Featured image: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” 1983.
Dementia makes you forget, but you don’t get to choose what you forget about your own part in racism. What you learned first, when you were a small child, usually lasts the longest.
WHAT I WANT TO FORGET
Watching out of the living room window how my father is beating a man—our black farm foreman, who’s being stretched across an empty petrol drum by two other black farmworkers—beating him with a piece of rubber hose-pipe along his naked back down to the bottom of the pants pulled tight over his buttocks. Again and again. I was six years old. The scene both sickened and thrilled me: I felt ill with the pain and shame of the black person squirming and trying to hold back his screams, but was glad at the same time that my father was the powerful white person doing the beating, not receiving it.
The farmhouse where I spent most of my growing-up years. The photo dates from when I was sixteen and in my first year at the University of Pretoria. It was the mid-year break and I was about to leave for a year in the USA as an exchange student. From the left, my brother Carel, me, brother Klasie with Dapper the dog, brother Boshoff, sister Tertia holding my mother’s hand. (My sister Lana was not at home that day.) Behind the house is the water tank filled with water pumped from our borehole. It was between the house and the tank that my father beat the man about 10 years before this photo was taken.
I was very close to my father. He shared and encouraged my interest in math, science, and Latin, and we often looked at my school books together when I was back home from boarding school. I never saw him act in a physically violent way again after beating the foreman. I knew that he punished my brothers by hitting them with his belt for particularly serious transgressions. But I essentially lived away from home since the age of eleven and never saw in real life how he dealt with my brothers. When my father hit me with his belt when I was fifteen, there seemed to be little violence in the act. My father had never even spanked me with a bare hand on the arm or upper body or buttocks, as my mother did, at the moment of transgression. My father’s punishment, I knew, was at my mother’s insistence. While at home from boarding school during my Matric (Senior) year for a school vacation, I had been disrespectful of her, though what the exact circumstances were I cannot remember. At the time my father was working away from home as a refrigeration engineer after many successive years of drought-induced crop failures had made us even poorer than before. My mother had told me that she would report my insolence to my father and she followed through. The punishment in the bedroom I shared with my two sisters was an agonizing experience that I am writing about for the first time today. With my sisters shooed out and the door closed, my father took off his belt and moved toward me hesitantly. I was standing up, he hit me on my buttocks and back a few times times. It hurt, but I knew he could have hit me much harder. We stood there, not saying anything, not looking at each other, dumb with mutual shame and embarrassment. He walked out and we never spoke about it again. I cried from humiliation afterwards. He said that I had become prideful about my academic successes and did not understand how hard my mother and everyone at home had it while I was in a wonderful school with food, electricity, and study time all taken care of. It was true.
Gerda (14, seated center) at the Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool (Afrikaans High School for Girls) in Pretoria, (1964)
I knew then and know now that my painful-but-not-vicious hiding was in no way equivalent to my father’s beating of the black man that I had seen so many years before. However, the shame I felt—a shame that still makes me cry now when I write—gave me a tiny glimpse into the awfulness of one human being exerting their physical and mental power over someone else. The events were connected in my mind, though, because—after all—the same human being had punished both the foreman and me. My shame, of course, was one-time and fleeting, whereas the foreman, as a black man, must have experienced the shame of submission to a white world in big and small ways every day of his life.
I CANNOT BE A PROPER ALLY OF BLACK LIVES MATTER IF I FORGET OR DO NOT ACKNOWLEDGE THE ABOVE
In order to be an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement, as a white person I must first reflect very deeply about what it means to be white. I must consider the racist assumptions that I drank in with my mother’s milk while growing up under apartheid, come to terms with the fact that the positive things I was able to do in my life was grounded in my privilege under the system, and understand how my whiteness shaped my life. I must acknowledge that my self is deeply racist—the only thing that enables me not to seem so (to the extent that I succeed) is the thin veneer of rational will not to be racist. I saw the racism return in my mother as her reason diminished and the values she had adopted as an adult were worn away. I am determined to end my life before I return to my childhood assumption that we white people were superior and that it was our duty to be “good” to black people, who “did not have the ability to achieve what we did.”
