Apartheid, Racism, & Mixed Race People

Comedian Trevor Noah is a very funny guy. But he can be very serious too. His memoir Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood helped me understand apartheid, which he calls “apart-hate” for good reasons. 

According to Noah, “Apartheid was perfect racism.”

He describes the horrors of this system:

In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.

In other words, American racist policies contributed to the suffering and oppression of black South Africans in the twentieth century. This is a legacy of shame for all involved.

NoahNoah was born in 1984, ironically in an Orwellian police state that was South Africa. His status was complicated because he was mixed race. This wasn’t supposed to happen with anti-miscegenation laws in place. As the offspring of an African mother and European father, Noah came into the world as evidence that a crime had been committed. He writes, “…[O]ne of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race.”

While his stories are hard-hitting, they’re also heart-warming. He deploys his humor strategically. Despite his struggles and hardships, I felt uplifted in recognizing that his story is actually about how the love of his fearless mother contributed to his survival and success.

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In a racist U.S., mixed race people also face challenges. Not so much in Hawai’i although other racial issues persist.

Anti-miscegenation laws were designed to prevent different races, primarily Blacks and Whites in the U.S., from fraternizing socially and producing mixed-race children. Black people were not supposed to be equal to Whites; they weren’t supposed to be as human as Whites, so these laws were another attempt to dehumanize them, to mark them as “other.” In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these laws were unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. 

Hawai’i was one of nine states that never enacted such laws. In any case, they could not have been enforced, especially between military personnel and the local population when hordes of white men arrived in the islands in the late 1930s in advance of a likely war with Japan.

James Jones’s novel From Here to Eternity features these relationships. While his depiction of local characters are flat and caricatures more than realistic, I believe he accurately describes the predictable racial tensions. 

Another view of these racial tensions is recorded in Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History. In this book, John P. Rosa, professor of history at the University of Hawai’i, reveals the tragic consequences of racial conflict and the resulting racial injustice when military personnel accused several local boys of murder in the early 1930s, subsequently killing one of the boys. 

According to Rosa, these events galvanized the different ethnic groups into what has become Hawai’i’s local culture. Hordes of white servicemen, a transient population, arrived from the mainland where segregation laws and racist attitudes toward nonwhites were in place. How the military conducted itself in this case was a precursor to events during World War II when martial law was imposed in Hawai’i. I believe a case can be made that such military control was racially motivated.

An undercurrent of tension in varying degrees between locals and White people continues today. Male White privilege that justified colonization of the islands and eventual removal of its queen in order control the government to promote business interests, as well as the above incidents, provide the context for such tensions. 

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Remembering a Beloved Author

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

Toni

She made me think about our country’s dark history of slavery, the American identity tied to these atrocities and other acts of emotional and physical abuse against nonwhite Americans, and the legacy of these events. She made me think hard and deeply. Her words pierced my body, compelling me to comprehend the pain of those oppressed.

I don’t remember where I first heard about the novel Beloved, but I tried to read it twice and had to put it down. Morrison’s words were incomprehensible, full of such power and generational pain I was not accustomed to at the time.

In 1993, I was a working adult determined to complete my B.A. at the University of Washington, Bothell. I elected to take an Independent Study course on Black American Literature. Reading The Bluest Eye introduced me to Morrison’s literary ethos and gave me a context for appreciating and completing Beloved.

Here’s an excerpt from a response paper to Beloved for that class:

Can any form of violence, even one based on a mother’s love, be a real solution? In this novel, Sethe chooses one form of violence (death) over another (slavery) and ends up with another form of violence that harmed all the people she loved (Baby Suggs and her children) with alienation, fear, and mistrust. And yet, given the history of violence that is synonymous with slavery, which was the context for her decision, did Sethe really have any other choice? Furthermore, what does this history of violence against blacks say about America and present-day problems that black Americans confront?

Reading Morrison is often challenging. She asks readers important questions, some they’d rather not think about or might not have ever considered before. She requires critical thinking beyond her characters and stories, often pushing readers into uncomfortable places, forcing their minds and hearts to open in new ways.

Reading and re-reading her words are often necessary to appreciate the complexity of her characters and the unfolding story.

