Category Archives: Entertainment

In defense of change

Change is good.

Or so the old saying goes. I must have heard that one a thousand times, but the instance that sticks out most in my head is when an old colleague used it on me. I had just announced my plans to leave Teen People to take a job at Us Weekly, and I was feeling nervous about my decision. This particular colleague dropped by my office to wish me well, and I ended up unloading my misgivings on him.

He wasn’t a big fan of mine, and I knew he was glad to see me go. For him, any old cliché probably would have done if it ended our conversation as quickly and painlessly as possible. I’m pretty sure he pulled that one out of his ass. He probably had no idea what an impression he made.

He was right…sort of. Change can be good, and in this professional instance it was not only good — it was essential. But change can also be not-so-good. There’s a lot to be said for stability, predictability and the dreaded routine. Change for the sake of change only is often just a waste of time.

When I was younger, one of my relatives came to live with us for a while. One of my most vivid memories about him (among many vivid, unpleasant memories) was that he used to change undershirts several times a day. Every time I think of him, I also think of his white V-neck t-shirts flapping in the wind on the clothesline in the backyard like blank flags at half-mast.

As I can’t recall him ever doing anything more strenuous than thumping his Holy Bible, I had no idea why he needed to change his t-shirts so often. Maybe it was because my mother did all of the laundry, so why not? Change for the sake of change may have been good for him, but it was a burden for my mom. Though I’ve fully embraced change in my recent adulthood, I’ve remained suspicious and maybe even a little afraid of it too.

But now I’m beginning to see change in an entirely different light. Even when it’s not-so-good, or just for its own sake, it can end up having a net positive effect. Hannah Horvath on Girls would probably agree.

The fourth season of Girls won me over after a kind of hum-drum third season, and I think it was all because of change. There was so much of it. The biggest one: Hannah moved to Iowa (albeit briefly) to attend grad school, which set off a chain of unfortunate events for Hannah but fortunate ones for this viewer.

As a result of the stint in Iowa, she lost Adam, and upon her return, even more change was in store. She took a job as a substitute high-school teacher and her friends became a less prominent presence in her life. Hannah spent more time with Adam’s new girlfriend Mimi-Rose in episode 7 than she did with Marnie, Shoshanna and Jessa the entire season! If that wasn’t enough life upheaval, her father also came out as gay. That’s a lot of change for a 10-episode season.

(As an aside, I love the juxtaposition of her dad announcing he’s gay to her mother getting tenure, which, in academia, is the antithesis of change, as Loreen “I never have to move again” Horvath clearly realizes.)

The move to Iowa was one of the best developments that the series writer and star Lena Dunham has come up with yet. It took Hannah out of the orbit of her annoying New York circle, none of whom, with the exception of Adam and Shoshanna, I could possibly care less about. The Iowa episodes were some of my favorite ones of the season, partly because her New York crowd were barely in them. But most of all, I loved them because the change of scenery and Hannah’s ultimate failure in Iowa were the catalysts for the first signs of true emotional growth we’ve seen in her yet.

I don’t think she would have been able to be so supportive of her father and not make his coming out all about her without the Iowa experience. And look at how she remained in the background during the water-childbirth scenes, not grabbing center stage as old Hannah surely would have done. Had she not let go of so many illusions about herself, about her life, about life in general after Iowa, she probably would have taken Adam back in the season finale rather than seeing that they simply didn’t work anymore…if they ever actually did.

I’m thrilled that Hannah is starting to evolve, but I’m glad that she hasn’t completely changed her irritating ways. Her interaction with her student Cleo offered much-needed assurance that old-school Hannah is alive and well. Some might find her insufferable, but I love her despite her flaws…because of her flaws.

I get Hannah. Maybe it’s the writer in us. We’re a strange, complicated, contradictory breed. I hope friends and strangers don’t feel about me the way people do about Hannah, but I wouldn’t be too surprised to find out that some of them do. It’s not like I’ve never picked up and left everyone I cared about behind for far less clear-cut reasons than Hannah’s motivation for moving to Iowa.

I’m sure more big changes (some just for the sake of it) are in store for both Hannah and me. Maybe they’ll bring about continued evolution and make us more palatable to the people around us. Perhaps, as it did with Hannah, change will finally put me in the orbit of a guy who might actually be good for me and not just provide more fodder for my writing.

