Why I Think I’d Rather Climb Ev’ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I’ve been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn’t sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me — not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.
We’d met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we’d immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described “academic” (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he’s been based in Cape Town for one year, but he’s been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.
I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as “1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz.” Bingo!
I told him about the book that I’m working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn’t happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He’d lived it, too.
When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven’t been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.
I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven’t come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I’ve seen plenty of attractive men, and I’ve even been pursued by a few of them, but I’d rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I’m saying. Been there, done that. I’m better off alone.
But I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights — I gave up on his existence ages ago — but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I’m in South Africa, after all, a country in which I’m no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn’t be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I’ve visited these last few years.
I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they’d never had anything like me before. And South Africa’s history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I’m just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.
I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I’ve been receiving. (I’ve pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me.
For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I’m not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I’ve spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.
I’m bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. “So want a black cock!!” one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren’t plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of “black” here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: “Is it true what they say about black men?”
They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I’ve been in for the peaceful easy feeling I’ve enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple “Howsit?” followed by his own shirtless pose.
The second sentence of the guy’s three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t cross racial lines in dating.”
I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn’t interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I’d encountered plenty of those, though I’d never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason.
“I guess that’s the kind of reaction I’d get if I were online dating in the U.S.,” I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn’t do black wouldn’t have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could “I don’t cross racial lines” be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in “black” and “white,” sort of like subbing “fun” for “sex”?
My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn’t get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn’t just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn’t said, “I’m not attracted to black guys,” or “I don’t date black guys.” His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn’t just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn’t changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.
Wow. I hadn’t even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He’d seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion’s Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand.
I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don’t need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town’s breathtaking views.

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Can Spotless Minds Really Bring Eternal Sunshine?

Yesterday I had a Channing Tatum night. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean I spent it with someone who looked like Tatum, or as good as Tatum, or — better yet! — the real thing. Instead, I passed a portion of my Sunday evening marveling at Tatum’s specimen of physical perfection on display in two of his three 2012 hits, The Vow and Magic Mike, which were playing simultaneously on two different South African DStv channels, while being underwhelmed by his acting range, or rather, lack thereof.

