediately experienced was the proximity and presence of apartheid. the service industry here is black, the management is white. wealth is white, behind gates with security fences and with black hired watchmen, black drivers and cooks and gardeners and tech support and waiters and and and…with an outsider eye there is such a stark economic apartheid still in place, and i am beginning to grasp some of the critiques of mandela’s economic choices post-apartheid.

this economic question emerges in all revolutionary and social transformation work: if the material conditions do not change, isn’t it just symbolism? and can symbolism feed anything other than our spirits?…and even that sating is so brief.

and then i wonder if the ongoing racism of the u.s. looks so black and white to outsiders.

the disease of white supremacy is active here in south africa. an older white man started speaking to us at one stop on our journey. he was cordial, spoke first about his grandkids. then said he knew of our president, obama, ‘your first black president. but he’s not really black, hehe.’ i responded that obama is black like i am black, mixed race. he moved on to talk to some germans nearby where he expounded on the virtues of hitler’s intentions, vision, planes and lugers. he then explained to the germans that they had had apartheid here, and that their first president after that was ‘whats-his-name, he died recently, a black.’ i felt something i often feel with white racists down south in the u.s., which is the disgusted relief of knowing exactly who i am in the presence of, politically, morally.

the racial construct here feels both familiar and utterly alien. i recognize in some of the whites i have interacted with the racism, hatred, superiority, and resentment of black success and freedom. but i also see how i am marked as something else by many of the black africans i am meeting here. i would venture to say there is an intelligent suspicion of me. we don’t forget our tormentors, we learn to see any traces of them, for our survival.

it is disorganizing to my system to be in so many spaces where i am the lightest person in sight. i feel in the eyes that follow me down streets and sand the awareness of something other than black in my system: portugese, white, coloured, american, what is she? the question has come both explicitly and silently. standing in myself here requires deeper roots and a stronger spine. i am so grateful for the way i am reshaped by placing myself in the context of this narrative, knowing that my indigenous african story is one of displacement, forced forgetting, and disconnection. and then working for black liberation. and coming ‘home?’ to majority black spaces equal parts stranger and daughter. and i don’t want another mother, or need approval from this motherland – it is just going to be a much more complex relationship than that for me.

but i do long for the full history, of how i thread back to this continent, with no pauses and no mysteries, and i know it is a life’s worth of longing. the only envy i ever feel is of those who know more about the place/s on earth they started from, and the languages and stories that burst forth in that place.

my idea of myself, blackness, resilience, afrofuturism…really everything is changing in this place.

the other formative experience i have had here, in large part because my sweetheart focuses a lot of her work on the migration of house music between the u.s. and southern africa, is witnessing anew the creative joy and resilience of the black diaspora. at every turn, in every country, from what feels like every taxi, van, and club, there is house music blasting and bodies in celebratory motion. on new year’s day i saw the indian ocean packed shoulder to shoulder with people dancing and singing together into the coming waves. on a saturday in st lucia i witnessed a beach scene that felt like a house-ified belle isle weekend day. in so many spaces on this journey there has been the pulsing soundtrack, the smell of braai cooking, women slinging corn, liquor, mangoes, bananas, eggs, lychee and pineapple drumsticks, intergenerational dancing – intimacy through sound and shared space.

i realized when i saw the explosive joy that i wasn’t expecting it…and that i should have been, i should know by now that it is how black brilliance sustains itself against all the odds, through love.

and there is something percolating for me around afrofuturism as a way of speaking about black resilience. i am learning this even as i begin to write about it. the western perspective, still today in 2014, sees black people as bodies for labor, as a service or slave class, and/or as a danger. and i will say here that that western view, the terror of the other and need to dominate and own everything to create safety, has intentional and unintentional roots but, as in most trauma, the intentions start to not matter as the pain and social impact increases and sustains.

counter to that perspective, the things we do which create other pathways for ourselves, other ways of seeing and feeling about ourselves, are radical and, i am thinking, afrofuturist in that we are envisioning and creating a future as black people beyond the prescribed western box for us. so, we forge these other pathways in our art, yes, but also in our growing of food, our educating of our children, our management of community conflict, our interdependent economies, our daily choices to engage in loving black people and eradicating trained fears, supremacies and insecurities from our behaviors and systems. we do this work in detroit, dc, houston, oakland, la, baltimore, atlanta, soweto, pretoria, durban, maputo.

it doesn’t feel appropriate to attempt to coherently present what i am experiencing here. throughout all of this witnessing i have also been face to face with the grandest geographies i have witnessed in my lifetime, and elephants and baboons and giraffes and zebras and rhinos, a new ocean, and a lot of personal transformation and growth.

this feels like a first visit of many. it feels like another home. and that feels like a healing.