You meet Queen Elizabeth II, hear the words of Desmond Tutu not once, but twice, have deep discussions with Sandra Day O’Connor and watch Governor Kaine casually stop by for ice cream. Sometimes as a student here you forget that having these experiences isn’t normal. Today I witnessed yet another monumental and historic event – the confirmation of the College’s 27th president, W. Taylor Reveley, III, by the William & Mary Board of Visitors. As I stood there in the Blue Room of the 313 year-old Wren Building, I thought to myself, “This is history.” So I filed the memory away with countless others – all stored in a mental box marked “Historic Moments and Lessons Learned.” One day I’ll bring my children to the Presidents Gallery on the second floor of Wren. I’ll point to two portraits and then begin telling them the story of my four years at the College of William and Mary.
I recently heard a statistic that said the suicide rate among African-American men is rising. For me, this statistic hit home this week. Someone I had grown up with – another young black male – decided to end his life. My community is devastated.
His name was Robert Brutton, but everyone knew him as Ribbit. This entry is written in memory of him. The two of us weren’t the closest of friends, but when you grow up in such a small community, you can’t help but to hurt whenever something like this happens. Ribbit and I had played Youth League basketball together. He had always been one of the happiest, most energetic people I’d ever met. He graduated from high school this past May and was preparing to go off to college. A few days ago he was found in his room. He had shot himself. Sitting on his lap were his high school football photos.
In 1975, African-American playwright Ntozake Shange wrote a groundbreaking play entitled “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Not Enough.” For all the colored boys who might also be considering suicide…don’t do it. Talk to someone. Whatever you’re feeling or going through, there is someone out there who can help you. And ultimately, ending your life only spreads the hurt and pain you may be feeling to those you love most. Ask for help, now.
And then, the weekend arrived. I was excited because it was Cousins’ Weekend. My mom’s family is pretty big; she’s the youngest of nine! Even though my first cousins all lived in different places, we still managed to grow up close. Most of them now have children of their own. In order to ensure that this next generation of the Sears-Deane Family grows up knowing one another, all the first cousins banded together a few years ago and created a new family tradition called Cousins’ Weekend. Every year someone volunteers to host it. This year it was held at my cousin LaShaune’s new home just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. LaShaune and her husband Barney set up a slip and slide in their backyard for the younger kids to play on before dinner. All the food was freshly prepared and delicious. We ate everything from fried fish to blackberry cobbler (gatherings like this definitely made you happy to be from the South). All the younger kids ended the night watching Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana with their free 3-D glasses. It was great just being surrounded by so many loved ones.
This weekend was good because I also got to spend quality time with my Uncle Kindle. At 84 years-old, he’s the eldest of my mom’s eight siblings (my late grandmother was born in 1904 so I also come from an older family). My Uncle Kindle is literally a walking, talking family history book. When we got back to Cumberland, he and my Uncle Sydney took me to the Deane Family cemetery. It was the first time I had ever been. We drove down a forest-covered dirt road until we reached a small, fenced-in plot of land. In the center stood the tombstone of my great-grandfather, Carey Deane – born in 1866. There were also two other stone markers with no writing; my Uncle Kindle didn’t know who they belonged to. I had found my next research project.
jet lag (noun): fatigue and disorientation from long flight: an internal physical disturbance experienced by air travelers on flights across different time zones. It affects the body’s internal clock, disrupting sleeping patterns, eating schedules, and body temperature.
[Encarta® World English Dictionary [North American Edition] © & (P)2007 Microsoft Corporation.]
But now I’m back! No more waking up at 4 a.m., week-long headaches, or utter bewilderment. My longest bout with jet lag has finally passed – ending after roughly two weeks. And in those two weeks, I still managed to witness an historic event, travel to North Carolina, and spend quality time with family. It was the best, worst jet lag experience ever.
On July 21st Governor Kaine unveiled the long-awaited Virginia Civil Rights Memorial on Richmond’s Capitol Square. Until now, no Capitol Square monument has ever honored a woman or a racial minority. The historic events this memorial commemorates actually took place in my hometown of Farmville, VA.
In 1951, Barbara Johns, a 16 year-old student at Farmville’s all-black Moton High School, organized a student protest that ultimately resulted in one of the five joint cases argued as part of Brown v. Board of Education. These students, with the help of local minister, Rev. L. Francis Griffin, and Virginia NAACP attorneys, Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson, along with countless other courageous Virginians, changed American history. Johns, Griffin, Hill and Robinson are all prominently featured on three of the monument’s four sides. The individuals featured on the fourth side represent the future.
