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On our second day in Johannesburg, our group visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, which commemorates students’ role in Soweto protests of 1976. Near the front entrance, a sign caught my eye. It read that the stories held within the museum “are about pride, commitment, growing up, anger, truth, deception, punishment, discovery, love, suffering, sacrifice, forgiveness, and retribution. They are about the evidence of the human texture of historical experience.” This phrase echoed in my mind we walked through museum after museum, visited historical cite after historical cite, and talked to person after person. I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stories, each serving as evidence of the human texture of historical experience.

We heard stories of the Voortrekkers, imagined by the architects of Apartheid as heroes, victorious in the face of adversity; stories of the safari truck drivers who smuggled weapons across the border while carrying unsuspecting tourists; stories from Calvin Johannes, our guide, who laughed as he recounted that the rubber bullets still in his head from a student march he’d helped to organized in 1976 were souvenirs and continued to smile as he told us his time as a political prisoner on hunger strike wasn’t so bad because he was with the other leaders; the story of Lily Mithi, who was shot because she stopped to help her fallen mother during the Soweto uprising. She was seven; stories of Archbishop Tutu, who hung his head and sobbed as Sinqokwana Ernest Malgas’s detailed his abuse at the hands of the police during his testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

These people, moments, movements, and stories, along with countless more, add up to an overwhelming sense of the human texture of historical experience.

Confronting these numerous narratives was not only deeply emotionally affecting, but also led me to consider how I perceived each story. I noticed that my group and I were quick to compare what we learned about South African history to that of our own country. The Voortrekker Monument reminded us of Manifest Destiny and the construction of Confederate statues. The racial separation and oppression of Apartheid reminded us of Jim Crow laws. Images of police turning attack dogs on children the Soweto Uprising reminded me of similar taken at the Birmingham Children’s Crusade.

To some degree, making these connections is extremely valuable. They denaturalize ideas that a certain nation’s history is exceptional or unique and unsettles the idea that the unfolding of certain events or the development of certain ideas was inevitable.

However, I also began to think about the shortcomings of these comparisons. According to my admittedly rusty memories of high school psychology, people organize information into schemata, which are patterns through which we understand the world. Our schemata greatly influence how we perceive new information: we are more likely to notice and remember information that fits into our existing schemata. We prefer to reinterpret or ignore contradictory information rather than change our entire schema. In one study, a researcher told people a story from a culture that was not their own. The participants changed details of the story, omitted information, or added details in order for the story to better reflect their own culture.

As I compared South Africa to the US, I couldn’t help but wonder the ways in which I was reflecting my own culture, unknowingly resistant to changing my schemata. To what extent are we looking at South Africa like a mirror that reflects ourselves? I know that I am personally using what I am learning here to understand American society and my own identity.

However, I am cautious that in inadvertently looking at South Africa like a mirror, I am obscuring South Africa’s realities. While increasing my understanding of my own society and my place in it is beneficial, I wonder what aspects of South Africa’s history and society I am distorting due to my own perspective, a perspective that is undeniably and immutably altered by my own past.

In “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes that “Remembrance is a form of forgetting.” As we’ve spent so much time this past week working to learn and remember, I also wonder what we are forgetting.