Black American culture exported to Africa

In April I delivered the W.E.B. Du Bois lectures at Harvard University. In this series of lectures I took up issues surrounding African American citizenship in the contemporary United States. I tried to think about how the years between Hurricane Katrina and the election of Barack Obama have created new opportunities for African Americans to address the problematic explained by Du Bois as “double consciousness.”

Immediately after the lectures I boarded a plane for Cape Town, South Africa. This was my first trip to South Africa and it proved to be a perfect destination for continuing engagement with the issues of black citizenship.

Tourist areas reflect the power of global capitalism and cultural imperialism, making shopping for groceries and clothing entirely indistinguishable from an American shopping experience. Television and radio are completely familiar, as are brands, styles, and dining.

Despite its surface familiarity, the legacy of apartheid is an ashen residue still overlaying every interaction there. For tourists, black South African culture is carefully delimited to public spaces that entertain rather than educate. There is no escaping the harsh racial segmentation of labor and leisure. When I was in South Africa it was election season. Every highway and street corner was dotted with campaign signs. The candidates are racially diverse and each party proclaims the goals of national unity and progress.

While the symbols of political power reflect changes in racial opportunity, the structures of employment and residence belie much stickier inequality.

It is into this space that I entered after a week spent thinking about the challenges of double consciousness. At the turn of the century Du Bois wrote that black Americans only escape the feeling of being a problem in “babyhood and Europe.” But Cape Town has also shifted the gaze of “amused contempt and pity” that I normally feel in the U.S.

In South Africa I felt very American. Like many black folks, it is easier to feel American abroad than at home. Even in this small, flat world with a largely homogenous culture my accent and personal carriage immediately identify me. That American-ness marks me for good and for ill. Most difficult for me, it immediately creates and maintains a painful space between me and the black South Africans whom I hope to engage across the class chasms that separate us.

I arrived here in South Africa on April 4, the forty-first anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In many ways my country has become a radically different place during those four decades. After all, as I landed in South Africa, my own president was visiting Europe. My president is a black man whose father was born here on this continent. My father was born into the American apartheid of the Jim Crow South, but his daughter is a tenured professor at an Ivy League university. Many things feel different. Many things are different.

But being in Cape Town was a stunning reminder that the collapse of legal segregation, the opening of limited class mobility, and even the secure representation of black people in national politics does not heal the brutality of entrenched racial injustice.

In Cape Town I have had to confront the global reach of U.S. black cultural exportation.

I heard the following statements from black South Africans:

“Racism seems to be much worse in the United States. From television I can see that even though you have so much education you are always complaining that there are not enough opportunities in America. It must be very hard to struggle against such a powerful system.”

“Oh yes, we use the word Ni***r here, but not in an ugly way, only in a regular way.”

“I know all about Katrina and New Orleans. That was a terrible, racist thing that happened.”

“We are all so excited about Barack Obama. We had Nelson Mandela. He was a legend, but too old when he became president. Obama is young so he can do great things for the whole world.”

These moments pushed me to think more carefully about what black Americans are exporting to the rest of the African world and African Diaspora.

Political struggles of black Americans have been inspirational for anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid movements here on the continent, and our ability to voice discontent against continuing racial inequality is an important model of political agency. But, it is stunning to hear that this discontent may create the impression that the United States is a harsher racial environment than post-Apartheid South Africa.

It was powerful and wonderful to hear the music of my young adulthood pumping in the middle of the night in a South African club. (Mos Def was even on my flight from JFK airport.) I can remember when many believed that hip hop would not survive a decade; now it is the global cultural expression of urban youth. But my enjoyment of hip hop’s cosmopolitan reach is tempered by the anxiety I have about hearing so many young, black South Africans grooving to the N-word.

It was important to hear that the suffering of the people of New Orleans reached across the world and pricked the consciousness of those so far away. But it was also difficult to bear up under the gaze of pity from an outsider who was shocked to see evidence of our continuing disfranchisement.

It was easy to fall into conversation about President Obama and thrilling to learn how closely his campaign was followed and how inspirational it was to so many. But it is frightening to watch Obama’s campaign symbols and slogans appropriated by a party that locals describe as “the old Apartheid machine.”

In my first days in South Africa I felt a new double consciousness. On the one hand I felt so American. On the other I felt like a global citizen and wondered about my responsibilities to this larger whole.