Thursday, May 07, 2009


--From the Freedom Charter

Dateline: April 38, 2009

The one thing I really wanted to do in Jo-burg was have a good tour of Soweto. After lots of searching, Ellen found one on the internet, JMT Tours []. They are a family-owned business and the tour guide, one of the sons, was very knowledgeable and political. He wanted to make sure that we understood the class differences within Soweto. So, he started at the upper income homes--places you never see in the news about the township.

The highlight was at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. It is one of the finest museums I've ever seen. Lots of old photos and videos. Just being in the surroundings helped me understand the 1976 uprising. We were very moved.

We asked to be taken by Winnie Mandala's house--felt like a pilgrimage.

These photos are from that last day.

Middle class housing

The Infamous Hostels

The hostels with new replacement houses in background

"Informal" Housing

Houses designed to replace slums

These gold mine dumps dot the Jo-burg landscape:
reminders of the past

Obama/Mandela t-shirts

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

Inside the museum, there's a great photo of a teenager carrying a sign that says:
"No More Uncle Toms"
Then, outside, Uncle Tom's Community Center is part of the memorial

Winnie's well-protected house

Mandela's House

Kids singing Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika
note the hands on their hearts

Last Day in Cape Town

Dateline April 26, 2009

This is our last night in Cape Town. It's off to Jozi (Johannesburg) in the morning. I don't think I've been someplace for just under 3 weeks and been so sad to leave. We were so lucky to meet such a warm and political group of women our first full day here at a party hosted by Evelyn Bester. We decided we should throw a party for them last night. We had so much fun laughing and telling stories. The last people didn't leave until 5AM!

Today, Mercia and Shirley picked us up with Aunty Flori, whom we met at the beginning of the trip. Remember, she was first person Ellen interviewed and was deeply involved in the anti-apartheid movement as a labor organizer. She insisted that she wanted to see us one more time to show us Breakwater Prison. We're so glad she did. This prison's notoriety goes back to the 19th century when indigenous people were just rounded up and put in prison to better exploit their labor. This was also where the anti-apartheid activists were placed before Robben's Island.

The weird thing about the prison is that it serves as a hotel and business school today. I think the hotel is some kind of new form of historical tourism. "Stay in the lap of luxury while you tour the infamous treadmills that prisoners were forced to run on for hours at a time". Meanwhile the people who work there try real hard not to know anything about the history. Real weird.

Here's what they say in their literature:
It [the Treadmill] was a cruel invention and was the customary penalty for laziness and petty jail offenses. The prisoners had to keep a steady pace and if the men slackened off, the rotating planks would then lacerate their shins. A man could spend a day from 9AM to 5PM climbing these endless stairs with only 5 minutes rest every half hour. The Treadmill can still be viewed today and is located at the end of the row of isolation cells in the upper parking area.
What a way to advertise a hotel!

But Aunty Flori wanted us to see the prison because her people had been imprisoned there. She wanted us to understand how savage the initial conquest of the people was. I also got to see what a pan-Africanist she was. She kept saying to me quietly that Black Americans must come to South Africa and learn about the struggles. She inscribed a book, "The future belongs to us."

Book of punishments from 1890s. If one had a dirty bed, you lost the "privilege" of having a bed for a month. Taking coffee when not entitled: 2 days solitary confinement. Refusing to take porridge: 3 days solitary confinement.

Misc. photos from Cape Town:

The 2 Eveyln's and Elle at Willie and Evelyn Bester's artistic house

Table Mountain at sunset

Monday, May 04, 2009

Up-Country with Diana Ferrus

Dateline April 24, 2009

We took a trip up-country to Worcester with Diana Ferris. It's a couple hours drive up into beautiful mountains. Diana is the woman most responsible for bringing Sarah Bartman's bones back to South Africa from France. [Check out] She wanted us to see the gorgeous valley in the Du Toitskloof Mountains. There is this amazing tunnel, the longest I've ever been in, through the mountain. I can just imagine what the cost of lives was in building this thing!

Here's Diana's poem:
I've come to take you home -
home, remember the veld?
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wretch you away -
away from the poking eyes
of the man-made monster
who lives in the dark
with his clutches of imperialism
who dissects your body bit by bit
who likens your soul to that of Satan
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart
I offer my bosom to your weary soul
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands
I will run my lips over lines in your neck
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you
and I will sing for you
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name.
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white -
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you
for you have brought me peace.

Diana Ferrus on the way to her home town

Agro-business, SA Style [This is what the fighting was about.]

The Du Toitskloof Mountains

Du Toitskloof Mountains

The mountain almost swallows Ellen

The tunnel entrance

Diana with her beloved niece, Joy

Townships and Sexuality

Dateline April 21, 2009
Yesterday, we got to go into Gugulethu Township again. This time we went to learn about lesbian life in the township. We had a connection through our friend Zanele to a very courageous woman, Ndumie Funda of Luleki'Sizwe, whose fiance was raped and consequently infected with the virus. She died of AIDS a couple of years ago.