I like Mr. Parker. He’s cute and he totally nailed Hannah in just a couple of episodes. I’m curious to see where they go in season five. I love that he called her on her thirst for drama, but I hope she doesn’t bend like Carrie Bradshaw did with Aiden when she tried to give up smoking for him on Sex and the City. Hannah’s dramatic tendencies are a large part of what makes her and Girls interesting.

The last thing she (or I, a once-again thoroughly entertained viewer) needs is change in the form of a sexy new guy swooping in and altering Hannah or her maddening ways. I love them just the way they are.


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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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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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The Five Best Nelson Mandela Quotes at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg

I can’t believe it took me so long. I was near the end of my four and a half hours at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg — featuring a special exhibit on Nelson Mandela and a permanent one on the history of South Africa, which, sadly, is synonymous with the history of Apartheid there — when I finally made the connection I should have been making all of my life.

Nelson Mandela is South Africa’s Martin Luther King Jr. and a still-living-and-breathing example of how much further the slain Civil Rights leader could have gone. I’d always thought of King as the greatest political leader of the last century, but when the museum kept making that case for Mandela, I couldn’t argue. It made me wonder what King, who was assassinated in 1968 at age 39, might have become he had lived to be the ripe old age of 96 (Mandela’s current age) and counting.

Would he, and not Barack Obama, have one day — one much earlier day — become the first black U.S. president? In what other ways might the course of relatively recent U.S. history have been altered? How would the course of relatively recent South African history have been altered had Mandela, who was already in his mid 70s when he became the country’s first President elected by a democratic majority in 1994, met the same tragic fate as an African leader like Stephen Biko?

For all of the injustices he survived and his accomplishments in spite of them, Mandela was not the reason why I had to take a time-out to sit down and weep around the halfway point. That honor would go to the section of the permanent collection dedicated to House of Bondage, Ernest Cole’s book of photo essays, published in 1967, when he was but a mere 27 years old. Among the excerpts hanging on the wall was a stunning sentence, one simple declaration that I had to read over and over to let it sink into my soul until my heart broke under the weight of my soul’s sorrow:

“It’s an extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black.”

Such an indisputable truth, so devastating in its stark resignation, as was pretty much every word in House of Bondage that I read yesterday. This was the greatest beauty of Cole’s literary and visual masterpiece. It was not a call to arms but a call to enlightenment. Its stunning journalistic observation documented the life and times of the African individual as well as of the entire African nation during Apartheid.


In my extolling of the many virtues of Cole, of whom I’d never even heard before yesterday, I don’t mean to overlook or diminish those of Mandela. His heroism, though, is more common knowledge. I expected to be moved by him. What I didn’t expect, though, was to be as moved by his words as I was by his deeds. Here are Mandela’s five statements that resonated with me most during my time at the Apartheid Museum.

5. “None of us can be described as having virtues or qualities that raise him or her above others.”

4. “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and and respects the freedom of others.”

3. “I detest racialism because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

2. “The cell is an ideal place to know yourself. People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishment, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones, such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity and an absence of variety. You learn to look into yourself.”

1. “I learnt that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

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Destination: Anywhere (But How Did I End Up in Soweto?)

My second day in Johannesburg underscored my still-developing theory that you get what you’re not looking for. After breakfast and a brief exploration of Melville that included stumbling onto the perfect view of the downtown Joburg skyline, I boarded Rea Vaga, the rapid-transit bus system connecting Johannesburg’s central business district with what was then still the great unknown to the south.

“Which side do I take to Boomtown?” I asked, after buying my Rea Vaga card and immediately topping it up with 50 ZAR ($4.87). None of the other stops listed on the route map had meant anything to me. Neither did Boomtown, but it reminded me of The Boomtown Rats and David + David’s 1986 Top 40 hit “Welcome to the Boomtown.” Bob Geldof’s former band was Irish, and David + David were referring to Los Angeles in their song, but who knew what I’d find in Johannesburg’s version of Boomtown?

