My first introduction to the injustices in Southern Africa had nothing to do with Nelson Mandela. In 1984, I was an exchange student living with a host family in West Germany. They were devout Lutherans. One of the ways they understood how to embody and express their faith was to take part and increase the visibility of the “Kauft Kein Früchte aus Sudafrika” campaign, which was a boycott of fruit grown in South Africa.
When my year as an exchange student came to an end, and I returned to the U.S. and began my first year of college, I found myself smack dab in the middle of the usAmerican college-based divestment movement. Students, faculty, staff all working to convince corporations to heed the demands of the people of South Africa and divest from doing business in South Africa (and often in any of the frontline states, like Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe) and to convince the board of trustees of the college to divest from those companies present in South Africa.
In the winter of 1986, like many other campus across the country, we built “shanty towns” of particle board and plywood, attempting to convey to the college community the ugliness and brutality of what shelter and life was like for the millions of Black South Africans kept in dire poverty. We renamed the Bristol Campus Center the “Biko Campus Center” after the slain anti-Apartheid activist. One memorable trip to New York City involved a chant, sung to the tune from the movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:
“O, you, evil Citi-bank, bank, evil Citi-bank, bank we hate you…”
We took over the president’s office. The president countered with threats of expulsion and arrest. The college sent letters to parents informing them of the dangerous activites their children were involved in and the potential terrible consequences of these actions, implying loss of financial aid. Some determined, bold students stayed and were suspended. I did not, fearful of losing my financial aid and not yet bold enough to take on the responsibility of civil disobedience that results in arrest. I was embarrased at my own limits and lack of courage; I am more forgiving of myself now.
(Forgive me, but I may be confusing exact details and chronology. It was important but my mind does not remember even important things, or meshes them together with other important things, or other unimportant things. Such is the aging process. Perhaps some old friends will chime in and comment on this post, adding and correcting.)
There were other events. Here’s a photo of some of the faculty at graduation day, 1986, marching with a Divest Now! sign and wearing black armbands, as all of us in support wore. In 1987, Maki Mandela came to campus and spoke on behalf of her nation and her imprisoned father. We staged a renaming of a new writing center, “The Nelson Mandela Memorial Writing Center: Dedicated to the Memories of the Victims of South African Racism.” And more.
Through this engagement in activism around South Africa and Apartheid, many of us white students began to seriously encounter and engage activism around racism, both institutional and personal, often for the first time in our lives. Not all of us, perhaps not so many of us white students, were so adept at being able to confront our own white privilege and complicity with racism’s oppressive structures and legacies – it was (and is) so much easier when the racism is far away, rather than here at home. But some of us tried and steadily got better at it. There was more than enough racism on campus, like the African American basketball player who was expelled for plagiarism while the white star football player was allowed to take a leave of absence, with credit, after sexually assaulting a woman.
I know that then, as well as over the past quarter century, I have chosen to continue what I began then: learning to integrate, if clumsily and not always fully, how racism insinuates itself into the systems of the world and into personal interactions between and among people, even well-intentioned people. When I was head of the women’s center my last year on campus, wanting to build connections across race, class, and gender, I helped facilitate connections between that feminist refuge and the BLSU – Black & Latino Student Union — on campus. What I remember best is our co-sponsoring Angela Davis to come to campus for a weekend. I got to be her chauffeur and that was a blast!
The need to make connections, among people, across communities and issues, continues. In a recent letter published by my alma mater’s student newspaper, The Spectator, student Max Schnidman wrote this of the current divestment debate – fossil fuels:
The debate over divestment has swarmed across college campuses over the past year, and it has finally hit the Hill. Members of our community are asking the College to “immediately freeze any new investment in fossil-fuel companies, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.” They argue that such an act will prevent harm to our environment. Their position, while morally admirable, is economically untenable.
Change the lyrics but the tune is still the same. This is exactly what was written in newspapers and said a quarter century ago: admirable, but untenable.
Well, I want to say to those current students, and faculty, and staff who are fighting for fossil fuel divestment, at Hamilton College and other colleges and universities across the nation, and at houses of worship, and all other places and communities: your work is so important, you stand on the shoulders of those of us who came before you, and also I say to you,
and I await your