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A Child’s Death | Universal Bereavement & Opportunity to Care

Losing a child, how must it feel?

How it must affect the totality of life and existence!

I wonder, though: What role does the loss of a child play in fomenting global conflicts and instabilities?

Parents are gifted to love their children from conception through dirty diapers and croup, from crawling to pulling up to faltering steps then to running, potty training, the “terrible twos,” the teenage identity-in-formation and hormone raging years, then transitioning into adulthood with all its attending responsibilities and complexities.

South African friends inexplicably and suddenly lost their eldest child one week ago, a beautiful, bright young woman. Twenty-three years young—yet still their baby. My daughter posted pictures on Facebook—four girlfriends lying on a bed together laughing—reflecting a much earlier time when women were girls, and girls were wannabe women.

For sure, parents losing children is not uncommon or infrequent. Such incidents and stories were part of my childhood:

A little girl struck by a bus as she too excitedly stepped out to welcome home for the weekend her elder siblings from boarding school; a child jumping on the bed with no sense of the imminent danger of a nearby pair of scissors; another child oblivious to the fact that her dress caught in the door of a departing bus; and yet another, having fun white water rafting with Dad and his friend on the Zambezi River, when fun turned to tragedy as their boat flipped over, and after both adults reached shore, turning to see the teenager grabbed in knee-deep water and dragged under water by a large Nile crocodile.

As a middle-ager now, incidences of parent loss haven’t lessened, and is unlikely to as long as death continues to be the great social equalizer.

Loss of a child among one’s concentric circles of relationships occurs frequently, although irregularly. And although I can’t peg dates to days for many friends’ and acquaintances’ tragic losses (like we do with a September 11, 2001, aka 9/11 type incident) nevertheless, those many moments of shock upon hearing of the death of someone loved are indelibly seared into my consciousness.

For instance, a first memory of my family’s relocation to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was attending the funeral of the eldest child, a son, of a prominent Indian family, who died from gunshot wounds after a botched hijacking. Or of a former colleague, whose son died of a seizure as he raced late one night to a not-near-enough hospital for emergency care, or of an extended family member’s son—a friend to my children—who likewise died in transit to critical care treatment—only this time, not in a speeding car late at night, but in a small medevac airplane flying from Kenya to South Africa.

All these shared incidences of loss are tragic, indeed, yet with the exception of the young Indian man shot to death, they were “natural,” in that they were either the result of an unknown at the time, and invisible to the outward eye bodily ailment or condition, or “natural” in their sheer freakish and accidental occurrence.

But what about the millions of parents worldwide, who have suffered the loss of babies, young children, teenagers and aspiring-to-be young adults due to the indiscriminate, flesh and bone-piercing shrapnel of munitions or flesh-eating toxic gas/chemicals often times traced back to our own “developed” nations, or even to hunger and disease resulting from inequitable economic systems and institutions, that privilege those that have with more, and those with little-to-none with even less?

How many hundreds of thousands of those we label in the West “rebel,” “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer,” were first parents, and whose political sympathies and activism were ignited the day they held either their own or a neighbor’s limp child’s bloodied body across their outstretched arms?

It is difficult enough to fathom holding the lifeless body of my own children, (such as the following story of a young child’s loss) and unimaginably painful to contemplate holding one of their bloodied, disfigured and lifeless bodies as we daily see via media coverage from war-torn areas such as Syria, southern Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine.

The following is my doctoral mentor’s recollection of day and occasion when he lost his fourth child, a boy:

“On Boxing Day the family decided to go for a picnic along a nearby river. The children were playing together. I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea. We called the children for the meal. David was not with them. The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’ David was nowhere to be found. I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken. Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site. As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead. Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered. High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated. The future ceased to be. . . .”

Demented . . . state of disarray . . . what was no longer mattered . . . evaporation of hope, expectation and promise . . . the cessation of all future . . .

Such is one person’s feeling about life and living in the days and weeks following the death of a beloved five-year-old.

