Thursday, March 20

Beyond America’s Original Sin


There are things you come to believe and things you carry in your blood. In my case, having spent part of my childhood in apartheid South Africa, I bear my measure of shame.

As a child, experience is wordless but no less powerful for that. How vast, how shimmering, was Muizenberg beach, near Cape Town, with all that glistening white skin spread across the golden sand!

The scrawny blacks were elsewhere, swimming off the rocks in a filthy harbor, and I watched from my grandfather’s house and I wondered.

Once, a black nanny took me out across the road to a parapet above a rail track beside that harbor. “You wouldn’t want me to drop you,” she said.

The fear I felt lingered. I returned recently to measure how far I would have fallen. In memory, the abyss plunged 100 feet. Reality revealed a drop of 10. That discrepancy measures a child’s panic.

A “For Sale” sign was up on what had been the family house. I inquired if I might visit and received a surly rebuff. But not before I glimpsed the mountain behind where my father hiked and where I feared the snakes among the thorn bushes.

Fear, shadowy as the sharks beyond the nets at Muizenberg, was never quite absent from our sunlit African sojourns. My own was formed of disorientation: I was not quite of the system because my parents had emigrated from Johannesburg to London. So, on return visits, I wandered into blacks-only public toilet or sat on a blacks-only bench.

Blacks only — and I was white. Apartheid entered my consciousness as a kind of self-humiliation. The black women who bathed me as an infant touched my skin, but their world was untouchable.

Only later did a cruel system come into focus. I see white men, gin and tonics on their breath, red meat on their plates, beneath the jacarandas of Johannesburg, sneering at the impossibility of desiring a black woman.

A racial divide, once lived, dwells in the deepest parts of the psyche. This is what was captured by Barack Obama’s pitch-perfect speech on race. Slavery was indeed America’s “original sin.” Of course, “the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” lives on in forms of African-American humiliation and anger that smolder in ways incommunicable to whites.

Segregation placed American blacks in the U.S. equivalent of that filthy African harbor.

It takes bravery, and perhaps an unusual black-white vantage point, to navigate these places where hurt is profound, incomprehension the rule, just as it takes courage to say, as Obama did, that black “anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.”

Progress, since the Civil Rights Movement, or since apartheid, has assuaged the wounds of race but not closed them. To carry my part of shame is also to carry a clue to the vortexes of rancor for which Obama has uncovered words.

I understand the rage of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, however abhorrent its expression at times. I admire Obama for saying: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

Honesty feels heady right now. For seven years, we have lived with the arid, us-against-them formulas of Bush’s menial mind, with the result that the nuanced exploration of America’s hardest subject is almost giddying. Can it be that a human being, like Wright, or like Obama’s grandmother, is actually inhabited by ambiguities? Can an inquiring mind actually explore the half-shades of truth?

Yes. It. Can.

The unimaginable South African transition that Nelson Mandela made possible is a reminder that leadership matters. Words matter. The clamoring now in the United States for a presidency that uplifts rather than demeans is a reflection of the intellectual desert of the Bush years.

Hillary Clinton said in January that: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” Wrong. America’s had its fill of the prosaic.

The unthinkable can come to pass. When I was a teenager, my relatives advised me to enjoy the swimming pools of Johannesburg because “next year they will be red with blood.”

But the inevitable bloodbath never came. Mandela walked out of prison and sought reconciliation, not revenge. Later Mandela would say: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Like countless others, I came to America because possibility is broader here than in Europe’s narrower confines. Perhaps it’s my African “original sin,” but when Obama says he “will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible,” I feel fear slipping away, like a shadow receding before the still riveting idea that “out of many we are truly one.”