Friday, December 6, 2013

One Privileged Suburban White Girls Story Of Discovering Apartheid

I am not a professional writer, activist or historian.  I am a mother of three children, a wife and a part time antique dealer.  I grew up in suburban Atlanta.  My high school was %99 caucasian.  I did not grow up around nor did I have exposure to other ethnic groups until well into my 20's.

In 1989 I was fourteen years old and a Freshman in high school.  I had recently lost my 17 year old sister to a tragic car accident.  My parents had divorced shortly before that.  My mom, who I adored, remarried shortly after my sisters death.  For a fourteen year old girl growing into a woman was becoming quite the challenge.  

I was withdrawn at school, sad, confused and had very few friends.  I had not been an avid reader at all up until this point.  When you are a withdrawn teenager reading seems to make the most sense.  I stumbled upon a book called Kaffir boy.  Kaffir is the South African equivalent of nigger.  The book is an autobiography by Mark Mathabane about a young black boy growing up in the devastating poverty and cruel streets of South Africa's most dangerous, desperate ghetto.  His life was surrounded daily by gang wars, police raids, sexual assault, murder, beatings and lose.  With the help and support of his family and an unimaginable amount of courage he escaped his hollow life and won a scholarship to an American university.

I needed something to be angry with, something to feel passionate about.  I wanted to forget the recent tragedy in my life so I dove into the wretched world of apartheid.  Soon after I was reading and researching  about the life and triumph of Nelson Mandela.  1980's white suburbia had no idea how to process this awkward teenage girl and her apartheid obsession.  I wanted people to see what was happening and I was angry that no one seemed to care.  

For most Freshman students economics class is a standard requirement.  Often these type of classes were taught by high school football or baseball coaches.  These coaches did not want to be teaching geography, health class or economics.  They wanted to be screaming at their thick necked football players on the field.

The annual Freshman economics project at our school usually required the students to demonstrate how a business is operated.  These annual projects included students focusing on businesses like Pizza Hut and Dunkin Donuts.  Giving each student the opportunity to bring in one of these tasty treats which made the whole project one big eating exhibit.   Since I was in the depths of learning about apartheid I decided to do my project on the effect the United States economy had on the South African economy mostly focusing on the worn torn townships or shanty towns.

I was so proud to be presenting something to my teacher and class that stood for something meaningful.  My hopes were to make another fellow student as angry about apartheid as I was.  I worked all night on my presentation.  Excited and hopeful I presented the subject to my class poster board, speech and all.  They were underwhelmed, my teacher looked confused and I could sense the true disappointment of not having a tasty treat presented to them.  I received a C- on the presentation.  Again life seemed to throw me another disappointment.  I felt hopeless and my inspiration to educate people about  the injustices of apartheid dwindled with my C-.   

Times are different now.  Hope is alive and well for South Africa.  No nation is perfect but the criminal acts to innocent families have all but been tucked away in history books.  Stories will be told about tragedy, survival and courage to future generations in South Africa.  

I did not go on to become an activist, journalist or join the peace corp as I dreamed about.  I took my lessons learned from my interest and disgust with apartheid and carried them with me throughout my own struggles.  I learned to look everyone in the eyes as they deserved it no matter what color, creed or religion.  I will teach my children about acceptance, tolerance and basic human kindness.  I want my children to get mad about injustice and act upon that anger in a positive productive way.  I want them to be advocates for those in need including themselves.  

This white suburban privileged girl taught herself that the world is much bigger than we think.  It is full of hope, it is full of inspiration which all  must be carried and passed to the next generation.  So white suburban mom’s, go to the library, bookstore or Amazon and read to your child about Mark Mathabane, Nelson Mandela, Arthur Ashe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gandhi.  Teach your children that the world is so much more than this bubble of comfort we live in.  Teach them that there indeed is pain, tragedy and struggle.  Inspire them to help your neighbors when in need.  Just as you lift them up and help them when they scrape their knee they too one day can lift someone up out of despair.  

I am sad about Nelson Mandela's passing but with the sadness I feel so grateful to have felt the pain and the anger I felt when reading about apartheid.  It guided me through the pain of losing my sister and taught me that with our suffering we can rise up and defeat our pain, turn it into hope and continue Mandela's legacy, so rise up little white girls.

1 comment:

  1. Valerie, your experience with your project happens all too often to young people in our school system. Schools do too little to encourage kids to follow what inspires them and often do much to squash whatever joy for learning young people have.

    I remember Coach Dale Moore, one of the football coaches at the same high school you're talking about. He taught geography or economics--I don't quite remember. What I do remember is that he walked into class one day and asked, "Does this tie make me look like a fag?" At the time, I thought little of the comment. I was too much a product of that simple-minded culture. I'm just glad that I escaped that kind of thinking (like you've done). And Dale Moore can take pride in the fact that this the only thing I remember about his class. I just wish I knew enough then to tell him what a jackass he was.