The Business of Us All

“Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a son. When something happened to Negroes in the South, I said, “that’s their business not mine”. Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.” Mamie Till

It was Saturday mid-morning in Sumner, Tallahatchie County Mississippi when we pulled up in front of the courthouse. For a moment I wondered whether we had driven onto a Hollywood movie set. Not a soul was in the street. I half-expected tumbleweed to blow down the street. It was unnerving. On one side of the courthouse a sign informed us that we were at the place where, in a five-day murder trial held in the courthouse in 1955, two white men were acquitted of the murder of 14-year old Emmett Till. Incongruously, on the opposite side of the courthouse, stands a statue erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy* to honour their heroes.

As we waited for our guide we wandered around the street, peeking through the windows of closed shops, wondering why no one was out shopping, banking, doing Saturday morning kind of things. That eerie feeling followed me into the courthouse as we took our seats, the majority of our group on the left of the courtroom where the all-white, all-male jury would have sat, to listen to our guide, Ben Saulsberry.

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Till was a fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago who, in the summer of 1955, begged his mother to allow him to travel with his cousin to visit relatives in Mississippi. Mamie Till let her son go with misgivings, worried that he wouldn’t know the ways of the South (i.e. how a black person should behave). She didn’t know that the next time she saw him it would be as a barely recognisable corpse in a wooden box. He had been abducted, beaten, shot in the head, tied with barbed wire to a large metal fan and his body dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His crime – whistling at a young white woman.

In spite of overwhelming evidence, and positive identification by Till’s uncle, the jury acquitted Till’s killers, Bryant and Milam. A few months later they would sell their story to a magazine, confessing to the crime, knowing that they could not be retried for a crime they had already been acquitted of.

What ultimately took Emmett’s life was racism, Saulsberry told us. His message was one of hope, saying that the pain needed to be processed through telling the truth to enable us to move forward. In 2007 the courthouse was restored and is now preserved as a memorial, a community centre and a space to share Till’s story as a way of working towards “racial reconciliation”. Progress is slow but Saulsberry optimistically points out that 20 years ago there was no conversation at all. However, he cautioned that we are not off the hook for doing the work to create a new narrative.

In a powerful exercise, Saulsberry invited us to read a resolution that had been presented to Till’s family in 2007, outside the courthouse. The resolution starts,

We the citizens of Tallahatchie County believe that racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth. We call on the state of Mississippi, all of its citizens in every county, to begin an honest investigation into our history.

Each one of us read a sentence in turn, going around the room until we had come to the last sentence, which we read as a group,

Working together we have the power now to fulfil the promise of “liberty and justice for all”

Striking a chord deep inside me were my two sentences,

While it will be painful, it is necessary to nurture reconciliation and to ensure justice for all.

We need to understand the system that encouraged these events and others like them to occur so that we can ensure that it never happens again.

Later in the trip, I would see photographs of the funeral, a mother bent over double with grief at the graveside of her only child.  Her pain from losing her son so violently, is palpable. I wondered if she had blamed herself for not being firmer about preventing him from going South, to a place she knew was not like Chicago. Till’s mother bravely insisted that her son not only be buried in Chicago but that the casket should be open so that “the world could see what had been done to her baby”. Tens of thousands of people viewed his badly beaten body at the funeral, photographs were taken and published in the media … creating awareness and perhaps, ensuring that her son’s death was not in vain, his funeral a protest demonstration of its own.

His murder and the ensuing trial would lead to civil rights activist, Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus.  I thought about Emmett Till and I could not go to the back, she said. Ultimately it would set in motion the Montgomery bus boycotts, laying the foundation of the civil rights movement of the 60s. It was during the Montgomery boycott that a young Martin Luther King Jnr would emerge as a leader.

