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.