reflections on south africa, part 2

i have been sitting with this post, wanting and needing to write it out, and also needing to reflect on the impact of the last portion of the trip, which was all about looking deeply into the race hatred and suffering of south africa. the last few days of our journey through southern africa were all spent in joburg. i had taken in a lot of metaphorical sugar – beauty, beaches, elephants and gorgeous space – in order to have the capacity to swallow the biggest pill: the history and legacy of apartheid, and what it looks like today.

it’s not that it wasn’t everywhere. apartheid was, and it is. there is a simple blue uniform that signified a safety to white people during apartheid – ‘i am here to work for you’. it is still worn by many black workers today as they crowd into vans to venture to work, often in the gated communities of owning class whites who got wealthy off the land resources. in nearly every venue we entered, save for fro lounge and afrikan freedom station, the owners were white, the servers were black.

seeing it everywhere was one thing. studying it was another. as a whole, modern and well-documented system of horrors, apartheid is utterly overwhelming to take in. it absolutely evokes the same disgust and exhaustion with humanity that i experience when tuning into slavery, holocausts and genocides, sex crimes, abuse of children, industrial complexes, capitalism. it is true, it is possible, it is present – it is NEVER in the past, it is always moving, finding new front lines, changing scale and shade. it is ever so complex, but it is also like the nothing in the never ending story – we keep making the case for our extinction. this means that work that ‘respirits’ us, gives us any sense of future and hope, is incredibly radical. more on that later.

over the course of three days, my partner and i went to museum africa, the workers museum, the alexandra and soweto townships, the apartheid museum, the hector pieterson museum, and mandela’s home.

all of it was important.

the most impactful museums for me were the workers museum and hector pieterson, mostly because they each honed in on one devastating aspect of apartheid. the single story lens made it possible to see apartheid intimately. the workers museum used to be a ‘hostel’ for workers coming to mine gold and other precious resources up out of the earth. it is a preserved space that feels like a prison where the bars are made out of debt. solid and wooden bunk beds intact so you can feel the tiny space workers were given to hold their whole lives, the open lavatory and shower rooms, the room where workers were chained up overnight for breaking one of the many many rules designed to control their eating, drinking, cleanliness, work.

i laid on one of the uncomfortable bunks and tried to imagine having all my earthly belongings in the bed with me, living under rules put in place by a people who loathed and feared me. i stood in the lock-up room and wondered how these workers stayed sane, if they did so, if it was even appropriate to be sane in such an environment. i thought of our modern prison systems with their cells and solitary confinement rooms, and how our capacity to do that to other humans instead of treatment and transformative justice is such evidence that we continue to not know how to be on earth together.

the hector pieterson museum, in the heart of soweto, looks at apartheid through the story of a boy murdered as a bystander at a protest. halfway through the museum, they artfully unveil that you are looking at the site of the crime. they have stunning footage of life in the soweto township where the mandelas lived, and where hector’s life was taken. in the footage of weddings, people dancing, working, playing, looking fly, cooking, protesting, caring for and loving each other, i recognized faces and feelings of loved ones in the u.s. – there was something so universal in those captured time traveling people on the screen, about the ways we continue to practice love and celebration and ritual in the face of oppression and fear.

a friend’s aunt offered to drive us to alexandra, the largest slum i have ever entered. i have a few pictures of the place – i felt both a desire to share the experience with the people in my life who don’t have the same access to travel that i do, and the desire to respect the people i was interacting with not as subjects but as humans. so there are images, but the things which moved me most i couldn’t take pictures of – my eyes were blurred with emotion. my eyes were constantly on the children. my eyes couldn’t look away or make sense of what they saw. everywhere were children the age of my nephew, five, three, eight, walking the streets with independence, confidence, playfulness, swag. we came upon three children no older than six sifting through a huge garbage outside a rat infested police station. when the children saw us they wiggled, danced, smiled. they were being children. as we pulled away they were climbing back into the garbage. these are children i cannot fully comprehend or explain myself to. same planet. roughly everything else is different. what could i say, offer or receive other than the smiles? i didn’t come for charity or to change anything, i came to listen and learn. i still, at this moment, can’t quite tell you the mixture of feelings evoked by their circumstance and their energy – khalil gibran speaks of ‘the pain of too much tenderness’, and those words kind of get within the feeling.