I’m no expert on his oeuvre, having now seen exactly four films starring or costarring Tatum – She’s the Man,Magic MikeSide Effectsand, as of last night, The Vow– but judging from my personal viewing evidence, he seems to excel at playing hunky nice guys in bad-boy packaging because muscles and taut washboard abs scream bad to the bone. (Well, I suppose his white-collar criminal in this year’sSide Effects was no pillar of society, but we caught up with him after he’d done his crime and his time, which, unfortunately for him, wasn’t his final price to pay. Ouch!)
Although I missed the first 15 minutes or so of The Vow last night, having read the reviews last year when it was out in theaters (and on the way to becoming the sixth highest-grossing romantic drama in history, according to Wikipedia), I knew the back story. So I understood why there was so much quiet tension in the first scene I saw, the one in which Tatum’s character, Leo, was about to take home his amnesiac wife (Paige, played by Rachel McAdams, who is a far more effective and exciting actress in brittle, bitch mode — see Mean Girls and Midnight in Paris). If I remembered what I had read in those negative reviews correctly, the couple had been in a terrible car accident that left Paige without several years worth of memories after she regained consciousness. (Hey, what was Jessica Lange doing in this picture?! She’s always welcome on my TV or big screen.)
Watching Paige stare blankly at Leo, I asked myself, “Where’s the drama?” Was I supposed to feel sorry for a sleeping beauty who awakens from her slumber with no memory of a guy who looks like Channing Tatum standing over her, love and concern gushing forth from his eyes? There should be only one thing left to say: “Take me… home!” That lucky girl.
Of course, for the sake of drama, the movie pretended that Leo wasn’t being played by one of the sexiest men alive, so Paige was torn. She didn’t remember her beautiful, devoted husband, and her memory was being extremely selective when it came to her family (and how thrilled her parents, played by Lange and Sam Neill, appeared to be about that little twist), from whom she apparently had been estranged before the accident.
Was she better off without all of the bitter memories of her terrible falling out with her folks and all of the pain it had caused, even if it meant that she didn’t remember her own hot husband? At least she had her other selectively positive memories, the ones of her former love Jeremy (played by Scott Speedman), who was ready to pounce again despite now being spoken for. Channing Tatum or Scott Speedman? That lucky girl. Again, where was the drama?
I suppose the drama would be in losing huge chunks of your life and having people you don’t remember telling you how important you are too each other. It must be like those mornings when you wake up momentarily not knowing who you are or where you are. Imagine if that confusion lasted all day, every day, indefinitely. Or waking up from a blackout night out, and having your friends tell you about all of the embarrassing things you did the night before, none of which you can recall. That must have been how Paige felt.
The Vow played as torture what had been the main goal for Jim Carrey’s and Kate Winslet’s characters, ex-lovers reunited in reverse, in the 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the later movie, we were meant to identify with the trials and tribulations of waking up with a blank slate, and in the earlier one, we were sold the benefits. Both had a similar effect on me. After watching them, I found myself dwelling on the pros of pressing delete on some of the sordid, but unforgettable aspects of my past. If I happened to have Channing Tatum hovering over me, vowing to get me through, all the better.
But now that I’ve had a night to sleep on it, I realize the folly of my desire to edit my own history. As much as I’d like to file away some of those low points in a place where I can no longer access them, I couldn’t imagine the person I would be without them. Would I be as bland and cranky as Paige in The Vow? What would I talk about? What would I write about? What would I think about? It’s as much my pursuit of happiness as my memories of sadness that drives me every day, makes me the person I am. Without one, would the other have any meaning?
I’d rather go on spending way too much time focusing on lost loves and hard times, if it means that I’ll appreciate the good times ahead even more, if it guarantees that despite the occasional bout of writer’s block, I’ll always eventually have something to write about. Without your memories what is there to talk about, to laugh about, to cry about, to think about?
The way I react to so many things in the present — like my recent trip to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — depends on the personal history that I bring to my experiences. It might not always be pleasant, but as I learned yesterday, after a rainy, blustery Friday and Saturday gave way to a sunny Sunday, stormy weather makes clear skies appear even more blue.
I wouldn’t want to forget the dreariness of the first half of the weekend because I’ll need it for future reference, when the storm clouds roll in again. Then I’ll remember that with weather, as with life, every time the rain starts to fall, a rainbow is right behind it. Sunshine always eventually follows.

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Burning Questions: The Cape Town Edition

1. Is there such a thing as comfortable underwear? Don’t the steep inclines of Cape Town make walking around the city challenging enough? Ironically, I typed that first question as a commercial for the SZone South African television premiere ofMagic Mike was playing in the background.

Unfortunately, going commando hasn’t been an option for months, ever since I read an online article about Mad Men star John Hamm’s manhood (so much M-M-M alliteration –mmm!). The story went to great lengths to prove that Hamm is one of Hollywood’s, er, biggest stars, offering photographic evidence featuring Hamm, with all that God bestowed upon him flapping freely behind the cotton curtain of his trousers.

Now that’s investigative journalism at its most probing and scintillating!

Had it not been for the headline, I probably would have missed Hamm’s battle with the bulge completely. My eyes never instinctively go for that area when I zero in on male passersby on the street, or when I look at photos of male celebrities, which is pretty ironic, because I don’t believe I ever miss a woman’s heaving bosom when it’s peaking up and out over a too-low-cut top. Upon my arrival at Saffron Guest House in Johannesburg and Poyser Guest Suites in Cape Town, I was actually distracted from the gorgeous scenery around me because the women who checked me into both were attired in such a way that my eyes kept popping back to the grand canyons slightly down below.

I wondered if they feel that same way about bras that I do about tighty whities, boxers shorts and boxer briefs, none of which offer me much comfort while providing support. If they’re not clumping up under my trousers, disrupting my clean lines, they’re riding up into nether regions where the sun doesn’t shine. Bras have always looked similarly uncomfortable and confining to me. Alas, after that John Hamm article, going au natural is out of the question, except for when I’m home alone. I’d always thought of underwear as being a strictly hygienic measure, but I now realize that it’s about hiding a multitude (if you’re lucky) of sins, too. My skin color already, um, raises enough burning questions. (Is it true what they say about black men?) Do I really need to arouse more?

