Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Should We Care?

There is a recurring story of “race-ism” here in South Africa. Why should Americans care? Is it important for successive generations to understand this story? Is “race-ism” in South Africa mostly a concern people of African descent in the U.S.?

I assume that anyone who travels to Africa has "race" and slavery on their mind at some time as they contemplate or make a trip to African countries. Being here in Cape Town, South Africa is to be immersed in a story about race that is old, complex and disturbing. We came here to learn more about the Truth and Reconciliation process that addressed some of the worse racism under Apartheid, but I don't think any of us expected the haunting stories of horror, survival, and victory to envelop us as they have almost every moment of our first five days in this country.

It is always a relief for me when traveling and the plane lands in a city where I see significant numbers of people of color as I enter the airport or step out into the streets. In Africa one can depend on being in proximity to many people of color. Bill Sinkford and I both talk about how comfortable it is for us as African Americans to be here and feel welcome, feel at home, and to blend into the crowd. At times we may look like tourists, but we feel like we belong. Walking behind Bill today as we entered a building, I detected a look of respect towards him from the male security guard. Our connections and conversations with the people here have been easy.

On our first day in Cape Town, we walked a few blocks to see St. George's Cathedral and passed by a sign that read "Slave Lodge" just yards away from the church. We decided to return after attending morning mass with Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. The “lodge,” with an ugly history, not like lodges we think of today, has been converted into a museum to "remember slavery". The building was built as a holding facility for thousands of people enslaved in South Africa, which began in the 1630s and lasted for 180 years. A wall panel in the lobby said "Slavery ended, but they were not free." Perhaps our biggest surprise was learning that the enslaved people brought to South Africa came from African countries, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Southeast Asia. I thought about the ongoing work of building people of color community and solidarity in the UUA and the U.S. I imagined that if people at home were standing in the Slave Lodge with us they too would be surprised at this diverse slave narrative and our solidarity would strengthen. The story of slavery as it is framed in the U.S. is one of brutality and exploitation of Africans.

We had a serendipitous opportunity to attend a lecture/critical discussion with the new Archbishop Thabo Makgoba. That lecture was in the Natural History Museum, which was had just opened a new exhibit to remember the Khoi San people. We returned the next day and were captivated by the earliest story of race in South Africa. The Khoi San are believe to be the oldest population of modern humans. They are often referred to as “Bushmen,” but they call themselves Khoi San. The exhibit featured rock art which was done to express their way of life, day-to-day events, as well as spiritual and healing practices. In the mid-1990's scientists dated Khoi San rock art in South Africa to be 77,000 - 80,000 years old. Before confirming the age of the Khoi San rock art, it was believed that the oldest rock art existed in Europe dated 32,000 years old.

From listening to Afro-centric scholars I had learned that "Bushmen" migrated from the southern tip of Africa into Europe. This information challenged other depictions of human evolution. The rock art exhibits in South Africa show that the patterns can be traced from the Khoi-San to the rock art found in Europe. The Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC Yellow Pages, and a phone company’s TV commercial, each showed pictures of humans evolving from apes to white-skinned men walking on two legs. It frustrates me to see how, through simple omission, truth becomes obscure and also, through repeated visuals, information gets imprinted on our minds below our level of awareness. Until recently there was an ongoing intellectual struggle to see whether Europe, Africa, or Asia was the basin of civilization. I think by now most people accept that human beings evolved on the African continent, but I imagine that there are lots of distortions and distancing from African connections. The creationist theory always struck me as a way to deny that human beings originated in Africa.

These two museum visits grounded this Pilgrimage to Africa in proudly affirming Africa as the birth place of human beings and sharing slavery to be a multiracial, multi-continental crime against people of color.

Imagine being on a journey and arrows point you in directions that are not on your map? Neither of these two exhibits was on our itinerary, yet both of them were placed in front of us, seemingly by chance. But I don't believe it was by chance that our journey started this way. We are collecting precious stones and stringing memory beads to hold close to our hearts, and these two stories predate, and are connceted to our quest to understand what Truth and Reconciliation is about in South Africa. It became very clear while walking through these exhibits that telling the truth about history and people telling their story publicly is part of the process. South African has been bringing peoples voices and stories into the public culture, never to be forgotten again.

Remember the Khoi San People...
Remember Slavery...

There are many more stories to tell...