the woman showing us around told us to keep our devices out of sight cause they’d get snatched in a minute, told us how the government keeps trying to get rid of these slums, building houses and moving people in, but they come back home. they sell the houses the government gives them, and they return to these shacks with walls of aluminum siding, car doors, sheets, run through with sagging and elicit power lines that electrocute babies who haven’t learned yet not to touch, marked with rivulets of human waste. she couldn’t understand why, said it felt like they did it to spite the government.

i doubt i understand why either. but there were a lot of heads held high in those streets. i noticed a distinction between the townships and the city, the gated communities – in the townships i saw black people offering clear direct eye contact, curiosity, overt assessment. i felt the presence of an immense culture truly unknown to me, and recognized a lot of hustle and surviving and intimacy. i saw black people not in service, at least for the moment. the power dynamics were liquid, we were visitors of unknown but obvious privilege in a territory that had it’s own rules and systems and didn’t need anything from us, but who could make brilliant use of anything and everything we had.

the staying in soweto and alexandra made me think of three periods in my life.

the first was when i lived in an illegal ‘studio’ apartment in brooklyn, basically a bedroom in a family home with no stove and a shared bathoom, walls ceiling and floor the thinnest barriers to the battles and sicknesses and sex and lives of other humans. i felt so proud of that space because it was my own, i felt proud of how i made it in that city where there were so many of us navigating each other, living up on each other. to this day when i speak of the space available in detroit to my new york family, i often see the look come over their faces that shows how, in some unspeakable way, they love the press of new york subway/apartment/sidewalk life. the eyes of community.

the next period was full of ruckus action camps in the woods. one camp in particular found all of us in tents sinking into the mud in southern minnesota while cold rain flooded the campsite every day. there was no liquor available for miles. we cursed a lot, laughed a lot, spent a lot of time sitting around the campfire saying warm things to each other, grateful for the hot coffee and rare moments of sunshine.

the third period has been these last few years in detroit. people still look at me with incredulity when i say i chose to move here and have stayed in large part because of the people. in spite of the material hardships and in spite of the fact that as i get older, my recluse tendencies get stronger and stronger, i meditate more and seek out company less. still i love the people here, the efforts here, the stories here fill up page after page of my writing. i love how it feels in detroit, the kind of quiet that comes from having abundant physical space, enough to grow food or get lost in. and yes, i am curious about the dignity of surviving against great odds – does it actually make for a more interesting life? more wisdom? more connection?

in all of these spaces, and in the study of apartheid overall, i was/am aware of the privilege of privacy and comfort, in contrast to the ways that a lack of privacy is often a measure of oppression. i was/am convinced i need those things – but can’t deny it can feel ok to give it up – at least temporarily, of my own volition – for the beauty and safety of co-surviving in community. in a way it’s some of my hardest work, navigating between my love of being alone and quiet in a lot of space and my love of living with other humans, learning to be part of networks of resources, of abundance that is possible because it is shared.

i am trying to experience more reality and less romanticization, really sitting with how shared suffering can both strengthen and wear down the bonds between humans.

on one of our last nights there, lynnee and i got to speak at the afrikan freedom station. she spoke about the migration of house music from the u.s. to south africa during apartheid and her deep curiosity about the whys and hows of that migration, which is so much about the ways we generate diasporic beauty and celebration and joy and love as our most radical output at crucial moments in african/black history. run to see her speak on this if she is ever discussing it near you.

i spoke about octavia butler and emergent strategy. and i had a lot of questions – primarily, what is the next vision for liberation in this post-apartheid moment? one answer that came from the room was that this was the last generation to be born into apartheid, that there is a work of story telling and legacy holding now. chills came over my body at this. i felt the weight of a ghost, the ghost of a system, a system that iterates itself throughout the economy even as it fades from the laws and street signs.

i saw so many similarities, and so many differences in the history and economy of south africa and the u.s….capitalism and greed and slavery, yes. a need to walk with the legacies of the land we are in because the legacies are still living and holding invisible boundaries in place. but also, the differences – home of the cradle of humanity, south africa is a country where the oppressed people are both the majority and indigenous people. what is possible when people are on land that they know the story of, know they came from, have a narrative inside of that predates violence?

and what does that imply for black americans – how many generations must pass before we feel at home enough to not only hold political positional power, identify who is to blame for our condition and make demands? when will we be able to feed detroit, end the slave system of prisons and free mumia, get r. kelly et all on a mental health plan, and/or stop white washing our hair and skin and culture? how many generations before i can learn to drive stick shift in any city in south africa and never be on a road named smuts or botha?

as usual i have more questions than answers. but i know there is a connection worth all of my curiosity between the babies playing in the garbage in soweto as winter crystalizes bodies in detroit.