South African man looking bemusedly at a boy with a toy gun
HOW MY EARLY YEARS SHAPED ME AS A RACIST
The problem with even overt and cruel racism is that it can seem normal. I was present in adult company when stories were told about the unreliability and treachery of the farm laborers. Other farmers had to beat someone every now and then, you learn to think. Our foreman, after all, had driven our tractor into the ditch while drunk. We kids also get spanked when we do something wrong. Less horrific acts of racism slide into “normal” with even more ease than the big, obvious ones. It’s what your father and mother and aunts and uncles and neighbors do. We are white, they are black. We are superior to them. It enters your brain and body like the magnificence of the mountain ridges, the smell of the veld, the grandeur of the constellations whose names my father taught me when we would lie on the dried grass of our “lawn” in the dark farm night, the fear of bilharzia in the river, the deadliness of puff adders, the “knowledge” that we white children should not play with the farm laborers’ children: they were unhygienic, their noses were always runny, and we would catch whatever they had.
A family of farm laborers on our farm. While we ourselves lived in farm outbuildings while awaiting the house that my parents never got to build and did not have electricity until after I had gone to boarding school at the age of eleven, we lived in a world of riches compared to the people who worked for us. Despite the story I told about my father, he was also a benevolent man, community-minded and “good” to his laborers. He and his brother established a school for the black children in our area. They would visit with the headmaster (they in their khaki shorts and short-sleeve shirts and the Master sweating in his suit) at my uncle’s house—not inside, but on the stoep. My aunt had the housemaid take out a tray for them with a good tea set laid out on it, complete with a plate of cookies. It was the first time we gawking siblings and cousins saw a black person drink from a cup-and-saucer rather than a tin mug.
My first remembered lesson in more subtle racism came when I was about seven years old. That winter, measles broke out in the region of our farm. The Tswana woman who worked in our house had seven children. Six of them died over the span of a weekend. My mother told me the terrible news after I had crawled beside her on my parents’ bed where she lay sideways, nursing her fourth child, my then brand new baby brother.
Even though in my mind the kids who’d died had been merely a huddle of dirty bodies with tattered clothing, when I heard the news my imagination transposed the faces of my three siblings upon my mind’s eye images of their dead bodies : Lana, Klasie, and baby Carel all lying dead on my parents’ bed. Twice over. Tears welled in my eyes and dribbled over. My mother, while stroking the baby’s head, tried to comfort me. “Don’t be so sad,” she said. “They don’t love their children the way we do.”
I cried, sounding watery wails. My mother pulled my brother from her breast and laid him next to me. She stroked my hair, his baby fluff. She reached for the soft baby hairbrush on the bedside cabinet and put it in my hand. She put her hand over mine, and together we brushed my brother’s downy head. I was still sad—I did not believe in my heart what my mother had said, but my crying slowed. My distrust of my mother’s judgment was softened, wrapped in a scene of love and physical closeness from which I still cannot totally disentangle it.
My mother and father with me, their firstborn, in 1949.
This was the same mother who would soon after understand the plight of a woman who worked in our house and smelled strongly of having her period because she did not have any form of sanitary protection other than rag stuffings. My mother, who herself had to ration her sanitary protection because of our cash-strapped way of life (as I had to do once I was at boarding school and got my period)—my mother gave the woman a clean pair of her own panties and a pad, together with a bucket of water and soap and the use of our bathroom, to clean herself up. In retrospect I want to cry for the inadequacy of this gesture—what would the woman have done the next day and the next month and the rest of her impoverished life? I also want to cry for the shame the woman must have felt. But I am grateful for an early example of my mother seeing someone with a black skin as a fellow human being and -woman. We racists do not necessarily always miss the fact that people of color are our fellow humans. But missing it even once is too much.
“Each one of these names was somebody’s baby“
WHEN YOU REALIZE YOU ARE RACIST, YOU MUST EDUCATE YOURSELF TO CHANGE YOUR MIND SET
Despite knowing in my late teens and early twenties that the very core of my being had been formed within racism and despite desperately wanting to embody anti-racist ideas, I did not become a heroic participant in South Africa’s freedom struggle. While Peter and I did allow Rose Mnisi—the woman who lived on our property and worked in our house one day a week for the room—to have her college-age daughter Maria stay with her illegally (because Maria did not have and could not legally obtain a pass for our area) during the young woman’s vacations; and kept the gates locked against the pass police; and gave the alarm when we saw pass police in the area so that Maria could hide under Rose’s bed, like most white South Africans of our acquaintance we did not attend protests or otherwise become sociopolitically active. Like some—but only a fraction—of our white South Africans friends and acquaintances, we instead plotted our escape: when Peter was offered a computer job in Utah and we were able to obtain a visa to the US, we emigrated. We could not wait to put our racist environment behind us and raise our children in the post-civil rights haven of the US. Or so we thought. It was 1984.
