14 September 2007


Tonight I finished watching Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a 2003 documentary about the role of music in the struggle against apartheid.

Amandla! traces the history of apartheid back to its beginning in 1948. Fool that I am, I didn't even realize that apartheid's origins were so recent. I kind of thought that such horrible injustice must have taken generations, like it did in America. But the movie showed how African resistance gradually intensified from shock to protest, and then from outbursts of violence to actual militarization. But the common thread in this particular historical narrative is the music--both singing and dancing--that flowed through the revolution. Like the Negro Spirituals in the United States, the South Africans' songs served many purposes. They heaped scorn on the whites who oppressed them (in a language that the whites didn't understand--so whites often tapped their toes and smiled when the South Africans sang of how foolish the whites were or called for the whites to be punished and even killed!), and they roused the spirits of those who fought for freedom. There was a beautiful scene of President Nelson Mandela dancing, and it made me wish I lived in a country where the sight of the president dancing made me fiercely proud and unbearably joyous, rather than simply nauseous.

Perhaps an aside is in order: I guess what this blog will be, as it turns out, is a journal based on movies. It's not a collection of film reviews, although it will have something in common with them. And it's not a collection of essays on film. It's a record of my own responses--an attempt to get inside the head of one viewer of movies (me) and to track the trains of thought that begin in the stationhouse of each film. This won't be a smart, well-read, and well-researched blog, like Fred Clark's Slacktivist--it'll really just be a diary of sorts that I'm placing in the public eye. I probably won't write in it after a month or two...

While watching Amandla! (which means "power" and which would be followed in responsive recitation by "to the people"), I felt a mixture of great pride for those struggling, sheepishness about my own youthful pretentions during the struggle, and questions about apartheid in America and what it would take for Americans to rebel again.

The feeling of pride I felt for those struggling was not condescension, I don't think. I cannot even begin to express my admiration for a group of people who can face brutal oppression of the body, mind, and spirit and persist, for generation after generation. Would I keep fighting after my family members were killed or imprisoned, after my friends were killed or imprisoned? Even more, would I still dance and sing in the midst of the struggle against such oppression? How would my love for my comrades be expressed in times of such beastial cruelty and grief? Today, I call myself a pacifist and claim that violence is never right. Would I hold fast to such a belief if I were a black South African in 1983? Would I hold to it out of principle or out of cowardice? Would I abandon it because of hatred or because of love? When I see mothers and grandmothers, great-grandfathers, teenagers, and little children joined in the struggle, I can only shake my head in awe and realize that there is no power on earth like that of a people united in a just cause.

I remember being in college in 1988-1989 and joining the fringes of the fight against apartheid here in the states. We called for Eastern College to divest from its investments in South Africa (as so many schools, corporations, and other institutions had already done), we slept on Walton patio for days, greeting President Hestenes with a false grin when she tried to dart past us (never one to relish chance encounters with students, she was probably no less thrilled to see us on the patio than any other student, on any other occasion). I remember when the board did decide to divest from South African interests, and the disgust when I learned that it was only because the investments were no longer profitable (because of all the other divestments). But the bottom line is that I didn't know what the hell I was protesting about. I didn't know anything, really, about the world, and I didn't ask the obvious questions that any half-alive, breathing human with a mouth would have asked. I mean, I had classmates from South Africa within arm's length (Lulama Kunene, John Mokonyama, and others), and I never asked them for their stories. For me, it was a "cause," and when it faded away, there were others to take their place, flitting quickly across my pseudo-activist radar screen only to die away in days, weeks, or months. I am bitter about myself, yes, but there's at least the trace of a sheepish smile here. I was young, and not used to noticing the rest of the world. The bitterness comes from the fact that, even today, I find that my thoughts and energies are so scattered. The "causes" I see and hear about daily are too numerous to count, and too entrenched and/or distant for me to change. Right?

While watching, I thought of the struggle against apartheid in America--the Civil Rights movement. I guess it followed something of a vaguely similar path. If we say that it "ended" in the mid-60s, I guess we can say that we've had a chance in America to see what the post-apartheid society looks like. But it's hard to say with any certainty. For one thing, the end of apartheid in the United States (and, yes, I'm aware of how absurd, in many ways, it is to say that apartheid ended in the US, but when you look at the townships and the continued fighting in South Africa, it's kind of silly to say it ended there, too) didn't result in the toppling of a minority white federal government and its replacement with a black government party. More basically, America (as a whole) is not a country where the white minority used apartheid policies to suppress a black majority (although this is certainly true in the South and, perhaps, in some American cities, even in the North). So when civil rights policies were implemented across the US, the laws might have changed, but in most cases the people charged with enforcing them didn't. That's a pretty half-assed victory, isn't it?

What would it take for American people to rebel against their government, I wonder? I mean, I guess the injustices in American society don't look a whole lot like the ones in South Africa before the 1990s, or even in the South before the 1960s (although sometimes they do, as in the Jena 6 story). But when you look hard enough, the injustices of our society are catastrophic: the incarceration of African-Americans, the disproportionate poverty of people of color, the systematic eradication of jobs that pay a living wage and offer benefits that can support a family, the lack of affordable and high-quality health-care for tens of millions, the rising cost of higher education (and the complementary decrease in available aid), the poor quality of education (particularly for the most disenfranchised), the sorry state of the US electoral process, the myth of the "middle class" and the increasing wealth divide between the ultra-rich and everybody else, and the list goes on. What would it take for us to cooperate in a general strike? And who would care if a nation of Wal-Mart and McDonalds employees took to the street? Would that make the billionaires mad enough to tell the politicians to make some real change? Would we sing and toyi-toyi while we demonstrated? The very idea is unthinkable. We are an atomized and apathetic nation. We come together to watch reality TV and to sign Internet petitions, but we don't vote, we don't march, we don't strike, and we don't struggle.

What would it take to wake this sleeping beast? I guess the question could be re-phrased: what would it take to wake me? The problem is: that doesn't get me any closer to an answer.

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