18 August 2009
Truth ampersand Reconciliation
I'm reading poetry by Dennis Brutus, a South African poet and activist (thank you kindly, Will, for the introduction). His poetry, first of all, is beautiful. The few pieces I've read take me into his jail cell (he was imprisoned at Robben Island for 18 months) and strike my bones. It's honest, lyrical, haunting.
So as I've read more about him, I learned that he refused an induction in the South African Sports Hall of Fame at the end of last year. His activism played a major role in an international sports boycott of apartheid South Africa, which banned them from the Olympics starting in 1970 and ending with the fall of apartheid. I suppose they wanted to honor him for his commitment to bettering SA sports. But Brutus publicly declined the induction, stating that many of the people currently in the Hall of Fame are there at an "unfair advantage, as so many talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities." So he gracefully (much to the chagrin of the committee, I'm sure) declined, saying that "it is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It's time--indeed long past time--for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation."
I find this story quite interesting to think of how brave it is to really call a people to real reconciliation. When South Africa became a new country, the waved a new flag, sang a new national anthem, adopted many new national languages. These are mostly symbolic, but they are the necessary symbols to begin saying, "we are truly going to live into something new." I love that Brutus is calling even the Sports Hall of Fame to the same kind of newness, even to simply recognize the fallacy of their work during the apartheid era. If a country is going to live into truth and reconciliation and even champion the cause, it must do it in all facets of its life.
My sister L and I have been discussing for years, "why hasn't the U.S. had our intentional process of truth and reconciliation?" We have certainly come a long way. I am a generation removed from any strange fruit dangling from southern trees. Our president is biracial. No doubt that we are in a far better place. And, yet, I still can't wrap my mind around Emmett Till's 1955 lynching and how his murderers actually confessed to the murder without any justice being served or any intentional moves toward reconciling their wrong.
And we have so many examples of where we never spoke the truths or really reconciled. In fact, my friend K and I were talking the other day about how taboo it still is to talk about race in the U.S. Having both spent time in South Africa, we were impressed with how freely the people we met speak of race (sometimes appropriately and sometimes offensively--but the taboo of addressing race doesn't seem as strong). Whereas here, I've heard people remark that President Obama's election has started to awaken bitter race relations in our country. This is not true. This divide has been alive and very much awake (just look at a photograph of a high school cafeteria in Greenville, SC); we just don't talk about it or acknowledge it or look it in the eye. The election placed a mirror in front of us and forced us to see the truth: we've never really intentionally reconciled. Our flag still looks the same. Our song still sounds the same. Some people boycott MLK's birthday celebration. I get followed at a three-letter clothing store because I'm a black woman of a certain age, while 14-year-old and white Johnny stuffs a baseball cap under his shirt. Hispanic people are consistent targets of racial profiling. I'm still an "other" in this nation that has been mine since birth, and I'm labeled "bitter" or an "angry black woman" whenever I mention this.
We have miles to go before we sleep, and I hope that we'll be so moved to practice truth and reconciliation in our future days. Only when we hear each others' stories and begin to hear/see each other can we move toward healing.