Even though I wasn’t alive when these historic events occurred, this memorial still has great personal significance. Rev. Griffin officiated my parents’ wedding and several members of my family were impacted by Farmville’s subsequent Massive Resistance Movement (rather than integrate, public schools were closed for five years). Seeing the memorial unveiled was one of the proudest moments in my life, but it also reminded me that the struggle for justice in America is not over…
Tonight’s the last night I’ll spend in South Africa. I can’t leave
without mentioning all those who made my short time here worthwhile.
The Stylistics said it best: ”People make the world go round.” So many
incredible people have helped shape my world since I arrived in Cape
Town five weeks ago. So while their faces, mannerisms, humor, and
messages are still fresh in my mind, I just want to take some time to
describe each of them…
feel like I was snatched from my home in the middle of the night, taken
away from all my friends, and dropped off in the wilderness. That’s
pretty much what just happened. I’m not even exaggerating. Yesterday
I was in the City of Cape Town; today I’m in Kruger National Park.
knew from the very beginning we only had three weeks in Cape Town; then
it was off to study environmental science at Kruger. I guess over the
past few weeks I’ve grown attached to Cape Town and that’s something I
left for the airport early yesterday morning. Our flight from Cape
Town to Johannesburg took about two hours. Another eight hours were
spent on a bus that took us from the Johannesburg airport to Kruger.
We actually got lost on the way and arrived at the Southern African
Wildlife College barely in time for dinner. The campus lights were
dimmer than those at William & Mary so essentially everything was
pitch-black. It was in this darkness that we all slowly dragged our
luggage to our rooms – not seeing where we were going. In my head I
was calculating how long it would take me to walk back to Cape Town.
have a great appreciation for the environment and wildlife. After all,
I’m from Southside Virginia. But unless these animals can talk and
become my friends, this is going to be a long, sad week. The Southern
African Wildlife College is beautiful and the people are nice, but I
miss Cape Town and everyone there, especially my guys from
Khayelitsha. That’s the unfortunate thing about programs like these.
Just when you’re starting to feel comfortable and at home, it’s time to
first South African woman I ever met was from Stellenbosch – South
Africa’s wine country. During my connecting flight from Jo’burg to Cape
Town, she raved about the area’s beauty and got pretty excited when I
showed her our itinerary, which included a weekend trip to
Stellenbosch. This morning we left Fuller at 9:30 to go wine “tasting.”
being in Cape Town, I’ve actually heard a lot about Stellenbosch –
mainly from the admittedly biased UCT students. You see, Stellenbosch
isn’t just wine country; it’s also a college town. The general
consensus is that there probably wouldn’t be a town if it wasn’t for
the university (can you really imagine a Blacksburg without Virginia
Tech?). The University of Stellenbosch was created by Afrikaners to
rival the British-founded UCT. The biggest difference, other than the
latter being “the only African university listed among the top 200 in
the world” as UCT students will quickly tell you, is that at
Stellenbosch everything is taught primarily in Afrikaans – a language
some at UCT have referred to as a “dying language.” This difference in
teaching has some major cultural, historical, and social implications.
White South African History in a Nutshell (my understanding of it at least):
settlers (Afrikaners) arrive in Southern Africa, take land from blacks,
and institute slavery. The British arrive a few centuries later, engage
in several wars with Afrikaners, free the slaves, and take control of
Southern Africa. The Afrikaners and British unite against black South
Africa, which ultimately results in Apartheid. During Apartheid,
Afrikaners gain political and economic leverage for the first time
since the British arrived and use newfound power to promote their
culture and the Afrikaans language (now Google: Soweto Uprising).
University of Stellenbosch has essentially been charged with the
daunting task of preserving and propagating the Afrikaans language.
Unlike the increasingly diverse UCT, Stellenbosch has remained
predominantly white since, typically, only Afrikaners and coloureds
speak Afrikaans as a first language (that’s <15% of the population;
South Africa has eleven official languages). Many blacks view Afrikaans
as the language of the oppressor and therefore refuse to learn it (a
sentiment that exists even among the 6th and 7th
graders we tutor from Khayelitsha). Because of this and several other
factors, English has emerged as the country's dominant, unifying
language. In this rapidly globalizing country and world, it seems
Stellenbosch may be the last bastion for Afrikaans-speaking South
Back in the U.S. race is often the giant elephant in the room that people either try their hardest to ignore or simply dismiss as being no longer relevant. Being here I’ve noticed that South Africa and the U.S. have more in common than one would think when it comes to race relations and racial attitudes. In South Africa, the elephant is the same size, just a different shape and color; and unfortunately, people are still hesitant to talk about it.
