My cousin’s wedding was the second best wedding I’ve ever attended. At family gatherings that story gets passed around more than homemade cheese doodles, and even though everyone has a slightly different version of how it went down, it gets sweeter with each retelling. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events that makes you sigh and appreciate the better things in life, like helpless love, endless sunny Sunday afternoons and long, uncontrollable laughing spells.
It was all a big set up. Jeff called me in early April and said Jodi – his then girlfriend – was going to have an early birthday party in May. Her birthday isn’t actually until late June, but I didn’t think twice about it.
There was more. There was a dress code, and the bash would actually begin at the Bardavon theatre in Poughkeepsie. After, the party would relocate to their house for beverages, food, further shenanigans, and more beverages. The Bardavon is the oldest theatre in New York State. In 1869, it was originally an opera house, but now anybody who’s anybody has performed there: Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Cliff, Yo-Yo Ma, Queen Latifah.
At the time, I was living in Washington Heights and didn’t have any 1950s attire on hand. My all white Nike Air Force 1’s wouldn’t suffice. I found a slim-fit pair of dark blue jeans, an old pair of Dockers dress shoes and a white t-shirt à la James Dean. When I arrived to their house on the Friday of the party in my thrift-shop-bought 50s garb, Jodi said it wasn’t quite up to par. I borrowed her girlfriend’s (J-Ro from the Bronx) black leather jacket.
Jeff and Jodi left for the Bardavon early and I filled a flask full of Jack Daniels while I waited for my Uncle, Aunt and cousin Loopy to pick me up. There was a red carpet rolled out along the sidewalk and a paparazzi cameraman ready to take pictures when we arrived to the entrance of the theatre on Market Street. This wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for Jeff and Jodi; their shindigs are always epic. I got my pic with the birthday girl and my cousin, and then settled into the theatre. It was movie night and William Wyler’s Roman Holiday was the feature.
After the flick, there was more paparazzi and more red carpet, and then, back at Jeff and Jodi’s house, their friend Todd tended a full bar and made sure the bourbon meatballs and spinach artichoke dip and other hors d’oeuvres were plentiful. There were fifty or more friends and family in their home celebrating what we all thought was Jodi’s birthday, and as the night passed, the house seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger, like it was breathing freer and fuller with every laugh, cheers and funky dance tune. It was already a special night.
At some point, J-Ro from the Bronx was tasked to get everyone in the living room for a game. It must have been like herding cats. No one wanted to play a game, but, somehow, she got us settled in to one of two adjacent rooms. Next thing we knew, a woman in a long, white church robe was standing in front of us all. I was tipsy, but she certainly wasn’t in 50s garb. Janet, their Unitarian officiant, hit play on the CD player, and as “Love Will Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille sang through the speakers, Jeff and Jodi arrived, almost out of nowhere, hand in hand, beaming with something celestial that all of us in the room were jealous of. We had been had in the best way.
My wife, who is from the west coast, and I met almost accidentally in New York City, but something – celestial for certain – kept bringing us together. In 2010, we wed in her Aunt Beverly’s front yard that was lined with white, pink and red roses. It was a wet wedding: everyone was crying. Jodi and J-Ro from the Bronx, who were sitting in the crowd (cousin Jeff was my best man), heard sniveling and sobbing sounds behind them. When they turned to look, they saw Antoine and Tut-Tut (both well over six feet tall and built like linemen), bawling their eyes out. That day the yard was flooded with happy tears. After the ceremony, we had a little backyard boogie, blanketed in black and gold and the southern Californian sun and joy. There was soul food, Patrón, bluegrass, the Cuban shuffle, red velvet cake, and then Uncle Jabo broke out his whistle dance routine when the DJ played Too Short’s “Blow the Whistle.” Looking back, our wedding weekend (which was the best wedding I ever attended) not only celebrated a commitment of marriage, but it was a union of two families, cultures and perspectives (perhaps even two Americas). My white suburbia and my wife’s inner city world met for the first time, bonded and then partied harder than Prince did back in 1999. Our families became one: our happiness, sorrows, victories and defeats. While a coast separates them, they still stay connected via Happy Birthday cards, phone calls or text messages, Facebook even.
Four years later and my wife and I traveled to South Africa for a two-week holiday. During one week, we explored the Entabeni game reserve and prepared for the Big 5 marathon. We’re a bit hooked on long distance running, which gives us time to exercise, share, talk and pray together. The most challenging part of that stretch of our trip wasn’t the 42.2 km run, it was actually surviving the after-race celebration party with a group Australians we befriended. Beware of a game called “Speed Boat,” which to my knowledge is the Australian national sport. I lost most of the rounds, but by the end of the night, I was leading their Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, ouee, ouee, ouee battle cry as if I, too, was from the great Down Under.
We spent the rest of our time in the Western Cape, staying in Camps Bay, an affluent suburb that sits south of Cape Town, literally at the foot of the majestic Table Mountain. Camps Bay doesn’t have the charm of the Mother City, but the views are heroin to the eyes. The beach lined mountain range sits almost smugly, like a pride of lions basking in the sun. In Camps Bay, passersby move freely and without worry, but the physical beauty of the Western Cape is little match to the emotional effect of the stories that lie there within Robben Island.
In May of 1997, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa about her husband Robert Sobukwe. When asked How did your life get affected by the fact that you got married to this man, Robert Sobukwe, Zondeni said that, “nothing came to my surprise or shock, because from the day I met him he was in the struggle and he died in the struggle. Everything was to be expected. I was not too grieved, in the sense that I expected these things.”
