Here in Cape Town I have had to confront the global reach of U.S. black cultural exportation.
I have heard the following statements from black South Africans:
"Racism seems to be much worse in the United States. From television I can see that even though you have so much education you are always complaining that there are not enough opportunities in America. It must be very hard to struggle against such a powerful system."
"Oh yes, we use the word Ni***r here, but not in an ugly way, only in a regular way."
"I know all about Katrina and New Orleans. That was a terrible, racist thing that happened."
"We are all so excited about Barack Obama. We had Nelson Mandela. He was a legend, but too old when he became president. Obama is young so he can do great things for the whole world."
These moments have pushed me to think more carefully about what black Americans are exporting to the rest of the African world and African Diaspora.
Political struggles of black Americans have been inspirational for anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid movements here on the continent, and our ability to voice discontent against continuing racial inequality is an important model of political agency. But, it is stunning to hear that this discontent may create the impression that the United States is a harsher racial environment than post-Apartheid South Africa.
It is powerful and wonderful to hear the music of my young adulthood pumping in the middle of the night in a South African club. I can remember when many believed that hip hop would not survive a decade; now it is the global cultural expression of urban youth. But my enjoyment of hip hop's cosmopolitan reach is tempered by the anxiety I have about hearing so many young, black South Africans grooving to the N-word.
I was important to hear that the suffering of the people of New Orleans reached across the world and pricked the consciousness of those so far away. But it was also difficult to bear up under the gaze of pity from an outsider who was shocked to see evidence of our continuing disfranchisement.
It was easy to fall into conversation about President Obama and thrilling to learn how closely his campaign was followed and how inspirational it was to so many. But it is frightening to watch Obama's campaign symbols and slogans appropriated by a party that locals describe as "the old Apartheid machine."
In my first days here I felt so American. But now I am feeling more like a global citizen and wondering about my responsibilities to this larger whole.