2014-12-14 15:00

A growing number of African-Americans are returning to Africa – with South Africa and Ghana as the leading destinations. Many are rearing new generations of children in these countries.

Yet, even in Africa, these black parents cannot escape the need to have “the talk” with their children during their inevitable visits to the US.

Even if their children and grandchildren had been raised in the US, as mine have been, African-American expats are still confronted with the need to have this conversation with their stateside progeny.

The most recent time I had to have “the talk” was in June last year during my annual visit to the US.

For several years, prominent news reports had told of the murder of black boys by police and vigilantes. It was time for me to have this conversation with my 12-year-old grandson Jordan.

I was 12 the first time I heard “the talk” in 1963, riding in the car of my grandfather Will Austin.

I was always filled with excitement during my occasional summer trips to Mr Will’s farm in Eagle Springs, North Carolina.

Mr Will owned land, grew tobacco, and raised all the cattle, pigs, vegetables and chickens his family needed at a time when the Deep South was dominated by the anti-black Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow domination and violence. He was a man of substance who made his own way through a racist and hostile environment to carve out a place of safety and dignity for his family.

The summer visits to North Carolina were filled with many adventures, but among the most special were the rides in Mr Will’s big black truck.

You never really knew where you were going when he told you to get into the truck, but whatever the destination — to the town store, a neighbour, the train station, the church — you knew there would be a new and precious lesson in how a free black man made his way in the land of his enemies.

As we neared a police car parked on the side of the road, Mr Will slapped my arm and said: “Pay attention, boy. This is important.”

He hit the accelerator and sped past the car. The deputy sheriff, of course, pulled on to the road with lights and siren blaring, ordering Mr Will to pull over, which, of course, he did.

My grandfather watched the officer in his rear-view mirror get out of the cruiser and approach his car.

“Deputy Johnson,” Mr Will smilingly greeted the officer as he approached his window. “How ya doin’ today? How’s Mrs Johnson? Please give her my best regards.”

“Will,” said Johnson, “y’all know you was speedin’ back there, right?”

“Was I?” asked Mr Will. “I had no idea. I got distracted speakin’ with my grandson here.”

“Well, all right, Will,” said the deputy.

“Y’all go on now. And keep yo foot off that gas.”

He returned to his car and drove off.

Grandfather looked at me intensely and said: “That’s how you have to treat these crackers, boy. If you don’t, you can wind up dead.”

It would be decades later, as an adult, before I would understand that black parents had been having this conversation with their children for centuries in an attempt to protect their children from a law enforcement system that had been designed as an integral element in the suppression of African freedom.

From the earliest days of slavery, white Americans constructed innumerable methods of black suppression – beginning with criminalising attempts to escape from slavery. The criminal justice system was an indispensable element of this arrangement.

The end of legal slavery did not end this contest. It continued on many other levels.

The point was to criminalise as many aspects of black life as possible through a gamut of mechanisms, including the American equivalent of pass laws and a prison industrial complex that ensured imprisoned black labour for American industries. It continues to this day.

Allana and Michael Finley are among the African-Americans who have made South Africa their home. They have two sons born in South Africa. It is only now, as they are visiting the US, that they have felt compelled to have “the talk” with their adolescent boys. “I still keep them informed. I’m having the talk … before we leave for the US,” said Allana.

Most of the growing number of African-American expats in South Africa find that the longer they stay here, the more uncomfortable they become during extended visits to the US.

For most, it is hard to define the sense of estrangement many attribute to the changing skylines of their hometowns, or the death or relocation of family and friends.

But much of this distress comes from the palpable stress of white racism in daily American life. African-Americans who have been in South Africa for at least five years almost always find themselves cutting short their annual visits to the US. After just a few weeks there, most become very anxious to return to South Africa.

Part of the joy of living in South Africa as an African-American is to provide a temporary refuge for family and friends in the US. It is essential that they know the US is not all there is and that what passes for normal there is anything but that.

Many friends in the US are expressing genuine dismay that they and their children have to confront the racist realities they believed were laid to rest long ago.

But our experience has taught that the centuries-old burden and the blessing for African-Americans continues to be the struggle to help our nation climb down from its attachment to white supremacy – not only for our own sake, but for that of the world.

And in that, our grandchildren will have their role to play.

Walker is an independent journalist who has been a permanent resident in South Africa for 16 year

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