When you visit Robben Island, a former political prisoner escorts you through the grounds. Our guide, a Xhosa man, looked and sounded a bit like Mandela; he was deliberate and purposeful with each and every word. He spoke slowly and loudly and rolled his r’s with immaculate delicacy. He was a tall man, much taller, it seemed, than the cemented confines of the prison walls. It was difficult to visualize him barefoot and clad in shorts – even during the winter months – moving from cell to bathhouse to the work yard outside.
The highlight of the touristy-tour of Robben Island is certainly the prison cell of inmate 46664. Our guide revered Mandela not only as the father of the nation, but as a personal friend. As expected, Mandela’s cell is small and boxy and brutally bare. No toilet, only a bucket. No bed frame, only a mat. No glass in the barred windowpane to impede the cold Atlantic breeze from breaching the already frigid and stale cell walls. When it was our turn to walk through the corridor that Mandela inhabited for 18 years, we accompanied a family from Saudi Arabia. We all took digital camera pictures and iPhone pics and selfies, trying to capture the solitude that Mandela must have surely felt. One of the Saudi children asked if I was from New York. I said no, but had lived there for several years. “I want to go to New York City so bad,” she said, and then her mother pulled her through the remainder of the scanty hallway.
Robert Sobukwe was a lover of literature. In 1949, he founded Beware, a daily publication out of Fort Hare University, where he studied English, Xhosa and Native Administration. In 1950, he and Zondeni married, and by 1954, Sobukwe, then known as “the Prof”, was a lecturer in African Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Later, in 1957, Sobukwe became editor of The Africanist, and while his popularity grew and his interest in the fight for national equality and democracy intensified, he took on more of a leadership role. Dissatisfied with the Mandela led African National Congress’s (ANC) mission and public tone, Sobukwe founded the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1958. In his inaugural speech, Sobukwe spoke on race, national movements within Afrika, the then pressing issues within South Africa and summed up the PAC’s goals with this:
To us the term “multi-racialism” implies that there are such basic insuperable differences between the various national groups here that the best course is to keep them permanently distinctive in a kind of democratic apartheid. That to us is racialism multiplied, which probably is what the term truly connotes. We aim, politically, at government of the Africans by the Africans, for the Africans, with everybody who owes his only loyalty to Afrika and who is prepared to accept the democratic rule of an African majority being regarded as an African.
We guarantee no minority rights, because we think in terms of individuals, not groups. Economically we aim at the rapid extension of industrial development in order to alleviate pressure on the land, which is what progress means in terms of modem society. We stand committed to a policy guaranteeing the most equitable distribution of wealth. Socially we aim at the full development of the human personality and a ruthless uprooting and outlawing of all forms or manifestations of the racial myth.
To sum it up we stand for an Africanist Socialist Democracy. Here is a tree rooted in African soil, nourished with waters from the rivers of Afrika. Come and sit under its shade and become, with us, the leaves of the same branch and the branches of the same tree. Sons and Daughters of Afrika, I declare this inaugural convention of the Africanists open.
The PAC’s first initiative was to hold a 5-day non-violent protest against the apartheid regime’s Pass Law which mandated non-whites carry a government issued identification book at all times. Even though Sobukwe informed police authorities of the PAC’s plans for the March 21, 1960 rally, 69 protesters were killed and 180 others injured in what would later be known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Police opened fire on the 5000 plus men, women and children.
Sobukwe, who was seen as the ringleader, was arrested for incitement and immediately sentenced to three years in prison. As his prison term was ending, however, the regime then passed the “Sobukwe Clause”, which allowed the Minister of Justice to annually renew imprisonment terms at his or her discretion. This clause was created solely for the continued detainment of Sobukwe and was never used for any other inmate. In 1963, Sobukwe was sent to Robben Island and spent the next six years of his life in complete solitary confinement.
Sobukwe’s holding cell, which still stands today as the Robert Sobukwe House, is a few miles from the main prison grounds. It’s a very modest one-room home with a gravel yard, surrounded by high, barbed-wire fence. Under no circumstances was Sobukwe ever permitted to talk with other inmates or prison guards. He did, however, have “privileges” that other inmates did not: books, newspapers, civilian clothes, bread. While incarcerated, Sobukwe earned a degree in Economics from the University of London, and was offered several international jobs – including one from the NAACP in Alabama – only to be denied each time by the Minister of Justice.
In 1969, Sobukwe was released to a strict house arrest in Kimberely, South Africa and banned to participate in any political activity. In 1977, while only in his early 50s, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. As his health rapidly deteriorated, the government made it increasingly difficult for him to receive adequate medical assistance and to be surrounded by friends and loved ones. He died in February 1978.
There are many lenses with which to view Robert Sobukwe. Political dissident and rebel. Prisoner. Freedom fighter. Pan Africanist. Father of the Black Consciousness Movement. The Prof. Lawyer. Husband. Father. To me, Sobukwe was an Optimist, Drunk on Love. If I’ve learned anything since being married, it’s that love is rarely logical. You do this and that for your spouse, even though every inch of your psyche says, “no, no, no, don’t do that.” It’s enough for a mere mortal to say I do to one other human. In marrying Zodeni, Robert Sobukwe was a mere mortal. I’m sure they have their own sacred wedding story. “Love will keep us together,” sing Captain and Tinnelle. Amidst hardship and hate, love will keep us together. The apartheid regime was deathly afraid of Sobukwe’s intoxicating drive to rid the world of hate. In his PAC inaugural speech, he claims that, “there is only one race to which we all belong, and that is the human race.” Sobukwe was a man of deep conviction. He was a prophet. He married a cause, a struggle for freedom and for love that would transcend an archaic mindset and a rigid government’s capacity to control its people. Sobukwe was well before his time; his words and mind were made of something celestial. Here’s to those before us who fought the good fight. Here’s to those in love.