On the Front Porch: The Power Belongs to Us

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.  But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, you have something special.” Nelson Mandela

I recently took a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa.  Joburg is the continent’s biggest city and birthplace of the Zulu Nation and Apartheid. It was once home to Desmond Tutu and the late, great leader, Nelson Mandela. This trip marked my first foray to the Motherland, a trip I’d dreamt of taking ever since I first viewed Roots television miniseries.  Roots was my first indicator of the power of story, mainly when told from behind a lens.   In my house, our window into the televised world of slavery was via a 25-inch color television that sat in our dining room.  So much wood surrounded our appliance it appeared to be in a coffin.  The week of Roots inaugural airing was a big deal in our house.  We sat together every night, eyeballs glued to the tube.  We were mesmerized by the levity of what our people had endured.   Our TV appeared to share our grief, given that almost every time Massa cracked his whip, dark squiggly lines leapt on its screen, just like the ones embedded in Toby’s back. I was scared, confused and very intrigued.  I wanted to gain a better understanding of my people —true Africans.   Now, four decades later, my dream was about to come true.

I had been invited to present my scholarship on Black student success at a youth leadership conference at the University of Pretoria, just outside of Johannesburg.  Conference attendees were fellow scholars and educators, South African students, and international speakers.   Students of mixed race and gender populated its campus space like seeds on top of a poppyseed muffin.  From my hotel, I could see the Presidential house, the very location at which Nelson Mandela had been sworn into office two decades prior.

The Presidential house lived up to its name or at least looked down on it.  At the base of the building stands a 20-foot bronze statue of President Mandela, with outstretched arms poised to welcome natives and visitors, like me.  The words “The Power Belongs to Us” are etched on both sides of the statue.  As I read those words, my eyes scanned the crowds of people scattered in the vicinity of the statue’s gaze.   Just opposite stood three to four different teen groups, who, from language and demeanor appeared to be South African.  Then there was me, a Black American, native Chicagoan, and a woman who had been mistaken more than once as a South African sister.  I was continuously addressed by individuals who spoke Afrikaans, one of the countries native tongues.   Each time I stopped to correct them, their response was a mixture of confusion, disgust, and amusement.  “Oh!  You are Ah-MARY-CON!  A tongue click often followed this statement.   I attribute this to two things:  1) My skin color and 2) The small number of Black tourists I observed while visiting Pretoria and Johannesburg.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There were swarms of tourists.  There just weren’t many BLACK AMERICAN tourists.  I have many theories regarding the shortage of Black Americans in South Africa.    One of my dominant beliefs is that we don’t feel connected to the continent.  If given a choice of global sites to visit, Black Americans tend to pick European locations, with France, Italy, and Greece topping the list.  Admittedly, those are on my bucket list too, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to visit that part of the world.  I can count on one hand and have four fingers left regarding other races and ethnic groups who decide to visit places OTHER than their native lands FIRST.  However, we as Black Americans do that all the time.

So, we make no qualms about our lack of desire to visit Africa.  “You ain’t finding me in no AF-FREE-KA!” is a refrain I’ve heard from peers on more than one occasion.  However, why is that? Why is so much shame attached to the continent?  I realize there are a myriad reasons for this fear, and some of them are both understandable and valid.    However, my visit to Africa was about history.  Keep in mind it has been less than 30 years since Apartheid was rampant on the continent and I saw several lingering signs during my visit, all of which made me very uncomfortable.  I knew that I’d only be there a week before returning home to the United States–the great U.S. of A where the number of incarcerated Black men in the past decade SURPASS the numbers of Blacks exported from Africa during slavery in TOTALITY.   This claim is highlighted by Ohio State University professor and author Michelle Alexander, in her must-read book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

The need for solidarity amongst Black people across the various diaspora of the world is urgent.  These are dangerous times for Blacks, whether in South Africa or in South Shore on the South Side of Chicago.  Also, just like South African Leaders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu took to the streets to fight Apartheid, so did our family friend and community activist, Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger, when he SHUT DOWN the Dan Ryan Expressway to address a myriad of concerns within the Black community, including gun violence in Chicago.    Men like Fr. Mike embody, through word and deed, Mandela’s statement, “the power belongs to us.”  As a Black writer, I too, understand how the power of stories about us, for us and as told by us, leaves an indelible mark in the sketchbook of history that can lead to historical change.  Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela (July 18, 1918).   Your wish is more pertinent now than ever.  #OntheFrontPorch
Shanita Baraka Akintonde is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. She is also President and Chief Visionary Officer of Creative Notions Group, a professional speaking and consulting company. Professor Akintonde will release Heart of a Leader in August 2018. She’s for hire to inspire and will gladly share her rates for each of her uniquely crafted workshops, keynote addresses and/or seminars. Contact her at sakintonde@colum.edu. Follow her @SHAKINTONDE and https://www.linkedin.com/in/shanitaakintonde/.

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