In the summer of 1986, a young black man's life ended abruptly on a highway in New York City. Michael Griffith was chased through the streets of Howard Beach in Queens by a gang of white youths who pummeled him with baseball bats and screamed insults at him. Trying to escape, Griffith ran onto the Belt Parkway, where he was struck by a car and killed instantly.
My most vivid childhood memory is of my parents taking me, a ten-year-old, to Howard Beach to protest this attack. While hundreds of whites lined the sidewalks screaming racist epithets, we marched in the street and shouted back: Howard Beach, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg! In that South African city, the white apartheid government had cracked down on the black liberation movement by ban-ning organizations, prohibiting open-air gatherings, and sending the police and military into black townships to detain thousands of people.
When I spent a semester in South Africa a year ago, I found a very different place. Jobs are scarce, poverty and crime abound, and blacks and whites still live mostly separate lives, but conditions are nothing like those that prompted our chant in Howard Beach. Democracy is the new way of life in that country, and South Africans are committed to making it stick.
Especially, it seems, at the University of Fort Hare, where I attended classes. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Chris Hani, all of whom played instrumental roles in the struggle against apartheid, studied there. Many students go to Fort Hare precisely because it has educated some of the country's most remarkable people, and these students passionately uphold the democracy their elders fought so hard to achieve. Every conceivable issue on campus is put to a vote. Imagine my surprise when, before soccer practice, we voted on how many laps to run.
Fort Hare students also keep the tradition of protest alive. Shortly after my arrival on campus, I became aware of an ongoing dispute between the students and the administration over the expulsion of students unable to pay their semester fees. The students spent entire days participating in the traditional protest called toyi toyi, singing the same songs and dancing the same dances that have come to symbolize black South Africa's fight for liberation. Many students were in fact veteran protesters, with scars to remind them of brutal police beatings. The quiet kid in my history class had been a soldier with Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress. The power forward on the basketball team was a member of Poqo, the armed branch of the Pan-Africanist Congress.
As I participated in the campus protests, I gained an increasing awareness of South African history. When armored police vehicles moved onto campus to shut the school down, students told me that these were the same yellow trucks the government had used to repress the struggle against apartheid. Burning tires were placed in the path of the vehicles to symbolize necklacing, a tradition in which burning tires were thrown around the necks of black government informers. What made the Fort Hare toyi toyis remarkable was that the students knew they had no chance of achieving their demands for better funding of black universities. But they weren't just protesting for their own particular cause. They were singing and dancing to honor the past, from the horrific massacres at Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976 to the joy of liberation in 1994.
During my last week in the country, I attended a concert by the South African singer Bayete. Toward the end of the concert, he instructed the audience to do the "Madiba Jive," a dance that Nelson Mandela (affectionately known by his clan name, Madiba) made famous. Everyone in the audience, black and white, obliged, shaking their hips slightly and moving their arms up and down in unison, honoring a man whose life's work had made such a gathering - nearly impossible just eight years ago - a reality. As I danced, I looked around and realized that South Africa, though not without its problems, has come a long way from the tear gas and beatings that had illuminated television screens in the 1980s and early 1990s. It's a vastly different nation than the one that had prompted our chanting a decade ago at Howard Beach.
But in the United States, we haven't come so far. A few weeks after my return home, a New York City police officer attacked a Haitian immigrant named Abner Louima, repeatedly sodomizing him with a toilet plunger while other cops looked on and said nothing. It was eerily reminiscent of the apartheid-era atrocities I learned about in South Africa, but this wasn't Johannesburg in 1986; this was New York in 1997. Once again I took to the streets, marching over the Brooklyn Bridge for a rally at City Hall. While South Africans march to remember the past, we in the United States still march to protest the present.
Daniel Massey read a longer version of this essay at Commencement for his senior oration. The recipient of an Arnold Fellowship, he will spend next year in South Africa studying the role of the University of Fort Hare in the liberation movement.