2. Have I lost the will to party? Last night my friend Adriaan took me out on the town not only for the first time since I arrived in Cape Town but for the first time since about two weeks into my stint in Tel Aviv. I’d almost forgotten how brutal nightlife can be the morning after, which surely wasn’t the case for at least one of our party companions, a 41-year-old recent arrival in Cape Town from Kentucky who told me he’d never had a hangover in his life. At first I was jealous, until I realized that hangovers were probably the one thing preventing me from falling into full-on alcoholism during my terrible twenties and thirties. It takes me too long to recover from a weekend of drinking to ever turn it into a nightly, much less, daily, habit.

But even if it weren’t for hangovers, I’d rather stay in. It’s not like I’d be missing anything new. Judging from the evidence I saw last night, the gay scene in Cape Town isn’t much different from the gay scene in any of the other cities I’ve gone out in these past few months, only the drinks are cheaper (25 ZAR, or about $2.50 for an Amstel Light), and the bars seem to be more segregated. Blacks in one corner (Zer021), whites in the other (Crew). Unlike the two separate-but-equal main stories of DJ Station in Bangkok (locals and the foreigners who love them on the ground floor, foreigners and the locals who want them above), going back and forth between Zer021 and Crew, only a few blocks apart, wasn’t an option in last night’s pouring rain.

It was interesting to see how both sides party, separately. At Zer021, under way too-harsh lighting (or maybe the sparser crowd just made it appear to be brighter inside), they were selling communion over sex. At Crew, hunky under-clad bartenders, all white, most of them blond, smiled and strutted in slow motion behind the bar. At both, the same tired dance-pop provided the soundtrack.

Despite the laughter and the excellent company, I didn’t love either place. When I woke up, I was thankful that a rainy Saturday (and a forecast calling for a 100 percent chance of continued rain) would give me the perfect excuse to stay in later, which never would have been the case years ago, when the most violent nor’easter wouldn’t have kept me out of Starlight on a Friday or Saturday night. Even if tonight were to bring clear skies and perfect going-out weather, I’d have no desire to return to either Zer021 or Crew. That king-size bed with all of the pillows on top is looking too comfortable. I’d rather be under its covers tonight and every other night of the week.

3. Is Cape Town really Melbourne with mountains? I’ve been saying it since my arrival, and last night, after I told a local where I live part-time, he said it, too. An African performance artist who was about to begin a two-week gig in Paris, he was well-traveled enough to immediately peg my American accent as Caribbean, and he had the pop savvy to recognize Rihanna as the most influential woman on the charts right now.

I’d add Cape Town’s considerably lower cost of living to the shortlist of differences, but Cape Town is so Melbourne, which might be part of the reason why I immediately took to it. There’s the quaint, colonial toy-story architecture style of Tamboerskloof and Garden, which reminds me so much of South Yarra (Long Street is Toorak Road with black people), the Atlantic Ocean view at the Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront, which screams St. Kilda Beach, the excellent dining options, and the Woolworths supermarkets, but there’s something more intangible, too, that I can’t quite pinpoint.

Then there’s my apartment here. The thick walls produce a springtime chill that tempts me to turn on the thermostat, much as the ones in my South Yarra place on the slope of Darling Street did last summer. I may be borderline freezing on the slopes of Signal Hill, miles away from anything I’d previously known, but it sure feels like home.

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Here’s Looking at You!: 10 of My Favorite Views of Cape Town So Far

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My First Impressions of Cape Town

Wow.

Cape Town, no doubt, has heard that before (along with the ooh‘s and the aah‘s). She’s seen it, too, the same old expression (eyes bugging, jaws dropping to the ground) every time someone new lands in her ample bosom. Though she probably appreciates the appreciation, she doesn’t need our awe. She knows how stunning she is.