It’s to be expected and probably healthy to immediately feel outrage against and demand retribution toward any person or persons, who violently takes or contributes in taking the life of another person.

Society, for instance, should naturally feel outrage against the alleged three men who yesterday murdered Officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year Chicago veteran with four sons, and we should similarly be incensed against Vester Lee Flanagan, who one week ago shot to death on live TV both anchor woman and cameraman, or the individual who stood over and shot 15 bullets into a Houston officer at a gas station.

We cannot allow ourselves, however, to be naïve, simplistic and detached-from-reality in terms of perception and interpretation of causation of violence or calamity. We can’t allow ourselves to feel unmitigated hatred against individuals who act out violence, without feeling equal or greater indignation against systems, institutions or “cultures” (e.g., “gun culture,” “socioeconomic privilege culture”) that in one way or another are complicit in the social ills poignantly evident in moments of national grief and outrage.

At least two of the above incidences were committed by mentally ill persons, who, in turn, had easy and legal ownership to firearms. There’s something insanely idiotic and skewed when records indicate that more people have died by firearms in the U.S. since 1968 than by all our wars combined, yet as a nation we do little-to-nothing about gun and mental health reform.

Black South African university students were asked a Zen Buddhist riddle (a koan) by their white professor. They were shown a picture of an unbroken bottle with a goose inside, and then asked, “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without killing the goose or breaking the bottle?”

The students perceived this mostly white oriented, Western philosophical question to be superfluous, contemptuous, and insensitive to their daily life reality under apartheid. The real question, they said, should be—“Who would put a goose into a bottle and why?” Their solution? Obliterate, smash the bottle (i.e., the structure, system, institution of racial discrimination and oppression)!

Oxfam predicts that unless inequity is drastically reversed, within a year or two one-percent of the world’s people will own more than the combined wealth of the other ninety-nine percent.

Given the predominance of worldwide conflicts and inequity it’s imperative that we begin seeing each other as gift, family, and co-sojourner.

Even the United Nations is currently experimenting with virtual reality with a purpose to enable/facilitate those who live in relative seclusion and isolation from the “real” world the rich and powerful to be able to identify with and experience empathy with the poor and suffering people of the world.

Perhaps Desmond Tutu’s wise and elderly words are a fitting close to this thought piece. In God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he states,

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. . . Can you imagine what would happen in this world if we accepted that fact about ourselves—that whether we like it or not we are members of one family?

Only when we care about each other’s dead can we truly learn to live in the same world together without our irrational prejudices and hatreds. Perhaps this will be possible when we eventually realize that God has no enemies, only family.”

To my South African friends who lost a most precious child this week please know how broken we feel with you; how loved you are as family; how much our lives benefited by knowing your daughter, yet how impoverished by her passing.

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Presidential Wannabes, How About Giving Us Tangible, Optimistic and Inclusive Competing Narratives

A young, black South African cashier took a second glance at my unusual looking Southwest Airline Visa card. We struck up a conversation with me informing her that I once lived in Johannesburg and had returned for a two-week holiday. With a tired and bewildered look she sighed, answering an unasked question, “The only good thing about South Africa is the weather!” For sure, it promised to be a sunny Highveld day with a temperature near 70F, yet given my past overwhelmingly positive experience of the rainbow nation’s peoples I queried, “Only the weather? What about the people?” She deeply gave thought to my question before again despondently responding, “No, only the weather.

A country of 53 million, almost twice the size of my home state of Texas, South Africa is a nation grappling not only to come to peaceful resolution of the residual yet resistant-to-change affects of apartheid, but also to lessen an eon’s old pandemic of violent crime, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of the rapid onset of a 1980s infectious and second national pandemic—HIV/AIDS.