I boarded the next bus headed in the direction away from the CBD. It was nearly full, and I took one of the last remaining empty seats beside a woman who kept nodding off. I looked around me. Everyone on the bus was black. I wondered about all of the political allusions I’d been temporarily brushing aside until I was rested enough to process them? Johannesburg’s story — its tortured, tortuous history — was beginning to unfold before me. I know evidence of continued segregation when I see it.

And where were all of these people — a mix of working-class men and women and fresh-faced kids wearing school uniforms, speaking English and various languages I didn’t understand — all going? As the chatter grew louder, the scenery outside was changing dramatically. Previously relatively flat, well-manicured and distinctly suburban, it was becoming more rugged, more mountainous, more green, more beautiful (in that tattered way I’ve grown to love ever since my first trip to Buenos Aires). Rows of colorful modest-looking houses peppered the landscape. We passed by a number of stops whose names meant nothing to me before arriving at one called Orlando — as in Orlando, Florida, the big city next to my hometown (Kissimmee). Could it be?

Boomtown, too, came and went. By then it was raining, and the place looked like nothing special. I figured I’d stay dry inside the bus until it reached the end of the line. Maybe by then it would have stopped raining, and I’d be able to explore a little before returning to my starting point. Several stops and a few twists and turns later, we arrived at Thokoza Park. Everyone departed the bus. This must be the place.

I looked at the beautiful greenery on both sides of the platform (see the photos above). It was quietly breathtaking — so peaceful, so rich, so wet. The only thing stopping me from descending the platform and running to greet it was the torrential downpour that was raining down with varying levels of intensity. It looked like I would be heading back earlier than expected. But how?

As I looked at the numerous bus routes listed above the platform, I searched for one that might be the one where I had started. Though I’d forgotten the full name, I remembered it was “Sophia”-something, as in Hagia Sophia (in Istanbul) or Sophia Petrillo (on The Golden Girls). But where was Sophia?

That’s when I was stopped by the woman whom I’d been sitting next to on the bus. She hadn’t said a word to me the entire trip, but now she couldn’t stop talking. She explained in minute detail how I should get back. Her accented English was perfect, but she was giving me so much information that all I was able to process was “C3.” That was the bus I needed to take to find my way back to Sophia.

I thanked her for her kindness and proceeded to walk about 300 meters or so to the other end of the platform. There was a C1 bus already waiting. I stood there staring at it, wondering when it would pull out of the station and make way for the C3 that hopefully was right behind it. I was disappointed by my truncated journey. Boomtown had been a bust, the sky was pouring, and I had no idea how to get to Soweto.

Nobody came to Johannesburg without going to Soweto. Along with the Apartheid Museum and my Argentine friend Dolores, it was the only thing I had on my must-see-in-Joburg list. (In another one of those coincidental twists that has been a regular occurrence in my life since Berlin, Dolores, whom I met years ago in Buenos Aires, and who left BA for Cape Town around the time that I left it for Melbourne, happens to be in Johannesburg renewing her Argentine passport on the exact same days that I’m here.)

I didn’t know very much about Soweto other than what I’d heard about it in the mid to late ’80s and early ’90s when Apartheid had replaced feeding the world as pop music’s cause du jour. I knew that during the Apartheid era it had been more or less South Africa’s version of the U.S. Indian reservations of the 19th century, a place where the country’s natives had been forced into after being displaced from their own land by the white ruling class.

Just as I was wondering how difficult it would be to get there from where I was, I looked over and saw the woman who’d helped me before. She was approaching me, as if she had something urgent to share. She wanted to make sure that I didn’t get on the C1. “You have to take the C3,” she said, smiling. “This is the C1. It goes somewhere else. The C3 is right behind it.” I thanked her again and watched as she walked away, wondering what I’d done to deserve her kindness and concern.

A few minutes later, I was back on the bus, heading in the direction from whence I’d come. This time, instead of studying the scenery, I focused on the signs. I should at least know roughly where I was. I saw one that said “Soweto” with an arrow pointing to the left. Could it be? Several “Soweto” signs later, I knew exactly where I was. I’d boarded a bus headed to Boomtown and ended up in Thokoza Park, in Soweto.

I was kind of crushed that I wouldn’t get a chance to see more of Soweto until another less-rainy day, but now I knew exactly how to get there. And I didn’t even have to look for it.

“Soweto” Jeffrey Osborne

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