But what are we supposed to do? Cape Town’s mountainous cityscape made for perhaps my most visually arresting landing ever — and I didn’t even catch a glimpse of the water that surrounds her from my exit-row aisle seat in the descending aircraft. Surely she understands that when a city nestles herself in such a prime location between an ocean and mountains — as Rio, which could pass for her sister, or at least a first cousin, has done — her appearance won’t elicit mere sighs of approval.

“When you grow up here, do you ever stop looking around and going “Wow,” I asked Karen, the roommate of my friend Dolores who picked me up at Cape Town International Airport. The drive to my apartment in Tamboerskloof was so breathtaking — the geological upswells (Table Mountain, unlike, say, the Sydney Opera House, looks even more spectacular in person, at close range), the edge of the deep blue sea (technically, the Atlantic Ocean) and beyond — Cape Town quickly trumped Krabi in Southern Thailand as having the most stunning introductory scenery of any place I’ve ever landed in (despite the corrugated squalor of the township we passed en route to Tamboerskloof). How was Karen even managing to keep her eyes on the road?

“I’m from Zimbabwe,” she replied. “But for my first 10 years here, that’s exactly what I did. It’s such drama.”

She’d taken the word right out of my mind. The first thing that had popped into it after landing, when I once again had been able to form coherent thoughts was “What a drama queen!” Cape Town must revel in the over-the-top affection and attention showered on her by everyone who visits. If jaded world travelers approach her thinking they’ve seen it all before, what glee she must derive from proving them wrong.

My home for the next month is located in the mountains of Tamboerskloof, an area in Cape Town’s so-called “City Bowl,” an amphitheatre-shaped cluster of neighborhoods surrounding the northernmost part of Table Mountain. Poyser Guest Suites is at the top of a steep slope heading toward Signal Hill.

You know you’ve arrived when you see three donkeys milling around by the entrance gate. It feels like the middle of nowhere, yet it’s only 200 meters or so from the bustle of Kloof Street and Buitengracht. Alas, you must descend a steep incline of 45 degrees to get to Tamboerskloof’s city life. I was looking forward to the exercise, having to earn my trips to civilization and back home again, the challenging morning runs that lay before me.

While jogging, I’d just have to remember to keep my eyes focused ahead, which has turned out to be as great a running challenge as getting up and down that hill, with all of the incredible scenery vying for my attention. Cape Town, or at least my little part of it, is unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet it feels somewhat familiar. The area around Milner and Buitengracht and going down to Kloof, which runs parallel to Buitengracht, has a quaint, colonial, toy-story feel that reminds me of South Yarra, one of my three Melbourne stomping grounds. No one would ever confuse Melbourne for Cape Town, but it was also the last city to grab me so immediately.

The one city of which Cape Town doesn’t remind me at all is Johannesburg. In some ways, the two don’t even seem to belong to the same country. Johannesburg was such a rich, cultural experience (the Jerusalem of South Africa to Cape Town’s Tel Aviv). My final night in town, when I walked into Sophiatown Bar Lounge, a restaurant on 7th Street in Melville that was hosting a live vocal-jazz band, I felt like I was entering a scene straight out of the Harlem Renaissance.

I’m still trying to process the differences between South Africa’s two best-known and two largest cities, but I suspect that had I not spent time in Johannesburg first, South Africa wouldn’t have inspired the sameenlightenment and evolutionwithin me. Two days in, Cape Town’s appeal seems to be more visual than cultural. Aside from the Melbourne connection, I’m still having a difficult time pegging the city and the people in it. Thus far, nothing about it appears to be quintessentially African, though I’m certain that side will eventually reveal itself to me.

“Tamboerskloof is nice. Very white, but nice,” someone — an American expat who has been living in Cape Town for 10 years and who, of course, is white — declared when I mentioned the part of the city in which I’m staying.

I’d noticed the same thing, but something about the context in which he said “very white,” like it was such a negative thing, troubled me. Would I be missing out on blackness by staying here, despite the fact that I live with blackness 24/7, regardless of where I am? Or should I take my blackness elsewhere because fraternizing with white people, him included, was beneath me?

