A lot has happened over the last few weeks: I attended my first physics conference. I set up and aligned the vector beams in an optical trap for my lab experiment. And I even went on safari with a couple other MISTI students at Kruger National Park, the largest such park in Africa. The nice thing about having my own blog, however, is the fact that I don’t have to talk about any of that. It was all very fun, but nobody likes tourist stories. After all, there’s a reason I don’t have an Instagram account.
What has captivated me here in South Africa are the interactions and conversations I’ve had through which I have learned the outsiders’ views of America, particularly those that I had with a friend I made at a hip-hop dance competition a few weeks ago. Another guy and I had both arrived before the event started and were somewhat nervously looking around trying to confirm that we were, in fact, in the right place. I don’t recall who broke the ice, but as soon as he heard me speak, he asked where I was from. His face lit up when I told him I was an American. He had always wanted to go there and was a massive fan of American culture and movies, which were what inspired him to dance in the first place. It seemed our conversations throughout the whole party seemed to revolve around my country of origin. I have to admit that I definitely enjoyed the praise, but it was off-putting for my Americanness1 to be such a good thing. He was enamored by the fact that he had met “a real American” to the point where it felt almost as though he was more a fan than a friend. What put me off more was that he did not seem to embrace South African culture at all: he watched only American movies; he wanted to dance like an American; and most of all, he wanted to know as much as he could about his “dream land.”
This bothered me.
Why would this black man, with an entire country to call home, a tribe to call his own, an ancestry that he can trace well beyond 150 years, and a homeland where he is in the majority want to go to America and be like a black American? Throughout our conversations, I tried to insinuate that America really isn’t the land of milk and honey, and there are problems there too – but he seemed completely unfazed. And the more we talked, the more I wanted to burst his bubble, to show him that America is a real place like any other. But I just couldn’t because he was so kind and purely optimistic, so freely in love with America. I just didn’t know how to tell him that the love was unrequited. Now, I don’t mean to say that America is currently hell for black people (it surely has been worse), but when I listened to his dogged praise of America, I felt that he was completely missing the reality that blacks in America face. And only now as I’m writing this do I realize I hated it because I could hear myself in his words.
I used to feel the same way he does about America. But time after time growing up there, my image of my place in the only country I could call home was broken. It started when my dad had to explain to me why I faced certain troubles in school that my friends did not: why did my teachers never give me the benefit of the doubt? I was smart, conscientious, and hard-working – so why was I also suspect? My dad had to explain to me that I couldn’t get away with the same things my white friends could. I was confused. I thought we were past this.
There have been countless reminders since then, ranging from the time I went to a skatepark out in the country and saw confederate flags, to the times when people would hold their bags tighter when next to me on the train, to the times that adults would be surprised that I could speak properly and complimenting me for being “so articulate” when I hadn’t done more than follow basic grammatical rules. These events seemed to always show up right when I started to feel like I wasn’t a foreigner in my own country. And to top it all off, this was only a week after Antwon Rose, Jr. was murdered by police in Philadelphia.
But this kid was really convinced that he could go to America, and all his problems would be solved. I remember having arguments with him in my head where I’d say things like “yea but America doesn’t love you” or “didn’t you hear that just a few weeks ago another unarmed man who looks just like you was shot by police? At least your country acts like it cares about you.” It got to the point where I had to ask myself the important question “does this person know something that I don’t?” So, I decided to hold off and just ask him why he likes America. After all, maybe if I knew what he did, I’d appreciate the place more. He mentioned movies, the accents, the “fun”, the safety (which I have to admit I really do take for granted), and these were all valid (albeit unsatisfying) answers.
However, one thing he said struck a nerve with me, and that was when we started to talk about “the American values.” NOW WAIT RIGHT THERE: you probably think I’m going to say something ridiculous like “Americans have no values”.2 Keep in mind I actually do genuinely and unironically love my country although sometimes it spits in my face.
What got me was that he started talking about firefighters and how they would run into a building to save even dogs. And the funniest thing struck me. There are white Americans who care way more about dogs than they do black people. Which is bad, but as many black comedians’ salaries will tell you, racism is kinda funny. If dogs were shot by police multiple times per week on average, you cannot convince me that there wouldn’t be riots in the streets. As a matter of fact, Trevor Noah pointed out that the death of one gorilla had the entire country swept up, and yet people continue to ignore the fact that police brutality is real. Next time I go down south to visit family and a white person calls me a gorilla I’m gonna hug him, because I know that he cares. But I digress…
What my new friend made me see is that his life has been hard, but America gives him hope. Through American media, my friend has seen our struggles as well. And not only could he relate to our struggles, but he also finds strength in our perseverance. American movies have inspired him and given him the courage to believe that he too can overcome hardship. To be honest, despite its problems, I still love my home overall. I love the wide range of people it hosts and different microcultures and art forms that can flourish under the diverse environment. America itself is what I consider the birthplace of my culture, and I could not be more grateful for it. I hope one day that my friend’s dreams do come true and he can experience it firsthand.
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.
- It’s not a word but it’s my blog.
- Some of our values include the honesty, consistency, moral integrity, open mindedness, and overall tolerance of others that are clearly exemplified by our beautiful orange king who we elected via the popular vote because we are a democracy.