Tom Matlack travelled to Kenya and learned some things about himself and our conceptions of race.
I travelled to Kenya with my wife Elena and six year-old son Cole. A minority for the first time in my life, it made me think differently about race and my own racism.
As Kenya is a former English colony, which became independent in 1964, I am sure there are white Kenyans, but I literally never saw one during my entire visit. At the Nairobi airport on the way home, I did notice a number of inter-racial couples with beautiful babies with light brown skin everywhere. I stopped counting when I got into the double digits.
Everywhere I went, very-dark-skinned men and women kept welcoming me home, like I was a Jew returning to Israel. I am neither black nor Jewish, so at first, the kindness confused me. I kept trying to imagine walking north on the East Side of Manhattan, past 110th Street, and the residents of Harlem taking a look at my blond hair and blue eyes, welcoming me home.
Everyone we met cheerfully greeted us with the Swahili “hello.” Our drivers, waiters, and our guide Protus took a particular shining to Cole. They’d bear-hug him whenever they saw him.
This made me think of a recent column by Shawn Taylor, a black man with a light-skinned daughter, about how, at the playground, he’s treated like a leper instead of the proud father he is. In one recent incident, Taylor was playing with his daughter and another little blonde girl. The blonde girl fell to the ground by accident, and her mother assumed the worst about Taylor. She calling him a nigger in front of his daughter. Taylor’s kept his cool, but he had to comfort his daughter, who was in tears.
Recently, a man drove a white van into our community back home. He tried to convince a young boy to get in the van, but the boy ran away, screaming. It left the community in a state of paranoia. All of the parents gave their kids the don’t-talk-to-strangers talks.
So after Protus, a large black man, took our son in his arms the moment he met him, Cole asked, “I thought I wasn’t suppose to talk to strangers. Is he okay?”
“Yes,” I said, “he is a very sweet man who is just being nice.” But inside I wondered what I would say if a black man on the playground back home did the same thing.
In Nairobi, on the way to the Masai Mara, where we went on safari, our driver David pointed out the U.S. Embassy where 258 people died in a tragic terrorist bombing in 1998, just a few hundred yards from our hotel. He made it clear that Kenya had since taken no chances with our lives. In the neighborhood where most diplomats live, security is so tight that visitors are not allowed to drive their cars inside. Security guards drive them in. “This is our country,” David said. “We believe in African hospitality, which means you can go into any local pub and easily make friends.”
I thought about visiting my friend Julio Medina in Harlem and arriving too early to go directly to his office. I went to a diner, ordered coffee, and pulled out my apple laptop to do some work. Was every black face in that place looking at me? Or was it me, just projecting my fear of being in a non-white diner?
I also asked David about President Obama’s Kenyan roots. “We had a national holiday the day after he was elected because we thought he was Kenyan,” he said. “But since then we realized he isn’t a Kenyan President. He’s just another American President.”
I thought of how moved I was the evening of Obama’s election. How it made me think of how my parents had risked their lives in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I had been brought up believing in Civil Rights and made a special effort to befriend black kids in school growing up, in college, and even graduate school. My first girlfriend in college and my first girlfriend after college were both black, less out of love I think, and more out of some twisted sense of obligation.
In the end, Obama was just another president—a smart man doing his best under trying circumstances, but not categorically better or different for the color of his skin. I had been disappointed by his promise to get us out of Iraq and then his redoubling our troop commitment to Afghanistan. Not to mention his lack of progress on issues related to men, prison, education, and fatherhood.
On safari, Protus proved to be an amazing animal tracker, often finding rare species of animals before any of the other guides. But along the road he would always stop to tell the other guides, even those working for competing camps, about where he had seen the best animals. I asked him why he did that. “You are all visitors to my country,” he said. A black-skinned man expressing profound pride in his nationality.
I tried to think if I’d ever heard an African-American expressing a similar sentiment about the United States. The only thing that came to mind was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Of course that speech wasn’t exactly pride in the status quo, which was Protus’s motivation, but an aspiration for an as-yet-unattained goal for what our nation might become. Perhaps Obama’s victory speech, though he was very careful not to pigeonhole himself as black, but rather as American.
But again, I wondered whether my lack of ability to recall African-American enthusiasm for our country had more to do with my own racial blinders than any lack of patriotism by black Americans.
On a game drive one day, I asked Protus where he got his name. He said his dad was a student of Greek mythology.
Proteus was the prophetic old man of the sea, the son of Poseidon, who was said to live near the mouth of the Nile River. He was all-knowing but didn’t like to divulge his answers. He would change form to elude would-be seekers of his knowledge. Because he could change form, he was considered to be a symbol of the original matter from which the world’s matter was formed.
The word “protean” is derived from Proteus and means having a transforming nature, not tied down to one form or embracing many different human concerns or attributes.
Protus showed us the great migration of wildebeests, elephant babies, giraffes, buffalo and rhinos. But his greatest passion was for the cats of the Masai Mara, and of these, his favorite was the leopard. He showed us lions lounging, fornicating, and feeding. We followed a pair of cheetahs as they hungrily stalked their prey through the tall grass and watched another one sit atop a big rock, with a commanding view to see his beautiful skin and tear-dropped face close up.
