This week I am left wondering how my Americanness alters my perception, understanding, and appreciation of South African historical sites.
As we left Robben Island, the home of the maximum prison that held countless anti-apartheid activists like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, and many more whose names often go under-appreciated, I felt disturbingly underwhelmed. It was as if I wasn’t moved by the prison cells of men who spent the equivalent of my entire lifetime in this place. It was as if I was somehow emotionally detached from the grounds that these men walked, that these men were banished to.
I find this feeling, or this lack of feeling, so utterly different from what I experienced when we were in Johannesburg where we visited many historical sites and museums. In Johannesburg, at every site, I felt overwhelmed by feeling. Whether it was anger, sadness, or confusion, there was always some emotion simmering under the surface.
It was my lack of similar emotion that confuses and frightens me.
I keep wondering what it is that was so different about this experience compared to those I had at the Hector Pieterson Museum or the Apartheid Museum. I’m wondering how it is that I could be so moved at locations made to commemorate the actions and history of those who were imprisoned on this island, yet not feel the same magnitude of emotion when confronted with the actual place that these men were detained for those same actions.
I’m wondering if it was the absence of words, the absence of written paragraphs that lined the walls of the museums I mentioned above, indicating exactly what had happened and who it happened to that made this experience less meaningful. I’m wondering if I need these words not because of any quirk of my own, but because of my Americanness, because this is not my history. It’s not my history, so maybe I need a description to appreciate it.
Maybe I need a description because the history lessons that are ingrained in my brain are not those that I am seeing in front of me.
I couldn’t say what it is about a description on a wall that invokes such feeling for me. I couldn’t say what it is that makes me instinctually differentiate between a Soweto street with a sign explaining that children died on that street and the sign-free (for the most part) cells that held freedom fighters, because both show remarkable bravery. Both demonstrate the horror and the courage, yet, at least to me, words feel like a memorial and the absence of them feels like a cemetery.
I’d like to think that there is some light in memorials, even amongst all the dark. The words speak to the horror, but offer some understanding that maybe if the words are read by many they won’t happen again. Without words plastered to every wall, down every hallway, it feels as if there aren’t words to describe what happened. A lack of words, at least for me, makes it difficult to comprehend, and therefore to process.
It was the lack of words coupled with the lack of life on this island that left me feeling strangely empty.
But I also can’t help but feel this is how one should walk away from Robben Island.
Maybe you are meant to walk away feeling empty and emotionless because a place can’t offer you all of the understanding. A place can’t explain to you the severity of the oppression that people of color faced. A place is only a place until you, yourself, care enough to understand the meaning of it.
It could be a product of my Americanness, and to some extent it probably is. It could be a product of the dreary day we went on. It could be that my time learning this history is so brief that my understanding is not full enough to give way to emotion. Yet, more than anything, I think it’s that I have to put more thought, more research, and more effort into understanding what I saw on Robben Island because the words weren’t etched into a display for me.
Maybe I felt empty because Robben Island didn’t provide an understanding of what happened, only the place. Maybe the problem is that I am demanding that a place provide me with an grasp of a complex history that is not my own. Why do I want, or need, someone to curate my understanding of history?
Maybe that is actually the truest reflection of my Americanness.
It was remarkable, this place where men epitomized strength, will, and justice. Yet, it also felt unexpectedly unremarkable and I can’t help but feel this is because I haven’t put in enough work in to truly appreciate just how remarkable the men were who occupied those cells. This place didn’t have words on a wall to tell me just how remarkable their resolve was and it certainly didn’t offer me the greatest insight into the brilliance and tenacity that fought against Apartheid, not like the Hector Pieterson Museum and the Apartheid Museum at least.
But maybe that’s just the beauty of Robben Island. The work isn’t done for you, but the history is there for you to learn and appreciate if you choose to step out of your curated lens.