An ugly and jarring reminder

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There it was, posted on a light pole outside my house — a flier that made my heart skip a few beats.

“The KKK Wants you. The Loyal White Knights Neighborhood Watch.”

I’ve seen several of these fliers around in Atlanta intown neighborhoods. Two others were posted in front of homes I know are owned by people of colour.

I called the Southern Poverty Law Center — which tracks hate crimes — yesterday to find out whether this was a sign of Klan resurgence. The intel folks there assured me there was nothing to worry about. Turns out that the KKK is trying to capitalize on the current immigration crisis with a recruiting drive. Apparently the group has been spreading their message of hate in other states as well.

I called the two numbers listed on the flier. One call went to the Richmond, Virginia, area. The other, to North Carolina.

Both times, I got a recorded message. The first was a diatribe against immigrants that urged shoot-to-kill orders along the Mexican border. The second was a racist rant against black people. Niggers, it said, have IQs barely above mental retardation.

I have lived in the South for a majority of my life. I know well the brutal history of racism.

As a brown woman from another country, I have felt racism’s sting many a time. I’ve been called a sand nigger, a camel jockey, an injun. I’ve had readers of my stories tell me to go the hell back to the dirty, stinkin’ place I came from. They’ve called me Osama lover. Some have even sent me death threats.

But something about these fliers made me stop dead in my tracks.

I spoke with my friend, Valerie Boyd, about it last night. We talked about how — despite the hatred, bigotry and discrimination that still exists in American society — we were (fortunately) never victims as our parents were.

Val’s parents grew up in a Jim Crow South. My parents grew up under the British Empire. The movie theater near my mother’s childhood home had two drinking fountains. One was for Europeans, the other for Indians and dogs.

We talked about how the Klan burned crosses in the front yards of black people. The fliers, Val said, were the crosses of our generation.

I am by no means making any comparison here. But that’s how it felt when I first saw the “KKK” in front of my house. I felt the Klan was sending me a message: We know who you are and where you live. And we don’t want your kind here.

The Southern Poverty Law Center assured me I should not be scared by this routine canvassing attempt. But to me, there is little that is routine about what I heard on the recorded messages. They were another reminder to me of how far America still has to go.

Even with a black man in the Oval Office, even with America on the verge of transforming into a minority-majority nation, racism is alive and well.

Perhaps it will take many generations to eliminate racism. Until then, it behooves us all to talk about ugly things in the open, to make sure the brutality of the past is never repeated.

 

 

 

 

‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise’

 

I met Maya Angelou in 1983.

I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”

She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.

She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”

I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.

She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.

Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.

“Was the story about ​the rider requesting ​30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “Th​at rumor​, and the way she carried herself ​ were the source of​ ​caricatures in recent years. ​How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”

If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.

She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.

I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.

Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.

The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.

Read the CNN obituary.

Here is Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.

The Fourth of July

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Frederick Douglass: “This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

On the Fourth of July, I ask you:

Should African-Americans celebrate this day? They were slaves when the Declaration of Independence was crafted. Should Native Americans celebrate this day? The white man obliterated them from their lands.

Or perhaps the right question to ask is: How should people of color celebrate American independence? The answer is varied and often, personal.

I am proud to have become an American citizen. I love this country.

But I also understand its brutal history of racism. I know that this day means many things to many people.

Here is Frederick Douglass on the “Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/douglassjuly4.html

Seeing through the colour lens





Driving through picturesque Cape Town and its environs in the Western Cape, I was truly awed. If you have ever driven down the Pacific Coast Highway, especially from San Francisco to Carmel, you will have good idea of how incredibly beautiful the scenery is here.

Rugged mountains heaving upward to the sky from humble beginnings where Atlantic waves crash violently on jagged shores. Pablo Neruda’s ocean green clashing with azure skies and the lime green of Fynbos, Afrikaans for Fine Bush, the native vegetation of succulents and shrubs.

Snaking highways take you through paradise at Chapman’s Peak, Hout Bay, Camp’s Bay — idyllic fishing towns where fish and chips shops serve up freshly caught Hake. And vineyards that offer tastings of the best Pinotage, Merlot and Chardonnay.

The houses dot the hillsides, graceful and full of splendour. You think: Yes, I could live here. Spend every day in this lush, luxe setting.

But you need a non-white person with you to tell you the real story of the Western Cape.

Even now, 16 years after South Africa established democracy and passed the strongest constitution in the world, perhaps, that bars any sort of discrimination, the vestiges of apartheid are not lost on a person of color.

Yes, you can go to South Africa and go on safaris and see its National Geographic beauty, but you cannot ever forget what was here. And if you look closely, behind the hills, far away from the tourist signs, you will still see apartheid.

At Hout Bay, you can see the flats built for coloreds when you get high up on the hill. There it is. In all its ugliness.

Or what about Ocean View?

“Look there,” said my guide Gillian Schroeder, a coloured woman who grew up in the Cape Flats (pictured with me at Chapman’s Peak). “How ironic. There’s no view.”

Just rows and rows of horrific housing built inland to house coloreds evicted from Simon’s Town, a place where tourists now venture to look at African penguins and shop for antiques.

And what about the blacks? You can’t even see their townships from the main roads and highways. They are tucked away like the poor in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

Only here, I cannot forget that they were forced from their homes and put in segregated communities when apartheid was enforced in 1948. The Group Areas Act mandated separate communities and non-whites were plucked from the homes and throw into horrid shanties without any surrounding trees, without electricity, without anything save gray dust and misery.

My drive to the Cape of Good Hope (pictured above) was marred by conversation with Gillian of the past and present. Even though everyone is equal now in South Africa, there still is apartheid. Blacks still live in the townships. They still do the manual labor. the most menial tasks. Coloreds live in the flats. The richest neighborhoods, the nicest places are still all white.

In the United States, laws were changed but racism has taken many years to subside. It still manifests itself now, more than 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In South Africa, it was different. There was brutal white rule and then a black majority democracy. But centuries of oppression don’t just go away, especially when the ruling class is still here. In my native India, the colonizers left. Here, they stayed.

How do you live side by side after all that hatred, all those tears, all that cruelty. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission can help, but it cannot erase the emotions swirling in millions of hearts.

I have to say that it is truly amazing to me how blacks, coloureds, Indians and whites live side by side now. Those who were oppressed have amazingly forgiven.

But as my friend, Stephen Moagi of Capetown said, it is hard to forget.

His name tag at work reads: Stephens. Like a last name. None of his white employers have bothered to correct it. Small, but telling, I thought.

Eunice, a black waitress at Bertha’s restaurant on the ocean in Simon’s Town (pictured, top, left), gives her name as Thabiso. That’s her name in Xhosa. That’s what she prefers. Except no one ever bothered to ask.

You don’t have to look hard to notice. Just take your eyes off the guide books and tours. And you will know the real South Africa.