Ok, maybe I was overreacting. I knew what he was getting at, but if a black person in New York City for the first time was staying in Harlem, and he, or she, met a longtime Upper East Sider who said, “Harlem is nice, very black, but nice” (as if its niceness was in spite of its blackness), how would that go over? To me, it sounded like reverse racism, words one might hear from someone who was in recovery from white liberal guilt or from someone who would consider himself to be color blind, even if color was always the first thing he saw when he looked at anyone.

He also said that Johannesburg “is more of a proud African city than Cape Town is,” which makes a lot of sense. But regardless of how I feel about the atrocities committed by white South Africans against black South Africans during Apartheid (and ongoing attempts since then to sweep that blight on South Africa’s checkered past under the proverbial rug), both are legitimate parts of South Africa’s history and the country’s current cultural fabric, even if one doesn’t necessarily reflect what it means to be “proudly African.” I hope to experience more of that when I eventually make it to places like Rwanda and Mozambique, but it’s not what I was expecting from Cape Town. That said, I don’t believe I’m getting less of a proudly South African experience in Tamboerskloof or in Cape Town, just a different one.

Perhaps my new acquaintance simply prefers to be surrounded by black and “coloured” people, which would be fair enough. To each his own — or the opposite of his own. (I’m still trying to decipher the meaning of “coloured” in the South African context. It’s an official ethnic designation that has nothing to do with “colored” in the context of the United States from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era, yet to me it seems as inclusive and vague, and therefore as meaningless, as “Asian.”)

I was exhausted, and with all that I’d seen in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg still fresh in my mind, I was particularly sensitive to racially charged comments, even ones that seemed to be made in favor of non-whites. But I didn’t pursue a debate. His words, though, made me wonder about similar comments I’d heard from other people in the past, in places like Bangkok and New York City.

When does “white” become such an undesirable thing? Did it qualify as one here because we’re in Africa? I don’t want my experiences in this part of the world to be entirely political and/or colored by color. No, I probably won’t be having any 1920s jazz flashbacks walking up and down (literally) the streets of Tamboerskloof, but then I don’t have them walking through Melbourne, a lily-white (and increasingly Asian) city that’s still my third-favorite in the world.

I’ve never had a problem with being surrounded by white people. It’s only when they treat me like an exotic alien that I grow weary of them. But so far I’ve seen enough black people in Tamboerskloof and the areas around it (Bo-Kaap, De Waterkant and Gardens) — indeed, the clientele at my new gym, Zone Fitness on Strand Street, is 98 percent black — to keep me from feeling like the novelty, to not interrupt my ongoing personal South African evolution.

But we’ll see how I see things a few days, weeks, or possibly months from now. I’m looking forward to discovering where South Africa takes me next. And I couldn’t have asked for a more stunning backdrop.

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Why “12 Years a Slave” Is the End of the Line for Me

As a documentation of an ugly blemish on a country’s history, 12 Years a Slave left me curiously less moved than the exhibits in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. As a documentation of the ugly actions of everyday people who consider themselves to be superior to others, the antics of the title character in Blue Jasmine made me cringe more, if only because it’s not behavior that now seems to be trotted out and displayed onscreen every Oscar season. (Incidentally, every time I saw a body hanging from a tree during 12 Years a Slave, I thought about Jasmine’s assertion that people who hang themselves die not from suffocation but because their necks snap. True or False?)

Predictably an Oscar hopeful (and isn’t pretty much any high-profile movie these days with the word “slave” in its title or within its thematic scope?), 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story and memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black musician from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery for 12 years in the South.

