When I was 5, just after my fifth birthday in fact, Stephen Biko was brutally beaten to death by South African police. In an effort to cover up their crime, while he was comatose they kept him alive just long enough to later transfer him to a hospital 700 miles away, by road, where he would die on Sept 12th, 1977.
From summer of 1987 to summer 1988 I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. Up until that point I had grown up in integrated schools in Dallas, Texas. I was so ignorant of racial tension from my time in the Dallas school district that when we arrived in Little Rock, tearing me away from my lifelong friends, a further insult was that I had to be bussed 20 miles away from where we lived to go to my first year of high school because Little Rock was still under forced integration.
Joe T. Robinson high school. Located in Pulaski county and a bastion of ironic racism. The white kids in my school didn’t hate black people because of their skin color. They hated them because of the bus ride they were forced to take for 50 minutes every single day. Ironic because the bussing had to be done to counter white flight. A lot of the black kids were bussed in too.
I consumed movies when I was in Little Rock. I was too young to even have a learners permit so all I had my Atari 130xe, a book store, and a movie theater a walk away.
There was nascent cable TV too. we had 30 whole channels. It was on MTV, back when they used to have music, that I saw the video for Peter Gabriel’s Biko, re-released interspersed with video clips from Richard Attenburough’s new film, Cry Freedom. I was fascinated.
I’ve grown up in a world of mixed old and new racism. My schools were reflective of the overal demographics of the population. My friend set likewise. The word "nigger" to me was a comical colloquialism. I do not mean by that to dismiss its hurtful intent to those it is used on by white people. I mean to point out when I heard it, my mind didn’t snap to skin color. It snapped to the person using it being out of date. Hey you kids get off of my lawn, type of stuff.
Being red headed and pale skinned, I got used to being called Ghosty, or Whitey by my black friends growing up.
In seventh grade, I once falsely injected race into a schoolyard dispute. Larry Thomas, the African American star athlete of my class, had committed what I thought was a foul during a pretty close volleyball game where he and I were both playing front line center. He’d reached into the net during a set for me to spike the ball, in my opinion. The foul wasn’t called, the coach, Coach Spikes, said we were both going for the ball, no foul. Coach Spikes was African American as well.
I stated, petulantly, that if Larry wasn’t black the foul would have been called, and slapped the net back into Larry’s face.
With a swiftness and power I still remember to this day Larry drove any sense of ever playing the race card right out of my mind by intersecting his fist, through my stomach, into my spinal cord.
Larry didn’t hit me because of my comment. Larry hit me because I slapped the net in his face. It was Coach Spikes who picked my crumpled weeping white ass off the floor and directed me to the showers for disrespecting another player.
I learned a lot about the lessons of race relations in one moment, with no real scars to show for it, on a padded volleyball court in a relatively affluent area of a metropolitan city in the south.
Steve Biko tried to teach it to a nation and they killed him for it.
I watched that music video on MTV video and was physically compelled to understand what I was watching. The clips from the movie made little sense to me. A place where slavery, in effect, still existed? Really?
So today, more than three decades later, I wanted to point out the life of an extraordinary man. Someone whose words have impacted me, and made me understand so much more about my fellow humans, and the crimes we, all of us, tend to inflict upon each other when power overrides reason.
From Steve Biko’s trial:
The judge replied, "Precisely."