In 1988, during our first visit back to South Africa after emigrating, we were able to take Rose Mnisi out to a restaurant and sit together eating in public for the first time ever. We were astonished at how fast changes were happening in South Africa—this was even before Nelson Mandela had been let out of prison.
We had not imagined that Apartheid would end in our lifetime. In years to come, I would experience two more paradigm shifts related to formerly “second-class citizens” winning the beginning of their rights: the legalization of gay marriage and the changes already effected by today’s Black Lives Matter movement. As was the result in South Africa when apartheid was finally abolished, the wins for gay marriage (together with the Supreme Court decision this week against workplace discrimination) and the tentative gains for people of color over the last weeks, as well as the Supreme Court decision to let DACA stand, do not mean the end of our society’s work to make sure these leaps forward continue. This is only the beginning—but I’m so grateful to see a significant-seeming forward jump in anti-otherism in my lifetime.
Anti-police-brutality rally in Salt Lake City, June 2020. Sadly Peter and I can no longer attend marches, but we are very proud that our godchildren and other young people we know are mask-wearing participants.
After we immigrated, it very quickly became clear to Peter and me that the subtle forms of racism that we were still trying to rid ourselves of and which we had hoped to escape by moving to the US were still present all around us in our new country; in addition, the privileges we had amassed as white South Africans under apartheid were still working for us in our new city: during our first visit to the offices of what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to start our application for permanent residency, our white skins and supposedly “British” English won us respectful treatment, while our dark-skinned and heavily accented fellow immigrants were treated in a disdainful manner that made us feel we were back in South Africa. Our status as immigrants, who ourselves had inadvertently entered the US with the wrong visa, ensured our empathy with the undocumented immigrants we encountered during our quest for citizenship and whom we met socially through our salsa dancing. Sensitized to not only the bedeviled lives of our fellow immigrants but also to that of other “second-class citizens” like my “ethnic” and LGBTQ colleagues and students at the University of Utah, Peter and I first participated in protests and other activism for groups systemically disadvantaged by their race, class, first-in-their families-to-go-to-college or DREAMER status, disability, sexuality, or sexual orientation. I (and Peter too) had the privilege of getting to know students and get some insight into the difficulties they encountered as a result of systemic discrimination of various kinds Some of these students became friends and stayed in contact with Peter and me long after their graduation. I am grateful to them for bearing with my ignorance and enriching my and my family’s lives.
Above, getting to know students at our house, and, below, going to protests, 1995-2001; below, left: Peter (second from left) protesting with my students at the U of U against theater owner Larry Miller’s refusal to show Breakback Mountain in his theaters in Salt Lake City; below, middle: Peter and I joined a crowd estimated by Salt Lake City police at about 25,000 people to participate in the “Marcha por la dignidad” (March for Dignity) immigration rally and march up State Street Sunday, April 9, 2006. Although we knew only a handful of Latino people from salsa dancing and elsewhere, we ran into an amazing number of acquaintances in this huge crowd! Our hearts runneth over with the love we experienced from them; below, right: “kiss-in” protest at the Salt Lake City temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints against the banishment of the display of handholding or other physical affection between gay couples on church grounds.
