A graduate student working on a paper on the sad history of black education in South Africa reached out to me after reading my first book, “It’s a Black-White Thing.” Among her questions:
“How do we move forward without having the past always present?”
The Bantu Education Act of 1953 imposed separate and vastly inferior education on South Africa’s black majority. Black parents resisted, of course. George Bizos, a lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela in apartheid courts, writes in his memoirs of teachers and parents trying to supplement the education that the white government designed for black children. But their weekend and afternoon classes, called "cultural clubs," were declared illegal. Despite lawyers' efforts, the schools were closed down, their teachers fined or threatened with jail.
In one case, organizers of a cultural club had thought a young black member was a student. He turned out to be a spy sent by police to gather evidence against a teacher. Bizos said the teacher asked him: "Did police have the right to teach a boy to lie about who he was, where he came from and why he attended the club?’’
Bizos told them that in apartheid South Africa, ``There was nothing that said they couldn't."
Stef Coetzee, a white South African economist and university administrator I interviewed for my book, knows his country tragically missed an opportunity.
“Just think where we could have been if we had started in the 1950s investing in human development like we’re doing today, if far more black people had come through the school system and entered universities,” Coetzee said.
Some white South Africans impatiently accuse their black fellow countrymen of dwelling on the past. But other white South Africans, like Coetzee, understand that black South Africans aren’t struggling with abstract history. They are frustrated and anguished by the consequences of the past.
The past also is very present in my latest book, “Home of the Brave.” It is set in the United States, in the small Colorado town of Montrose, where residents set out to help war veterans heal and to ease their transition back to civilian life.
Montrose’s history includes brutal subjugation of Native Americans and a flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan. My journey there became a meditation on our dislike of contemplating the costs others bear for our successes and of the way violence can haunt even the winner.
My answer for the grad student is that we can only move forward by acknowledging that the past is present. We can find inspiration to take the torch from those who resisted injustice before. We can see evidence that our choices aren’t limited to the current conditions. History, if nothing else, makes clear that change is inevitable and that the unexpected is to be expected.
I’m not in the “the more things change, the more they stay the same” camp. I believe that kind of thinking is lazy and cynical. We can’t go back. We must find a way to get better as we go forward. That requires energy and hope _ the opposite of laziness and cynicism.
History can be a catechism in survival, renewal and resilience. We are fortunate it is always present.