Perhaps I should call them book listens.
When I give a book talk, I get so much out of hearing what others are experiencing and thinking about. That was certainly the case at the Ujamaa Holiday Market, where I spent two hours at a book table organized by the Colorado Committee on Africa and the Caribbean.
One woman I spoke with mentioned that a boy at her son’s middle school came in the day after the U.S. presidential elections declaring: “I’m glad I’m not black. They’ve been killing the black people. Now they will kill them all.’’
The mother says she and other parents are working to talk to their children about the attitudes and fears laid bare during the presidential campaign. Such hard and necessary conversations to have.
I’d been reporting a magazine article about the Whitney Plantation, a museum of and a monument to slaves. It’s located just outside New Orleans and opened in late 2014. The museum’s founders say we can avoid tough topics, but that doesn’t mean they will go away. The legacy of slavery will just keep popping up to shake us up.
My book It’s a Black-White Thing deals with a different and more recent history, that of apartheid in South Africa. I researched my book at the University of the Free State and at a campus dormitory, or residence, that is now called Armentum. The Latin refers to a herd of elephants, the dorm’s noble mascot. This same dorm was once named for Hendrik Verwoerd, who is widely seen as a chief architect of apartheid.
The dorm’s name was changed as part of an attempt to break with the segregated past of a university that once was reserved for whites who call themselves Afrikaners. Eddie De Wet is a thoughtful Afrikaner and a Free State student whom I interviewed at length for my book.
Following is a passage about Armentum, Eddie, and trying to dodge the past.
Armentum has an elephant in the room, literally as well as figuratively. It is out of sight, behind locked doors. There is a room that houses the residence museum. The polite Armentum residents find the keys to the two doors, one an accordion of steel bars, another of wood, to open up the museum and usher me in after I have asked to look around. Inside there are mementoes from the era when the residence was still named after the former prime minister. Among them is a huge photograph of Verwoerd that once hung where the painting of elephants now has pride of place in the common room. The photograph is too large for any of the walls of the small room set aside for the museum, so it is mounted on the ceiling. Verwoerd stares down on the room, a half smile on his face. I think how I might feel if I were to wander into a back room in a campus dormitory in Texas and found myself confronted with a giant Confederate flag, its stars and bars perhaps a symbol of defiance to some, but, to me, a reminder of slavery and an icon of racism.
In 1961, while Verwoerd was prime minister, a white-ruled South African republic independent of Britain was born. A year earlier, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan addressed the South African parliament, telling lawmakers he believed a “wind of change’’ was sweeping away colonial rule across the continent, clearing the way for independent African states led by Africans.
Verwoerd responded with a passionate articulation of Afrikaner nationalism.
“We call ourselves Europeans, but actually we represent the white men of Africa. They are the people ... who brought civilization here, who made the present developments of black nationalists possible,’’ Verwoerd said. “And the white man came to Africa, perhaps to trade, in some cases, perhaps, to bring the gospel; has remained to stay.’’
White Africans, “particularly in this southernmost portion of Africa, have such a stake here that this is our only motherland, we have nowhere else to go.’’
In the museum, display cabinets hold old yearbooks in which the faces are white. The cabinets also are crowded with awards and photographs, tributes to former residents who achieved fame in sports or other arenas. A wooden plaque bears the words of the old house song, which referred to the men of Verwoerd, not the men of Armentum. Shirts with the old house emblem, an elephant and the words Verwoerd House, hang on the walls, alongside more photographs of the rez namesake. One black-and-white photograph faded to shades of gray shows Betsy Verwoerd with her husband, who was stabbed to death in 1966 by a parliament page who was deemed insane.
As apartheid ended, Betsy Verwoerd was among a minority of Afrikaners who refused to accept the proposition that the races should live together. The prime minister’s widow and a few hundred others retreated to the town of Orania, whose name harks back to the Orange Free State. They went on their own, without the low-paid black maids, gardeners and farm workers on which the apartheid economy had been built.
In a gesture of reconciliation, Nelson Mandela, by then president, visited Betsy Verwoerd in Orania in 1995. Newspaper photographs from that day show Mandela lending the widow a steadying hand as she read a speech declaring her belief that Afrikaners needed an independent homeland of their own. Earlier, she had shared coffee and cake in private with Mandela.
Although it is common to hear white South Africans express the fearful uncertainty that led Betsy Verwoerd to flee to Orania, only a few hundred ever joined her in that small Karoo community.
What is the purpose of the museum? The Armentum students tell me the first impulse when the house name was changed was simply to preserve the past, that there was an unwillingness to simply dump tradition to the trash bin. A friendly guide also explains that looking into the room is a chance to see how far Armentum and its university have moved on. The guide has been at Armentum for four years, long enough to be a link to some of the residents who set up the museum. As he leads a tour of the room, he uses the word “shameful’’ several times as he speaks of apartheid.
Surely, I think, few conversations can be started among young South Africans by mementoes and stories that are usually locked away, dusted off occasionally for a visitor to look at. The reluctance to have hard conversations about the past could be read as reluctance to talk frankly about the present.
When I ask De Wet about the museum, he says people don’t really visit it. “It scratches open a lot of wounds,’’ he says. “It’s very small, and it’s not really relevant anymore.’’
For better or for worse, the Afrikaner nationalism espoused by leaders like Verwoerd shaped South Africa. De Wet said his generation wants to break down the barriers erected in the past, and he believes that means abandoning some history. De Wet recognizes that UFS is trying to make a “definite transformation towards integration” and that the institution is encouraging its students to think differently about living in a diverse society.
“If I hadn't come to UFS, I wouldn't have had this opportunity to broaden my horizon and think about it differently. I know that color is not supposed to be an identity,'' he said. “You have to be unified in something else, something bigger that you have in common.''
During his visit to the US, de Wet wrote in an email to a reporter that he was experiencing ``a different perception on diversity here in the USA, not only race as we usually classify it. I am starting to process information, and getting better at listening to others and taking in rather than just jumping to conclusions without thinking them through.’’
De Wet is an optimist who equates pessimism with the past:
“People who are being negative, they’re stuck in the past. They’re stuck in the past. They don’t see that there’s a possibility for change.
“They’ve already made up their mind. They don’t want to imagine better. They just let the negative take over everything.’’
“There's noise in their ears. And we have this silence, because we don't let it bother us.''
He and the other South Africans with whom he traveled to Texas are learning to see the world differently, he say. “We can make a huge difference.
“We’re looking at the future.’’
“If you want to move forward, you should stop thinking about the past.’’
Easy to say, but history towers over South Africa’s landscape and is embedded in the names of its people and places. It’s not a room you can leave, switch off the light and shut the door.