Last week I delivered the W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard University. In this series of lectures I took up issues surrounding African American citizenship in the contemporary United States. I tried to think about how the years between Hurricane Katrina and the election of Barack Obama have created new opportunities for African Americans to address the problematic explained by Du Bois as "double consciousness."
Immediately after the lectures I boarded a plane for Cape Town, South Africa. This is my first trip to South Africa and it has proven to be a perfect destination for continuing engagement with the issues of black citizenship.
Tourist areas reflect the power of global capitalism and cultural imperialism; making shopping for groceries and clothing entirely indistinguishable from an American shopping experience. Television and radio are completely familiar, as are brands, styles, and dining.
Despite its surface familiarity, the legacy of apartheid is an ashen residue still overlaying every interaction here. For tourists, black South African culture is carefully delimited to public spaces that entertain rather than educate. There is no escaping the harsh racial segmentation of labor and leisure.It is election season here in South Africa. Every highway and street corner is dotted with campaign signs. The candidates are racially diverse and each party proclaims the goals of national unity and progress. Democratic Alliance posters are even using a modified version of the rising sun motif from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as their symbol.
While the symbols of political power reflect changes in racial opportunity, the structures of employment and residence belie much stickier inequality.
It is into this space that I entered after a week spent thinking about the challenges of double consciousness. At the turn of the century Du Bois wrote that black Americans only escape the feeling of being a problem in "babyhood and Europe." But Cape Town has also shifted the gaze of "amused contempt and pity" that I normally feel in the U.S.
Here in South Africa I feel very American. Like many black folks, it is easier to feel American abroad than at home. Even in this small, flat world with a largely homogenous culture my accent and personal carriage immediately identify me. That American-ness marks me for good and for ill. Most difficult for me, it immediately creates and maintains a painful space between me and the black South Africans whom I hope to engage across the class chasms that separate us.
I arrived here in South Africa on April 4,the forty-first anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways my country has become a radically different place during those four decades. After all, as I landed here, my own president was visiting Europe. My president is a black man whose father was born here on this continent. My father was born into the American apartheid of the Jim Crow South, but his daughter is a tenured professor at an Ivy League university. Many things feel different. Many things are different.
But being in Cape Town is a stunning reminder that the collapse of legal segregation, the opening of limited class mobility, and even the secure representation of black people in national politics does not heal the brutality of entrenched racial injustice.
There is still so much work to do.