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Sunday, January 31, 2010

A golden moment

Since I landed at Harvard last August, I have been waiting for the chance to sit in on a class by celebrated professor Henry "Skip" Gates - yes the Harvard academic who put the debates about race and racial profiling back on the agenda after he was arrested by Cambridge cops for suspected breaking and entering - into his own home.
I wasn't the only one who was curious. His Introduction to African-American Studies undergrad class in one of the larger lecture rooms at Harvard was packed beyond the doorway on day 1 of the Spring semester on Monday.
Would be be jaded? Was he all show and no substance? Could he actually deliver a decent lecture? These were my thoughts as I squeezed my way through the crowd of 18 and 19 year-olds with a few other Nieman fellows.
He opened by telling us that there are 35 million African Americans in the US, and 35 million ways to be black. "There is no one way," he said. "There has never been one way, not since 1619, when 20 slaves arrived here on a boat. the debate has continued since then."
He said in the same way, the "name game" about what to call African-Americans has been going on for 200 years.
He then got a little personal, telling us how when he went to Yale University as an undergraduate, his father warned him about three things: 1) don't mix with only African-Americans in the residences; don't hang out only with African-Americans at the dining tables; and don't go to university to learn only about African Americans.
But what did Gates do? All three.
I am sure that his dad is not complaining now.
The professor was clearly enjoying himself in class as he raced through a history of the horrors of racism and slavery during the so-called Enlightenment. His words were interspersed with lashings of humour. Within minutes, he had the class eating out of his hand.
Moonlighting as a documentary filmmaker, Gates said that in an upcoming documentary, he shows through DNA analysis that comedian Chris Rock is 20% white, and actor Don Cheadle 19%. Chris Rock's response apparently was: "At least I ain't as black as Don Cheadle." To which Cheadle's response was: "Well you can kiss my black arse."
You can be sure that me and a few hundred others rocked up for session 2 on Wednesday.
How did the dapper professor start the next lecture? Wearing a gold tie and a gold handkerchief sticking out of his breast pocket, he put on a rap song by G-Mike that started off: "Read a book, read a book, read a mother-fucking book." Next minute, the erudite, veteran professor with a grey stubble was darting his head around to the beat, making the most of yet another class at Harvard University.
You can be sure Gates's class (which he co-hosts with another impressive professor, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham) was a highlight of the week's course shopping.
But there were others. more later.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

"Spring" in Boston

The "Spring" semester gets under way at Harvard tomorrow. Why it is called Spring is anyone's guess. You see, tomorrow it will be in minus degrees Celcius, so hold on to your thermals for the next "winter" in Boston. In fact, we are still right in winter, but it is called spring, to entice people into the new year. Few people will have a spring in their step at 8am tomorrow when the snow is still wrapped around the fire hyrdants outside of people's homes, and you get frost bite if you go outside without your thermals, your inner gloves, outer gloves, neck warmers, parka jacket, snow boots..... that's life in spring in Boston. Wrap up.
Somehow, life goes on... people actually go jogging here, dressed up like they are going to climb the North Face. They go cycling, wearing balaclavas that make them look like bank robbers. My face is so pale that my mother saw me on Skype the other day, and said to me: "Janet, you are so white." Duh!!! Like she hadn't noticed before. But I guess i have gone a lighter shade of pale.

Friday, January 22, 2010

On board at last ...

Today is Friday, 22 January, and I have finally climbed on board the blogosphere. Friends back home in South Africa have no doubt been wondering what I have been up to for the past five months as a Nieman fellow at Harvard. This is what I got up to last night:

I crossed the Charles River from Cambridge to attend a special screening of a film about Robert Kennedy's visit to South Africa in the 1960s. The film, RFK IN THE LAND OF APARTHEID: A RIPPLE OF HOPE was screened at the Kennedy Library Forum, a grand, imposing structure in honour of president John F Kennedy.

The film documented the Senator and his wife Ethel's unofficial trip to South Africa during the height of apartheid at the invitation of the National Union of SA Students. The filmmaker took a number of years to collect rare and grainy footage from that time - quite a feat, bearing in mind that there was no national television in SA (though it is likely there would have been a blackout of his visit anyway).
It is interspersed with footage from South Africa today, and includes interviews with NUSAS leaders - Ian Robertson, John Daniels and Margaret Marshall. It also includes interviews with Albertina Luthuli, the daughter of the late Chief Albert Luthuli.

Kennedy, with the help of his speechmaker Adam Walinsky, had a way with words. His "ripple of hope" speech had a big impact on the students whom he addressed during his visit. On his trip, he visited the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Wits. Kennedy also trekked secretly to a village in kwa-Zulu-Natal to visit the banned Albert Luthuli, who was under banning order and could not be in the company of more than two people at a time. Their meeting was held under the trees.

What was so special about the screening last night was that there was a panel discussion that included two of the key "stars" of the film: Margaret Marshall, who left South Africa a few years after Kennedy's visit and who is now the celebrated Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; and Albertina Luthuli, now an MP in SA. The other two members of the panel were the filmmaker Larry Shore and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert Kennedy's eldest child.

The film also shows the struggle for human rights and equality being waged by African americans back home at the same time. (NUSAS had invited civil rights leader Martin Luther King to SA the year before, but the apartheid government had declined his visa).

After the debate, my husband Steve and myself were invited to a small dinner hosted by the Chief Justice, Margaret Marshall, who in the Kennedy film is a rather naive-looking petite blonde student activist who had the honour of escorting the Kennedys around SOuth Africa during their trip. She remains as passionate about South Africa today as she was then, back in the 1960s. The chief justice is one of the most respected leaders in the judiciary in the state, and she has continued to champion human rights since being exiled from South Africa in the 1960s. I can't help thinking that she could play such a big role in the rebuilding of South Africa if she returned home....
The filmmaker hopes the film will be screened on SABC next year. The film captures a relatively unknown moment in SA history, and is definitely worth seeing.