That’s an interesting twist on the subject of slavery, but as presented in 12 Years a Slave, it doesn’t feel as original as it should. What the movie offers is not so much one man’s unique story as yet another expose on the horrors of life on a Southern plantation circa the mid-19th century. I wanted less of that sort of sensationalist exposition and more of Solomon’s inner life. And what about his family? What was going on with his wife and kids during his absence? Did they realize that he’d been abducted? How did they cope during his long absence? There’s an Odyssean element to this story that begs to be presented from both sides.
Watching scenes of the family’s struggle would have made Solomon’s resonate beyond that of thousands of men in captivity. I may have been more invested in a reunion, too. Coming two Oscar seasons after director Steve McQueen’s thoroughly original Shame – it’s not every day, or year, that you see a film with a sex addict at the center, which may have crushed Shame‘s Oscar chances from the beginning – it makes me wonder how a guy who made such an uncompromising second full-length film ended up giving us such tried and true for his third.
One can only witness so many whippings, so much brutality, hear the N word so many times before one becomes somewhat desensitized to it. Over the course of more than two hours, it can start to feel a little bit like porn, both in the repetition of certain behavior (yet another beating, yet another racist tirade, yet more unbelievable disregard for human life) and in the viewer’s potentially mechanical reaction to it.
For all its now-too-commonplace elements, 12 Years a Slave is a well-made movie, with astonishing attention to detail, right down to the fly that’s buzzing around between the heads of slave owner Edwin Epps (Shame star Michael Fassbender, once again owning his character, without judgment) and a slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, a lovely revelation) in one scene of dark, brutal afterglow. (Panning to the U.S. Capitol building as Solomon is wailing in captivity nearby is another awesome touch.)
The acting can be uneven, but when it works, it’s Oscar nomination-worthy. Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (as Epps’s bitter, brittle wife) nail their characters’ bigotry and cruelty, and Nyong’o offers a near-wordless performance as Patsey that’s beautiful and haunting. At least two of the three (Fassbender and Nyong’o) are all but guaranteed citations from the Academy, but Paulson, a long-dependable and versatile actress who turned in stellar and quite different work earlier this year in Mud (and a few years ago in Martha Marcy May Marlene), deserves to be in the Oscar discussion, too.
I know I was supposed to be horrified by Epps, and I was, but Fassbender gives him so many layers that I kept finding myself wanting to know more about him. Though he’s the most savage of beasts, Fassbender infuses him with, if not humanity, humanness. There’s so much going on behind his eyes. Is he being the devil for the hell of it, or is something else driving the force of his evil?
At one point, he makes a speech about how slaves are property, and one can do whatever one wants to do to one’s property. This is ironic because people generally treat their property with more care than many slave owners treated their human possessions. They often compared them to animals, but right up to the slaughter, they took better care of their animals than they did of their slaves. Why the specific, over-the-top cruelty to slaves? It’s an interesting question. I don’t know if it’s an answerable one, but if a movie were to try, at least it would be a new twist on old material.
Still, this is supposed to be Solomon’s story, not Epps’, and likely Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (like McQueen, a black Englishman) does strong work as the main character. His performance, however, doesn’t feel quite definitive. It’s easy to imagine a number of other actors (say, The Hurt Locker’s Anthony Mackie, for instance) in the role, working wonders with the material. Ejiofor doesn’t own the character of Solomon — not the way Jamie Foxx, for all of the issues I had with his performance in Django Unchained, owned Django — and for me, the film suffers for it.
Like Forest Whitaker’s title character in The Butler, though to a lesser degree, Solomon occasionally seems too much like an observer, watching his own story from the sidelines, being upstaged by everything that’s going on around him. During one particular centerpiece whipping scene during which Solomon reaches his breaking point, I found myself focusing more on Patsey’s pain (I can still hear those devastating howls ringing in my ears!) than Solomon’s, even when she wasn’t even in the frame.
Ejiofor does subtle well, though, and he has one of those faces that makes you want to stare at it, so when he’s required to quietly convey Solomon’s thoughts with facial expressions only, he never falters. Faring less well are the two Pauls – Giamatti and Dano – who are all studied mannerisms and Southern ticks. They’re not convincing racists or scary ones because they don’t inhabit their inglorious bastards the way Fassbender does Epps. They’re ACTING too hard, playing stock characters the way we’ve seen them played so many times before, since the first time Roots aired on TV in the late ’70s.
Or maybe it’s just that I’ve seen these types of characters too often now. What was so shocking in 1977 is just maddening after three and a half decades of it. Coming a year after Lincoln and Django Unchained, less than a year after the opening scene of The Butler, and a few months after I saw Spartacus for the first time in its entirety, I simply may have had my fill of slave stories. They’re no longer educational or enlightening, and they’ve never been entertaining. I don’t know why Hollywood keeps going back to them, but 12 Years a Slave is my final one. I’m good.

