Here’s the first of my writings about my travels back to South Africa, after 16 years away. I’ve brought my wife of 10 years, my 2 elementary-school sons, and my mom, who moved me and my sister to LA from SA all those years ago.
Just got to Cape Town after 29 hours of (relatively easy) travel from Los Angeles.
The international terminal at Dulles is cleared out just 3 days after the inauguration. Or perhaps they haven’t left yet, still basking in the glow before traipsing back to Abu Dhabi, Conakri, and Johannesburg.
We arrive at O.R. Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg) and proceed through the green channel – “Nothing to declare.” As we emerge from the sterile customs area, we hear singing & whistling. But not just any singing. Some of the oldest singing known to man, and for sure, the oldest known to my ears and heart.
A group of black South Africans are crowded just outside the glass doorway from which passengers emerge. At first glance, they seem to be overjoyed at the return of a loved one. There are hugs. But there is also the singing.
But that misses the essence of the thing. I’m virtually certain all 30 or 40 of them have their hearts beating in sync. A metronome couldn’t measure this beat. The intelligence here is older than the Renaissance. Perhaps a parallel to Obama’s intelligence. Grounded in his father’s African roots, but deeply influenced by his mother’s mid-western values, his first-hand relationships with Indonesians in Jakarta, Puerto Ricans in Harlem, and WASP’s in Cambridge.
Then I see the signs. “Yes We Did.” “Go Obama!” They’re dancing and holding them up as they sing in unbelievable unison and harmony at the same time. There are two African men in tribal headdresses that have emerged from our Dulles-Joburg flight. They were clearly at the inauguration. Their loved ones have come to welcome them home. And what a welcome.
My first reaction is to feel tears well up in my eyes at the feeling of my musical home. But why? I was part of the 20% white minority, and I was under 10 years old. We were incredibly segregated. This music couldn’t have been at the Blue Route Center where we shopped, or piped into the Acapulco steakhouse or La Perla Italian restaurant. I don’t remember seeing it on the streets, or hearing it from my beloved maid’s radio. So why is in my bones, the DNA for which has nothing to do with Africa. I’m Dutch, Spanish, Lithuanian, and Russian – not the world’s most noted rhythmic cultures.
But the tears don’t lie. This is home. This is my music. These feel like my people. Even though I’m ashamed to say that. I can’t claim any part of their suffering or hardship as my own. I was a young bystander, and my suburban house, and clean school, and BMW in the driveway were all acquired on the backs of their indenture.
I then imagine being a black South African, and realize that for the very first time in the modern era, a black-skinned man is the king of the world. There have been plenty of empires before the modern American one, but none has had a black-skinned leader. Until now.
I can only begin to imagine the relief. “He understands our suffering.” “He won’t let us be massacred like the rest.” “He won’t let our children die of starvation.”
I want to weep. But I don’t let myself. It’s waayyy too much about me. And I’m not much of a spectacle-maker. So I stand against the marble counter of the Thomas Cook Currency Exchange, and feel my heartbeat, my body moving uncontrollably with their thumping, reeling vocal prayer of thanks and welcome back, the salty water of life encircling my eyes and dripping down some invisible channel to my heart, which is so deeply happy and relieved for us all.