South Africa’s 2013/14 statistics reflect a sobering daily reported human suffering tally from violent crime: 180 sexual assaults, 50 murders and equal number attempted murders, and 510 assaults with the intent to inflict grievously bodily harm. It was easy, then, for me to be sympathetic to a young woman’s national dismay—particularly when it’s all too statistically likely that she, herself, spoke as either violent crime or AIDS victim. During my family’s 15 year South Africa residence, we had direct and indirect personal linkage with about 15 to 20 murders, and 40 to 60 assaults.

In terms of daily human suffering from HIV/AIDS, if memory serves me even marginally well, I recall the daily infection / death rate to have been in the region of 1500/1000 as of mid-2010.

It’s no secret that those who suffer most by violent crime and AIDS in South Africa are its majority black populace, who, contrary to a too common, wrongful, and high (often “Christian”) moralist, largely Western mindset see AIDS as divine retribution for gross sexual improprieties—or, as I’ve regrettably heard on more than one occasion, “Africans failure to ‘condomize.’” Egg on mostly white faces, however, because HIV/AIDS was an import to South Africa – mostly likely from two (white) homosexual South African Airway stewards, who contracted the disease during a trip to the United States’ West Coast (see Shattered Dreams? An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic, by Gerald Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer).

To be fair – and more hopeful – during my two weeks in-country I went on to hear more upbeat and hopeful remarks about South Africa’s present and its future, from mostly young adult South Africans, who either idealistically spoke of being part of a national effort to build a new democratic South Africa, or energized by the economic prospect of easy and abundant profit for those with access to cash and credit.

Since my brief exchange with the cashier four weeks ago, her bleak perspective has provoked me to ask myself, “What, if anything, is different or good about my own United States of America?

It’s a more difficult question than you might imagine because I’m a so-called Third Culture Kid, who grew up, then worked in Africa, yet a U.S. citizen as well. Of my own admission I’m bicultural, “African-American.” Although my birth certificate and passport are stamped with the U.S. official seal, my worldview is decidedly and preferentially African – especially Africa’s underlying ethos of Ubuntu, in which persons, communities and relationships are of far more importance than individualism and consumerism.

It’s a difficult question, too, because like The New York Times contributing op-ed writer, Arthur C Brooks, in his recent piece “We Need Optimists,” I’m more realist than optimist, which makes me an optirealist, I suppose. I know you’re thinking, “There’s no such thing as a realist, only optimists and pessimists,” but I disagree. A pessimist singularly perceives negative.

I recall the humorous story of two hunters (remember: I’m from a gun loving culture). The optimist owned a retriever dog, which he was sure would be able to win over his pessimist friend. The three were sitting camouflaged and crouched among the dense lakeside reeds when some ducks flew by. The friends rose up, shot, and watched a duck fall. The optimist could hardly contain his excitement when he instructed his dog to “fetch.” The dog dove into the lake, but incredibly, instead of swimming out to the bird, she walked on top of the water, gently retrieving the bird. After a moment or two, the pessimist exclaimed, “I see your dog doesn’t know how to swim!

As to the at times unreal, unhelpful positivism of an optimist . . . well, let me share Brooks’ opening paragraph, which makes light of those who share in common optimistic spouses: “My wife, Ester, and I had just endured a difficult parent-teacher conference for one of our teenage children. It was a grades issue. The ride home was tense, until Ester broke the silence. ‘Think of it this way,’ she said, ‘At least we know he’s not cheating.’”

I’m near overwhelmed at times by what Brooks describes as the United States’ “environment of competing pessimisms” or “competing pessimists.”

Pessimists are distinguished by their negative view of people. People are liabilities to be managed and controlled, burdens and threats to be minimized. Pessimists utilize fear and anger to solicit and arouse support.

A positive, more optimistic perspective and vision is politically less appealing. Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump, is the quintessential model of dour politics’ mass appeal with a sour mood public, as is FOX News.

