Tag Archives: slavery

White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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Secondary Fidelity | The Risk & Reality of Living Apart

The Context:

Five years ago I upset a sweet, old lady; the grandmotherly type, who hugs and kisses on little children irrespective of whether they have been good or bad, and who would whip up a meal from scratch if you showed up unexpectedly at her doorstep.

My crime? I dared share and sympathize with a gray-area story in an adult Sunday School class. It’s a story that muddles the clear moral boundaries, and traditional-conservative understanding and teaching on sex and marriage fidelity, by sharing many non-white South Africans’ historically disadvantaged economic and life realities.

Evidently I was touching a nerve, similar to Pope Francis’s recent admonition of the church for its singular obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control

In 2008, as national director of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) memory work training project, I attended a global development conference in South Africa. Typical of most conferences there were any number of presentations running concurrently. I chose one in which the results of a U.S.-funded, HIV/AIDS research project among South African miners was being reported on. My ears perked up at one research finding on “secondary fidelity / faithfulness” — a term I had never heard.

Apparently, among South Africa’s mostly male mining community, both in present day democratic as well as past apartheid South Africa, the economic obligations and strains of relocating far from traditional families and rural homes to the congested, concrete and competitive urban jungles, such as the Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg is located, induced such acute loneliness and physical / emotional need among the mostly black miners, that relationship/marriage fidelity, as defined in so-called civilized and Western societies, was most surely desired, yet experienced as impractical and impossible given the miners’ prevailing life hardships.

Under duress of physical, emotional, geographic and long-term separation from wife and family, many miners opted for “secondary fidelity.” That is, they engaged in sexual and emotional urban trysts, yet when the very rare, perhaps only once-a-year opportunity occurred to return to their “real” and rural home, family and community, they feigned fidelity so as not to embitter and cause undue emotional pain on their wives.

Similar, perhaps, are the tragic stories of “real” or de facto slaves, who, themselves, surely desired, and many times enjoyed monogamous, long-term committed relationships, yet who were forcibly separated and abused by the greed of human traffickers and the cruelty of newfound owners, such as the African-American experience recently depicted in the movies Django, The Help, and The Butler.

Given my bi-cultural heritage and middle age bearing, I have discovered that many economic and politically privileged people, particularly, perhaps, in the Bible-Belt (southern), aka Ted Cruz-ian swaths of the United States, lack a depth of understanding and empathy for the billions of the world’s struggling-to-survive humanity.

This inability to understand, identify — however you may define it — is evident in negligible or token lifestyle changes when confronted by widening socio-economic inequities, or perhaps in asinine statements made about HIV-positive people. Millions of HIV-infected and affected individuals are viewed and stereotyped in one American’s incredulous, yet not uncommon statement to me, “I don’t understand why they (Africans) can’t just use condoms?” She might as well have said, “I don’t understand why they are so stupid as to have unprotected sex! They deserve what they get.”

The Present:

A reality of the current and protracted global/US recession is the number of spouses or partners, who, of economic/job-related necessity, live distant and separate lives for extended, even indefinite periods of time. If in 2006 3.6M married Americans lived apart, imagine what those numbers are today — not merely among Americans, but spread across the globe?

It’s all too easy to be patronizing, condescending, contemptuous of others’ “immoral” lives and lifestyles when one’s own life is cocooned, cushioned, comfortable or “Christian.” Take that away for any extended measure of time, however, and I assure you the reality and hardships of life will reshape one’s perspective of most things and relationships previously thought inviolate. Experience is the great equalizer and sympathizer; the inquisitor of faith and “truth” as people know and too glibly pronounce it.

My family relocated from South Africa back to the United States and Austin in mid-2010. I voluntarily opted out of full-time work for the past three years so as to manage home and kids while my wife enrolled in and completed a 3-year MSN degree at UT-Austin.  Upon her recent graduation and my ensuing search for full-time work the prospect of living apart from my wife and kids is assuming a newfound reality.

