History Lessons

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Last week, in our group reflection session, I raised the question, “What is something you were not expecting to get out of this trip that you actually have?” I was interested to hear everyone’s answers because, regardless of situation, I always find this a difficult question to answer, since it requires a level of introspection before and during an experience that I usually lack. I was looking forward to many things about this trip – including exploring Johannesburg and Cape Town, making new friends, and having my first full-time internship; however, something I completely undervalued at the beginning was how much I would appreciate the educational aspect of this experience.

In Johannesburg, we had a whirlwind week spent delving into South African culture and history, trying to learn as much as we could through museums and tours. The history crash course was amazing, and I enjoyed being able to hear many different stories and perspectives on apartheid, whether it was through the interactive exhibits at the Apartheid museum or going through the township of Alexandra with one of its former residents. Even now, some of my favorite moments come on Monday evenings when we have speakers come and share their experiences. So far, my favorites have been Minister Paul Verryn, a former anti-apartheid activist who also preaches at the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church, which doubles as a place of refuge to thousands of Zimbabwean refugees under his direction, and Denis Goldberg, one of the primary white activists who worked alongside Nelson Mandela to end apartheid. We were also able to meet with the legendary Allister Sparks, who as a writer, journalist and political commentator, was very involved with the anti-apartheid struggle.

In fact, it was after our conversation with Mr. Sparks that I committed myself to journaling this summer, lest I forget all of the great things I’ve been learning. Now I find myself scribbling in my Moleskine all throughout the day, capturing the many different comments and statistics I encounter about South African life. I expected to increase my knowledge of South Africa and its fascinating, torrid history just by virtue of living and working here for two months, but there’s something else I’ve been learning a lot about that I was not expecting to, and that frankly I’m a little embarrassed to admit – American history.

One of the things that drew me specifically to the DukeEngage Cape Town program was the opportunity to examine the parallels between the United States and South Africa, along with the existing differences – the most obvious similarity being the countries’ shared history of racial segregation. In learning more about the horrors of apartheid, I was surprised by the amount I was also learning about the American civil rights movement. I knew (or thought I knew) a lot about civil rights already, having grown up in an African-American household that always emphasized our culture and roots, but time and time again on this trip I’ve encountered new information regarding a struggle I thought I knew so much about. Before this trip, I had always thought of Rosa Parks as the courageous woman who refused to move to the back of the bus, but knew nothing of how she had been at the forefront of various civil rights and feminist movements for decades prior. I also made it through my entire high school career without any mention of the Wilmington race riots or the Greensboro sit-ins, even though they were both key events in American history.

I have to attribute a lot of the knowledge I’m gaining to the incredible Duke staff accompanying us on our trip. Our much-loved leaders include Dr. William Chafe (Bill), a history professor, Dr. Robert Korstad (Bob), who teaches in both public policy and history, and Anne-Marie Angelo (Ama), who just graduated with her Ph.D in history. It’s a wonderful experience to be able to receive this wisdom from people who have actually experienced some of the things we learn about and are still actively engaged in the conversations surrounding them. For example, Bill, who we spent the first four weeks of the trip with, doesn’t just write books about gender and racial equality – he started the women’s studies department at Vassar and actually participated in the Freedom Summer of 1964. And you can watch a video here of Bob explaining why he recently got arrested for civil disobedience as a part of the ‘Moral Monday’ campaign in North Carolina, which protests the recent Republican-backed regressive agenda on social programs, voting rights, education and tax policy – actions that all disproportionately hurt the poor and minorities.

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Shoutout to the great Bill Chafe, aka Colonel Sanders from KFC

Thanks to them, I am getting my questions answered, the gaps in my knowledge filled in, and encouragement when I ask in bewilderment “How could I not have known about this?” All of this goes to show that there truly is always more to learn, and even while learning about another country’s rich history, I can’t forget to acknowledge my own.