This week was my first week working at the District Six Museum and it’s been great. One of the greatest things I’ve learned this week has been about the diversity of Cape Town and the origin of its diversity.
One of our first assignments this week was to visit the Iziko Slave Lodge to learn more about Cape Town’s history with slavery and its connection to District Six. This museum was amazing. Not only from a historical standpoint, but the displays were visually interesting and thoughtfully integrated into the history of slavery in Cape Town, and the significance of the building being a former slave lodge where slaves were held and sold only added to my amazement. One of my favorite exhibits in the museum was a room of forbidden things. In the glass cases were certain items confiscated from slaves when they came to Cape Town. Lining the walls were panels that illustrated the different countries from which slaves were brought. My concept of slavery is dominated by images of the transatlantic slave trade. Here, there was no transatlantic slave trade. Slaves were brought from places like Zanzibar, India, Sri Lanka and a multitude of countries in Western and Southern Africa. This image of slavery was eye-opening to me, not only in the context of slavery, but in the way that the system of slavery has a direct influence on the current diversity of Cape Town.
When we got back to the District Six Museum, my partner and I shared with the people at the museum our love for the Slave Lodge exhibitions and how oversimplified South African history was taught to us in the past. Our excitement and enthusiasm was met with discontent. Critical of our curriculum at home, we thought we were saying something positive about Cape Town. However, we were met with a 40-minute discussion about our views and place as Americans in South Africa. The discussion we ended up having wasn’t as much about our excitement for the museum, but more about our place as Americans. Instead of hearing what we were saying about our specific visit, it felt as if our views became part of a larger understanding of what “Americans” come away with when they visit South Africa. It felt as though certain views and discontent with “American” thoughts of South Africa were being projected onto us. The facts of the disagreement are not the important part. The important part is the views that were being projected onto us.
Peter Storey told us to pay attention to people and their perspective of the world while we were here. In that moment, I was doing exactly that. It was clear from this disagreement that American college students are perceived as ignorant and arrogant. At first I was disheartened to be connected to these attributes. I don’t consider myself to be either. I also don’t think that my personal views on a given situation merit a generalization of all American youth. My name is Ashleigh, not America. But looking past my own feelings, I had to wonder why this is the perception of American students.
It’s true that American education focuses more on teaching about America than other countries, and it is also true that Americans have a tendency to operate with a certain sense of superiority in relation to the views, customs and traditions of other countries and cultures. I had to acknowledge that for someone who doesn’t know me, this is what I possibly represent. I also had to acknowledge that in the same way this happened to me, I too have made assumptions of others based off of parts of their identity. It was a moment for me to remember that individuality is essential. I am not just black, or a woman, or a Duke student. I am Ashleigh. I am all of these things and more. I am more than what these characteristics may bring to mind for someone. I am compassionate, complex and critical of the world around me. I know these things, but someone just meeting me may not. By the end of this discussion we were able to realize that we were on the same page all along. The moment might have been frustrating, but it forced me to remember that the same way I consider myself to be complex, so is everyone else.
So my real lesson for the week was this: Remember that people are more than what they seem, and that patience and persistence will always benefit you more than staying stuck in frustration.