Friday, February 04, 2005

South Africa to African America: 2 Poets Correspond (Letter #5)

04 February 2005

Vonani,

It is so interesting that you bring up the issue about the name, South Africa. When I was in Atlanta preparing for my journey, I happened to mention to a couple of people that I was traveling to your country. Here was a response:

“South Africa?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, what country in South Africa?”

“Um, that is the country.”

“…”

“…”

“Oh, right, right-“

People sometimes associate the country name ‘South Africa’ with the regional names, ‘West Africa’ and ‘East Africa’. So, I can see why a change of name might add more clarity.

The act of renaming public institutions is a touchy one. In Atlanta, we have a similar issue with streets named for the city’s Confederate/slave-owning legacy versus changing their names to reflect the city’s Civil Rights/liberation legacy. For instance, we have a well-known thoroughfare that was known for decades as Ashby Street (which I did not know, until the name was being changed, that it was named for an 18th century Civil War general {who fought for state rights to keep Blacks enslaved}). Ironically, the street ran right into the heart of the Atlanta University Center, a complex of 5 Black colleges (Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark-Atlanta University, Morris Brown College and the International Theological College) which comprise, as I understand it, the highest concentration of Black college students on the entire planet.

About 10 years ago, the name of Ashby Street was changed to Rev. Joseph Lowery Boulevard, newly named for a very well-respected 60’s Civil Rights leader who fought to grant Blacks equal rights. Even though shiny, new street signs have gone up, you’ll be hard pressed to find locals (including myself) who will call the street Lowery Boulevard. As a matter of fact, if you’re an out-of-towner asking for Lowery, that’s one way to surely get yourself lost.

And on the same note, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, many American cities renamed prominent boulevards in their Black neighborhoods for the Civil Rights leader. One might think that such a name change would inspire civic and social change, but I can tell you from my personal travels across the stars and stripes that from Savannah, Georgia to Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, California, if one follows a street named MLK, one will more likely find oneself in the government projects than in the promised land.

Some argue that name changes are just a waste of paint.

But I would beg to differ. I would just add that a change name must be accompanied by a change in spirit. When I received the performance name Ayodele, which means a joy arrives in the house, it made all of the difference in the world for me. It gave me something to live up to, something to be accountable for. And from what I have seen in the Kwazulu Natal province, especially at Jabula High School today, South Africa/Azania’s spirit is nuclear, enough to power a continent.

Before I came here, I had read about South Africa’s onslaught of social and economic issues – HIV, unemployment, unequal land distribution, poverty. I feared the situation was hopeless. But I must tell you, after two weeks of being here, just with the small segment of the population I’ve encountered in Howick, Petermaritzburg, Lidgetton, Durban, and Johannesburg, I couldn’t imagine a people better equipped to – not only overcome but - flourish.

Which brings me to the performance today at Jabula High School –

As I am sitting here typing this message, Terri has just plugged her laptop into the phone line next to me. She has begun a conversation about, ironically enough, the children at Jabula High School. I have read this statistic over and over about the province of Kwazulu Natal: in some areas, over 30% of the residents are HIV-positive. But it was not until Terri just now said, as she was in the car with Malcolm returning from Jabula, that he mentioned to her that of those hundreds and hundreds of bright-eyed adolescents, 30% - roughly one-third - would likely die before adulthood, much less reach my age-

As we sat before the student body of 500, her voice shot like a bird from the floor of the auditorium. Then, imagine a harmony of three birds flying in a triple helix – like some far-out DNA molecule – but going up, up, up. And within seconds, 500 Zulu voices fluttered around her. What on God’s Earth could make a more beautiful sound? I can see why the name Zulu means heaven/sky.

Then, after the principal made a few announcements, the same thing happened again. Only this time, dozens and dozens and then hundreds of primary school children filed in the doors in their maroon uniforms on the floor, on tables, in the aisles, wall-to-wall filling every imaginable space, until the space was covered. It was as if the future was rushing in behind me, lifting me up, in an uncharted black ocean. And just that overwhelming. As my fingers and my toes tingled, I fought back my tears.

It was a wonderful performance indeed – both as a performer and as an observer. You really connected with the audience. Without prompting, you had them singing along. My brother, you give yourself far too little credit as a performer. It was wonderful to see you in your element. I am glad you left books for their library. It is a small thing, but it is one of the rocks that builds a community.

