Traveling to a New America – Florida State University

Traveling to a New America – Florida State University

Last week, I gave a talk, via Skype video, with members of the Department of Dance at Florida State University.

Cape Town Minstrels South AfricaThe group, under the direction of celebrated choreographer Millicent Johnnie, is creating a performance centered around the annual Minstrel’s Carnival in Cape Town, South Africa.

About fifteen years ago, my brother John and I had visited Cape Town and produced a 40-minute documentary about the city.  One of the sections of the film was a three-minute interview with an older man, Noor Ibrahim, who lived in what is called District Six at the time of apartheid. Millicent’s dance troupe saw this interview, and asked to use the audio as part of their dance performance, and also asked me to talk to the dancers about my experience in Cape Town.

District Six was an extremely cosmopolitan area of the city in the 1960′s, with people of all backgrounds, races, religions, cultures, with everyone getting along very well with one another.

In the 1960′s, the apartheid government chose to designate District Six a whites-only area, and proceeded to bulldoze all the buildings in the District and remove all the black and colored men, women and children to barren land just southeast of the center of the city, which came to be called the Flats.  People were just dumped there, with no facilities.  Families were divided, broken up.  The government wanted to create a State based upon white supremacy.  The Dutch Reformed Church was in league also with the government, and supported apartheid.

While in Cape Town, my brother and I visited Khayelitsha, one of the large townships in the flats.  We visited a small prefabricated school which had been donated by a Rotary Club in Germany for the children there, and interviewed the teacher.  The area around was devastated, with most people living in simple timber or metal shacks.  Young children were filling pails with water at the only open public water faucet available in the area.  This was the legacy of apartheid.  From reading reports, I don’t think too much has changed since I was there.  The problem has been difficult and enormous.

District Six, at its height, was also – and still is – intimately associated with the yearly celebration on January 2nd of each year, called the Cape Town Minstrel Festival.

The festival had its origins in the colonial era of the early 1800’s, when slavery was rife.  The ancestors of today’s Cape Minstrels, local slaves, were given only one day off a year – January 2nd – when they could celebrate and let loose – the day after January 1, when their masters had celebrated the new year.

In 1862, the internationally renowned Christy’s Minstrels visited the Cape from the United States, and for the next several years staged minstrel shows, which were believed to have contributed greatly to the birth of the Cape Minstrels and  Cape Town Carnival.  Christy’s Minstrels were a troup of white men and women who painted their faces black and whited out their eyes.  They brought American music with them, as did other minstrel groups.

The music celebration of January 2nd in Cape Town was a powerful binding force in creating cohesion and a sense of freedom, even amid the oppressive years of apartheid.  It helped to build bridges between the communities after the apartheid era. It is still a day when the community that survived slavery, segregation and apartheid celebrates its existence and perseverance.  It is a celebration of freedom.

Apartheid attempted to divide and separate black and colored communities, and create a state based upon white supremacy.  District Six was a blatant example of this.

But this is not simply a story of the past.  The struggle continues.  There are forces all over the world seeking to divide people.

Here in the United States, for instance, we are seeing old antagonisms emerge once again – battles over Confederate statues, over issues of white supremacy and racism – issues we thought we had finally buried with the Civil War and the passage of civil rights legislation.

These forces live among us.  As an example, the President himself recently rescinded DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – which protected eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were children from deportation.  Without this protection, whole families could be fractured.  Behind all of this is the same familiar impulse, the same impulse that leveled and destroyed District Six with its cosmopolitan community – destroy, divide, break up and render impotent, this is the idea – elevate the idea of the supremacy of one heritage, one race, one nation, one culture, one people.

The impulse that attempts to divide, to break apart, to sever relations with the broader world around, to retreat into the smaller, more familiar and isolated world of the past, is an impulse that will lead inevitably to disaster, both personally and as a nation.  Life is constantly seeking a broader expression.

President Barack Obama once said it well:

“For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.  We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.  We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”


Traveling to a New AmericaJames Hilgendorf is a filmmaker, speaker, poet, and the author of ten non-fiction books that are opening the way to a new vision of ourselves, a new dream of America, a new religion for the world.  This year and next, he is reaching out to towns and cities all across America, meeting people, holding talks, under the banner of “Traveling to a New America“.

Follow the journey on Facebook.

To arrange talks and discussions, contact the author.

Leave a Response