Today was actually one of best days I’ve had here in Cape Town. We took the Khayelitsha students on a field trip to the planetarium. It was definitely a lot like herding cats, especially after the sugar from lunch kicked in, but we still had a really great time. All of us in the William & Mary program decided to celebrate this Independence Day with dinner at Addis in Cape, an Ethiopian restaurant Professor Abegaz discovered (rather befitting since Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent nation). According to Abegaz, it’s one of the nicest Ethiopian restaurants he’s ever been to. Even though the food was fantastic, for me nothing really compares to the home-cooked Ethiopian dishes made by Mrs. Kifle (shout out to Yodit and the Kifle family).
The topic of this entry comes from a conversation I had today with Justin, one of the people I’ve quickly become friends with here in Cape Town. Justin is a coloured student at UCT studying business. He’s also a SHAWCO volunteer. On our way back from the planetarium, he asked me a pretty unusual question. He wanted to know if I was African-American. Needless to say, I’ve never been asked this question before…
Even with my considerable knowledge about race and race relations, discussing race in South Africa has been one of the most difficult and confusing endeavors I’ve ever undertaken. I think the confusion starts with the fact that here in South Africa, I’ve suddenly become “coloured.” I began to surmise as much when a coloured woman who works in the dining hall started speaking to me in Afrikaans (the first language of Afrikaners and most coloureds). After I gave her a very confused look, she asked me where I was from in English and I told her the United States.
South Africa is the product of black Africans, whites (primarily Dutch/Afrikaners and British), Indians, Malaysians, and East Asians all coming together – some voluntarily, but most forcibly – in Southern Africa. Today, whites make up a little less than 10% of South Africa’s population. Coloureds (individuals with mixed ancestry) make up about another 10%. The remaining 80% are black Africans – members of one of the several Bantu-speaking ethnic groups indigenous to Southern Africa.
For me, trying to make parallels between South Africa and the U.S. has been somewhat helpful even though many of the racial groups found in the U.S. don’t exist here (i.e. Hispanics, Native Americans, etc.). If we completely disregard all historical and social causes for the U.S.’s current racial categories and go simply by appearances, this is what I believe the U.S. would look like if we used South Africa’s racial standards:
- Coloureds (all fair-skinned and biracial African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans, South Asians, Pacific Islanders, or any mixture of these groups with one another or with whites)
- Indians & Asians (generally East Asians – Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, etc.)
- Black Africans (dark brown-skinned African-Americans)
So in such a system, my friend Shay from Bangladesh and I would be categorized in the same racial group, while my father – whose black, but has a darker complexion than my mother, sisters, and me – would fall under a different racial category. Under Apartheid, my parents’ marriage would have been illegal. My family would’ve had to either flee the country or stay and have my father live separately from all of us and not acknowledge that he was our father…
My racial analysis is clearly oversimplified; in real life it’s a lot more complicated and harder to differentiate. Oftentimes “black” is used as an all-inclusive term for everyone who isn’t white. Typically, however, you hear people refer to three racial categories: White, black, and then everything else is considered coloured. In my analysis, I pulled out Indians as a separate category even though most coloureds in South Africa are clearly of Indian descent and look almost identical to recent Indian immigrants. Sometimes coloured is broken down further into smaller groups according to descent, but because of frequent intermarriage among those classified as coloured, most have no idea who they’re descended from.
I’ll be the first to argue that race is biologically insignificant. But in a world where race has very real social, cultural and economic significance and meaning, simply dismissing it as being irrelevant or believing in this false notion of “colorblindness” doesn’t help move us forward. In South Africa, just like in the United States, there’s almost this imperceptible fear to openly discuss race across racial lines. On the rare occasion that there is a discussion, there’s often too much talking and not enough listening.
Nearly fifty-five years have passed since Brown v. Board, yet when I look at American neighborhoods and public schools or the U.S. achievement gap, it often seems as if nothing has really changed (it obviously has or else I wouldn’t be at William & Mary). We still have a long ways to go. It’s only been fourteen years since South Africa “desegregated.” Hopefully they’ll learn from the U.S.’s successes and mistakes and get social and economic integration right.