About two weeks earlier, it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That morning, as I drove to the sports club to play tennis, I listened to the NPR Radio. The program revolved around the segregation of the blacks and whites in America. It also talked about how Martin Luther King brought change into the lives of the Africana Americans in the US.
The black people had been suffering discrimination until as late as the mid-sixties. For example, as they traveled, they were not allowed to utilize the same public facilities as the whites? Can you imagine anybody among us to travel for hours without being able to go to the bathroom? What’s more, not only, the African Americans could not use the same restrooms as the whites, but they were not allowed to dine at restaurants; neither could they buy gas nor other necessities as they wished.
Thankfully, a man called Victor Green put together a guide book for car travel for African-Americans, which specified places they could buy gas, food, use the bathroom, or sleep overnight. Before the Green guide book was available, the African-Americans, generally packed food to carry with them. They also brought along extra gasoline, and if they were worried about bathroom facilities, they brought along something to use as a portable toilet. Those who traveled for business generally arranged to stay with relatives or friends as they knew finding a motel or a friendly restaurant would not be an easy task. Thus, “The Negro Motorist Green Book” which was published in 1936 by Victor Green – a postman in the New Jersey area – was of great help to the African Americans.
It should be stressed that the maltreatment of the black people was not merely US related. Their misfortune goes to centuries back. Originally, it began in Africa itself, where greedy Europeans began their despicable business of slavery.
This reminds me of the fascinating book, which I recently read called, “Home going” by Yaa Gyasi. It is the sad and painful story of descent African families, who had to be brutally separated from their wives, husbands, and children to be sold by the money grubbing merciless slave merchants. Slavery, which in the west lasted from the 15th to mid-19th century, was one of the most lucrative enterprises in which compassion and humanity had no place. Can you, for a minute, feel the pain and misery the poor African people had to endure as they slaved away in mines and fields? Yes, can you envisage scenes where they were whipped and tortured if they did not do their utmost to satisfy their owners’ wishes? To make things worse, the slaves were not regarded as normal humans: i.e.: equal to the whites. Why? Simply because they were black. This is really disgusting and unacceptable.
Here, I have to recount an event that I experienced during one of my travels to Florida in the mid-eighties.
I went there with my two teen-aged children, to visit a beloved childhood friend of mine.
The second day during our stay there, my friend and I were sitting in her car- with its windows rolled down – waiting for her husband to come back from his grocery shopping.
As we sat there chatting away, a group of African American young girls and boys, began advancing in the direction of our parked car. The moment my friend set her eyes upon those youth, she panicked and urged, “Hurry … hurry … roll up the window on your side. It is very dangerous!”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “I don’t see anything to be afraid of.”
“Can’t you see those black kids walking toward us?”
I told her calmly that if she wanted to roll up the window next to her, she was welcome to do so, but I was not going to follow suit.
She looked at me with bewilderment; probably thinking I had lost my mind.
Funnily enough, as the group passed by our car, they didn’t even bother looking at us.
I stared at my friend, arching an eyebrow, as I said, “Hey; we are still alive, aren’t we?”
I had to laugh inside, thinking simply because of the color of their skin, my friend found them to be a threat! And this was as late as the eighties, where things should have been different.
Here, I would like to talk about another such incident during the time of apartheid in South Africa.
I used to travel with my husband to different corners of the world, when he ventured out on business trips.
Once, when we were visiting South Africa, we were invited to a party in Johannesburg.
As my husband and I stood by a window overlooking a lush garden and enjoyed our vodka tonics, a middle-aged man united with us. He introduced himself, recounted us about his pleasant life. He said he lived in a suburb not too far from Johannesburg, with his wife and their servants. What surprised me during his conversation was that man’s attitude in regards their black servants.
I, found it so strange to hear the fellow say that he was pleasantly surprised to see their black maid learn to set the table as fast as within a day.
I asked him what was so surprising.
He answered, “Well, you might not know, but the black people are not very smart.”
“Excuse me!” I snapped at him. “Who gave you the idea that you are more intelligent than the black people?”
The stranger, suddenly turned cherry red, and barked, “Obviously, you know nothing about these people. Do you?”
My heart began thumping with rage. I wished to take one of my high hill shoes off and bang him hard on the head. Meanwhile, my husband grabbing my arm, saying, “Come on, let’s go and talk a bit with Sue. The poor woman is standing over there all by herself.”
As soon as we began our conversation with Sue, she said, “I could see you having a heated conversation with the chief of the police.”
I became quite apprehensive, learning about the identity of the stupid man. I wondered if he might cause me any trouble at the airport the day of my departure. Luckily, that did not happen.
I will conclude with another story about South Africa.
My husband, had a very capable South African black lawyer at their branch in Johannesburg. At the time of our visit, she had to go on a business trip to another city. One night, we invited her husband for dinner in the restaurant at our hotel.
His name was John, and also happened to be a lawyer and a very interesting person. Thus, we had a great time and conversation during our dinner.
Around eight-thirty, we noticed John constantly checking his watch. At about nine o’clock, he turned real nervous; to the point that he became jittery. My husband, noticing John’s strange mood, asked him, “You seem tired of our companion. Are you willing to leave already?”
He took a deep breath to compose himself and answered, “No, no. Not at all! On the contrary, I am totally enjoying my time with you.”
“No, you don’t seem to be enjoying yourself.” My husband stressed.
“I leave at the shantytown, like any black person in Johannesburg, and am supposed to be out of the city by nine.”
He sighed and carried on, “There is a special bus leaving ten minutes to nine, and I should have been on it ten minutes ago. As you can see, it is already nine o’clock.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll put you on a cab,” my husband stressed.
I, who had always been a rebellious person since my teenage days, felt like getting up and slapping every white South African person in the restaurant. Especially that I noticed their hateful glares all during our dinner. I guess simply because, we were having dinner with a black person.
My husband reassured our guest that he would hire a private car from the hotel, and take him to his house in person. And, that was exactly what he did.
When this incident Happened, Mandela had not become the president yet. Come to think of it, he too, like Martin Luther King Jr. was an important figure in bringing change and dignity into black people’s life. The names of these heroes will and cannot ever be erased from the history of mankind. Indeed, they will both live on forever.