• William Mathis

GATHER UP THE FRAGMENTS - NOTES FROM SOUTH AFRICA (JOHANNESBURG, SOWETO, SUN CITY, CAPE TOWN)


Life is a bitch, and if it’s not one damn thing, it’s going to be something else. . . . You don’t let that stop you.

Count Basie

If someone called me names or spat on me, or kicked me in the shin, or walked on my heel, I thought I couldn’t make it one more moment. But each time I would go home, and my grandmother would point out that what I was doing was not for myself, but for generations unborn.

Melba Pattillo Beals

It appears that my worst fears have been realized: we have made progress in everting yet nothing has changed.

Derrick Bell

We misunderstand racism completely if we do not understand that racism is a mask for a much deeper problem involving not the victims of racism but the perpetrators.

Lerone Bennett, Jr.

If you are not out front defining your vision, your opponent will spend gobs of money to define it for you.

Donna Brazile

I have this phrase that I often use, “I've been Black all my life and that’s what I know how to be.” It is an enduring statement by and for me, meaning that I declare my Blackness and I am reassured that my Blackness is sufficient, if not more than enough, for me to meet and overcome any challenges before me. I am not and do not want to be anybody else, my Blackness fits, works, and accomplishes for me that which is required, according to my faith, to be and do all things in which I will have life and life more abundantly. I am simply, Black and proud of it! This sense of confidence and pride in being Black was instilled in me from my early remembrances and intentionally so and that has continued as I too intentionally feed and nurture my Blackness. It has been taught to me and I willingly embrace and live in it. I am very appreciative of my upbringing in Albany, Georgia, which was a collaborative effort of my immediate family and extended “family”; my community of Black people where I lived and Black people I engaged with, my church, and Black people who practiced various and different kinds of faith, intentionally nurtured and cultivated me and my Blackness, and my Blackness by no means meant I was less than or should tolerate less than. In addition, they held a crown over my head and challenged me to live up to it, not just for me, but for them, our community, and people who looked like me - we were in this thing together, as you succeed, we succeed, as you fail, we fail, not sure if they even knew it as Ubuntu but that was what they taught and challenged me too. They instilled in me that I am a great person, I descended from Kings and Queens and thus the expectation is I would build upon that. I can do anything if I put my mind to it, no matter what anyone said. Such “raising” or teaching instilled in me a sense of resilience and resistance in which I am intent, committed, and bound to be the best person I can be, not just simply because I'm an individual, but more importantly because I'm Black and my people are counting on me. My Blackness takes priority over all things and all things as they are, are seen through my Blackness, not just because others do or that it is obvious but instead because I am Black and I am proud!

As I traveled throughout Africa and the African diaspora, my sense of confidence and pride in my Blackness had its challenges as well as frustrations. The major challenge was how we remain true to ourselves in a world supported by systems and structures built on and out of Eurocentric domination, forcing us to play their games, and operate from their tables if we are to have any space(s) to drive our own, let alone that of the world’s narratives and thrive, whether individually or collectively. And frustrated because our resilience as Black people produced resistance that empowered us to overcome impossibilities, repudiate demagogues, and reestablish our gift to humanity/civilization, i.e. Civil Rights and Anti-Apartheid Movements, to face yet stronger and more strategically wiser version of the same (please read The New Jim Crow and The New Apartheid) which promotes Anti-Blackness from without through established societal norms, systems and structures but more importantly from within, forcing us to choose and/or co-identify with any other identity than our Blackness as a priority in and for our lives. This challenge and frustration were very evident in my time spent in South Africa. Although I had been to South Africa (Durban and Capetown) before my Sabbatical, I had not been to Johannesburg, Sun City, or stayed in a township. Further, while on Sabbatical I remained in South Africa for 28 days, giving me broader and deeper exposure to life in South Africa than I had before. Thus, I would not say that I was totally surprised or that I am naive, the length of time made the challenges and frustration we face across Africa and the African Diaspora more real, they forced me to recognize it and deal with it in my every day walking around experience. Being Black and being a tourist can be slightly different from being Black who lives and dwells in a place. Yes, being an American, if they know that, tends to provide some advantages but if they do not know, especially if they do not know, it is an eye-opener. Needless to say, the challenge and frustration for me as a Black dweller as opposed to a Black visitor to South Africa, often forced me to either go along to get along, pull my trump card as an American, or stand and be in my Blackness. Please note my challenge and frustration were not just with White South Africans, but shockingly also with Black South Africans, especially in urban centers (where there was an acceptance of the process and the status quo to prevent a civil war which they believe they would lose) as opposed to a sense of belonging, confidence, and community around Blackness found in the Townships. It was painfully clear that the Apartheid, division because of skin color with Whites having and thus being better and the Black people (including those who proudly identify as Coloreds and/or mixed over their Blackness) having not and treated as lesser, was alive and well. Apartheid had metamorphosis into a “newer” version of itself, stronger and more strategically wiser oppression that transcended systems and structures and now flowed heavily from them to the mindsets and actions of its once openly oppressed Black people to now a subversive, more deadly, and emotional oppression that forces the status quo to appear as though it has evolved but yet it has remained the same, especially as to the community’s limited and wider access to and building of economic, educational, and social capital to thrive in their Blackness. This subversive, more deadly, and emotional oppression now uses tools of humanity supported by faith practices such as truth and reconciliation, morality and fairness, love and forgiveness to justify maintaining a system in which oppressors and oppressed slates are expected to be swiped clean and yet the oppressors by virtual of their status already possess and have deeper and broader access to economic, educational, and social capital to maintain the status quo, their roles in dominating and driving all of the societal narratives.