Obviously, it’s not a reality my wife and I wish for, nor is it a problem with a simplistic solution, such as many people advocate for AIDS.

Fortunately my wife and I have developed trust and a willingness to risk vulnerability over 28 years of marriage by talking about, and hopefully beyond most any subject matter, including my blunt admission that living apart for any prolonged period of time –as I am now entertaining the thought of doing–will possibly to likely result in either or all of these realities: infidelity, separation or divorce, a charade of keeping the marriage together “for the sake of the kids,” or adoption of a “secondary fidelity” mindset for the occasional family get-together times, so as to shelter my wife from the painful knowledge that my physical and emotional needs are being met, or at least supplemented, in my distant-from-family residence and place of work.

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Conclusion:

Like the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Prisoners, which my wife and I watched this week, this blog is a narrative without a clearly defined, neat and as of today happy ending. For the many people privileged to live in daily and close fellowship with spouse, children, family and friends, there are many others, who in striving to provide for life’s daily bread and a more hopeful future for themselves and their families, all-too-frequently experience the near-overwhelming darkness of despaired struggle and loneliness.

In case you misread this blog, let me clarify:

NO, I’m not advocating for secondary fidelity.

But, YES, I am appealing for kinder thoughts, kinder attitudes, greater effort to understand, more dignified responses toward the many millions, whose “immoral” or “sinful” lives one might be tempted to write-off with a nonchalant, “They’re getting what they deserve,” or “They’re reaping what they sow.” After all – hopefully not – it could be me and it could be you one day.

Prisoners

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Why Learn A Foreign Language?

Want to see millions of North Americans experience apoplexy (incapacity or speechlessness caused by extreme anger)?

Insist they become fully conversant in a foreign language!

This is ironical because wherever you go in the United States, at least, from airports and train stations, to Wal-Mart, Costco and Barnes & Noble – even virtual behemoths like Amazon – you’ll see displays of, if not solicited to buy, language learning books and software.

Merely search “Spanish software” on Amazon and 190-pages appear, including Instant Immersion, Rosetta Stone, Fluenz, Learn To Speak, Language Trek, eLanguage, Visual Link, JumpStart, Berlitz, SmartPolyglot, Hooked On, The Learning Company, and, well . . . you get the picture.

If there is such an evident commercial, even educational, push to learn another language, why are we as a nation still so monolingual?

Partly because it’s still too common that required school language courses are taught by non-native or non-fully conversant speakers, who teach grammar and vocabulary but do not insist on full language immersion from day one. This is true for my three girls currently enrolled at elementary, intermediate, and high school.

Partly because as a nation we have been for more than a century, and remain-to-this-day, a “superpower.” Power and privilege generally imply that “the others” have to accommodate themselves to you. NO, I’m not even slightly suggesting this is the way it should be! Power should imply responsibility versus privilege.

I propose that the millions of North Americans, who annually go on mission trips, studies abroad, frequent bucket list vacations, or who start non-profits to eradicate hunger or water shortages in such-and-such African countries, should seriously, as a precondition for going or doing, set a goal of attaining a minimum of Level 2 or 3 (out of 5) proficiency (Limited to Professional) in the language of destination prior to departure.

Why this is important . . .

I could justifiably say “for world peace,” and in the long-term and grand scale of things this is true.

Practically speaking, learning the other’s language minimizes you or your group’s potential (or propensity) to misrepresent the people, culture and country you visit or “help” when you return back home.

The annals of adventure travelogues and missionary correspondence overflow with false witness and disparaging stereotype, which as we know (yet few of us WASPS have experienced), once spoken or visually projected has the insidious power to become the persistent manner by which the world speaks about and views “the other.”

For example, for the past 300 years, portrayal of blacks as savages and heathens, corresponded to a like-treatment of them. According to Winthrop Jordan, former National Book Award-winning historian who wrote several influential works on American slavery and race relations, “Negroes were from the very first encounters with Europeans likened to beasts.”

