From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

From the Mouths of Babes

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

I remember the phone call vividly. I was busy at work as a financial planner when one of the leading African American businesspeople in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, called me. I listened intently as he told me about an opportunity to enter a competition that would enable me to travel to Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa and participate in a study exchange program. It was clearly the chance of a lifetime. As an African American, I was very excited about the opportunity to go to Africa and learn in Malawi and Zimbabwe. However, it was 1985, and apartheid, South Africa’s inhuman system of legalized segregation, was the law of the land. If it had been anywhere else in the world I would have agreed instantly to apply for the trip. However, because it included a visit to racially stratified South Africa, I was very concerned about even applying.

For the rest of the week, I could not concentrate on work. I felt an emotional and intellectual inner struggle. As the son of parents who had grown up in the segregated South and marched with Dr. King, I was very conscious of the racial struggle in America. My consciousness forced me to ask myself some difficult questions. Would I be supporting this horrible system if I went? Or would I be missing an opportunity to educate the racists in Africa and inform the people at home if I did not go? I decided to apply for the trip because I felt that I would be a more effective change agent if I participated. I was fortunate to be chosen to go. However, I was the only African American going out of six participants.

I will never forget how nervous, anxious, excited and scared I was during the seventeen-hour plane ride to South Africa. I could not sleep, because I was trying to anticipate what I would experience during my stay there. Would I be discriminated against? Was my life in danger? Would I stay in the homes of black or white families? Would the black Africans be happy or disappointed to see me? Would I learn the real reason that apartheid is so important to the government? What would life be like in Malawi and Zimbabwe? I don’t recall many details of the plane ride. However, I do remember tears coming to my eyes when I first saw African land. I was returning to the land of my ancestors. I felt a strange connection to the land that was both frightening and wonderful at the same time.

This trip taught me about nature, politics and prejudice. On the sand of Lake Malawi I had one of the best views in the world of a comet that comes around once every seventy-six years: Halley’s Comet. I made history by becoming the first nonwhite to set foot on the floor of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange during trading hours. I watched history in the making as one of the few Americans to witness the coronation of the king of Swaziland. In addition, I learned about the struggle of African blacks during numerous secret—and eye-opening—discussions with members of the banned African National Congress.

The trip was not without some very painful experiences. I was denied admission to two movie theatres because I was black. I saw restaurant signs that clearly stated that blacks were not allowed to eat there. I heard numerous white South Africans defending the system of apartheid. These experiences drained my spirit. I was beginning to believe that prejudice and hatred are so ingrained in both individuals and families that change was impossible. Just when I was about to give up all hope for reducing prejudice, a ten-year-old girl changed my view of humanity.

I had been looking forward to staying at the home of the former South African ambassador to Bolivia for most of the trip. For the first time I would have the chance to have an off-the-record conversation with someone who had been an influential member of the South African government. I remember thinking, rather naively, that I might have a chance to convince him of the economic and political advantages of dismantling apartheid.

I arrived about an hour after the ambassador and his family had finished dinner. I was exhausted. The trip to their home was very long and difficult. Fortunately, we were able to wear jeans and T-shirts on the trip instead of the official suits we were usually required to wear. As anticipated, the ambassador and his wife were the most courteous and gentle white South Africans that I had met. However, I was surprised to find that they had a very energetic and outgoing ten-year-old daughter who, immediately upon my arrival, attempted to persuade me to play some games with her. Even though I was tired, I gave in to her demands to play word games. She was clearly a very bright young lady who was sizing me up. Naturally inquisitive, she asked me about the domestic chores that I performed in America, attempting to compare me to their family maid and gardener. I spent that evening describing what life was like in America and how it differed from life in South Africa.

The next morning I came to the breakfast table wearing the official business suit that was required for our formal visits. Seeing me in a business suit and recalling our conversation of the previous evening, the girl turned to her father and bluntly said, “You know, Daddy, black Americans aren’t any different than white South Africans.”

It was in that instant that I realized that the only people of color that this young lady, and most white South Africans, had ever taken the time to speak with were family servants. I was the first person of color that she had ever spoken with who had the same level of education and exposure as her parents. Clearly, racial segregation in this country was based solely on ignorance about people of color.

This innocent young child made my trip to South Africa worthwhile. She taught me that there is hope for the world. She was living proof that perceptions and prejudice can be changed by exposure. She realized that you should not judge someone until you get to know them. Who would have thought that one comment from a ten-year-old would change my life forever? So often the best lessons in life come from “the mouths of babes.”

Since that breakfast I have spent much of my life trying to improve society by increasing the exposure of people of all ages, races and religions to each other in an effort to reduce prejudice and discrimination.

Little did I know at the time that this trip would change my view of the world—and perhaps change the world’s view at the same time.

Dale G. Caldwell

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