Whenever he thought he knew where the next cat was hiding, Protus was all-business, driving quickly across the savanna and pulling on his cap with nervous energy, as he scanned the horizon. When he finally got us within a few feet of the animals he had been stalking, he shut the engine and let us behold what he had found.
His bloodshot eyes watched the cats, not so much directly, but with a sideways glance, as he tried to figure out what they might do next, whether there might be some “good action” coming in the form of movement or hunt. He would whisper to us what the cats were thinking, and more often than not, they then did exactly what he said they would.
But the leopards remained elusive. One morning we got a flat tire while visiting a Masai tribe. That afternoon, Protus sprinted across the mara, working on a hunch that the leopard was at a favorite tree. The Land Rover tire popped again, leaving us to radio for help, quite a distance from home with no spare. We got out of the truck and saw huge thunderclouds coming directly at us. By the time help arrived, it was pouring. We got home after a long wet ride, having not seen the leopard.
But the next day, Protus was on a mission. He found the leopard just where he thought he would, up a tree with his fresh kill pulled into the branches of a tree, just next to where she was sleeping, all four limbs hanging off a branch. After a couple minutes, Protus said the giant cat would need to drink. She came down the trunk of the tree headfirst. Then he said she would feed. Up she went to the half-eaten antelope.
Cole had been gradually warming up to Protus all week. He stood on a big stone marking the border between Kenya and Tanzania while Protus held his hand. He no longer rebelled when Protus hugged him before and after each ride. But it was the leopard that made Protus a god in Cole’s eyes. After that, every day at lunch we’d sit outside eating, while Cole climbed trees pretending to be a leopard. And before long, he was sitting between Protus’s knees, driving the Land Rover when he’d let him.
In Kenya, divorce is rare. Men are generally married with a family. From my completely unscientific sample, the men seemed highly interested not only in my own son, but their own boys. (Protus has a three year old at home.) I realize that much of Kenya is poverty-stricken, and there is every chance that the kindness shown to Cole could very well have been motivated by the desire to make a nice tip. But it certainly seemed genuine to me.
In contrast, I am again reminded of what Taylor had to say about black men in America:
Do we really live in a society that is still stuck in the lie that Black men cannot be fathers? Well…I must admit that I was on that same shit for a while. When my partner told me she was pregnant, I had fears that, at the moment of birth, a Greyhound ticket would appear in my hands and I’d leave my partner and new child to fend for themselves. I thought I’d become an absent father sleeper agent—the baby’s first cry would activate me and my mission would be to get as far away from mother and baby as possible. Because, throughout my whole childhood, I never once had a friend or met anyone (of color) whose father lived with them, or in some cases, even knew who their fathers were. There is a generation of brothers and sisters born after Viet Nam and before the release of Ghostbusters that are a tribe of fatherless children. My own father, I saw the bastard five times in my life.
I am left wondering if my own reaction to Protus and the many other kind Kenyan men and women we met was influenced by their status as the majority, rather than the minority in their own country. Do I hold up African-Americans to a different standard, treating them with mistrust, even while bending over backwards to prove that I am politically correct, because they are a minority with a history of slavery that somehow I unconsciously buy into?
There is no doubt that while Protus and I actually had much more profound differences between us, I was much quicker to trust him and see our deeper similarities than I have been able to with most of my black friends back home.
Am I a racist? I hope not. But if I’m not a racist and you’re not and neither is anyone else this country, how can we collectively end up with a million black men in prison and such stark and persistent racial differences in terms of education, wealth, and life expectancy?
Racism, it seems to me, has become one of those words with such a violent and explicit association that the more subtle and, in many ways, even more damaging forms are excluded from the category, making the resulting macro realities appear to come into being with no one having to take responsibility.
When we call someone a racist, we think of a clan member. Or we think of some newscaster or sports announcing who says something dumb on the air. (I still think Don Imus joking about a women’s basketball team having nappyy hair is hardly as serious as the actions that lead to unemployment rates among young black men exceeding 25 percent in many United States cities.)
What I am saying is that I am not a KKK member, nor have I made insensitive racial jokes on the air. I come from a family of white people committed to fighting against explicit racism. But I am still a racist in its more subtle manifestations of assuming certain things about black people that are probably are not true, of hiding my fear behind do-good attitudes, of not taking action to make this country a fair place for men and women of all races.
That’s why our trip to Kenya was so important. I got to see my own son’s reactions to race and rethink my own.
In the end, what moved me the most was that Protus was so kind to us and especially to Cole. I don’t fully understand the psychology that allows a man, part of a majority race colonized by white people, to be able to let all that go. And when a white man shows up with his family, he embraces them with unconditional love.
My lasting memory of our trip isn’t the lions or the elephants, not even the leopard and its huge paws hanging down from a tree as it slept. It was saying good-bye to Protus and having Cole, the little boy who, so shy at the beginning of the week, had hid behind my legs, shooting like a rocket across the parking lot, straight into Protus’s waiting arms for one last hug.