We are in the midst of a gender revolution. No, not the male versus female one. But the one about those in between. Recently, it forced Wellesley College, my alma mater, into the news when the New York Times published an article titled When Women Become Men at Wellesley. I was startled, not because a woman wanted to become a man, but because the trans-men profiled complained about not feeling included at Wellesley, a women’s college. I understood that need to feel included and I knew that Wellesley usually strived to be a welcoming space for all, but I wondered what a male-identifying person could possibly want from an institution designed to cater to females.
Africa. I was told that was the reason there were no Coca-Cola products on campus as the company was a large supporter of white South Africa and apartheid. Wellesley had become so anti-apartheid that they had created a special scholarship for Black South African students funded in part by the annual South African Benefit Concert.
By the time I was on campus, we the African students felt that the name AAN was too militant and we changed it to Wellesley African Students Association (WASA) to reflect what we were – an organization of students from Africa, continent-born or US-born, coming together for cultural celebrations over delicious food and peaceful discussions of topics concerning us and the African diaspora. We were in for a rude awakening. Come to think of it, that move reminds me of the New Black movement that thinks it can transcend racism by just being. It didn’t take long for us though to realize that as members of a minority group, we couldn’t just be, we actually had to stand up for ourselves. Indifference gets you nowhere.
It was autumn one year and our calendar as always included the South African Benefit Concert where we tended to perform a gumboot dance. The gumboot dance has its origins in apartheid South Africa where ill-treated Black South African miners found a way to communicate with themselves and maintain sanity through a series of taps on the gumboots worn, rattles of the chains that bound them, stomps, and claps. It is a dance to honour those who worked and suffered in the South African mines. It’s loud, powerful, and energetic. The neighbouring college’s African student associations (MIT, Harvard, Northeastern) had their own series of moves, calls, and ululations and the dance was always a highlight of our cultural shows. Ours included singing Shosholoza, a traditional song sang by Ndebele miners from Zimbabwe which is now essentially South Africa’s unofficial national anthem sung in celebration of South African unity. Push forward. Strive. It’s absolutely chilling.
So here we were busy teaching the first-years the moves so they would be ready to dance the gumboot. Except the invitation to participate in the South African Benefit Concert never came. That year, the powers that be, also decided to just be. They did not need the input nor presence of Africans in a concert to benefit South Africa. They decided they wanted a serene performance of European violin solos, piano recitals, and alto vocals to be held in the grand Alumnae Hall to raise funds and awareness for South Africa. Apparently, they did not think our wild African dancing and singing, steeped in South African history fit with the ambiance worthy of such a cause.