Many times on our “freedom riders” trip I was confronted by this story, at museums in Jackson, Montgomery and Washington DC (where his casket is on display), and I wanted to believe so fervently that his death and the deaths and suffering of many others, in his country and mine, were not in vain. Many times I wept as I witnessed the cruelty and hatred borne out of racism and traced the path of a past that won’t go away. Many times I wondered how we are meant to move forward to reconciliation when we don’t learn from the past. Perhaps this bearing witness, confronting our history and talking about the pain, is a way that I can contribute.

“This is precisely when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language that. That is how civilisations heal.” Toni Morrison

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The featured image is of a photograph of Emmett Till in the Lowndes County Interpretive Center in the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.

*The organisation was started by Southern women to commemorate their men who died in a war that was primarily fought to protect their right to own slaves.

The Golden Rule*

“In every human breast,God has implanted a principle, which we call Love of Freedom;

It is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

Thus, wrote Phillis Wheatley, a slave and the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry (1773). Her words could as easily have been referencing the American Revolution as it did slavery.

History is literally embedded in the streets of Boston … a red brick line runs down the centre of the pavements, through the Common and across the roads providing the guide to the Freedom Trail – revolution and resistance in every brick. The trail includes the Old South Meeting House (OSMH), a place where the Puritan congregation gathered for both secular and religious reasons, from the 17th century onward. Boston was founded in 1630 by English Puritans who fled religious persecution and the new settlement was named after the place in England from where many of them had come. The immigrants were led by John Winthrop and their goal was to build a purely Puritan society (sadly, this meant an intolerance of other religions and when the Quakers arrived in Massachusetts, they were persecuted and several were executed in the 1650s-1660s by the same Puritans).

Old South Meeting House

The simple red-bricked façade of the meeting house belies the fact that one of the gatherings held here on 16 December 1773 to protest a tax, was to start a revolution. The meeting of 5 000 angry colonists resulted in what has become known as The Boston Tea Party, a protest against not only the tax on tea, but the perceived monopoly of the British East India Company. The British Parliament retaliated with a series of punitive laws, especially against the state of Massachusetts, which served only to unite the colonies and hasten the war.

Phillis Wheatley worshipped at OSMH, she was baptised there and became a full member in 1771, aged about 17. Old South’s congregation included slave-owners and slaves until 1781 when slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts. Also, in the congregation were descendants of the first Puritans, some of the town’s wealthiest families who worshiped in rented pews on the main floor and first gallery, while apprentices, slaves and servants sat on free benches in the top gallery.

Born in Gambia, West Africa, Wheatley was sold into slavery at the age of 7 or 8 and transported to North America where she was sold to the family, who gave her her last name. Her first name was derived from the name of the ship that brought her to America. In one of her poems she ponders plaintively,

… what pangs excruciating must molest; what sorrows labour in my parents’ breast!

Those few words capturing the pain and hurt inflicted by slavery, not only on the enslaved but on the family they left behind. Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was signed by John Hancock and other Boston notables – 17 men asserted that she had indeed written it. She was emancipated shortly afterwards.

In about a week, I embark on a tour of the South with four graduate students from the University of Pretoria. Our journey, which we have dubbed UP Freedom Riders’ Trip, will start in New Orleans and then we meet up with a contingent from Indiana University. The following week is hectic – Memphis, Jackson, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham and Atlanta, ending in Washington, DC from where the students will fly back home.

My few days in Boston are personal and not officially part of this trip but the experience has made me consider how waves of immigrants have come to America, often forced by circumstances beyond their control and how they have been persecuted by those who preceded them, often in much worse scenarios.

In 1829, another Bostonian, African American writer and abolitionist, David Walker, published a pamphlet entitled Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. In it, Walker argued for the immediate abolition of slavery rather than the gradual phasing out of the institution and also for the right of every African American to become a full and equal citizen of the United States, rather than the return of freed slaves to America. His ideas would influence the abolition movement long after his death a year later. But it is his poignant question which continues to echo in my head.

Was your suffering under Great Britain one hundredth part as cruel and tyrannical as you have rendered ours under you?