As Brooks persuasively argues, however, as a nation we are and will pay “a steep price for our politicians’ choosing the dark side,” which, ironically, is a missed strategic advantage for competing candidates. Why? Optimism is not only a highly esteemed character disposition—a proven core trait of successful executives—but also an outlook associated with some of our nation’s most popular presidents, e.g., Reagan and Clinton.

Optimism requires hard work to be effective. That is to say, leaders, especially, must be willing to risk becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, “A positive vision requires the hard work of winning over new friends, which means going where politicians have not been invited, and enduring less-than-adoring crowds.” That is a much more demanding and riskier task than merely regurgitating (sorry for this distasteful yet apt analogy) calloused and hardline perspectives, which one’s followers already hold to anyway.

I regret that I could not convince the cashier that South Africa’s greatest strength and asset is its people in all their diversity—not its weather.

I believe, like Brooks, that people the world over are grappling with a “growing mainstream depression” about their respective nations’ futures, yet simultaneously hoping that public leadership would turn from their competing pessimisms to “a true competition of optimistic visions for a better future.”

In other words, stop telling us what and whom you’re against. Instead compete for the prize of most compelling (transformative) narrative—which, contrary to politicians’ over-inflated egos, will rely not on their singular ability to affect change, but on a belief in and reliance on the goodness, potential and resiliency of each nation’s citizenry.

Politicians the world over should take a queue from teachers, my postgraduate mentor included, who began each new university-level class by standing in front of his students, sweeping the room with his eyes, pausing to catch each person’s gaze, raising both hands in the air, passionately and with zero degree uncertainty declaring the following in a rich South African accent:

Class, you are not merely human beings . . . You are human becomings!”

It’s what Adam Saenz spoke autobiographically of to returning-to-school teachers in “From Jail to Harvard: Why Teachers Change the World”:

“In a few days you’ll stand in front of a group of students and I can almost guarantee that there will be at least one ‘Adam Saenz’ there, a kid who has potential and doesn’t know it, a soul who could change the world a little bit if they could only get the right instruction and encouragement to lift them out of their false sense of who they believe themselves to be.”

Amidst our own national gloomy environment, let’s individually and collectively commit to support whichever candidate(s) proffers the most tangible, transformative, optimistic and inclusive of national narratives—narratives of what we can individually and as a nation become.

#HopeAndBecoming.

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The Poor Don’t Deserve To Own Cell Phones

At a neighborhood block Christmas party two senior citizen gentlemen and I were chatting over hors d’oeuvres when the topic turned to local indigents.

A recent fire destroyed a childcare center less than three blocks from our homes. Between our houses and the former center lies a sliver of an eco green belt, in which several halfway houses lie tucked hidden from view, their occupants mostly people of color. One of the two seniors spoke of seeing a young black teenager walking through the green belt, which abuts his own property, reading a newspaper’s comic section, then crumpling and discarding each finished page onto the ground.

Since our discussion began on the topic of today’s high incidence of young people bereft of responsible adults in their lives, I assumed his comment would be sympathetic and supportive of these many children’s plight. Instead, this on-the-surface very kind, amiable, elderly gentleman’s “compassionate concern” entailed calling out to this young African-American boy, and informing him that if he sees him discard his paper trash one more time he would call the police and have him arrested.

This comment prompted the other senior to likewise comment on what he found socially disturbing: “Have you seen the panhandlers with their hand scrawled cardboard placards asking for handouts at the intersection of X-Road and Highway-Z?” “Yes,” I replied. He proceeded, “The other day I saw one of them asking for money while talking on a cell phone! Well! He lost whatever sympathy he might have received from me!”

poor

Let me try by rephrasing to understand the message unspoken yet central to these two gentlemen’s perspectives, because it is so prevalent and similar-to-identical with so many privileged people’s perspective. . . .

If you’re needy, destitute, hard up, in a word penniless, and, you’re relying on or asking for financial assistance from others, including government, then you should not, nor do you deserve to own or make use of any item or service that might be perceived by those socially, politically and economically privileged to be “luxury” or “non-essential?”

