I have always been fascinated with Black history. Fortunately, I attended a K-8 public school that highlighted the importance of knowing my roots. If it rained during recess, students filed into the auditorium to watch VHS tapes about the Jim Crow south. I distinctly remember learning about Emmett Till’s heinous murder when I was twelve years old. It was around this time that my aunt, Shannon, was living in Endola, Namibia, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer, and we corresponded through pictures and letters — I would rush home from school, eager to read of her experiences. There was one photo Shannon sent that particularly captivated me. In the image, she stood behind a sign with her arms resting comfortably on top of its’ ledge:
CAPE OF GOOD HOPE
THE MOST SOUTH-WESTERN POINT
OF THE AFRICAN CONTINENT
Dressed in traditional garb, a solemn expression appeared upon my Shannon’s face. I wrote to her and pointed out the lack of a smile; she responded that South Africa had a complicated history. When I prodded for more information, my aunt, always an encourager of self-education, provided me with one word — apartheid. Ever curious, I was horrified to learn that some of the same atrocities my grandparents faced happened in the same year I was born. I could not wrap my head around such things happening in a land where Black people were in the majority. This was Africa! I was intrigued and even completed a school project on apartheid pass books, segregated facilities, and the denial of citizenship for Black South Africans. Eventually, Shannon returned from the Peace Corps, and I moved on to other things, but this new-found knowledge helped shaped my understanding of the world.
As I came into adulthood and began to venture outside of America, I knew that my first trip to the eastern hemisphere would begin with stepping foot onto the motherland of all civilization. I wanted to honor my aunt and recreate the image that captivated me all those years ago. I searched for accommodations that would benefit the children of apartheid. I came across a Black-owned guesthouse named after its owner, Liziwe Ngcokoto. Located in Gugulethu, the bed and breakfast trumpeted an authentic township experience. I immediately pitched the guesthouse to my traveling companion, one of my best friends. Thank God Mesha trusted me because when we arrived, she was ready to turn right back around. The shanty town looked as one would imagine, and the guesthouse was going through renovations. Ceilings were literally missing, but we stayed.
And I’m glad we did, because the personalized township tour we walked was the highlight of the entire trip. We learned much about Gugulethu’s history, including the murder of Amy Biehl, a white anti-apartheid American, who was simply in the wrong place, at the wrong time. We interacted with the community, with those who were banned from living in Cape Town for decades. We even witnessed an adolescent boy’s initiation into manhood, his loved ones cheering and dancing behind him.
We learned that seven Black activists were violently murdered by the South African military. As we strolled through the memorial commemorating these brave souls, I thought of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture and how this space similarly reflects a specific type of resistance and reverence. How a history riddled with injustice can stand so proudly in the present, despite systems yet to be dismantled. So yes, beyond the breath-taking drive up Chapman’s Peak, and beyond the panoramic view atop Table Mountain. Beyond the historic boat ride to Robben Island and visiting the prison cell that held Nelson Mandela for 27 years. Beyond the delicious restaurants, beautiful attractions, and fast pace of the city were Wandile and Olwethu. And Donald. And Bongani. And dozens of other township residents, whose natural joy deepened my admiration for the resiliency Black people share across the Diaspora. The expansion of my love for Blackness was overwhelming.
I know that I will always look for this feeling in every place I travel.
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