As I traveled through South Africa, beginning in Johannesburg, and then to Soweto, then up to Sun City, and finally south to Cape Town, I came to each experience with awe in experiencing the spaces in which my Black brothers and sisters struggled against such inhumanity to eventually overcome to build their own nation. The various holy grounds, beyond tourist attractions, still carried the cries, strength, resilience, pride, and the hope of so many unknown and not famous freedom fighters and stories of resistance. The experience, as one who grew up in the battleground of the Civil Rights Movement, was exhilarating. Exhilarating not because of its beauty but of its significance for a community of resilience that forged a resistance in which they won. Again, these are spaces not on the tourist map, instead, every day walking around spaces, environments of tangible and intangible experiences of the people who are still with us, endured the struggles, the times with both pain and joy, and who now live in what they had only dreamed as the “promised land.” In these spaces, experienced by our ancestors who were Black every day and were seen in their Blackness, fueling their resilience and turning it into a fierce resistance that brought about revolution, it was easy to embrace my Blackness. However, as one moves to a deeper level of the spaces and those adjoining these spaces, tourist events, mega malls, welcoming and departure centers, it became very clear that though we suffered, bled, and died, to promote our Blackness as integral to humanity, our former oppressors still kept the keys that allowed for them to adjust yet with power and domination of the flow of not just the economic engines that run the place(es) but also the legitimacy and marketing that sustained those places vis a via their continued domination - the New Apartheid.

I, we celebrate our victories and triumphs over oppression and all things at odds with our God-given freedom, and yet the particular details are often left to others, who began with all the bargaining chips thus owning the table, thus surreptitiously driving our narratives and/or their concerns and issues over-influencing the direction of our narrative - still allowing what they think, their values, their definition of success reign. As Derrick Bell said, we have progressed in everything yet nothing has changed. Thus, traveling through South Africa, especially in my living and dwelling, I not only experienced the victories and triumphs of my brothers and sisters of the movement in a deeply spiritual way but I also faced the very things we believe they had defeated and not just from white people in South African but also from the 1% of Black South African who “had made It” per white South African standards - upwardly mobility economically, educationally, and socially. More striking to me is that I found it even among the leadership of the movement who nowadays are leaders and revered elders of the social justice movement, that are seeking to profit by any means necessary. Thus, taking on the cloak of the oppressor and I assume justifying it emotionally and spiritually by the fact that they deserve it for that which they sacrificed, and now should yield benefits for them, although the majority of the people, whom they fought with and for, circumstances have barely changed at all. I walked away from this experience with my worst, perhaps “our” worst, fears realized, we had become like our oppressors abandoning core values and our sense of unity that empower us to not only survive in our oppression but to thrive and channel our oppression into resistance which brought about our victory - taking and driving our own position.

