Philly, October 1997. Winnie Mandela was the keynote speaker at the Million Woman March. I was a freelance journalist from London and couldn't afford hotels, so, one of the press contacts for the March found me a house to live in during my time in Philly. In an act of solidarity with the march, white women were opening up their homes to black women coming into Philadelphia for the march.
My hostess picked me up from the airport. She asked me where I was from, I told her my family is from Ghana. Her pop -- it turned out -- was an actual missionary who had been to Ghana. We shared stories of regularly waking up in our homes and having to give up our beds to folk who needed shelter, were being educated or supported. In my hostess's case, those folk were almost always of color, mine too, but they were always from different African countries. We also talked about our travel to different African nations.
My hostess disagreed with Winnie Mandela keynoting the massive march that brought thousands and thousands of black women from all over the country and the world to the streets of Philadelphia. She felt Winnie was a divisive figure, incapable of uniting people of creed and color the way Nelson Mandela had. After being in Philly for almost a week, my hostess told me her Pop had invited me to dinner at her parents' house.
I was running late from an interview, so everyone had already started eating when I arrived at the house. The missionary's position was at the head of the table. My hostess' mama was back and forth from the kitchen to the dining table. Two Chinese boys were also at the table, neither spoke throughout the dinner. Her pop asked me why I was staying with his daughter. I was confused by the question. He told me my hostess was a social worker, who worked with women of color living in poverty, recovering from substance abuse or addiction. He said she had opened her home to black women coming to Philadelphia for the March needing help or a place to stay. I explained I simply reached out to the Million Woman March organizers, explained I was a Black British freelance journalist traveling from London covering the March, I didn't have a hotel and was looking for somewhere to stay. Interestingly, his daughter had asked me the same question more than once during that week. I had given the same answer. There was a tension at the table.
Subject switch to South Africa. Her pop thought it was a "disgrace" that Winnie Mandela would keynote the MWM given she was facing charges of kidnap and killing 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi. He said: a killer gets a keynote? I told him that a killer had gotten a Nobel peace prize. F. W. De Klerk was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993. And, Winnie was acquitted.
Subject switch. He had been to Ghana. He told me had been missionary there and in other parts of West Africa. He switched back to the subject of Stompie and Winnie. He spoke of how important it was that South Africa's black majority forgive the white minority so there could be peace. He said she needed to be more like Nelson, more forgiving. He spoke again of Stompie. I asked him if he knew the names of the 10 children beaten, brutalized and battered to death in the March 1960 Sharpeville massacre, or the names of the children who had protested alongside parents, been beaten with sticks and been set upon by dogs as they fought for their humanity. He did not. He told me again he would never forgive Winnie for what she had done. I asked him if he would forgive De Klerk for what he had done. He got very loud. He repeated he would not forgive Winnie. I asked him if he thought Winnie Mandela was worried about being forgiven by a white man at a dinner table in Philadelphia she didn't know and would likely never meet. Dinner was over.
I think about this now. I think back to October 25, 1997, Philadelphia's Eakins Oval -- an historical site of slave auctions and the Million Woman March stage where Winnie delivered her keynote to thousands and thousands of women stretched from Benjamin Franklin Parkway right down to Penn's Landing and spilling over to City Hall.
All children are precious and irreplaceable. The missionary's position -- like that of much of the global mainstream media -- was to privilege one child, whose name became known and learned -- not because there was any care about or thought to this child, but because of what it politically meant in the global castigation and public humiliation of Winnie Mandela. Like Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela was a leader in a resistance movement. The missionary's position was the result of a global media gaze, that in its celebration of South Africa's historic 1994 election, began to language trauma as trivia; hailing forgiveness as a magical thing. This forgiveness was radicalized in such a way that a white minority was made central to -- and a priority of -- black South Africa's forgiveness narrative. A forgiveness that has white folk as a consistent central character in a black South African forgiveness narrative is an emotional apartheid.
I think about these events in the context of the trip I would make to South Africa , where I spoke with black South African women living in Alexandria, the nation's second biggest township and listened as they shared horror stories of brutality and survival, scars and scares -- of children they did not even get to bury -- and whose names I now cannot recall. For them forgiveness was like a curse word -- the 'F' word. Their challenge, they shared, was still being here, when their children no longer were. They blamed husbands and themselves for not saving them. Forgiveness was not some distant place or face. It was home, it was beside them. I learned from them forgiveness is not politics, nor is it collective -- it is a process. It is an intimate revolution.
Apartheid was war. The casualty of all war is innocent life. The legacy of that war is trauma, which, for so many South Africans still remains untreated. South Africa's landscape and soil is grave to children's bones and bravery -- names unknown, stories untold, but beauty and bravery unforgotten by those who survive them and struggle with the mere notion of forgiveness. From them, their stories, their scars, I learned forgiveness is for you, first. Inspired by them I have created #theFword: an intimate revolution, a 12-day global campaign on black love and forgiveness. Time to end emotional apartheid, time for emotional justice.
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