Throwing it back today with an essay I wrote in 2019 on my experience of being black in South Africa vs. US. Not everyone understands the intimate relationship between South African slavery + apartheid and its Atlantic twin—American slavery + Jim Crow. Living and loving in both places helps me see the mirror and where that mirror cracks.
Explore This Connection on June 16 at Freedom Festival, June16-19
I was born into the world’s favorite Racism Hall of Fame—1980s apartheid South Africa. A white supremacy theme park so complete, it really should have had is own trading stock ticker symbol.
Being black there and then meant living under curfew and military watch. It meant studying a fictitious history in school that celebrated our defeat and prettied-up the daily racial violence of the state and ordinary white South Africans. It also meant receiving a second and more nuanced education at home. As a girl, I relished my grandmother’s stories about greedy hyenas and vainglorious crocodiles. The hyena pigged out on one too many sheep, she told me, eventually getting caught by his own greed. He could not escape the sheep hold the same way he came, his distended gut now engorged into a carnal handcuff.
I also loved the wholeness of my grandmother’s home. It was a world. It was a three-roomed government issue cinderblock. They landed there in the 50s, my grands, forcibly removed from white urban areas. They were among the millions of Africans evicted from stolen land. The state wanted “white areas” cleansed of black-blots. What I remember is the rich sense of vibrant life and hearth in that tiny little place. Within those three rooms, my family showed me an existence that had very little to do with race and everything to do with our humanity.
There was loud music on the boombox every morning, neighbours parking speakers outside to rev up the day. There were bright colours on the walls and an animated spirit in the simplest storytelling. There was imagination and transcendence in who people saw when they looked at you and how they saw themselves.
Fashion reigned supreme. You could not hope to curry favor or currency in this cosmos without knowing that a leather jacket pairs well with sharp pressed pants and a good jerry curl. I still see the fashion mecca that is Soweto as singular. Nothing captures the edge, audacious attitude and bravado of self-authorship quite like a Sowetan’s style. In the Versace-knockoff shirts and gold chains of that era, the close cropped Afros and high top German-cuts, as we called them, I see a people insisting on dressing themselves in the raw silk of royalty. Our fashion celebrated our irrepressible and iridescent dignity.
I also recognize an unspoken insistence on being seen as we saw ourselves. Black, yes. Very proudly so. But also the authors of our own lives. Janitor-intellectuals who knew more Shakespeare than the Duchess of Sussex. Maids and miners who put themselves through night school, then saw their kids through college on earnings not a hair above slave wage. I see the brain surgeon from Orlando High School, a legend who my father knew—men who miraculously beat every odd to excellence. I see petty peddlers and businesswomen and nurses and teachers who subverted apartheid every single day. Just by staying black and blessed and being fabulous, their lives were in defiance.
Today, South Africa is another country. Apartheid has been struck off the books, but the tentacles of white supremacy are long, pliant and pervasive. Approximately 90 percent of the country’s wealth remains in the firm grasp of white South Africa, a 9 percent minority group. Ours is the most unequal country on earth. If you want to see how this plays out or understand black PTSD in real-time, book yourself a trip to Cape Town.
Cape Town’s gobsmacking beauty defies language. Living there, a trip to top up on milk or a loaf of bread supasses Marie Antoinnette arriving in Versaille. You majestic mountains behind you. And two oceans in the only place where warm Indian waters taste the cool currents of the Atlantic. And you have a lifestyle—for the few who can afford it—which does not disappoint. Wines that were favoured by Napoleon Bonaparte, fresh seafood fit for the gods and everything a comfort creature needs to live better than middle class America. It’s all there. But living while black in Cape Town…well, that’s a whole other story.
In just about every fine Capetonian restaurant, I’m the only African not wearing serving gear. In daily conversation, I regularly hear wild assumptions about who and what I must be when I reveal I’m Sowetan—that place is dangerous, I’m often told by people who’ve never stepped foot in my hometown. And in every moment, I’m reminded of South Africa’s economic schizophrenia. Most Africans live on par with the poorest citizens of Bangladesh. When my Soweto-based uncle came to Cape Town for the first time in his 57 years, his first time in a plane, let alone on holiday, he was incredulous. How can this be real when we live the way we do, he wanted to know?
There’s so much I could have said. The same things I want to show and tell my American friends when they tut their tongues at white South Africa. The umbilical cord that nursed the most unequal society in the world fed the same root that birthed America, I want to tell them. These are twin white supremacy states; grown in the same womb and suckled on the same black boob. And until we unpack the meanings of our different freedoms in each place, we risk watching the A.I. version of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in twenty more years. And I’m not talking reruns. I mean a fresh cast of black bodies maimed as the 2039 Central Park Five.