On the surface this type of reasoning seems, well, reasonable.

For instance, during my “poorer by degree” (PhD) study days, my family survived on a small graduate studies’ stipend, plus, a $1,000/month gift from a radiologist friend and his wife. During this four-year, self-inflicted academic sojourn, while my kids’ friends all had cable TV, we opted not to, primarily because of how such a “luxury item” might be perceived by our benefactors.

A disturbing hypocritical incongruity lies behind or at the root of these two elderly, white mens’ mindsets, as well as many socially and economically privileged people.

That is: Privileged individuals, particularly segments of my own North America, have few qualms in denigrating and chastising the poor for their misuse of resources or welfare assistance, yet give no self-thought to the privileged freedom of choice they have in determining what to spend their excess monies and privileges on.

Although it would be prudent of the needy not to use a cell phone while simultaneously holding out a hand or holding up a sign asking for money, it would be equally smart for the well-to-do not to disparage or judge the poor, while simultaneously and hypocritically demonstrating environmental and social justice insensitivities by their misuse or paltry sharing of excess prosperity and privilege.

Which is a greater travesty of socioeconomic place, privilege and resources?

A panhandler with a mobile phone, with which s/he might call 911 to save someone’s life, or perhaps, simply keep in touch with a family member concerned for their well-being, or a moderate to wealthy individual’s pursuit and purchase of items unquestionably “excess” or “privileged” in a world of escalating socioeconomic inequities?

Given such unconscious two-facedness, even duplicity, no wonder two-time Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, in his fourth of five thought pieces on “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” stated the following–“One element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage.”

Obliviousness to privilege, and an ignorance or disregard for the past, aka social history’s persistent stifling and subjugating effect on marginalized peoples, are predominately a white (WASP) malaise, the result of isolationism.

Isolationism typically refers to political and international matters, as in: “a nation’s policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.”

I use the term to refer to individuals, even entire groups or classes of people, who live such isolated, even segregated apart-heid type daily lives, that they seldom, if ever, have interest, reason or requirement to experience, let alone understand life from the perspective of the struggling, stereotyped or simply “different Other.”

This de facto isolation of each nation’s privileged from the majority of its citizens’ daily and real life (lived) experience, results in an unconscionable obliviousness to privilege, which, in turn, more often than not results in insensitive and paternalistic attitudes, statements, even political and market policy decisions that exacerbate those, whose lives are already defined by a mere struggle to survive.

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Leadership | Of Donkeys and People

“One night it’s a donkey, another night it’s a person!”

So matter-of-factly stated an Afrikaner police officer to a colleague of mine, one 1990’s midnight in a North West Province, South African town.

My colleague had been driving a van full of visitors on a return trip to our hotel from a day outing to the luxury resort and casino, Sun City, aka Sin City, when he struck and killed a pedestrian.

Upon arrival at the nearest police station to report the incident, the on-duty officer in all probability simply tried to lessen my colleague’s anguished state of mind by making the “donkey/people comment,” yet in so doing unwittingly voiced his acquired perception of non-white people’s worth and significance:

1 Black Person ≤ 1 Donkey

donkey_blob

Sometimes it’s easiest and more effective to describe the essence of something by depicting its opposite, which is my intention with the donkey story in this thought piece on leadership.

Leadership (at its best) is an inner state of being that feels, perceives, and interacts with all persons as individuals of equal value and dignity to oneself.

Every imaginable leadership book title exists, including 7 Habits, 5 Levels, 6 Steps, 10 Steps, Leadership 101 and 21 Irrefutable Laws, to name but a very few, yet all of them, from my perspective, primarily focus on the external—style or method of leadership, and not leadership’s core essence.

Acquiring leadership expertise by means of habits or steps is enticing because it promises quick results and zero to minimal risk or vulnerability. For instance, seldom will a reader or conference attendee be challenged to say to a child, spouse, subordinate or superior, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

Nor will most “instant leadership” books or conferences ask you to contemplate what the other person must be feeling, or what their life circumstances must be like on a day-to-day basis. Rather, focus is on compliance.