And speaking of communities, I had a very interesting time in the community of Howick this afternoon. As you know, Gabisile took me to run a few errands as she picked up her son from boarding school. One of those errands included my getting a haircut:

“Do you know where I can get my haircut?”

Gabby looked at my head, thought. “Hmmm. Well, the men in Howick get their haircut on the street,” she said in her melodic Zulu accent.

“The street?”

“Yes, the side of the road. The barbers, they set up chairs on the side of the road and men sit there and get their haircut.”

I looked at her a little puzzled. Exactly how sanitary is that? I thought, but before I could open my mouth she said:

“But I don’t think you should get your haircut there.”

I wanted to push the issue. “Why?”

“’Cause you’re a tourist.”

And I left it at that.

So, Gabby takes me to a real-live salon where there are mainly White women – one White man - in chairs, an Indian woman the receptionist.

“Can you ask for me?” I asked.

“Sure.”

I remained behind her, saw Gabby point toward me, saw the receptionist shake her head. I walked in closer.

“You can go to this place,” the receptionist said, handing Gabby the flyer.

“Monique’s. It’s…,” and off we went.

When we got to Monique’s, there were no White people at all – but no men either. Two Black women sat in chairs getting their hair processed and permed. As Gabby spoke to one of the hairdressers in Zulu, I saw a roomful of eyes shift toward me. The hairdresser to whom Gabby was talking nodded.

“Have a seat,” she said to me. I sat and waited.

“It’s going to be 10 Rand.” Gabby said.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

10 Rand? That’s not even two dollars. I could get five haircuts for that back home. (This is the one thing that actually is cheap in this country.)

Within minutes, I was in the chair.

“You just want a brush cut?”

Not only was I happy that she was speaking in English, but she was speaking my language. “Yeah, a brush cut.”

As she shaved my hair off, I watched myself in the mirror, watched her dark chocolate hands moved back and forth over my head like a magic wand. Not bad, I thought to myself. Not bad at all. She kept mumbling something in Zulu under her breath.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh, yes sure.”

And she shaved and shaved and shaved. She kept mumbling something to the hairdresser next to her. But I ignored it.

When my haircut was over, I reached into my pocket to pull out a R20. I was so thankful, I figured it was the least I could do. But when I turned around to give it to her, the hairdresser had slipped inside a curtained door.

I waited for her to come back out, but she beckoned me to come in instead.

I tried to hand her the money, but she beckoned me closer. Then again, as if she were impatient. She was holding a notepad.

“Your name?”

“Uh, Marvin.” (Caught off guard, it was the first time I had given my birth name since I’ve been in the country.)

“Marvin?” She asked, as if I had just said Monkey or Cow.

“Yeah.”

She shrugged it off. “Cell phone number?”

Okay, this is getting strange, I thought. “I don’t have a cell number. I’m not from here.”

“Shhhhhh!!!!” she said. “That’s right. Now, your e-mail address?”

I wrinkled my brow.

“Your e-mail address? Give me your e-mail address and you will be getting an e-mail from someone here tonight,” she said with an emphasis on tonight. “You understand?”

Suddenly, I understood.

Interestingly enough, when I tried to check my e-mail from the computer at Caversham tonight, the host was down.

M. Ayodele Heath
11:58 P.M.
04 February 2005

P.S. I would be honored to submit material to you. The work you are doing in the community here is what this is all about.

P.P.S. Prayer in public schools is absolutely forbidden in the United States. At Jabula High, not only did the students pray at the beginning of the assembly, but a reverend was on-site to give a sermon for the new school year. How common is this?

P.P.P.S. I never imagined that I would visit Africa in the summer and see people wearing turtlenecks. This place is wild!

1 comment:

ivy said...

Hi Adoyele,
was very pleased to come across your website.I met you in Howick,did your hair in the black salon unforunately you never returned my email, but I'm happy I can read what you publish today.My dream came true and today I live in America and braid the black hair.I have learnt that when you want to pursue your goals, never be embarrased but go for it.Today I see it was good for me to make that move, having the courage to give you my email adress, I did it again and now married to an American.Have a nice day Ayodele and God bless.