Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Apartheid and Old IU

This is something that happened geological eras ago. Yesterday's election and the wonderful pictures and TV scenes of black people celebrating and crying made me think about it again.

I came to the U.S. from Apartheid-era South Africa as a teenager and went to high school in northern Indiana. That was in Elkhart, a medium-sized town that was somewhat rural and farm oriented but was nonetheless part of the Chicago-to-Detroit Great Lakes industrial region. The civil rights movement was boiling into the consciousness of America's whites, but I thought of segregation and race problems as being limited to that strange, alien world known as The South.

Later, I went to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, in southern Indiana. For quite a while, I didn't realize that, while the campus was culturally part of the North, when you stepped outside it, you were virtually halfway across the river into Kentucky.

The incident I'm remembering happened when I was a sophomore at IU, I think. So I was probably 19. That would have been about six years after I came to the U.S., and details about the Apartheid system were far fresher in my memory than they are now. A bunch of us were eating together in the dining hall. The group included one kid from some small town in southern Indiana. Somehow, the conversation turned to Apartheid, which was becoming an issue in America then, especially on college campuses. With a skeptical expression, small-town kid said to me, "It's not really as bad in South Africa for blacks as we hear, is it?"

So I launched into a long description of everything bad I could think of about Apartheid -- the restrictions, the pass system, the horribly inequitable application of laws, the poverty, the squalid living conditions, the privileges and immunities enjoyed by whites, and on and on. As I talked, his eyes widened and his mouth opened. I'm getting through to him! I thought. I felt proud of myself.

Finally I finished. He took a deep breath and said, "That sounds like paradise!"

4 comments:

TGirsch said...

Ugh.

David said...

I gather that Bloomington itself has changed enormously since those days and is now a bastion of liberalness -- the town, not just the university. I bet other small towns, non-college, in southern Indiana haven't changed, though.

Don said...

Even with the election results I'm not sure how much things have changed. I think some of my more conservative relatives have left racist thinking behind and then they open their mouths. One step forward, two steps back.

David said...

Don, the election itself brought out nastier stuff than I expected, even while I was pleasantly surprised by the number of white voters to whom Obama's race didn't matter.

It was a strange combination of encouraging and discouraging. Obama will still be expected to prove something to some people, and a small percentage will remain unconvinced no matter how great his presidency is.