Sometimes you never know the experience you’re having until you’ve had it. In South Africa, I sat on balconies in hammocks, I drank wine on rooftop patios, I stood in the high courts, and walked the Apartheid Museum. Statues and images of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela watched over my shoulder from almost anywhere in the city. Heroes from the war against apartheid are tattooed on the walls that line the roads.
I walked in wonderment taking pictures of things locals probably found normal or wished not to be publicized. I eavesdropped on conversations behind me just to hear the sound of the language. I watched as women with babies tied to their backs in cloths and objects balanced on their heads casually walked the modern streets.
The first day I was there, I distinctly remember thinking, “So this is what it’s like to be a part of the majority.” Odd. Not because it was a first time. But because I’ve been so used to being considered/treated as “minor” in my own country for so long that it never occurred to me what it would feel like to see mostly black people in a whole city and not just a part of town.
I’m being assumptive here but I think it’s a feeling that few Black Americans know. There are certain experiences that you will never have until you leave the country. I don’t mean to sound arrogant. But I do mean to make you consider finding out exactly what I mean.
As a person of color in a country designed to mistreat people of color, it’s hard to imagine a world where black is consistently all things. Black is businessman, entrepreneur, homeless, poor, powerful, powerless, blue collar, white collar, educated or not. Black is all those things while being neither the exception nor the expectation. For the first time, black just was.
It’s a country where black took its power back. I’ve never felt so empowered and deflated at the same time. Because how can Black America take back power that was never theirs to begin with?
Now, I know what this may sound like. So let me clarify that I am not suggesting a mass exodus (but I’m not not suggesting it either). I know many people who would say, “I am American. This is my country. And I’m not going anywhere.” And I’m not challenging that. I know some may say, “My people built this country. They bled, sweat, and cried here.” And that’s true. But let’s be clear. They didn’t want to. They weren’t given a choice. But you are.
Again, I’m not suggesting every Black American pack their bags and leave the U.S. for their country of ancestral origin (although right now that might be safer; but I digress). But I am suggesting a mass pilgrimage of sorts. Why? Because you, too, should know the feeling of touching land where the history of your existence isn’t rooted in submission, steeped in false inadequacy, and chained to suppression. You, too, deserve to touch a land where your people were born of and to freedom. That is a feeling I could never convey with words.
Only a few decades out of apartheid, South Africa is prickled with its own racial issues and problems and in many ways continues its own battles. I’m not so naïve to think otherwise. But standing in a modern land with its city infrastructure that you’ve only seen depicted as underdeveloped, starving, and what they have coined “barbaric” makes you want to seek what they are trying to hide.
At the end of the day, I could tell you I felt foreign in a foreign land; because I am and I was. I could tell you I was like a deer in headlights when they spoke languages that should have been my own. I could tell you how I felt shame when they realized I didn’t understand them.
Or, I could tell you how I felt oddly at home between the clicks of their words. I could tell you their language sang an anthem I’d never been taught but still understood on some basic level. I could tell you how their stares turned to smiles of welcome as if they saw me for both who I was and who I would have been had my path and the paths of those before me not been ripped from us.
I could tell you how when I told them I was from the U.S., they smiled warmly, opened their arms and genuinely said, “Welcome home, my sister.” I could tell you how I’m writing this through tears because it seems impossible to even think of it with dry eyes. I could tell you how I graciously accepted their hug of welcome for my grandmothers who will never receive it and my ancestors who once longed for it.
I could tell you. Or you could go and feel it for yourself.