Morrison writes about black lives that hold true for many people of all colors. She appeals to our humanity while revealing our inhumanity to each other. Her truth-telling often promotes discomfort, yet it’s a necessary discomfort that can result in transformation. She gives us darkness so that we can recognize the light.

I, like so many, have been changed and blessed by Morrison and her fearless commitment to the truth about our violent history, women’s lives, and issues of equality that still haunt us.

In a Washington Post article (August 9, 2019), Michelle Obama says:

For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions.

Here’s a link to an interview of Morrison with Pam Houston from Oprah.com: “Precious Moments a Writer Lives For.”

Note: Thank you to artist Nina Krebs for giving me permission to post this portrait–a painting/collage with book titles on Morrison’s blouse and excerpts from pages of her books haloed in the background.

Presidential

This week marked the unveiling of the official portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. It was wonderful timing in a month to honor African American history, to remember this historic president as the first African American U.S. president. But let me make it even more clear and more broad: Obama was the first non-white President, someone that most people of color identified with and loved.

Other historic points: Both portraits were by African American artists, the first to be given such commissions. Kehinde Wiley painted the President, and Amy Sherald depicted the First Lady. The portraits will hang in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (Images available on CNN link below.)

These were consequential events, an intersection of art and history, for all Americans.

CNN reported:

The former first lady said she was thinking about the impact Sherald’s work will have on “girls and girls of color.”
“They will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution … And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls,” she said.

The unveiling also was a powerful reminder of the dignity and humanity that we expect in our presidents and that Barack Obama exemplifies. By selecting these

Barack_Obama_2009-10-26artists, he and Michelle were making a thoughtful statement about who we are, about our talents and gifts, about race in America.

While words are important, wise leaders know their actions speak louder than words.

Note: Netflix is featuring a 2017 interview of Obama by David Letterman. It offers an oasis of calm and wit from the current chaos in our nation’s capital. Another reminder of presidential.

 

Terracotta Warriors of Ancient China

This summer we in Seattle have been fortunate to see the touring exhibit of the Terra-cotta Warriors of China’s first emperor. Archeologists are still excavating the site in Xi’an, China, where thousands more are still buried. So far approximately 2,000 of these clay soldiers have been discovered and reassembled. There could be 8,000 more plus life-size horses, chariots, and weapons.

They were produced more than 2,000 years ago to ensure the protection and power of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di in the afterlife. This emperor had the power and wealth to furnish his tomb with whatever he desired for the next life. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and craftsmanship. The exhibit at the Pacific Science Center displays only a fraction of the unearthed artifacts. One display features an assembly line of laborers forming the clay, using   molds for various parts of the body, attaching the pieces, individualizing the heads, then carrying the finished product to the fire pit.

terracotta warriors1

The numbers are impressive, not just the quantity of these soldiers and generals produced, but their individual faces and the immaculate detail of their armor, hair, and headgear that mirror the military dress requirements of those times. I wonder whose faces they replicated. Did they use their own and their fellow laborers? Their family members? We will probably never know.

Archeologists have confirmed that these warriors once were painted in brilliant colors, which have since disintegrated. Finding this army was astounding enough, but then the discovery of the rich details provided for each soldier confirms that no expense was spared to meet the emperor’s requirements.

Indeed, how many laborers would it have taken to construct this memorial site, dig the pits for the army to stand in, produce the materials for these warriors and other bronze artifacts, craft everything, and house and feed everyone? The untouched tomb itself probably holds incredible riches. Experts estimate it took ten years and over 700,000 laborers to complete.

As a writer, I want the untold stories of these laborers, presumably slaves. However, these likely would not be happy stories. Just as it’s not likely there were any records kept that might have survived or that any of these laborers might have been literate and kept some kind of diary. Was there great suffering? Did the laborers experience moments of pride, even awe, in being involved in such a grand project, something never done before? Did the laborers even know this project was for the emperor?

What we know is that after years of hard labor, everyone working on the site was killed to safeguard the location and all that it contained. They were exterminated and buried in mass graves.

The exhibit was worth seeing. However, lurking below the magnificence and wonder of it all, we find once again the very real human cost of grandiose achievements. The best and worst of humanity is on display with China’s Terracotta Warriors.