For me, being Black in America is familial. Yes, I’m shocked by America’s racism, but I’m not at all surprised. America is the biggest oxymoron I’ve ever experienced. Three hundred and ninety seven years of white supremacy served in the plumpest pie of laden opportunity you ever laid your eyes on. Opportunities that have not been lost on me as an African immigrant. Opportunities that are deftly denied my black brethren—descendants of the first Americans—the African ancestors who built this country. A simple example is education.
America laid out what I can only describe as a magic red carpet joy-ride throughout my NYU years. It was a dream that opened innumerable doors. What to do with the fact that the most iconic and cherished symbol of NYU’s campus, Washington Square Park, sits on twice-stolen land? First from the Lenape Original People who lost the land to the Dutch, beginning in 1609. Then, from emancipated Africans who farmed Washington Square Park.
The Dutch imported and enslaved Africans on the island beginning in 1626. America’s early Africans had names and pasts and dreams; they were people like Domingo Anthony, who married Catalina Anthony, people like Manuel Trumpeter.
When more slaving ships came, and as the original enslaved workers aged, they fought for freedom. Eventually, they struck a deal with the Dutch. They could farm a remote hamlet, “Little Africa”, north of Canal Street and south of Washington Square Park if they paid an annual tribute. The Dutch were happy to put them there as a buffer between New Amsterdam in lower Manhattan and the Lenapes to the north, who often resisted white colonial supremacy with violent raids.
When the British steamrolled the Dutch in 1664, they revoked ownership rights from New York’s first enslaved people—now turned free black landowners. The British stole farms from Catalina, Domingo, Manuel and others farming Washington Square Park, distributing their hard-earned holdings to white wealthy dudes.
I could dissect this historic anecdote six days to Sunday, including pointing out the eerie parallel to modern gentrification in black neighbourhoods like Harlem or Bed-Sty or Fort Green. But, Education.
It’s not lost on me the people who first inhabited Washington Square Park, and then the black stolen people who came after them, that very few of these first Americans’ descendants make the student roll at my alma mater. What do you do with that?
I’m reminded of one of my favourite standup zingers from Chris Rock. America is like that uncle who molested you when you were a kid, Chris says, But now wants to give you a free ride through college. What do you do with such an offer? What does Chris make, for example, of Georgetown University’s attempt to atone for enslaving and selling 272 African people to fund the school’s 1838 debt? Or better yet, does he have any words of wisdom for siblings Elizabeth and Shepard Thomas—descendants of one among the enslaved 272? Elizabeth and Shepard are the first students admitted under Georgetown’s attempt at atonement.
I have so many questions for Elizabeth and Shepard. Questions I live with regarding my own being—my participation and self-authorship in the ongoing experiments for freedom in South Africa and the U.S. Questions I explore in my fiction. Questions about the House bill on reparations, a case famously and beautifully made by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his groundbreaking Atlantic article.
Questions, like why do black folks make everrrydamnthing in the culture—from jazz and the blues, to Serena serving Venus courtside—so damn swag it’s sick? Questions like what to do with my 80s Cosby Show nostalgia and the rough reality of how things really stacked up? Questions like how to get my hair did living in a zip code where salons act allergic to 4c texture?
Questions like how to convey the gravity of my gratitude being born into this skin? How to adequately thank baby black Jesus for the fresh skepticism, dark humor and electric style my distinct Soweto-born, struggle-raised blackness gifts me every single day I breathe in this body? Questions like how do I help make Cape Town or New York feel closer to the hearth of my grandmother’s house for every black and brown kid, before we indict another child in the 2019 cast of Central Park Five? Questions like why is the radioactive link between slavery, Jim Crow and the current border crisis caging brown children not buck naked clear to everyone?
Like I said, I’ve got questions. And if you’re thinking about race and white supremacy in your own life, I hope you mostly stay open to asking yourself and those around you sometimes hard but important questions, alongside the necessary joyful ones. Like what was God eating the day she crafted Michelle Obama or my mother’s triumphant soul? Like how could you or anyone raised with white supremacy so thick in the water come out as anything but biased? Questions like if you know that, if you understand white supremacy is the default of our global society—and part of your conditioning, whether you asked for it or not, whether you like it or not—what are you willing to do about it?
That was Looong—Thanks for reading! Now your turn:
Where did you grow you up and how does your experience of white supremacy today compare with your childhood footnotes?