*The Golden Rule – the principle of treating others as you would like to be treated; it is common to many religions and cultures.

Photograph of Wheatley etching taken at the exhibition at the Old South Meeting House in Boston

A Heritage of Common Humanity

Poet, book illustrator and artist, Peter Clarke, described his work as a reflection on humanity, on a commonality that surpasses all boundaries. Clarke, who died in 2014, was a former resident of Simon’s Town. His family was forcibly removed to the ‘coloured’ township of Ocean View due to the passing of the Group Areas Act, which assigned people to different residential areas based on their ‘race’.

Having spent some time looking at museums and working on proposals and exhibitions over the last year and a half, perhaps my expectations have dropped. Many of the little dorpies I have visited, have inadequate records of the history and events that affected the majority of their residents and little acknowledgement of the catastrophic apartheid-era events that forever changed the social  and cultural landscape of their communities. Thus, I was gratified to see the efforts of the local historical/heritage society and the residents of Simon’s Town on a recent visit.

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Apart from the “Wall of Memory”, a display project begun in 2014 by residents past and present, and organisations, there are markers that acknowledge various places of historical interest, such as Hospital Lane (that ran along the Royal Naval Hospital built in 1813) and Drostdy Steps (where the mayor (or landdrost), Christian Michiel Lind, lived in 1828).

Elsewhere, plaques record the place where a stream ran, from which the crewmen of ships filled their freshwater casks, and a building erected in 1772 by the Dutch East India Company for the governor’s visits to Simon’s Town. But the most poignant marker, for me, is the one dedicated

To the memory of generations of our fellow citizens

who dwelt here in peace and harmony

until removed by edict of 1967.

Erected by their fellow citizens

In the many conversations and interviews I have had over the last few years while doing my doctorate, I have been struck by two responses. Firstly, the lack of bitterness or need for revenge – yes, sometimes anger and often heartache, and secondly, a deep appreciation of the opportunity to be heard, to be given the platform to recount their experience and of having their suffering acknowledged. Often, people were disparaging about the value of their stories, almost brushing aside their experience with the observations that their suffering was not as bad as that of others. But always, there was a pride that their story mattered enough for me to write it down, that it could be included in my thesis, or in the exhibition at the museum.

The success of colonial expansion, slavery and later apartheid, lay in the ability of the oppressors to objectify those they wished to subjugate, to portray them as less than human. Clarke’s efforts to reflect the daily lives of people, their emotions and activities, speaks to a resistance of this objectification. He reflects their humanity.  In the same way, the markers in the streets of Simon’s Town and exhibitions in its museum give a human face to the people who suffered under apartheid.

Ironically, under apartheid, the arts – music, dance, painting, story-telling and so on – the very practices of what makes us human, flourished. Many artists were forced to give up on their dreams or forced into exile in order to pursue them. Many ordinary people who may have gone on to greater achievements if not for the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair or the shapes of their noses… Former Simon’s Town residents like:

Dr Peter Clarke (2 June 1929 – 13 April 2014): Poet, book illustrator and visual artist whose work was showcased at exhibitions in England, Germany and the USA in the 1960s and who was invited to study printmaking in Holland and then etching in Norway.

Vincent Hantam: ballet dancer and teacher was principal dancer with the Scottish Ballet from 1975-1991. In September 2012, he became the first Artist-in-Residence at the University of Edinburgh.

Christoper Kindo (12 September 1955 – April 2015): ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer who studied at UCT Ballet School and was the only ‘coloured’ person in his class; in spite of being awarded best dancer in his class he was not hired by CAPAB after completing his training. He started Jazzart when he returned from a stint with the Boston Ballet company in the 1980s, before he became the first ‘coloured’ person to be principal dancer with CAPAB and ended his career at Dance for All.

Gladys Thomas (1944 -): poet, short-story writer, playwright and author of several children’s stories. Her debut anthology, Cry Rage, co-authored with another anti-apartheid South African poet, James Matthews, was published in 1971. This publication holds the distinction of being the first book of poetry to be banned in South Africa.

