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.
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.
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.