Separate is not Equal

Posted on November 15, 2011
Vuyani Gweki Booi discusses a current exhibition about the struggle against segregated schooling in America.

The University of Fort Hare, in collaboration with the United States Consulate General of Cape Town, officially launched a moving exhibition titled Separate is not Equal. The US Consulate General of Cape Town itself approached the National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS) which houses the archives of Liberation Movements of South Africa, namely the ANC, PAC, AZAPO/BCM, New Unity Movement and the personal papers of struggle stalwarts such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Govan Mbeki - the list is endless.

This exhibit was originally shown at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared 'separate but equal' education to be unconstitutional.

As I was curating this exhibition I was personally challenged, as I had to navigate the distant minds and thinking of those who curated it. In a sense it was such a daunting task for me and my team to install such a politically sophisticated exhibit. I remember the first day we were assembling it in preparation for its installation, everyone in the gallery rooms was trying to make sense of an exhibit that was showcasing certain distant conditions of life, but that we were still familiar with.

The exhibit is divided into comprehensive and compelling thematic blackboards that give a context on each and every historic period, event and milestone towards achieving equal education and social justice in America by African Americans.

The exhibition starts a compelling and daunting journey by moving from a powerful centre piece written in red and white: 'Separate is not Equal, The struggle against segregated schooling in America'. This centre piece shows a group of 'white only' learners sitting in a clean and well resourced class with the teacher at the back. The other picture, just below, shows a group of young African Americans in congested classroom that is equal to a pigsty, looking exhausted and hungry, with faces depicting fear. In this classroom you see a white woman standing in front of these learners as if teaching. What is interesting about these powerful and historic images is the way in which they depicted striking parallels between the privileged and the oppressed in America.

These two compelling images are followed by a blackboard, on which is written boldly 'Segregated America'. This is followed by the words, 'The American Civil war (1861-1865) was fought between the Southern slave states and the Northern free states over the issue of slavery. The North defeated the South, bringing an end to slavery. As a result, millions of former slaves expected to join the larger society as full and equal citizens. However, by 1900, many states had introduced new laws which created a segregated society. These laws, and attitudes such as ignorance, racism and self interest, condemned Americans of color to second-class citizenship.'

This was a promise of long awaited and overdue freedom to all slaves. For instance 'for former slaves, freedom meant an end to the whip, to sale of family members, and to white masters. The promise of freedom held out the hope of self-determination, educational opportunities and full rights of citizenship. The freedoms were enshrined in the American constitution. John Adams, a former slave had this to say, 'Now we are free. What do we want? We want education, we want protection, we want plenty of work, we want good pay for it, but not any more or less than anyone else ... and then you will see the downtrodden rise up.' However, the hopes for freedom, education, and protection work were curbed by the notorious Jim Crow laws which were 'intended to restrict social contact between whites and other groups and opportunity of people of color. They separated people of color from whites in schools, residential areas, the work place and public gathering places.'

This exhibition also tells us that the segregation and the Jim Crow laws were not left unchallenged by former slaves and their sons and daughters. And just out of all the weapons that were at their disposal, the best weapon was education. 'The struggle to break down the barriers of segregation was fought on many fronts and especially on education. Education was seen as the passport to a better life...' by African Americans. Even at University of Fort Hare the best weapon used to fight racism and oppression was through education. The same university has a long history of fighting for better and equal education for black people in South Africa and Africa. It is the university that 'provided Africans with prospects for an advanced education'.

On the other front, this exhibition about the African American shared past is directly linked and related to the archives of South African liberation movements that are housed at Fort Hare. It is a challenge for our institution to begin to think out of the box on how the liberation archives can be used to advance the project of nation building. Maybe the time has come for the liberation archives, which are informed by shared and collective memory and experiences, to be used as a platform to interpret the challenges facing the continent. If this American exhibition about a specific condition of life as experienced by African Americans is to be consumed everywhere in the world, just like the Jews would do about the Holocaust, what stops South African from telling the world about apartheid atrocities?

This exhibition has provided our university with an opportunity to share our liberation archives with the people of the world without being apologetic. This is one exhibit that has taught me that, as a black African person who endured the brunt of racism, I don't have to be shy about my past but should share lessons from my painful past to teach people of the world that we are one humanity. The Separate is Not Equal exhibition will continue to haunt all academics and students at Fort Hare for some time.

On the other side, it is the exhibit that is forging and consolidating international partnership on knowledge production and sharing of that knowledge. To have international partnership with our liberation archives paving a way is not a betrayal, but rather an attempt to share our South African experiences, memories and stories with the people of the world. It is not too late to learn how other people construct united nations whilst advancing their own hegemony in the world by sharing their history, heritage and culture with the people of the world.

Vuyani Gweki Booi: writing in his personal capacity as a curator and Acting Director of National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre (NAHECS)