Our lives have meaning when we have been seen, listened to and acknowledged as human beings. I am reminded of the traditional Indian greeting, Namasté, a salutation of respect, acknowledging our essence of oneness. We are more the same than we are different. Namasté.

Footnote: On 22 September 2016 the Frank Joubert Art Centre where Clarke served as Artist-in-Residence, was renamed the Peter Clarke Art Centre. The following quote is from their website:

“My art is about people and the presence of people. The humanistic image is what interests me. I enjoy reflecting on people and their activities, their emotions, what could be events in their daily lives. But beyond that I speak via my symbols of activities on a larger, wider scale that transcends all boundaries…. I speak about a heritage of a common humanity.” – Peter Clarke, 1983

In the featured picture, two elderly men walk along the Wall of Memory in Main Road, Simon’s Town.

Life is lived at Lavatory Level

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People are crammed into the Business Class Lounge at Livingstone airport. “Air-conditioned Lounge” the sign says – the fans are working furiously. I hesitate, briefly considering staying outside in the general lounge. It seems far more peaceful. But I hesitate too long and the seats I spotted have been taken. So it is into the Business Class lounge, which resembles an obstacle course. Every time someone opens the door, the receptionist is in danger of being squashed behind it.

I am not surprised that it is so basic – our boarding passes were manually ticked off by someone sitting at a little wooden desk as we came through security. My husband has cut a path for us and has found a corner to squeeze into. We are so tightly packed that he feels compelled to start a conversation with the person who he is sitting almost knee-to-knee with.

The décor in the lounge is from another era – all chintzy and chunky – cheap dark furniture with amateur paintings adorning the walls. Against the opposite wall is a table with an electric kettle, mugs and a row of jars with tea, coffee and creamer. Next to that is a table with boxes of wine, glasses and plastic-wrapped bowls of curly yellow chips and popcorn.

Opposite us are two doors, one emblazoned with a thorny branch, the other with a red rose.  “No seats on the toilet,” my husband announces as he comes out of the door with the thorn branch. I wonder if the door with the rose signifies any better. After 20 years of travelling around the world I am suspicious of public toilets.

There is more than an hour’s wait before boarding, if all goes according to plan, so I am forced to heed the call of nature. I enter the door with the rose, not expecting much.  This is reasonably clean and I have learnt to use the reasonably clean toilet because you never know what you will find next. The toilet seat is there but the lid of the cistern has gone missing. I have to position myself with right leg extended to hold the door shut with my foot – good thing I do yoga – because it will not stay closed, never mind lock. But I have seen worse.

My suspicions have been nurtured by the squatting toilets of India, an experience which for the first time made being a man an attractive prospect. Indian public toilets are definitely to be avoided. This is not so easy when you are travelling from city to city in a less than speedy 1950s Ambassador. Not only did you have to squat while gingerly arranging yourself (thank heavens I was not wearing seven metres of sari), but hygiene was not high on the list. “What can you do? Too many people,” my mother-in-law would declare with a shake of her head.

When we were forced to stop, I would send my husband in first. I reasoned that if the men’s toilets were halfway decent there was the chance that the women’s would be too. After all, he didn’t have to sit down.  Too many times he came out holding his nose and giving it the thumbs down.

My daughter, who was not quite three at the time, had taken one look at the squatting toilet and pursing her lips, had declared, “I don’t have a wee anymore!” No amount of cajoling could change her mind. She developed a leak-proof bladder, waiting until we were back at the hotel so that she could use the Western-style toilet. It has stood her in good stead over the years.

There have been other occasions I have thought about being male, like on long game drives in the bush. My husband and son have hopped out during stops and marked their territory a little too proudly for my liking. I was not about to squat behind a bush so that a lion could tell me how low on the food chain I happened to be. So what’s a woman to do but limit the sundowners and cross her legs more tightly?