Why? Because in Africa there resided a beast that was like a man. That is, whites encountered blacks at almost precisely the same time as they encountered apes.  Unfortunately for blacks, this led to rabid European speculations, which incorporated centuries-old traditions with the coincidence of simultaneous ape/African contact.  It resulted in the inevitable correlation of similarities between the “man-like beasts and the beast-like men of Africa.”

Expending the time and many embarrassed frustrations of learning a foreign language also conveys the message(s): “I see you! We are on this life journey together. I value your perspective and way of life equally with my own. Neither of our ways of life or worldview is without fault, yet through sharing and listening to our respective personal and cultural narratives we will respect and honor each other. In respecting each other’s dignity, we will each, then, be open to hearing the candid criticisms we each might need to hear.”

This raises a critical question . . .

What should be the principle reason or motivation to learn a foreign language?

I realize this likely will be met with some derision, yet from my bi-cultural, American and African life experience, I believe most of my fellow Americans might be inclined to learn a foreign language primarily to speak, to tell, or to ask – so as to navigate in and around a foreign country and culture. As a 19th century American missionary to southeast Africa voiced his motivation to learn isiZulu, “I trust however that I shall understand enough of the language to explain to the people the way of salvation.”

I believe the principle reason to study a language should be TO LISTEN. And in listening, TO HEAR. And in hearing, TO UNDERSTAND.

LanguageBlog

A 19th century English clergyman to southeast Africa, John W. Colenso, expressed these thoughts about itinerant travelers and fellow missionaries, “I doubt if they have been able—or willing if able—to sit down, hour by hour, in closest friendly intercourse with natives of all classes, and in the spirit of earnest, patient, research, with a full command of the native language, have sought to enter, as it were, within the [native’s] heart.”

Long before there was language software or language schools, Colenso became fluent in isiZulu through no special skills except diligence, hard work, and a willingness to work and live in near proximity to those people, whose language he wanted to learn.

Of this experience he stated, “I have no special gift for languages, but what is shared by most educated men of fair ability.  What I have done, I have done by hard work—by sitting day after day, from early morn to sunset, till they, as well as myself, were fairly exhausted—conversing with them as well as I could, and listening to them conversing,—writing down what I could of their talk from their own lips, and, when they were gone, still turning round again to my desk, to copy out the results of the day.”

Now . . . in case you’ve been thinking “Scott must be a linguist also,” let me dispel that thought! Unlike my wife who is fluent in Spanish, German, English, and conversant in Zulu, Venda and Swahili, languages do not come easily to me. This is largely due to my having bi-lateral high frequency hearing loss, which practically means that in noisy environments initial word consonants are indiscernible due to them being high-frequency. In short, in noisy contexts it’s often like trying to decipher meaning by hearing only vowels and a consonant or two – imagine Wheel of Fortune contestants!

BUT . . . given my own state and nation’s current and rapidly changing demographics, I’m enrolled in a Spanish course at a local community college, and I do possess Level 3 proficiency in Swahili and Venda.

Would you join me in committing to learn another/foreign language? 

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Consigned to Work for a Young American Family, a MuVenda Woman’s Enduring Gift

Allow me to tell you about Selinah Mahamba of Tshitavha/Sambandou; a village 30-minutes drive north of Thohoyandou/Sibasa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Vho Selinah with our first born, Daniel.

Vho Selinah with our first-born, Daniel.

Preamble – 

Imagine that you are a black or “non-white” person (South African context), consigned by historical fate to live during either the era of US slavery or South Africa’s apartheid.

