Atlanta Interlude

My feet have set foot in Atlanta dozens of times in the past decade, but it has been a long time since I have voluntarily been to Atlanta. Even when my feet have set foot outside of Hartsfield airport, I am only passing through – I am remembering a particular journey from Sadie’s camp in North Carolina toward the beach in Florida and a harried restroom stop at a Subway amidst murderous rush hour Atlanta traffic. My most recent “trip to Atlanta,” though also involuntary, did take me outside the airport for an interlude en route to South Africa.

Leaving out all the gory details of a day at Hartsfield, being caught in a multi-airline vortex of disaster, being left to fend for myself on lodging after leaving the airport at 1 a.m. (one highlight of this otherwise rough day was a serendipitous bumping into of the Schaffzins in the international terminal, complete with much-needed hugs from Celia), I found myself walking around Pemberton Place (Coke museum, Georgia aquarium) on a beautiful southern summer day. My destination was the Center for Civil and Human Rights, “an engaging cultural attraction that connects The American Civil Rights Movement to today’s global Human Rights Movements.” I hoped that the museum would offer a symbolic bridge, as I seek through my semester abroad to make a similar connection between the American civil rights narrative and a global narrative.

As an aside, I thought the museum did a really nice job with the American civil rights movement portion of its presentation. It told the story in a concise, yet comprehensive manner – of particular note was the entrance to the gallery, which presented complementary everyday photographs of black and white Americans from the age of segregation separated on two adjacent walls as they would have been, and an interactive station that allowed visitors to sit at a lunch counter and endure through headphones the verbal abuse sit-in activists might have endured.

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The upper floor of the museum presented global human rights atrocities (Holocaust, Cambodia, etc.) as well as contemporary human rights fights (Asian sweatshops, GLBT oppression, etc.), and was cleverly arranged to separate perpetrators from victims and then present both useful information and ideas for involvement. I will never look at a soccer ball again, now knowing the working conditions of the stitchers – indeed, the soccer ball display brought home how little we think about the human hands and lives that go into the products we consume. There was a compelling portrait of Mandela and a touching narrative from a black South African woman who wanted to join a theater during Apartheid, but was not permitted to follow her dream, but not much else specific to South Africa. Still, the museum was worth the visit.

I found more of a direct connection, however, as I sat at lunch reading Knowledge in the Blood, by Jonathan Jansen. Dr. Jansen is the president of the University of the Free State, where I will be hosted this semester, and he is one of the preeminent voices on South African education and the reason I was drawn to UFS. As I work through his book, I am struck by the connections between the American and South African stories, and between both stories and others unfolding around the world. I suspect that this will be a theme of my work throughout the semester, but some initial thoughts are worth mentioning.

The portion of Knowledge in the Blood I am currently reading is about the psychology of loss experienced by Afrikaners in the post-apartheid South Africa. By way of background, Afrikaners are descendants of mostly-Dutch settlers to Africa that have become semi-native over the centuries, having created their own language (Afrikaans) and culture, “a white tribe of Africa,” as Jansen writes. The Afrikaners fought the colonial British in a series of Anglo-Boer wars at the beginning of the 20th century, lost, but eventually rose to power in the elections of 1948 when the National Party won elections (no non-whites included) and promptly instituted Apartheid. Thus, this is a group of whites who were defeated by another group of whites, then spent decades under the thumb of the victors (though still privileged relative to other non-white groups), then took power and instituted a system of white supremacy. Sound familiar?

It certainly is not an exact parallel to the plight of the white Southerner, but it sure feels close as I read Jansen’s book. Although the book gives this history, it is mostly concerned with the psychology of the Afrikaner once Apartheid dissolves and Afrikaners again find themselves under the thumb of another group, this time black Africans. It is a psychology of loss and trauma, coming to terms with a sudden transition that involves “giving up privilege and power to those (blacks) who only yesterday were tarnished as terrorists and enemies of the state.” It is no wonder, Jansen writes, that some find the new reality impossible to accept and fight to maintain “real” South Africa or refuse to see any good in anything the new South Africa (i.e., the black South Africa) does.

This reminds me of the southern response to Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 and the federal civil rights legislation of the 1960s, all of which was openly rejected by southern leaders. At the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, a display featuring video of segregationists making speeches included Judge Tom Brady (no relation) of Mississippi saying:

I don’t want the Negro, as I have known him and contacted him in my lifetime, as a class, to control the making of a law that controls me, to control the government under which I live.

Facing the reality of African American voting, Judge Brady would prefer that whites continue to control the government under which he lives. And the sentiment is raw in the US, particularly since the election of President Obama, he of the group that is “taking over our country,” in the words of the murderer in Charleston.

Back in South Africa, one contemporary manifestation of Afrikaner pride is in school language policies.  Under South African education law, schools are free to select their native language, though they must also teach at least one other of the eleven national languages. Under this policy, former Afrikaner schools have chosen to teach in Afrikaans, a result that all but ensures all-white schools, not only because of the assertion of Afrikaner nationalism evident by the choice of language, but also because few Black Africans can speak the language. Jansen notes that the language choice is “a respectable way of keeping out black people without the burden of having to make nasty racial arguments.” Jansen notes that the presence of these schools amidst a struggling public education system drives South African politicians to aggressively push for change. “But how can this be done,” he asks, “without white flight into the even more protected sphere of private schooling?” This sounds familiar as well.

In addition to the language in school topic, Jansen notes that Afrikaners are annoyed at the name-changing enterprise undertaken by black government officials (removing Afrikaner names from public spaces, roads, etc., and replacing them with Black African names or words), claiming that the Afrikaner names are part of the nation’s history and legacy, not any symbol of a racist and oppressive past. This particular point resonated as we southern Americans grapple with what to do with symbols of our own Confederate past, whether they be flags atop buildings or parks named after generals who also founded the Ku Klux Klan. Jansen’s chapter provides, for me, a new perspective as to why some fight so strongly to maintain these symbols. I know that, psychologically, the pain of a loss is nearly twice the pleasure of a win, so it should not be surprising that the wounds are not entirely healed.

Unfortunately, the healing process – and the us-versus-them mentality it engenders – often preserves a culture of divisiveness that pushes reconciliation into the future. This is displayed poignantly in the fights over symbols of the past – the Confederate flag is at once a symbol of painfully lost pride and of painful systematic oppression. In some ways, Afrikaans is the same. There is almost no way to have a productive discussion under such circumstances without open minds all around and good faith acknowledgement of the legacies of a shared past. These are not easy circumstances to come by – indeed, most political dialogue punishes such nuanced introspection.

As I depart for South Africa, I am excited to continue to find these connections, not only because they enrich the work I intend to do there, but also because they force me to think about issues that I know my own community continues to grapple with, and to do so from a distance that may allow me to see them differently.

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