Fortunately for those who aspire to a deeper level of leadership significance, whether work, family, or community, this is exactly the type “out of the box” transformational leadership style The Arbinger Institute advocates for in its two bestsellers—Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace.

We are frequently blind to, self-deceived, when it comes to daily patterns of personal thought, speech or behavior, which hurts people and poisons relationships.

In-the-box leadership operates from an unconscious, yet constant need to feel justified or always right. Feeling justified always requires that someone else be wrong, blameworthy, or a problem.  Only when someone else is at fault or a problem can one’s own life feel good or justified in thought, speech or act.

As Leadership and Self-Deception expresses it, “There’s a peculiar irony to being in the box.  However bitterly I complain about someone’s poor behavior toward me and about the trouble it causes me, I also find it strangely delicious. It’s my proof that others are as blameworthy as I’ve claimed them to be—and that I’m as innocent as I claim myself to be. The behavior I complain about is the very behavior that justifies me.”

How does one get “out of the box” of insecurity and self-justification toward others, and thereby demonstrate Leadership outside-the-box?

By developing a point of feeling for the humanity of all “others” who occupy your concentric circles of shared space, concern or influence. Because at that point of affection or emotion, you’re seeing him or her as a person with needs, struggles, hopes and worries, just like yourself, versus an obstacle, problem or inconvenience.

As nineteenth century Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John William Colenso, similarly stated, “It is not the outward form alone that makes the immeasurable difference between man and other animals. Wherever we find human affections, there we know we have got a human being.”

Habits, levels, laws, steps, or principles of leadership, therefore, are little help in resolving recurrent or deep-seated interpersonal conflict because they simply “provide people with more sophisticated ways to blame.”

People, whether our children, spouses, enemies or colleagues respond more to how they feel we view and regard them than they do to our particular words or actions toward them.

“Most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy, but failures of ways of being. . . . If we have deep problems, it’s because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution.”

In the spirit of The Arbinger Institute, then—Let’s get busy with the deep things!

 

 

 

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Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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“I’m White and He’s Black!”

Growing up in then recent post-colonial Kenya, I don’t recall when, if ever, race consciousness hit me. My earliest recollections are a blended hue of white, black and brown.

Kikuyu herdsmen, young boys actually, are among my earliest memories. They regularly traveled by our front gate as they tended cattle, sheep and goats. I loved their weathered 1.5 meter long herding sticks, and the ease with which they shrilly whistled at their livestock; similar to what I remember trail hand and cook Frank McGrath shouting and whistling out to his team of horses on the 1960’s TV show, Wagon Train.

I remember our maid occasionally taking me on a long, winding footpath to a local, all-Kikuyu village market where she bought a loaf of white bread. When we arrived home she would cut thick slices, slather on a thick coating of delicious Blue Band margarine, then make hot, sweet, white tea for dipping.

blue_band

If any negative remembrance of racial encounter during Kindergarten to 2nd grade, it would be a 1st grade bully, who not only convinced and panicked me that our family’s post office box had been left wide open (my khaki school short’s fly/zipper), but regularly threatened me into sharing my food. It would be untrue to call this incident racial just because I was bullied by a black boy. After all, only a few years later in the seventh grade, I was bullied by a white classmate when he sprayed cologne in my eyes following football practice.

For my eldest child and only son (who, incidentally, was born at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where JFK was taken after being shot, and from where his death was announced), racial consciousness arose out of an apartheid versus colonial context.

At one year of age, my son, plus my wife and I boarded a KLM, Johannesburg bound flight in Amsterdam for what was then apartheid South Africa. It was 1989. We were headed for Thohoyandou (literally “head of elephant”), Venda, one of several so-called independent Bantu homelands within South Africa. In reality they were mere international, geopolitical window dressings, attempts by a white government to legitimate a “separate but equal” racial segregation policy.

