I have to say my first two weeks in Johannesburg have provided a very real eye-opening experience for me. One of the first experiences I had was the train ride from the airport to Parktown, to the University Witwatersrand (Wits), where I will be working with the optics team for the next two months. On this train, I saw the flat, vast, landscape mainly consisting of suburbs with both big industrial plants and large rolling hills looming in the distance. At times when the train tracks were elevated, it seemed like I could see the suburbs go on forever, which is an image far different from the wide, uninhabited landscape that part of me had expected. I looked around the train to see a majority of well-dressed, professional black businessmen and women. It almost reminded me of a D.C. metro, only it was even cleaner. And the population of people aboard was in no way reminiscent of today’s trains in D.C., one of America’s hot spot of gentrification (which is a euphemism for black removal thinly veiled as urban renewal).
When I got to Parktown, I looked around and saw what really felt a lot like D.C, but sounded very different. The people looked very much like a typical D.C. population, other blacks wearing what I had thought of as normal American-styled clothing (which I now simply regard as modern clothing). However, what I heard was actually a wealth of different languages. I recognized Afrikaans and other native languages that I could not easily distinguish from each other. To this day, when I see South Africans, I can’t help but expect them to sound like me, a Black American, when they speak, as there is no real way to tell just by looking that they are South Africans and I am an American. I often forget that I speak with an “American” accent, which I am still so accustomed to being the norm.
I actually found it quite ironic that, as a black man in America, I often feel like a foreigner in my own country. People see me and categorize me as an “African American” rather than simply “American.” Whether you are from Africa or not, you remain in this mental category. Going to South Africa, I have experienced the opposite. People see that I’m black, and they may even infer that I’m Zulu or Xhosa or “colored.” They even often speak to me in their language – assuming that I am from their homeland. It is only after hearing my accent that they realize that I am not from there.
On the optics team where I’m working, I’ve found the conversations tend to gravitate toward physics, politics, race, or culture. The political conversations, however, are far different than those that take place in America. Due to the polarized nature of our political system and the fact that nearly everyone past a certain age has formed their own opinions and most likely taken a side, I’ve found almost all “conversations” of this sort fall under two main categories. Either you spark up a conversation with one who you find has the same political views as you; you both agree; vent to one another; and ultimately learn almost nothing, or you find you have opposing views and make a choice to either argue or avoid the topic altogether, in order to maintain a benevolent, civil relationship. In either case, you ultimately learn nothing.
In our conversations here, however, I actually get the opportunity to learn about their current political climate and talk much more freely about topics many Americans are dead set in their ways about*. I told my team of all sorts of challenges black Americans face, ranging from various laws, to the school-to-prison pipeline, the prison industrial complex as a means of a modern-day system of slavery, and the current president of the U.S. I’ve learned that South Africa faces many problems that surface in America as well, such as crime in the city, colorism, and xenophobia amongst the various racial classifications.
Although I don’t really consider myself African, I guess part of me came here looking for my roots. Ultimately, what I found was – in a cheesy “The Wiz” kind of way – that my roots were with me all along. I could try to claim African culture, saying my roots trace back to the land of Mansa Musa, the richest man in world history, the mighty fighting force of the Zulu warriors, or the intellectual nature of Nelson Mandela and his ethnic group, the Xhosas, in a similar way that many white Americans trace their own histories back to other countries. But, at the end of the day, Africa is a continent, not a country, and the countries within this continent were formed as a result of the white imperialism that stained its history and crippled many of its people. Each country consists of multiple tribes and groups with their own cultures and customs, and these cultures operate under the macroculture of the country, and the African continent is home to 54 different countries.
And, no, South Africa doesn’t fit the modern American stereotype of a crippled African “country.” There are thriving businesses, college students, nightclubs, fast food chains, and all other things you could find in a typical developed country like America. But I’ve come to realize there is no real central African culture that my roots could even date back to. The Africans who were stolen from of a wide variety of tribes came to mix together in America, and the result was somewhat analogous to a form of a chemical reaction, yielding a new culture that operates in a very different way than the sum of its parts.
Peter Williams is a rising sophomore studying mechanical engineering. This summer, he is doing an experiment in Optical Trapping via an internship at the Wits University Structured Light Lab in Johannesburg, South Africa.