AND THEN THERE WAS RODNEY KING AND… ERIC GARNER AND… GEORGE FLOYD… AND, THIS WEEK, RAYSHARD BROOKS
During the very time at the end of 1983 when Peter and I were selling our house and packing our possessions for our move to our naive version of the US as “non-racist” (a more realistic version would have been “not as racist systemically as South Africa, but still racist) , a young African-American man named Michael Stewart was arrested by New York transit police for writing three letters with a marker on the tile wall at the First Avenue L-train station. “Police handcuffed him so tightly that his hands turned blue, and threw him, face down, onto the concrete. One of them sat on top of him. He struggled, tried to run, screamed. They bound his feet, so he was trussed up like an animal. At one point, there were 11 cops around him. They put him in the back of a police van and took him to Bellevue Hospital. During that journey he was strangled, and when they got to Bellevue, he had stopped breathing. His face was blue from lack of air. At the hospital they resuscitated him, and kept him in a coma for 13 days until he took his last breath. He was only 25 years old” (“Michael Stewart was Murdered“).
Michael Stewart with friend David Ilku in a modeling shoot. (“Michael Stewart was Murdered“)
“During the investigation that followed, the New York medical examiner removed Michael’s eyes from his head and bleached them, whitewashing the burst blood vessels that were a sign of asphyxiation. He’d tried to hide the signs of strangulation. Michael died because he couldn’t breathe.
“There were no serious consequences. The medical examiner was fired two years later. A grand jury was convened, then dismissed. Another grand jury indicted six transit cops, but all of them were acquitted in a trial in 1985. Years later, Michael’s family did get a $1.7 million settlement.”
Demonstration against the medical examiner that tried to hide the signs of Michael’s strangulation by police. Screen grab from “Who Killed Michael Stewart?,” a video documentary by Franck Lazare Goldberg.
Like Stewart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who made the art piece “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)” shortly after the young man’s death in 1983, lived in New York City during the early 1980s and was young, middle class, handsome, dreadlocked, and black. They moved in the same creative circles in the East Village and Lower East Side bohemia. After Stewart’s death, an acquaintance that Stewart and Basquiat had in common, Keith Haring, told friends “with bitter wonderment, that he’d been arrested four times for marking, yet, as a sassy but nice white lad, he was always let go with, at worst, offhand insults to his unconcealed gayness.” However, Basquiat, who’d had some scary encounters with police before, said, “It could have been me.” While visiting Haring in his studio shortly after hearing the news, the artist used marker and acrylics to dash off a sketch of two fiendish cops beating an armless, legless figure on a graffiti-crowded plasterboard wall. Unrelated tags of other graffitists and random froths of spray paint share the surface. Before moving out of his studio in 1985, Haring cut the image from the wall, in a rectangle about two feet high and two and a half feet wide. In 1989, a year after Basquiat’s death, at twenty-seven, from a heroin overdose, Haring had a decorator put it into a fancy gilt frame and hung it above his bed. “Defacement is…unfiltered. It’s not showing this noble aspect of someone’s humanity. It’s just the rawness of what happened. It is simply a black man standing in the reality of a black man, in the face of state-sanctioned violent offenders who can, in one single moment, kill those who they are sworn to protect. (“Basquiat’s Memorial to a Young Artist Killed by Police,” New Yorker, 2019.)
The Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) could stand for a memorial as well as a foreboding of the deaths of so many other people of color who met their ends at the hands of police- or other racist-driven violence, reaching back to Emmett Till, and gathering up Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the many others in between and after, up to George Floyd—and now Rayshard Brooks. To do justice to them, we must find ways to SAY THEIR NAMES, like the Baby Names Website and the Minneapolis Cemetary Installation just blocks away from where George Floyd was killed.
WE WHITE ANTI-RACIST ALLIES MUST DO MORE THAN JUST “SAY THEIR NAMES”
- We must listen to what people of color have to tell us
- We must protest (wearing masks) if we are young and healthy enough to do so
- We must educate ourselves, e.g., read “An Essential Anti-Racist Reading List,” Mireille Cassandra Harper’s Non-Optical Allyship Guide, Ten Commandments for White People
- We must buy or get our library to order Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi to read to our children, grandchildren, godchildren, and/or any other children we can round up
- We must help register people (particularly those in disadvantaged communities) to vote
- We must, if we can, donate to anti-racist organizations, whether you choose one that does sociopolitical advocacy or one that helps people experiencing food insecurity as a result of the Covid-19 epidemic, a slice of the population in which people of color are overwhelmingly overrepresented
- We must listen again to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream”
- We must advocate for an end to systemic medical discrimination and all other forms of systemic inequities. We must vet our election candidates based on all of these considerations and then WE MUST VOTE