Ndumie has taken as her raison d'ĂȘtre supporting lesbians in the townships who have been raped or beaten because of their sexuality.. There have been a spate of murders of lesbians--particularly butch-looking lesbians--and there was very little outcry. We know that South Africa has a wonderful constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientations and a same-sex civil marriage law. But things are still not safe.

I'm reminded of the Combahee River Collective that organized when several black women were killed in Boston with little outcry. That organization led to some of the best black feminist activism and theory.

Ndumie in fron of her cabin in Gugulethu township

We Finally Meet some Young People

Pam, Liesl, and Musa took us in hand on Saturday and showed us a great time. We were excited because we were going to get to spend some time in a township, Gugulethu. Along the way, we picked up a young transperson who is a refugee from Zimbabwe. We stuffed six people in this little tiny car.

We started at a famous braai [barbecue place] called Mzoli's. You walk in and come face to face with lots of different kinds of meat and you have to choose what you want. Elle and I both got mutton. Then they put the meat for the group on a platter or in a bowl and you take it to the cooks-- mostly men with red jumpsuits and sometimes white aprons and/or blue t-shirts. How they keep track of everyone's orders on the long pits, I don't know.

It's true, vegetarians would hate this place. But I loved it. The meat was sooo sweet, the music was jumping, and we were with great company. We were there before the rush, there was going to be lots of beer drinking and dancing but we didn't stick around for that.

We were joined there by Unathi Sigenu from the Gugulective, an arts collective in Gugulethu that our friends Zanele and Gabi turned us on to. They are a group of seven artists who do challenging conceptual art. Their space is behind a shebeen [township bar], a place they have chosen to challenge the image of shebeens. This shebeen is what they consider a respectable place. Right next door is a not so respectable. There you could see the ravages of apartheid on people sitting in alcoholic stupors in the middle of the day.

I know that Cape Town isn't typical of all of South Africa. But here is where you see one of the main reasons that white people were fighting to keep power. The country is so very beautiful. They kept the best spots for themselves--the coast and the mountain. Coloured people were forced down on the Cape Flats and blacks, herded in the townships, both moved around at the seeming whim of the government. The police are not as ever present in the townships as they were before independence but it isn't hard to imagine them cruising up and down the streets and illuminating entire areas with bright lights.

This is not an oppression you wipe away in 15 years or 20. The 90% at the bottom still live in crushing poverty and limited opportunities. Alcoholism makes perfect sense to me. I've looked at people sitting in the shebeens or stumbling down the street who were f**ed up. They remind me of my relatives from my parents' generation--thwarted at every turn, liquor was a blessing and a refuge.
Liesl, Musa, and Pam

Artist Madoda Fani

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Cape Town is Exhausting

Many of my friends suggested that I take time to rest while I'm in Cape Town; but there really isn't time. There's so much to see and so many people to meet.

We were introduced to Florence de Villiers by Mercia and Shirley, whom we had met at the Friday night party of fierce women. Aunty Flori is a truly radical woman who told us stories about her anti-apartheid work. We were so lucky to be in her presence.

Attached to this note is are pictures from the V&A Waterfront--a beautiful tourist attraction-- Aunty Flori and our wonderful hosts, Mercia and Shirley. You'll see that the Obama T- shirts were a big hit! Oh yeah, there's also a photo of a figure who looks strikingly like a mammy doll. I wonder if it has the same connotation.

V&A Waterfront

Is this the South African Mammy?

Mercia, Aunty Flori, and Shirley


Day 2 in Cape Town

Yesterday was such an exciting day that I'm just trying to recover from it. We started out at around 11:30 with our old friend from the States, Judyie Al-Bilali, who brought with her a guide, Mary Hegarty, who took us on a great ride from Cape Town to Hout Bay then up the the east side of Table Mountain to Bloubergstrand and Table View. During the trip, we saw lots of lovely coastline, Table Mountain from many views, and had lunch at a winery.

Judyie is someone who Ellen and I met through our friend Terry Jenoure but at very different times. Judyie, who unfortunately for us, leaves for the States on Tuesday, has done wonderful things for us here like make sure we got picked up at the Cape Town airport and get Mary to give us a tour. Mary is an American who moved here for love about 10 years ago. She makes a living as a CranioSacral Therapist, what ever that is. It reminds me of craniology.

Judyie saved the best for last. We went to a party of women artists that was hosted by Evelyn Bester. We had a fabulous time and didn't get home until about 2AM. They were all women of color: some "Black Afrikaans," some mixed Indian and San, and some mixtures that I couldn't guess at. The energy in the room was exciting. There were both straight and bisexual women there and they were all so open to me and Ellen. More on some of the formidable women later.

Table Mountain

Atlantic Coast
Evelyn Bester's Party

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Only Half the Picture

We have wonderful guests here this weekend. All are artists and all are well worth paying attention to. Thursday afternoon, our dear friend, Clarissa Sligh, came by to stay until Sunday. She’s based in Philadelphia and North Carolina and has had quite a distinguished career as an art photographer. She’s done so many different kinds of projects, from documenting Jake in transition, to the Masculinity Project to an exposĂ© on incest, Reframing the Past. She has a great website here. Note that the opening photo was taken by my girl, Ellen Eisenman [ ].