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Coming to Terms with the Skin I’m In: How South Africa Is Already Changing My Life

It’s now been four and a half days since my arrival in South Africa, and already, I can feel the stirring of a profound evolution deep inside my soul. It’s percolating, bubbling under, almost certain to eventually erupt in a big bang of mental and emotional transformation.

It began with the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg on Friday afternoon, around the time that I was fully engrossed in the exhibit dedicated to Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage, transfixed by images I’d never seen before but looked strangely familiar. As I stood there with tears welling up in my eyes, I felt this unsettling sense of deja vu. I’d seen those images before, not the exact same pictures, but ones just like them. (Not all of them black-themed either, for I couldn’t stop thinking of the white Dust Bowl family in Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” when I saw Cole’s depiction of a black Apartheid mother and child in House of Bondage.)

I’ve been bombarded with them all my life — in stories I’ve been told, in chapters of history books I’ve read, on pages that I’ve pored over in encyclopedias, in movies that I’ve sat through uncomfortably (most recently, The Butler), all of which revolved around Civil Rights in the United States. Interestingly, the travesties of the Civil Rights era on one side of the world were being committed concurrently with the travesties of Apartheid on the other side of the world, as depicted in Cole’s photos.

I suddenly felt connected to South Africa, to Africa, in a way I was always told I was supposed to, because I’m black, because this is where my ancestors came from. Well, if history is to be believed, this is where all of our ancestors originated, whether we’re white or black. From what I’ve been hearing from various local sources, including Solly, the driver who took me to the Apartheid Museum, the cradle of mankind is within driving distance of Johannesburg, roughly one hour away.

As I stood looking at the black-and-white photo of the little boy, melting in the sweltering heat of the classroom, struggling to concentrate, I saw myself. I never had to study under those conditions, but I felt as if I knew exactly how he felt — awkward, uncomfortable, stifled, eager to learn. I wondered where he is now. If he is now. An old but new thought crept into my mind: We are the world. We are one world. For the first time in my life, Africa truly felt like the mother land. It had nothing to do with black pride and everything to do with what I saw in the eyes of that little boy: myself.

If nothing else, I expect my time in South Africa (which will be at least one more month, but likely longer) to be a time of intense healing and self-acceptance. The latter because I’m already beginning to feel more comfortable in my own skin. It’s partly because for the first time in years, when a non-black person looks at me for too long, I actually will have to wonder why. It won’t be because they so seldom see people with my coloring. It won’t be out of curiosity (Is it true what they say about black men?). It will likely be for something that’s uniquely me and belongs to me only.

That’s the self-acceptance part, which is already beginning to be be overshadowed by the healing. That part actually has nothing to do with white people and everything to do with black people, with whom I’ve had a life-long complicated relationship. It began when I was 4 years old, and my family moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the U.S. mainland, in Kissimmee, Florida. We eventually settled in an all-black neighborhood, and despite the physical similarities I shared with our neighbors, I probably wouldn’t have felt more like an outsider had we ended up in the whitest community in town.

The racism I felt coming from a certain segment of Kissimmee’s white population while I was growing up couldn’t compare to the racism and xenophobia I often encountered from portions of the American black community that resented me and my entire family because we were black and foreign — “noisy Jamaicans,” they called us, pejoratively (more for the second word than the first), apparently because to them, the Caribbean equaled the land of reggae and Rastafarianism. (Some day I’ll have to explore the relationship between American blacks and Jamaica, which has always struck me as being somewhat uneasy, considering that in the U.S., reggae has always seemed to be more embraced by whites than by blacks.)

We spoke with strange accents, and we kept to ourselves. Who did we think we were? What did we think we were: better than them?