I would suggest to you that at the root of what I saw in South Africa, as a matter of fact in my own experience in America as well as around Africa and the Diaspora, is Anti-Blackness. There appears to be a concerted effort, both consciously and subconsciously, to be against anything that's Black, and not just from the outside of our community. I find Anti-Blackness subliminally sprinkled in our conversations and vocabulary, it permeates the way we think and the lens through which we view the world and space in which we operate. Therefore, we must consistently, even though we have triumphs and victories, creates community spaces in which we choose and drive the narrative for our journey through and beyond our struggles. Our lived experiences as a people have shown us that our victories are often overshadowed by the aftermath in which we allow other people and/or their concerns to drive our narrative, a narrative that in many ways metamorphosis their oppression into new forms of oppressions - supporting the same narrative but in a different way with different vocabulary. Our victory has given us the right to now take full control over our lives and our destiny and it must first begin with correcting the lies and position of the oppressors in and over our space, challenging us to take up the required leadership and action of our own - being visible as well as responsible and accountable for our victory, freedom, and sustainability. In driving our own narratives, we come to the experience fully aware of the lies and oppression that got us where we are, and now as the visible leadership for the transformation required, we are now held responsible and accountable for the transformation required, not only without, including the systems and structures of the world we engage but also from within, the developing, nurturing, and sustaining of Blackness within our community and its spaces. As Na'im Akbar suggests, we must Know Thyself, deconstruct, reconstruct, and construct the real us after the lies, oppression, and inhumanity of our oppressors to ensure that we do not turn what they did inwardly and as a result, be aware and stay alert of their potential to reimagine their position with us, i.e. allies, to ensure they do no turn to new forms of oppression. We must see ourselves, our spaces, and the world in which we exist through the lens of our Blackness as primary, to ensure that we are both comfortable and committed to seeing ourselves as great people, leaders, and capable of being responsible and accountable for our thriving according to that which promotes who we are and rejects whom we need to be to accommodate someone else’s narrative for our lives and our community. We must come to the forefront of our own struggles, define them and give them direction. We must build our own tables and invite others to join our table, following our guidance for the narratives that will drive our community. We must build our own institutions and think tanks that view life, and the world through the lens of our Blackness, ensuring that we are authentically present and represented as equal partners for the world’s narrative. Such goals demand that we, Black people, be connected to one another; the talented tenth to the ninety, the academic to the non-academic, the wealthy to the middle class and the poor, the urban to the rural, the straight to the bi, gay and transgender, the older to the younger, no matter where we are or people place us on this nonsensical spectrum of Western/Eurocentric values within humanity, our thriving demands us all in our Blackness moving closer and closer together, eliminating their labels and viewing each of us as one another, as one, as Ubuntu.

In many ways, I gleaned while in South Africa, especially as a result of my engagement with young people as well as a cross-generational pool of faith practitioners (including practitioners of traditional religions), that there is a more sense of urgency in driving our own narratives, a sense of belonging to one another and connecting. I would suggest that is perhaps a by-product of the resistance to the new apartheid born out of their resilience for the freedom they should, thought, and ought to possess. And interestingly enough, I saw that many young people who were leaving the church and particularly in South Africa were leaving the church for faith practices that promoted and supported Blackness. One of the things I think we must learn if we are to advance the cause of our community and thrive in who we are as a community of people, our Blackness must take priority and as a result “we,” take the lead in providing leadership, substance, and direction for our movement toward our emancipation from and our thriving for. By no means do I suggest from my findings that allies are not appreciated and valued, however, despite the years of oppression, suppression, underdevelopment, and negativity toward Blackness and anything related to us demands that they take the back seat, including their concerns for how they fit in our new world in which our Blackness is celebrated, to our evolvement and progression as a people, a community ensuring our authenticity, as well as undiluted freedom to be who we are and the drivers (responsible and accountable) for our own narratives. We must build and nurture trust among ourselves and as a community in which they see who we are and our thriving as a priority, our best interests being authored and driven by us, the community, otherwise, the lack of visibility of Blackness and buy-in from those who actually live the experiences of our lives and thus are accountable for the results will create an atmosphere of distrust, and suspicion as a new form of oppressing, keeping us in line, and/or pitting us one against another. We can do it without their leadership and do the right thing for all humanity. We can forgive them for what they did and yet prioritize our Blackness and establish and drive our own narrative for thriving as an integral, important, and required partner in humanity. Our community's, ancestors’ resilience is evidence of our ability to resist, overcome and inherit all things, the empowerment to focus and be determined in driving our own narrative which causes us to thrive even in oppressive conditions, imagine what it would be in an environment in which our Blackness reigns - it is that freedom of Blackness that gave the world civilization!

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