What at first was a significant discomfiture – a white and young American family living in and amongst an all-black Venda neighborhood in apartheid South Africa – became a transformative experience for us. For many Venda people who frequented our home, it was their first experience of being in a white person’s home, much less being welcomed as guests.

Our willingness to disengage from our traditional and accustomed racial and economic community of belonging, and live within the constrictions of a people, who knew and experienced first-hand and often on a daily basis the effects of racial bigotry and discrimination spoke louder than any words possibly could.

When we relocated from Venda to another South African province three years later, our residential Block G neighbors hosted a farewell for us. A principal of a local high school was the master of ceremony. He surely said more than this, but all I remember these many years later is his expression of gratitude on behalf of those present, for our having come and lived with and among them – sharing life and a partial history of discrimination alongside them.

It wasn’t long after settling into our new, small, yet quaint home in Block G that our son found a friend to play with. Gabriel (*not his real name) lived two houses down (a mere 30 to 40 meters away), and a neat feature of his house was the courtyard and driveway “tarred” with wet cow manure, that when dry can be drawn on, sat on, played on, driven on, eaten on and which leaves little to no odor, nor attracts flies. Unlike carpet that frequently induces apoplexy in adults each time children eat or drink on it, a floor protected and sealed with cow manure is extremely absorbent, and stress free!

Anyway, back to our son and his Venda friend. They were best friends, riding their three-wheeled plastic motorcycles up and down the driveway together, watching TV together on our bed as they reclined against our pillows, and enjoying raiding the dry Epol dog food together – stuffing their pockets and mouths with it, as they hid their dastardly deed behind our corner wall.

D&Naki

During three years in Venda, and up until the age of four, Daniel never once seemed conscious of or mentioned racial, ethnic or cultural differences. When we returned to Texas for a few months at the end of 1992, however, and just prior to our relocating to Zululand, my wife remembers him noticing and commenting on a few African-Americans he saw on our way to or from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, “There’s some Zulus!”

Sometime after our return to South Africa in 1993, and during a brief visit back to Thohoyandou after a year-plus absence, I remember driving toward town with Daniel and his friend Gabriel, both of whom were now somewhat shy around each other. Out of nowhere my five-year-old son suddenly made the following observation, “Hey, I’m white and he’s black!” And fortunately that was that. No malice intended. Just a childish observation derived no doubt from some developmental context.

I’m not sure if this blog has any intended message or purpose, other than what you take from it.

It does have a context, I suppose. The 50th anniversary of MLK’s famous speech. As I listened to the 50th anniversary events and speeches this past Wednesday, a radio commentator, in referring to one African-American participant, who marched with MLK and who was still alive, described this gentleman with the words, “He experienced violence.”

EXPERIENCE . . . Seems this is the essential one-word white elephant among so many fellow and white Americans, who glibly and from a protective and sheltered confine of some type argue that we live in a post-racial society, and who become angry and condescending to the many who need and desire to confront and talk through persistent, de facto racism and racial bigotry that persists and continues to be experienced by so many today.

I am forever grateful that my family and I had the forced (we didn’t have a choice where we would live) opportunity to experience life with and from the perspective of a disenfranchised and discriminated against South African people.

It was the first of what would be many future steps out of the safe, yet sheltered identity cocoon of my American, Christian and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and into the storied lives of people who knew and had experienced little in the way of political or socioeconomic privilege and power.

For this inestimable gift of exposure and life experience we are forever grateful.

Maybe it’s time the socio-economically privileged – irrespective of race, culture or ethnicity – reconsider what has traditionally been referred to as “white flight,” or its more racially neutral and nuanced term “suburban sprawl,” and give some thought to participating in the potentially transformative experiences of living with and among transitional communities and neighborhoods, as detailed in the article, “Here Comes The Neighborhood.” At the least, let’s work on attitudes so that we’re communicating respect and dignity and not their opposites.

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