The South Remembered
By John Marquerd
Vol. 2, No. 8, 1980, pp. 9-10
This is a superficial report. How could it be otherwise, based as it is on a short visit to the South last March. In fact, I have been telling your editors I am deeply resistant to writing it, so unclear are my impressions of the South and what it represents.
But they, good people, have persisted, so I shall try. I owe at least that much to the fantastic hospitality you-all gave us.
I hail from another South, sicker, more confused even than yours. Not terminally ill, I believe and hope; in fact there are even signs that the patient is stirring, sitting up in bed, if you like, but no more. Will she recover? She could, but it is too early to tell.
Theoretically, your South and mine have nothing in common, no shared symptoms other than metabolisms that are chemically the same. Yet when we visited you, my wife and I saw signs that made us remember, spots that looked like our spots, albeit in nothing like as virulent a form.
And strangely, we saw in your country so little real contact, perhaps even less than we have at home. Perhaps more than anything else, that worried us. Do Black and White Americans not mix? Play bridge together? Have home movies together? Have lunch together? Typists? Scholars?
We saw so few signs of it, that we began to wonder. Could it be that our travel program, our own special itinerary, took us only to people who didn’t happen to be mixing? Surely, we thought, even if that was so we should see more togetherness on the streets, in the fast food places, in the buses.
Slowly, unwillingly, we started to think that perhaps we were seeing it as it is. That despite all the legislative and judicial support for equality, that was all it was. Equality, but not togetherness. If that is all that lies ahead, it will be a great disappointment.
For, in our terms, the patient sitting up is only beginning to consider equality. As it was with you, sport has proved the starting point. From sport is following public amenities, restaurants, some bars and hotels. Our government and much of White South Africa is nowhere near even thinking of political, educational or residential equality. To the extent that we profess to do so, it is on a segregated “equality” —a sort of ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’—type.
In the workplace, too, we are unequal, yet, as I think back, I am not sure that where “equality” is breaking through it does not bring with it much more friendship, more contact, than in your case. Perhaps it is because it is early days that this seems so; maybe it is because we had so little before that every little scrap we now find is appreciated; maybe because our Black fellows know that time and numbers are on their side, that eventually they must gain so much more. Who knows? All I can say is that (as Whites) we found it harder to get easy acceptance and friendship from Black Americans down South than here. Of course, that may just be because we’re Africans.
Are we unfair to draw this kind of conclusion? A Black Birmingham politician thought we were. “In those heady days of the ’60s we thought everything was going to change totally. Now that seems naive. I mean, anyone could tell you that if there was a
revolution in South Africa that wouldn’t right everything overnight.”
Wise words. Yet, amazingly, that man lived in such a different part of Birmingham from those quite charming and elegant Whites who took us to him. When I gave them the address they were clearly surprised, perhaps taken aback. They’d probably been there far less often than I have to Soweto, our great segregated metropolis near Johannesburg. Not that it was all that far away from downtown Birmingham; it just seemed to be.
And then we lunched in an elegant, gracious club, ate corn pones, and other Southern delicacies, in a place where we were served by smiling retainers who reminded one of the slaves in Gone With the Wind, apparently happy with their lot, safe with what they knew. Would that club admit our Black politician friend? We doubted it.
We went to San Antonio. Is that the South? We guess not. A dear guide in Maury Maverick. Now —totally new impressions once again. Mexicans. To us, a quite different community, one that was also in some ways far outside the American dream. And, we couldn’t relate to it in the same way —it seemed much further from home. This might be the South, but it seemed more South American. Not that it wasn’t delightful and interesting —just different.
But back to the town on the Mississippi. The levee. Apartheid. Well, not really. But strange things similar in nature.
Delightful, cotton planter hosts. Their daughter and son at the local private school. On the way to drop them there we passed the local public school. That at least was integrated.
“Do you have any Black folks in your school?” we asked. (Here in South Africa our daughter’s school is proud of its first four or five Black students. More next year, we hope).
“No.” A pause. “Not that there are any rules to stop it.” Pause again. “It’s just that none have qualified.” Deep pause. “Had a doctor once, applied. We sent him application forms but he never sent them in. Just stirring trouble, I guess.”
I asked his daughter, a keen tennis player, if she played against that public school in matches. “No sir” she answered.
It turned out that most of their school matches meant travelling thirty, forty miles. “Why don’t you play them,” I asked.
“I dunno, sir. Mostly private schools play private schools.”
I probed. So much like home. Such genuinely held beliefs that it was all for the good, for the good of the children, for the good of society, for the good of all concerned. Genuine horror still at the sight of a Black man with a White girl, especially that way round! Could be home.
But I must not be unfair. Your fine country has achieved so much. Even if the Brown case hasn’t really reached the levee, there is so much that is good, so many real achievements, that I feel presumptuous in even writing as I have.
So let me leave you with my two favourite anecdotes, both from Washington (which I guess can just about qualify as the South too). Millard Arnold telling me that he and some friends had held an after dinner discussion recently to try to recall when last they’d really felt affected by racism. And it was sixteen years ago, deep down South (of course!) when he hadn’t known and had stood there, trying to flag down a “White” taxi, until an old man, wiser than he, had shown him where he’d get a taxi. Only sixteen years ago! So recently!
There’s hope for us yet. As there is from the fact that 25 years ago (only 25) Maury Maverick was fighting in court for permission for a Black to box a White in Texas. Shades of Johannesburg, where the change took place two years ago.
For how soon we all forget. There is, in the Smithsonian, a Norman Rockwell painting of a little Black girl, dressed all in white, red ribbon in her hair, being escorted to school by four distinguished, brave, elders. A tomato has hit the wall behind her.
As I looked at it, recalling how recent it all was, a crowd of school children came by, mostly White but a few Black kids too.
Their teacher, filled with the same sense of contemporary historical pride that I was, stopped the class. “Just look at that.” The two Black boys looked, shrugged, moved on. She summoned them back.
“Do you know what that is?” she demanded. They didn’t. She beamed “It’s the start of integrated schools.” They shrugged again, moved on again.
I thrilled to it. You should never think you have not made progress. Those boys said it all. Integrated education was no longer an issue to them. Other things will be, no doubt, but not that. That is growth, real growth.
I envy you that growth. Liberals here dream about a day when we too will take for granted the right of every citizen, whether Black or White, to live where he wants, to go to school where he lives, to sell his services where he likes, if all does not seem well to you Southerners, remember us, for you have given inspiration to those who have so much less.
John Marquerd is the manager (publisher) of The Star, the biggest selling daily in South Africa. Until August of last year he was the manager of The World, a Black daily banned by the S.A. government in 1977, and its successor in title, Post. (The editor of these two papers, Percy Qoboza, was detained for five months when the paper was banned). Marquerd visited the South briefly when he visited the Southern Regional Council.