Showing posts with label Nelson Mandela. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nelson Mandela. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Muse of Mandela

If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.
—Nelson Mandela
The Muse of Mandela

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death at the age of 95 I find myself musing about how much his life story has meant to the whole world and to me—living so far away from his South Africa, on the left coast of the USA. I am a member of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. Like many my mind was blown, my life was changed by that great crack in the zeitgeist through which flowed the civil rights movement,  the anti-war movement, women’s liberation, environmentalism and psychedelic drugs.

 We saw ourselves as part of a great awakening. We understood that “War is not Healthy for Children or Other Living Beings,” “Black is Powerful,” “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” and “Earth Is Our Mother.” We had seen molecules dance in the branches of a tree; we knew magic was afoot. 

We were young, idealistic and naïve. We thought we were crossing over Jordan on our way to the Promised Land. What happened? That sense of loss and confusion is a theme in my book, The Faust Woman Poems.

Here’s a poem:

Crossing Over

We thought we knew where
we were going the songs spelt
it out drinking gourd, no moon
night. Didn’t we sneak
past that overseer’s dogs, find
the silent boatman, listen to
the soft splash of oars on the way
to the other side ?

did we think we were headed
on board that train?
We sang the songs, imagined
country lives, city lives, switched
partners, took another toke
                                     of Acapulco Gold…

Long gone what you promised me
under the fig tree. And that key

                                          did I lose it? 

The key got lost, our faith got smashed, by terrible events—the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy. Many of us bent our heads down and pursued the hard, important work of our ordinary lives. Reagan was elected. We lost our larger vision, our hopes for a future without war, poverty, racism, sexism or environmental degradation. What would our world be like if Martin Luther King had lived to be a wise old man with a sharp and witty tongue?

Monday, January 23, 2012

News from the Muse: The Muse of South Africa

Naomi’s essay “History is a Ghost Story” was just published in Psychological Perspectives Vol. 54 #4. Here is an excerpt:

Most Stony South African God
History is a trickster, a thief. It cheats us out of where we think we’re going, what we think we own, whom we love.

On the first day we arrived in South Africa in a jet–lagged haze, we were told we had to go to the mountain. This was Table Mountain, an imposing flat topped stony god that presides over Cape Town. It was a clear bright day. There was no “table cloth,” no cluster of clouds hanging over the mountain, obscuring the view. This we were told was most unusual—coming after days of rain—an opportunity we had to seize. So it is we found ourselves on top of the world, glorying in views of the wild coast, Devil ‘s Peak, the 12 Apostles. We meandered in a strange marshland filled with wildflowers. A bright green–necked orange–breasted bird flew by. I had not understood how much of the magnetic pull of Africa comes from the landscape. In Cape Town, everywhere you go the mountain dominates—pulls your eyes, your mind, from the business of the street to the high slow language of rocks and earth.

It was August, 2007. We were living in the shadow of the Bush years—had no idea as yet we were soon to have an African American president. We felt ashamed of our own country. At the opening reception to the conference I met Mamphela Ramphele—a tall elegant woman in black, something lacy at her throat. She embodies South African history. In her youth, she and her lover, Stephen Biko, were among the founders of the Black Consciousness movement of the 70s. I had read about them, read the poetry of that time. In the new South Africa she became the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town—the first black woman to hold such a position at a South African University—and a Managing Director of the World Bank.

My father’s spirit leapt and glowed—he had always loved beautiful women, was a master of seduction. Was it he in me who went on and on to her about what a beacon South Africa was to our country? We had lost Martin Luther King and Malcolm X—we had lost meaning and direction, we felt lost in the current state of corruption and evil. South Africa had changed so dramatically for the better. It was an inspiration.

Was it the spirit of my father to which she responded, saying that my people were her inspiration, for the Jews had always valued literacy and education? That’s what the new South Africa needs. My father loves that kind of talk. I had been reading South African poetry, poems that told the unbearable stories…

On the next day Ramphele was our plenary speaker. She wore a bright red dress and shawl and shone throughout the hall. She was bold and her manner was fierce, her vision wide and political. She spoke of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had been established by the post Apartheid government to facilitate recovery of the truth of what had happened. Hearings were held in public. She described it as a ritual of healing that helped the country find meaning. She spoke of its limitations, its failures. She spoke of the social engineering of apartheid, which destroyed families by separating the men, forcing them to live in barracks away from wives and children. Apartheid also blocked the education of young blacks, and the country was still suffering the consequences of a lost generation.

I felt touched by a world of experience I couldn’t articulate—but which moved me deeply. We began to lose our innocence, the spirit of my father and I, listening to her. We had wanted to believe that a new paradigm of justice and humanity was born out of Africa, and would lead us into the Promised Land. We wanted to believe that Mandela was Moses. It’s true he had walked out of prison because of his own great spirit and the wisdom and courage of then South African president F.W. de Klerk. Mandela had been elected president, there had not been bloodshed, but, as Mamphela told us, the terrible problems of economic inequality had not been solved. Whites still lived in privilege while many Black Africans were stuck in unbearable poverty. Whites complained that their children could not get work. Their talents were getting lost because they were emigrating…

I wrote a poem about these experiences in Cape Town:


In Suffering, and Nightmare,
I woke at last

to my own nature.

Frank Bidart

Table Mountain
Knife Edge Mountain
Altar Mountain where the Sacrifice is made
Most Stony South African God

We see you

You follow us all over Cape Town—
where Mandela spoke to the crowd—
We see you

At the Afro Cafe in the alley
red roses on orange and purple oil cloth
black girl entwined with her white lover
We see you

On Robben Island
where the writing on the wall reads:
“Happy Days are Here Again!”
William says he’s still imprisoned—
can’t get a job besides this-—
being our tour guide in Maximum Security
We see you

At Langa, where Brenda and her sons
share six dark rooms, one stove, one broken toilet
with fifteen other families
You have our number

At the Langa Baptist church
held in the murmur of prayer

in Xhosa in English
Forgive us for what we have done
Forgive us for what we have not

Table Mountain
Knife Edge Mountain
Altar where the Sacrifice is made; You Saw

What did we know?
What did we not know?

O mountain
pull your cloud about you
gnash your teeth
You’ve got our number

Kitchen table mountain
sit us down with those
we’ll never understand
Make betrayer meet betrayer
Make us eat our own stories

Where does it live?

Such Forgiveness?

What do we know
What do we not know?

Wise mountain
Dumb mountain

Most Stony South African God
You’ve got our number
Follow us home…
(first published in Left Curve)

To read the entire essay you can order Psychological Perspectives, Volume 54, # 4.

Psychological Perspectives
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