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.

is peter jackson an anti-zionist? (or, my review of district 9)

just watched district 9. before i went, i heard a variety of reviews, from “totally racist” to “comprehensive critique on humanity” to “awesome action flick”. all i heard was: aliens in slums outside johannesberg, and i knew i had to see for myself.

upon watching it, i could totally see how folks could walk away offended on a number of fronts. i have my thoughts on the film, but i first want to offer this series of questions as a guide to enjoying District 9, or at least complexifying your viewing experience:

1. given that the first essential foundational thing to remember about this movie is: it’s a hollywood alien movie produced by the guy who did lord of the rings, and written-directed by one of his protege (and not one of his African protege on the benefit-of-the-doubt chance he has those)…do you honestly expect an in-depth treaty on race, immigration, apartheid, militarism or even the IDEA of aliens?

2. when/if you watched lord of the rings, did you see it as an unsubtle manifesto against capitalism and racism via the metaphor of the ring (power) in the hands of white wizards, and that ultimately power used to control others is destructive in any hands? or did you just see hobbits and orcs and elves?

3. what comes to your mind when you see a forced slum situation where the visibly and/or culturally “different” population is treated like animals to be contained, detained, or eliminated? south african apartheid? jews in germany during the holocaust? ICE detention centers in the u.s.? gaza and the west bank in modern day palestine-israel? all of the above?

4. can you consider that, based on previous experience, indigenous people (in south africa, or the u.s., or canada, or ANYWHERE) might have a justifiably suspicious or close-minded reaction to a new population showing up on the scene? that is to say, what are the clear signs to differentiate between colonizer and immigrant?

5. are you able to acknowledge that mercenary forces and mystical belief systems exist in nearly every nation, of every ethnicity?


my opinion: this is an amazing, surprising flick. its gory, action-packed, and presents an analysis counter to the american norm in terms of immigrants (or “aliens”).

i didn’t go in expecting much in terms of the analysis, but i was really pleased to see the clear condemnation of militarized containment of a people (or in this case, a species with cognitive abilities on par with or beyond our own). also noteworthy was the highlighted hypocrisy of polite colonization, fueled by an unquestioned sense of superiority.

what i saw gelled with my own lived experience: in my lifetime i have seen people whose first language is not english treated like animals and children, regardless of their expertise, intelligence, kindness, humanity, or accomplishments. in my lifetime i have witnessed the work of mercenaries of all kinds, from all backgrounds.

the best and worst traits, beliefs and behaviors are present in every person, in every people, in every nation. the leaps and bounds made in this film left several people and nations vastly underdeveloped and underrepresented – especially the nigerians and the quiet south african whistle-blowing hero.

in fact, the low point of this film is the representation of nigerians, the only mercenaries called out by name and seen engaging in behavior that could easily be respected as culturally specific (eating something in order to take on it’s power), but through director neill blomkamp’s lens comes off as gross and ignorant.

that said, all of the african and white mercenary and military characters get dismissed as wrong, stupid, violent, misled, power-hungry and horrible. only the aliens show any signs of what we so casually refer to as “humanity”.

and ultimately, in this film, only the merging of human and alien is able to open the eyes of the person abusing power. i am the living merger between two historically abusive and abusing, battling, othered peoples. i sometimes wonder if anything other than seeing the “other” in our own families will make us realize that the only sustainable path forward is the one we walk together.

octavia butler offers us the wisdom that “change is god.” but even the most open-minded of us still tend to think almost entirely in terms of our little container, our living spaceship hurtling in orbit through space. how much change can we accept and still see the divinity of it?

that is to say – if a massive alien ship full of living creatures was hovering over your city tomorrow, and if the creatures inside were stronger than you, and you couldn’t understand them, how would you react? and to make it current – how do you react now to the changing population of your city, town, world? to the constant migration and flow of people, from causes both natural and man-made, which is a part of our human existence? how do you react to abuses of power by your own people, or nation? are you an active participant, or a taxpaying passive colonizer, torturer…are you polite, or afraid, or open?

this movie can be very much about today’s world, and the horrors we are inflicting on each other at this moment. it can be about our choice, to turn away from domination and turn towards listening.

i will say it is much more enjoyable if you resist an easy watch, and compel yourself to think as much as you can the whole time.