Saturday, 2 November 2013

South Africa – some childhood context

Shortly after writing the blog, Cosmos - the flower not the universe, where I alluded to my childhood in South Africa in the 1950s I saw a school project that Number One Grandson had created about African Americans. 

It reminded me of some facts I had forgotten. While South Africa was being vilified for its racial segregation policies from the 1950s onwards – they were not alone.  I do remember after the crisis in Little Rock Arkansas where black students were prevented from enrolling at a white high school, a riot ensued and presidential intervention was required.  South Africans cynically said to American criticism – ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw Little Rocks’.  This was in 1957 only two years after Rosa Parks tried to sit in a “white” seat on a bus in 1955.

The Jim Crow laws were only repealed in 1965. These legally enforced racial segregation in the South – separate but equal (where have I heard that before), whereas in the North it was in practice rather than in law.

I don’t want to defend for one moment the race laws in South Africa – racial discrimination in the UK during this time was in practice rather than in law – all prejudice is abhorrent (anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim etc ). I remember in the 1960s in London when people heard my South African accent they could be very abusive: people can be so self righteous about something they know little about – “hey guys ask me why I left?”

The family of a childhood friend went to live in New York in 1962. They were negotiating to buy a very expensive apartment in Manhattan when the sale was suddenly cancelled as the building was “restricted”. The agent apologised as she had not realised they were Jewish (they weren’t called Cohen or Goldberg!) – no Jews or blacks allowed. Towards the end of the decade I saw an application form for a London golf club – “have you ever changed your name and if so what was your name before you changed it?”  There was a joke that did the rounds at the time where Cohen changed his name to Smith and then to Jones so that he could answer that question with “Smith”. 

Earlier this week we went to see the National Theatre production of Frankenstein screened at our local cinema. The play, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Nick Dear follows the Creature rather than Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s creation was an empty vessel that learned hate and violence from the way people treated him.  Lots of resonances there.

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