There have been many toilets in many countries over the years. My daughter has even acquainted herself with a spade called Oscar while canoeing down the Orange River and braved living in a rural village for three weeks in the north of Thailand while building water storage tanks.

It was in Thailand though, that we came across such clean public toilets that I was moved to take a photograph.  Rows of plastic shoes stood on shelves outside under a sign that asked you to please remove your shoes and use the plastic ones. This was to protect your shoes since the floor of the toilet was being constantly washed. Finally, somebody had got it…“life is lived at lavatory level!”

As a first year Occupational Therapy student, learning about independence training for people in wheelchairs, our lecturer had regularly chanted this mantra to us. She believed that being able to use the toilet in a dignified manner, in spite of disability, was of paramount importance. Years later it had taken on a rather different significance for me.

Walking with Lions

On a trip for her 20th wedding anniversary, Nadia Kamies has more fun than you can shake a stick at.

We are walking behind three lions, one male and two females. We are quiet and not making any sudden moves. Actually, I am trying to not even breathe. “Hold onto the tail, if you want,” says one of the guides. “Are you serious?” I ask. “Yes, he won’t mind,” he says. I have a feel of the rough, prickly tail but then pass it to my son, who is much keener. I keep a watchful eye, though I am not sure what I would, or could, do if things got nasty. It seems like we are in a bizarre dream. Whose idea was this again?

We are following a hot, dusty path, each of us holding a stick. There are six of us – my husband and me plus two teenagers, our son and a cousin, and a young couple we have just met at the lodge. It’s a strong stick, cleaned up from one of the trees in the area, but still a stick. The guide handed them over, saying: “If the lion looks at you, just hold the stick in front of his face.”

The walk has been organised through Mukuni Big Five Safaris, which runs a conservation and breeding centre for the Zambia National Parks. They also do elephant-back safaris and cheetah interaction.

When the lions stop, we stop. When they decide it is time to rest under a tree, we do too. But this is our opportunity to come closer and take pictures. The guides do seem in control but there are precautions to be observed – no sudden movements or loud noises; if the lion gets up, move away; if he looks at you, shove your stick forward. They are still wild animals, after all.

Walking with Lions

As if this was not enough adrenaline, the previous day we had jumped into the Devil’s Pool on the edge of the Victoria Falls. We had swum across the Zambezi, zigzagging behind the guide, to avoid being swept away by the current. We had left our clothes behind on the riverbank and handed our cameras to the guide, who carried them high above his head in a waterproof bag.

The guide was very reassuring. “As long as you can swim well, you’ll be fine,” he said. “I am sure there is a good reason for that name, though,” I thought .

We clambered over some rocks to get to the pool and were given the choice of sliding down into it or taking a jump. It was our 20th wedding anniversary, and it seemed something momentous was required. So I jumped! The guide was ready with our cameras to record the moment. My son had soared into the air and managed to hover there long enough for a perfect photo. My husband and I, being somewhat less adept at soaring, made it into the bottom right-hand corner of our shots.

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After almost half a century of living south of Victoria Falls, I had finally made it there – and it did not disappoint. Even though we were there at the beginning of the rainy season (December) and the falls were not full, they were awe-inspiring. We took a cruise down the Zambezi, a helicopter flip over the falls, as well as a trip to the Zimbabwe side, for an even more spectacular view.

It being a special occasion, we stayed at the Royal Livingstone, which is as good as it gets – in full view of “the smoke that thunders”. Every time we looked out our window, some species of wildlife just happened to be wandering by – zebra, giraffe and monkeys.

Besides the encounter with the lions, we went for elephant rides (rather uncomfortable); played with lion and cheetah cubs; and my husband took the kids quad-biking and to the crocodile park. In four days we managed to pack in a lot of travel – and there was still much more that my son would have liked to do. Like the slide across the falls, which I think can wait until next time. Perhaps when he is old enough to go on his own and I don’t have to witness it.

This was published as Lions and Devils on Times Live and in the Sunday Times Travel supplement.