Second on the scene was Zanele Muholi, a new friend and a fantastic young photographer from South Africa. Google her and check her out here. We have had very intense discussions about being a black lesbian in South Africa and the recent history of black feminism here in the US. Her book, Only Half the Picture, published by Michael Stevenson in 2006, can be found on

In the book, Pumia Dineo Gqola writes a moving essay, “Through Zanele Muholi’s eyes: Re/imagining ways of seeing Black lesbians.”

Paying attention to Muholi’s images requires grappling with the competing and nuanced meanings highlighted in the represented subjects. They underline the importance of seeing the agency—life choices, decisions, failures, confusions, discoveries, rejections—of the Black lesbian in the picture…. These images are shaped by, respond to, and sometimes start off from circulating ideas about Black South African lesbians. Muholi’s vision holds challenges for all of us who claim to see (Black) lesbian sexuality regardless of whether we do so in the interest of transformation or oppression…. Muholi’s work contains new insights for all audiences who respond to her invitation to think about lesbian lives seriously” [p. 84].

The series [“Period”] normalizes Black lesbians as women. It positions the most reviled women through images of the most abhorrent—albeit normal—aspect of women’s lives. It shows Black lesbians bleeding uncontrollably, messily and stickily, like the rest of ‘us’. Muholi’s normalizing of Black lesbian sexuality positions it as part of the continuum of women’s sexuality at the same time that she plays with notions of what is ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ [p. 86].

I find myself looking at only bits and pieces of the book at a time because nearly every photo causes me to think and feel so much.

Finally, Gabi Ngcobo showed up after 12AM.  Our weekend guests had all arrived.  More on her in the next entry.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Andrew Wyeth and James 'Dick' White

Learning that Andrew Wyeth died this week made me nostalgic for my father. In one of his many extra jobs, my father was a deliveryman for a pharmacy near where Wyeth lived and Dad used to make deliveries to him. Wyeth said he wanted to paint him. I remember first being very disappointed that my father didn’t want to follow up on this. He’d have a kind of fame.

Later, I was glad Dad didn’t pursue this. I came to think that he would look like some generic old black man. I didn’t think that Wyeth could capture the Dick White I knew. I’d like to put in a picture here from Wyeth for comparison. But here are just three photos of my father the way I like to think about him and here's a link to some Wyeth portraits. [Scroll down about 2/3rds] 

Dick at 18 in his Howard High School Class of 1929 photo

Dick with his roses in the backyard

Dick with his young brother

Saturday, January 10, 2009

There They Go Again!

I just laughed when I saw the Times headline Trying to Change Its Face, G.O.P. Weighs a Black Chairman []. It seems the Republicans are playing the Race Card again. 

But it also got me thinking as I often have about the meaning of the Race Card in this society. I had similar thoughts when I saw that Illinois’ disgraced Gov. Blagojevich appoint Roland W. Burris to replace Obama in the Senate. That was a pretty cynical use of the card; but Burris was right in there playing his own version of the card, too.

Here are just a few of my questions:
  • Who gets to play the race card most often—blacks or whites? Let’s admit it, we all use the race card at some point. Sometimes it’s appropriate, isn’t it? For example, if we see someone being excluded from a position because people don’t understand their own blind racism, shouldn’t we play the race card to intervene in such a racially prejudiced situation? 
  • Of course, one can use the Race Card for racist ends. The RC was played to get on the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas, a man who is willing to cover up the negative impact of racism by showing his black face as a supporter of racism and the enemy of justice. Don’t we have to ask who is playing the race card and why?
  • Is charging someone with playing the RC sometimes a way to actually play the card? 

If I’m right that we all play the race card sometime and that it can be used for good or evil, shouldn’t we question the context in which the RC is played? It is not the playing of the Race Card that is in and of itself bad; perhaps it is how we use that it that matters.  

Friday, January 02, 2009

Eartha Kitt

I’ve been in discussion with my younger family members, Ashley and Burgess, about Eartha Kitt (1927-2008). I think she is a fascinating person and deserves serious study. Her life spanned important decades and her career, the rise of TV and the crumbling of segregation. The New York Times obituary called her “among the first widely known African-American sex symbols” []. The Times compares her to Lena Horne; but she was a very different kind of persona. There’s much to learn about black poverty, gender, and complexion. My quick search of electronic sources has not revealed any major studies. Someone should go for it!

New Course

I think I’ve finally come up with a course to teach next spring: Independence! The Transition from High Colonial Rule to the Post Colonial World in Africa. Through film, literature and historical documents and theory, we explore the evolution of post colonial societies in Africa. This is primarily a history course but we will use a variety of interdisciplinary approaches to this history. Works we explore may include the films and writings of Ousmane Semebene, the literature of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah, and the theories of Mahmood Mamdani.

Now all I have to do it learn the history. ;-)