Think about what it was like for black people living in those times and contexts. Imagine that every day, and in every conceivable way, you’re forced due to life circumstances to view yourself by and through the mirror of coercive subservience to a white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

If you’re not fond of or good at imagining, then rent The Help. Watch it! – either alone or with friends. But if with friends, choose those who won’t make snide remarks throughout, thereby cheapening the movie’s powerful portrayal of the inherent humanity of individuals who have suffered immense less-than-human injustices, and of the corresponding inhumanity of those who enacted such injustices.

Watch it several more times over the next few months for good measure. Perhaps other movies exist, which equally depict what life is like for individuals forced to work for – and please – people, who hold such prejudicious and contemptive power over them.  If so, I’m unaware of them.

As John W. Blassingame noted in The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, whereas whites were historically privileged (had de facto and de jure power) to shape their identity upon the social mirror of the savage and heathen black or red “Other,” in America’s slavery and South Africa’s apartheid context, black people were by fateful default consigned to view themselves by the mirror of coercive subservience to the white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Complimenting this is Edward Said (1935-2003), author of the pioneering and foundational text, Orientalism. He convincingly argued that identity is not natural and static (i.e., fixed, pre-determined). It is constructed and inseparable from the disposition of power and powerlessness within societies.

Story –

My family of (then) three lived in Thohoyandou, Venda, South Africa from 1989 to 1992; a brief, yet important span of time in South Africa’s history, in that, Nelson Mandela went from being decades’ long political prisoner to freed man and future head of state.

We were naive young North Americans, who arrived in town with an over-inflated optimism of the good and change we might bring to the Venda people (A characteristic naiveté of most North Americans, I believe. A result, perhaps, of our heritage, in which we’ve erroneously come to believe we are the par excellent God-nation, a “city upon a hill,” as Puritan, John Winthrop unknowingly popularized in an early 1600 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”). Fortunately for us, the VhaVenda are (and were) extremely patient, kind and forgiving!

After three years we relocated to South Africa’s southeast coastal region, yet in leaving Venda, we were only too aware that instead of us changing a place and a people, it was they who had changed our lives.

Although I could list several prominent individuals during this 3-year period (for example Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend) – in terms of their effect upon and mentorship of our lives – this blog is singularly about one individual, Selinah Mahamba.

Vho Selinah, somewhat like Mother Teresa but without the global recognition, is an a-typical VIP and mentor, in that, her life is void of any distinguishable secular “success indicators.”  She was a de facto single mother of four, who recounted being shocked when her husband arrived home unannounced with a second wife and then she throwing this woman’s belongings out of the house, and who struggled daily to keep her children fed. She spoke no English, and we were only just learning TshiVenda – one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

At the recommendation of a Venda caravan camp manager (now a Protea Resort) we hired her as a “domestic worker.” Each weekday exacted a minimum 2-hour roundtrip on public transport for her, plus 7 hours work at our home – where she cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for our two children – then returned home to do the same for her family.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

We employed several inside/outside “domestic helpers” during our time in South Africa, most of whom became second family to us. My wife remarked one day how amazed she was (and respect felt) at the strength, resilience, and kindness-of-character of domestic workers, in that, they tolerated the daily whimsical and sudden and unaccountable changes of demands, moods and behaviors of their many and varied (all races), mostly under-paying employers.

Vho Selinah demonstrated few, if any of the “public persona refinements” typically evidenced by formal education (my written loquaciousness, for example!:), yet lack of formal education and opportunity is not synonymous with lack of potential, or lack of ability, or lack of intelligence. She possessed all of that and much more.

One (of many) enduring gift of Vho Selinah to my family was in her mentoring my wife in Venda/African methods of “being” and mothering; specifically how to “sling” and tie one’s child to one’s back, so as to be able to lull a child to sleep, to feel and gauge the well-being of a child’s heartbeat against one’s back, and be able, then, to go places, meet people, and re-engage daily responsibilities, whatever they might be.

My family and I are forever grateful that a portion of our identities have been crafted and shaped by Venda mirrors!

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa - Johannesburg

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa – Johannesburg

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

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