Post 397.

I had been quite disturbed a few weeks ago when I overheard a conversation between Ziya and a friend. They were discussing Donald Trump and whether he had Covid-19, at a time when his purported infection, vaccine experiment and full recovery were campaign fodder. One said that she heard he had it, the other said that he could be lying, and I thought what a world in which to be growing up, when children have no idea if adults, and leaders, are telling the truth.

Over on Saturday night for Ziya’s 10th birthday sleepover, the little friend sat with us watching Kamala Harris’ speech. Zi had been excited about the campaign and the debates, and knew early on that there could be a Dougla like her as the first woman Vice President, making US history. She was aware that my family in the US had been feeling unsafe, fearing a triumph of Trump and ascendancy of the ‘white right’. 

We had even discussed what that phrase meant one night, and I had ineptly explained what politically left and right referred to, going back to Karl Marx and, from there, muddling the rest from working mother exhaustion. 

So, it had been a few weeks of discussions whenever her antenna picked up snatches of campaign news and opinion, like a nine-year old version of BBC news. And, it was big tears the night of the vice-presidential debate when I made her go to bed because it was late. 

As we watched Harris’ victory speech, I was immensely relieved that there was an articulate, tough and well-raised woman speaking directly to children, regardless of their gender, whose words could be believed. I was gratified as a mother that they could have this memory at such an influential moment in their development as girls, whether Indian-descended or from the Caribbean, from the African diaspora in the Americas, or from migrant communities. 

Whenever a woman anywhere cracks a glass ceiling, it should be celebrated for that crevice has been opened up for others to join in breaking it. That there are still firsts for women today is astounding, but, in every country, there are still such old, resilient limits for girls and women to insistently crack. 

When that woman is also connected to the Global South – to both India and the Caribbean, when she understands contemporary immigrant experience – which so many of our migrating family members have lived, when she is able to speak knowingly about the systemic violence of US anti-blackness, and when she looks like she could be family to any of us – which is very Trinidadian, there’s a more intimate sense of connection to her achievement. 

Then, there was Harris’ message about standing on the shoulders of those that came before, and their struggle, determination, strength and vision. “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before,” she said, while girls wearing rabbit-eared bandows and playing with party balloons, watched from our living room.

At the time when the internet sexualises adolescence more than ever before, when hypersexualised Netflix movies like “Cuties” show terrifying trends in how girls are being impacted globally, a mother could do with moments like this; with a powerful woman talking about climate justice and racial justice. At a time when US pop culture continues to overwhelm the region’s local content, an alternative message to girls that isn’t about beauty, brands or bling provides a much-needed respite.

From the experience of Obama, we know that the Biden-Harris term may be defined by less virulent forms of US imperialism, anti-immigrant policy-making, white supremist backlash, man-made climate destruction, and wealth concentration amidst impoverishment of working-class families, but these will not be ended by two centre-left individuals in four years. Though, as we have seen with PM Mia Mottley, there are possibilities to inspire and pivot the world toward more sensible and caring leadership, to mend some trauma, and to soften a public discourse which, so much like ours, has become mired in the inane and insulting. 

Women’s political leadership always secures a symbolic shift, but the substantive difference of the next four years will emerge through partisan negotiation, lobbyist pressure, and the strength of activist movements’ demands. It’s clear that the presidential campaign will be for Harris in 2024. Between now and then, Zi will enter adolescence and encounter inevitable disappointments, but may also learn to continue to choose hope, decency, science and truth.  

Post 231.

As I wrote last week, I visited communities where people were forcibly removed from their neighbourhoods, where stalwart ANC activists now live in poverty without pension or insurance, where jailhouses were rocked by such systematized racism it makes you feel ill to think it was all real and not that far in the past.

Now, too little conversation appears possible between White, Coloured and Black Africans, for each occupies such a specific connection to this history that it seems almost impossible to walk in another’s skin. ‘What do you think of South Africa?’, one White woman from Johannesburg asked me. ‘The injustice has never been adequately addressed’, I said, ‘its effects seem to over-determine the lives of many blacks, and inequality appears so stark between racial groups’. ‘Yes’, she responded, as if we were having two different conversations, ‘now that Black people are doing so much better, Whites are having a hard time finding work.’ Her answer deflected engagement with so much of what I saw, for racial and economic inequality remain deeply interlocked in vastly structural ways, whatever a minority of individual and neoliberal gains.

Amidst these contradictions, I wondered what it would require for South Africans to end such a conversation understanding each other’s analyses and agreeing on fundamental truths, without belittling or disrespecting the other.

President Obama said as much in his end of term speech this week, that defeat is forgetting our better selves, our dreams for justice, our call to speak to each other in ways that avoid intent to wound. Whatever the blood on his hands in relation to bombings in Pakistan and his failures to reign in Wall Street impunity, whatever the imperfections of his decisions, like Mandela, he will be remembered for the dignity he brought to public deliberation.

We need far more of that here, for there is a vast chasm between what is required, whether from politicians and state officials or columnists who prefer to pelt small-mindedness rather than fill their word space with hope or strategy. Who will dust off injured good will and find the language and action necessary for a public to remember it can collectively create greater good, and know which best steps are next?

Last year was hell for women, men too, but, the numbers mean more than their simplistic comparison, for many more women are at risk specifically within relationships and in their homes, because they are women and in ways specific to women. Cynicism, meannness, backlash and attacks, however phrased as a bully’s style of jokes, fail to remind us weekly of our best selves and what we need to succeed beyond tears and terror.

This generation needs voices that not only educate, but also inspire by providing maps for us to find courage and effectiveness rather than bulldozers that crush spirits for a dollar a word. To do less is to fail to publicise voices defined by purpose and principle as much as distinction, humility and care.

In this time of anger and despair when everything, both large and small, seems to have become insurmountable and unsolvable, whether it is our levels of violence or our grinding economic slow-down, we have to do better than attack in any direction. We have to, instead, quietly do the work that brings in others in creating incremental improvements in every direction.

I left a troubled country that still dreams of its better self and am bringing home with me a reminder that those dealing in debasement cannot move us ahead, cannot give us the language of such dreams. There will be the difficult conversations, ones we still haven’t found language for, ones in which we disagree. Yet, each of us can do less to erode social trust and public truth if we speak and act for accountability and with humanity.

Mandela’s words have thus traveled home with me: “Let us refrain from chauvinistic breast-beating; but let us also not underrate what we have achieved in establishing a stable and progressive democracy where we take freedoms seriously; in building national unity in spite of decades and centuries of apartheid and colonial rule; in creating a culture in which we increasingly respect the dignity of all”.