The world is full of contradictions. It’s easy to remember that truism if you find yourself, as I did recently, sitting in a trendy white Cape Town restaurant listening to Martha and the Vandellas singing ”Dancing in the Streets.”
As a black American visiting South Africa for the first time, I hardly expected to hear soul music blaring from the loudspeakers of establishments that stand symbolically as vestiges of legal white privilege. That was a surprise. But then, in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve discovered that Cape Town is teeming with surprises and, of course, contradictions.
I’ve seen some characteristics of Cape Town that are radically different from the United States. And from a black-American vantage point, I’ve noticed other aspects of this place that are painfully similar.
Cape Town seems as modern and developed as any American city. The landscape here, with its verdant mountains and ocean view, is stunningly beautiful -more attractive than any place I’ve seen in America. But psychically, it feels so much like home.
For blacks in both countries, the similarities in racial struggles are hardly realities that inspire ”dancing in the streets.” Many people are sleeping in the streets, and begging in the streets, but no, not dancing.
That’s because, on the brink of a new millennium, life remains a hard-scrabble affair for too many people of the darker hue. In both America and South Africa there is abject black poverty in the midst of obscene white wealth: South Africans have their squalid townships; we have our crowded ghettoes. They have their desperate souls, flagging cars to parking spaces for coins, just like us; we have our poor black vendors and shoe shiners and garbage collectors and house servants, just as they do.
Even the struggle to assert black political power in both countries is markedly similar. In South Africa, blacks have gained and retained political control by asserting their predominant numbers at the voting polls. American blacks comprise only 13 percent of the national population, but in some cities our majority presence has also enabled us to gain control of local governments.
Cities such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, where I live, are prime examples. There, blacks comprise a majority and have used their numbers to wrest political power from whites. But in U.S. cities – as in South Africa – blacks have seen that political control alone is not enough. The bottom line is this: Blacks control most political offices, but the whites still have most of the money. And, as we say in America, ”money talks.”
Another similarity between American and South African blacks is so disturbing that I hesitate to mention it in this newspaper: Blacks in both countries share a common obsession with variations of color within their own race. The obsession stems from the notion that light-skinned blacks are somehow more closely related to whites and, therefore, superior to their darker brothers and sisters. It is a notion historically created by whites in both countries to divide and conquer.
But I find that where race in general is concerned, there are stark differences between South Africans and Americans. One distinction is the straightforward, open-air racial dialogue routinely conducted in Cape Town. As I walk around, I am amazed to see blacks and whites talking with each other, and among themselves, with a dogged frankness that is, well, foreign to me.
In America, such frank and public racial discourse is not so common. Such directness makes people uncomfortable. There is a tendency among many American whites to deny the prevalence of race in our society, even though you see it wherever you go. But here, no one, black or white, pretends that race is not this country’s dominant issue.
Those differences between the two countries help explain why Americans cannot even begin to conceive of the idea of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, such as the one that convened South Africa. Unlike whites here, who cannot deny the lingering effects of apartheid, many American whites insist that the racial wrongs of the past have been rectified since slavery was abolished. They contend that sufficient amends have been made for those wrongs, even as black Americans continue to suffer in numerous ways – poverty, imprisonment and discrimination, to name a few.
To underscore how utterly frustrating race relations are in America, consider this: I am visiting here with a group of 13 university students who are practicing journalism and, among other things, observing racial dynamics in South Africa. Of those students, nine are white and four are black. After only one week, we have had conflict because the students are divided along racial lines. The result has been extreme tensions, which mirror the fractious racial climate back home.
It is a prime example why I believe that, despite all the material wealth in America, and despite all its technological advancements, my country remains one of the most primitive racial societies on earth.
Although there is more openness among the races in Cape Town, it’s hard to gauge whether, in terms of concrete results, race relations here are really any better than at home. America’s fairly large group of middle-class blacks is a sign of some racial progress, at least economically. By contrast, there are a few visible indications that Cape Town’s racial candor is making a concrete difference in black people’s daily lives. Everywhere I go – from shops near Georgetown Mall to restaurants and other businesses along Kloof Street – it appears that blacks are locked in an economic and psychological time warp reminiscent of American blacks of the post-slavery era.
For instance, I room in an area called Tamboerskloof, a trendy white suburban enclave just on the fringe of the city center. Blacks who work there seem subservient, docile, ever careful to maintain a humble manner to reassure their smug white bosses that they remain loyal and unthreatening, despite the demise of apartheid.
The bowing and shuffling posture that some black workers assume in Tamboerskloof breaks my heart – as do the scruffy children begging coins in Cape Town streets, and the unemployed black men aimlessly wandering those same streets.
Many of those blacks are dirt-poor, yet I still envy them. They possess a kind of wealth that we more prosperous black Americans may never know: It is the very real sense among blacks here that, despite its shortcomings, South Africa is their home.
After nearly 400 years in the U.S., American blacks still can make no such claim. We have been there longer than most white immigrants, but still we are always reminded that we’re not welcome.
That is why black Americans like me constantly search for belonging. And that is why we are naturally drawn to Africa – because, technically, it is our home; our ancestors were forceably torn from here.
Even as I know that Africa is ”home,” the curious glances I get from Cape Town blacks everywhere indicate that they recognize me for what I am: a foreigner, a puzzling hybrid who stands out as a kind of contradiction in terms – a black American.
Still, I share a racial pain with Cape Town blacks that transcends national boundaries. It is a common experience of suffering that, I’m sure, we all would rather see go away.
Then, and only then, can we begin dancing in the streets.