When I was in first grade and people asked me where I was from because of the funny way I spoke (coming from me, the number three sounded like “tree,” and at the hardly ripe young age of 6, I still couldn’t tell the difference), I sometimes lied and said the Virginia Islands, hoping they wouldn’t realize that no such thing exists. I was too ashamed to say the Virgin Islands. I wanted to fit in, and if the way I talked was going to lead to my being singled out in a negative way by some of my black classmates (interestingly, I can’t recall a single white kid ever ridiculing me for that), at least I could come from a place that wasn’t so exotic, one that was associated with a U.S. state.

The white racism directed toward me while I was growing up was contained to strictly verbal cut-downs. It never touched me physically. “I smell nigger” coming from rednecks on the playground messed with my 11-year-old psyche in dangerous ways, but the black-on-black racism left physical as well as emotional scars. It scared me so much more. When they weren’t sure that their words were getting to me, the black kids who picked on me started picking up sticks and stones.

The physical bruises healed, but the emotional ones never did completely. It wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Florida in Gainesville that I finally escaped the emotional and physical cruelty. For the first time in my life, the majority of black Americans I met accepted me and didn’t make fun of me. If I eventually overcame the fear and resentment of black people that was borne from the way some of them treated me in my youth, I never forgot it completely. It continued to haunt me, contributing to the racism that I harbored toward my my fellow (black) man. (Yes, I choose to own it because, as James Baldwin suggested in in Notes on a Native Son, it’s immoral not to.)

But in South Africa, being around such a large and diverse black population, I sense something shifting inside my soul. I feel a certain camaraderie with my fellow blacks here, a comfort around them that I’ve never felt around blacks anywhere else. I don’t know if they are able to look at me and tell that I’m from somewhere else, but when I open my mouth to speak, I can’t imagine they would ever ridicule the accent that I never quite lost. They speak English with an exotic accent, too!

That’s not to say that they don’t acknowledge our cultural differences — when Solly was explaining to me the housing situation in Johannesburg and he used the word “ghetto,” he started to explain what a “ghetto” is and seemed surprised that I already knew — but so far, it’s been done with the utmost respect and acceptance. I don’t know how far that respect and acceptance will extend into other aspects of who I am, but the fact that I’ve seen several gay couples walking down 7th Street, holding hands, without onlookers so much as flinching, is encouraging.

Of course, being that I’m a creature of contradiction (beginning with the dueling introvert and extrovert sides of my personality), no profound evolution would be complete without a little bit of contradiction sprinkled on top. With my burgeoning newfound appreciation and acceptance of my skin color has come a different kind of awareness of it. It creeps up on me every time I sit down in a restaurant here. Most of the waiters who have served me in Johannesburg have been black, and on 7th Street in Melville when I go from restaurant to restaurant and I see the mostly black staff, it’s hard for me not to feel pangs of guilt.

Are the owners, like the ones at Lucky Bean beside Saffron Guest House, white? Do the black employees commute to and from the townships to earn minimal wages? Who are the invisible occupants of all the beautiful homes in Melville? In my new black fantasy (the first one I’ve enjoyed since Django Unchained), the black employees work for black bosses who go home at night to the houses here.

I hate that I’m even thinking along these lines, which is something I never did in the United States because the division of labor in the restaurants I went to there didn’t appear to be determined along white-black color lines. Most of the people who served me were white, and I never wondered where they lived.

It doesn’t matter that the clientele in most of the places in Melville is largely black as well, though it matters more when the clientele is mostly white. Sadly, I’ll leave Johannesburg tomorrow, before I can understand why the white people in Melville flock to certain places on 7th Street and not to others, which is one more reason to hate this looming color awareness. Why does it even matter to me?

I’m still trying to process this aspect of my current evolutionary process and what I can only describe as my personal version of white liberal guilt, the seeds of which may have been planted on the way back from the Apartheid Museum when Solly explained the difficulties that blacks continue to face when applying for white-collar work. I never thought liberal guilt looked particularly good on white people, and it’s not doing me any favors.

I’m owning it, though, which might the first step in conquering it. I hope that my ongoing evolution in South Africa will lead not only to complete comfort in my own skin but perhaps, at last, it won’t matter to me what color anyone else’s is either.

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