From Concord to Cape Town – on my strength alone?

(A version of this column appeared in the New Hampshire Union Leader – pardon the shameless re-posting :)

I was raised with a healthy New Hampshire dose of rugged individualism. My favorite pastime on a summer’s afternoon was to disappear into the Monadnock woods with my brother Tim and build a fort – a pair of stout young “Cowboys” impervious to “Indian” attack. High on our list of childhood heroes were Tom Sawyer and Paul Bunyan, larger-than-life joes who fended for themselves and earned their fame by their own wit and suave or punch and brawn.

Finances being tight and “self reliance” the yankee norm, my dad taught us kids to pick up jobs mucking stalls at nearby farms when chores at home were done. I learned to work and took pride in what we earned. In school, my decent grades and decent ball won me the refrain, “You did it!” and by the time I got accepted into a college with a fancy name, I figured I really had.

Then came the first of my rude awakenings challenging the happy notion that all was right with the world and I had done it all myself. Before college, I took a detour to inner-city DC to spend a year of “service” with AmeriCorps. I say “service” because although my City Year corps put in lots of earnest hours teaching kids in rundown schools, I doubt I changed their lives as much as they changed mine. What met me in DC was the uneasy proposition that opportunities to learn and make a life might not be all that equal in my dear old USA.

Here were countless kids raised in the shadow of Capitol Hill who tried as hard as I to get ahead but whose lives were basically stuck or going in reverse. I learned that things I took for granted in New Hampshire–like good schools and safe streets, plenty of books to read and food to eat, two parents around the dinner table at night–were not the norm for all. I learned that across America, and especially in DC, one in four kids my age was food-insecure, one in five lived under the poverty line, and more than a million kids were homeless.

I felt sorry for those I taught who lived in crime-infested neighborhoods, attended failing schools, and were raised without a dad in sight, but still I chose to believe that I was the primary author of my success.

My second rude awakening came this fall, when my wife and I made the jump from idyllic Concord, New Hampshire to spend a time working in South Africa, her home. In truth, the journey began four years ago when we met in England and found ourselves swept up in an unlikely romance of black and white.

You see, my wife was born in a time and place (Johannesburg 1980) where the single most important factor in how far you got in life was the color of your skin. Like America’s troubled past, South Africa had constructed a bitter system of segregation called apartheid, in which 80 percent of the people–black Africans–were legally confined to live on just seven percent of the land and were limited to menial jobs in mines, on farms, and as domestic servants. In fact, when we were growing up, it was illegal in her country for people of different races to be together.

By the accident of birth, my wife came of school age just as legal restrictions on black kids attending white schools were lifted, and so became the first black girl to start grade one in an all-white private school in Johannesburg. By the sacrifice of her parents, who drove three hours a day round-trip from black Soweto to the white suburban school–and by the kindness of her teachers who believed she too could make the grade–she went on to study law and then a PhD at Oxford.

Although we arrived at the same place, I find myself repeatedly challenged by the knowledge that my path was a lot less bumpy than hers–and that countless others in her family and beyond will never know the opportunities I enjoyed. I can’t tell you how many people in my family have been to college since Plymouth Rock; her forbears were legally forbidden from the same. Although times are tough back home, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate of around 5% pales in comparison to the more than 50% of her black countrymen who are jobless here, seventeen years after apartheid, including members of her family. The contrasts go on and on…

(This column will try to unpack some of what we see coming from Concord to Cape Town, South Africa, as we attempt to grapple daily with the question, How do we live justly in this place? and put things in the context of our past. The aim is not to condemn but to understand both sides: I remain unabashedly proud of my individualist New Hampshire roots–which can teach and be instructed by the more communitarian South African society–and my wife is proud of hers. I cannot promise to find any answers, or that the answers I propose will be anything more than one man’s partial perspective on matters endlessly complex. Yet the questions are worth asking, I believe, and living in this land of painful paradox I cannot help but try.)

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