I am often asked why so many of the photos of me have my hands spread wide and held high. Here is why.
My first visit to South Africa came in the 1970s at the height of apartheid. As a young and somewhat idealistic professor on the Semester at Sea program, when the ship docked I was shocked to see “coloured only” signage echoing the racist attitudes and policies there. As was true at every port, after the bow lines were tied off, a group of customs and government officials came on board to review all the paperwork and passports before clearing the passengers to disembark.
On board that semester were about 50 faculty and staff, 500 students, from more than 200 colleges and a dozen countries. Eleven of the American students were black.
As we lined up to head down the gangway word spread that the black students were not being allowed to leave the ship. For almost all of us this came as a shock, and the more we talked about it the more of us said, “If the black students cannot leave neither will we.” Less than a dozen students left the ship, creating a mini international incident because there were cameras and reporters waiting on the dock to capture the ship’s arrival and create human-interest stories. Now the story became “why aren’t the students coming off the ship?”
Within half an hour we watched as a half dozen white men in dark suits carrying brief cases came aboard. We knew of course that this had something to do with the student and faculty boycott. About an hour later we were told that the black students would be able to leave the ship after doing some additional paperwork, and by carrying an ID card identifying them as “temporary Europeans.”
Absurd as this was, we all felt it was a viable compromise that would get all of us onto land and onto our various planned adventures. At this point I disembarked and headed off for the full seven days of our stay and ventured far and wide from Cape Town to a safari in Kruger Park, barely getting back for “on-ship time” two hours before departure.
As I approached the gangway I saw something very troubling: a number of students and faculty were crying. A colleague told me why.
Two of the black students got off the ship a bit late and as they were leaving the dock two white student friends who had rented a car hailed them. The black students were invited to come along on a leisurely ride up the twisting road to the top of Table Mountain.
Somewhere on that drive, upon seeing a white girl in the back seat with a black guy, an enraged Afrikaans driver ran the students’ car off the road, down the mountainside, and then sped off. One of the black students was killed and the others were all seriously injured. No attempt was made to track down the Afrikanns driver. Instantly we were all faced with the reality of racism at its worst.
That evening many of us had an impromptu meeting. As you can imagine, emotions were running very high. There was a lot of anger in the air, as thick as the dense fog over Table Mountain. The rhetoric escalated and built and built.
Then something happened that changed me to this day.
I was sitting next to one of the black students who had known of the accident for a few days. She was listening to everything very intently. Finally she had heard enough. She stood up and said to no one in particular “there is too much rage in here. It does not honor our fellow student’s life. There is not enough love in this room, we need to spread the dream!” She then raised her arms and spread them wide. Almost immediately, everyone in the room stood and raised their arms in unison.
Ever since then, when I am in a special place or situation, one that touches my soul, I raise my hands high, to celebrate that moment…and life.