Race and Racial Phantasm in the New South Africa

A Black Intellectual Reflects on His Phobias

Intercontinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers

Checking in went without a hitch, and an African bell hop whose shiny name badge read Kenny escorted me, bags in tow, to my room. I was tired and not much for conversation, but Kenny was determined to play his part and ensure that I learned everything that I might possibly need to know about the hotel, where the exercise rooms are, where the swimming pool is located, and how to navigate the series of catacomb like covered walkways that connect the hotel to the swank boutiques and designer shops in the Sandton City shopping center. Over my humble protest he brought me orange juice as a reward for having successfully checked in. He stood there smiling at me glass in hand his other hand placed dutifully behind his back; so as to not offend or prolong his duty-bound subservience I took the small glass with a small but genuine smile of my own and quaffed the juice. An interesting result of growing up in a middle-class African American family with a consciousness of my family’s ties to the Jim Crow south is that I have a deceptive highbrow exterior that masks the small-town maroon underneath. Not that this facade is intentional, but I know myself, and I know what people’s perceptions are of me when we first meet. My close African friends often poke fun at my “Americanisms.” In any case, the small-town maroon in me has never been comfortable around my people when they are working essentially as servants. The more subservient they are toward me the more it makes me feel that to them I’m an honorary white man or playing the part of a modern headman. And what self-respecting black man would want to be confused for an honorary white man or headman in Africa, but especially in FREE South Africa!

People who really know me, and this is how you can tell if you really know me, know that I would rather take on a pack of ravenous rabid dogs wearing a bacon suit and armed with a bologna sandwich then ride on an elevator. Bring on Cerberus and Cujo, but elevators, elevators are my kryptonite, a hairless Samson is stronger, the Cowardly Lion more courageous. So upon first entering the Intercontinental Johannesburg Sandton Towers my immediate thought, in fact what I had been thinking about the entire ride from the airport to the hotel and even before, was whether the hotel elevators and I were going to get along. At the heart of my pusillanimity is a fear of small places, eliminate the small place and you eliminate my fear. From my vantage point — as King Claustrophobe — each elevator should be the size of a small house complete with a sofa, stocked refrigerator, flat panel television, video telephone, and toilet in case the unthinkable happens and what to me is a coffin on a cable gets stuck between floors. Don’t even waste your time telling me the odds of getting stuck because I already know the odds: if you ride an elevator every day of your life, you might get stuck one time. But having been stuck before is all the proof I need. You see, that’s the thing about phobias. They are a form of anxiety disorder. We become conditioned by them, and they negate rational thought.

We boarded the elevator. I stepped on boldly like Dessalines strolling into Jacmel determined to conquer my hidden apprehensions without giving a visible sign of the ocean of cowardice cresting toward high tide beneath the surface of my for-show bravado. Kenny pulled the baggage cart on board. Impetuously, and admittedly a bit impatient from exhaustion, I pressed the gold plated button for my room floor, hoping that the elevator would be fast, and our ride short, but though the doors closed the elevator did not move. What! This can’t be happening I thought. I could feel the autonomic shot of adrenaline as my Sympathetic Nervous System went into full launch mode. Everything began to close in on me. I had to get out.

With such royal treatment from Kenny I did not want to appear undeserving to my attentive host, so I attempted to keep my cool and to remain in character; if African Americans are anything to African South Africans, we are cool. We have Motown, Ebony, and to a lesser extent Hollywood to thank for that. Perhaps I had not fully depressed the button. Instinctively, my right index finger fired forth and pushed the button again, this time with ample pressure and laser precision. Had the button been wooden my index finger would have split it Kung Fu style. Still the elevator waited patiently, mockingly for me to figure out its riddle. By now the adrenaline had saturated my tortured brain and just as thoughts of escape-at-all-cost were taking form in my frontal lobe I turned to Kenny who was standing a foot away smiling ear to ear, every pearly white exposed to the root.

Now I liked Kenny, after all he is my African Brother who had wanted so much to ensure I got the same treatment white guests received when they stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel, none of that was lost on me, but I was not sure he was appreciating the gravity of the situation and the grave danger he was then in, me being in again what was to me a coffin on a cable and a malfunctioning one at that. He could not have known that at that very moment having at a glance estimated his height and weight, he was about 5'8" tall and 150 pounds, and the density of the glass elevator window behind him I was thinking that if worse came to worse I could transform Kenny into a human projectile and hurl him isinqe first through the glass that was the only barrier to my freedom, such was my growing mania.

“Sir, you must put your room key in the key slot, pull it out, and then press your floor,” came a deep and reassuring voice from behind me. I thanked Kenny for his instructions as I fumbled nervously, but now a little relieved, to get the plastic room key out of my wallet. “Can I show you sir,” Kenny asked as he extended his hand. I nodded a hushed approval. I handed Kenny the card and stepped out of his way so he could stand in front of the control panel. Kenny demonstrated each step speaking with the authority of a seasoned professional. Not sure when the last time was that I concentrated so hard, I saw Kenny more than I heard him, so I mumbled his steps as he performed them: key in, pull key out quickly, indicator light flashes green, press for floor; got it! With the launch sequence complete our slumbering chariot awoke and we were on our way up to the 21st floor. The ride was indeed quick, perhaps 25 seconds total from launch to landing. At my floor the doors opened quickly. My heart still racing, I exhaled and tried to walk off still playing the part of the hip African American, but I had to fight furiously against the throbbing impulse in my head to dive my 6 foot 3 inch frame through the doors the moment they cracked open and roll to safety.

Zenos Frudakis — Freedom. Sculpture captures my feeling when coming off the elevator.

Having escaped the dragons mouth, as we walked to my room I looked over the balcony. The lobby below was still. I could half hear Kenny still explaining the different areas of the hotel and the services they each provided. His knowledge of the hotel was impressive, but I was only partially listening because I had heard so much already and because I already knew I would be too busy to enjoy the benefits of the services he described. Looking down I could see the registration desk on the right, a cocktail bar, and an archipelago of empty cocktail chairs scattered in island clusters across the lobby floor. “We’re here sir.” Said Kenny. Finally, I was standing at the door to my room. Kenny had returned my room key to me, and as we stood at the door I could tell by his withering smile and wrinkled brow that he was questioning the wisdom of having done so. It would have been a bit awkward for Kenny to have to ask for the key back and give yet another lecture on how to operate a hotel feature that a modern African such as myself should already know how to use, especially being so soon after his last disquisition. Fortunately, the key was in my hand, and I knew how to use it. So I did.

Kenny pushed the cart in and began unloading my possessions. “Shall I tell you about the features of your room sir?” He asked, while I surveyed the fine appointments of the room. I wanted to tell Kenny I was tired and that he had already earned a king’s ransom for answering the riddle of the sphinx and delivering us out of the house of bondage, but Kenny is a professional, which was clear to me, so I said, “Yes, thank you.” And with that, Kenny went over every amenity from the Bose iPod player on my desk to the electric safe on the floor in my closet. When Bass purchased the Intercontinental Hotel Group in 1998 and came up with their slogan, they had Kenny in mind. It reads:

“Our people lie at the heart of our business — the ones who make a difference — the ones who care, listen, learn, and work ensuring our customers receive outstanding service and memorable experiences.”

I shook Kenny’s hand, looked him in the eyes, and thanked him for all he had done. He seemed really pleased with the tip I gave him though it amounted to maybe $12 USD. Walking together toward the door he said, “Thank you my brother, thank you. If there is anything you need just let me know.” “No my brother. I am fine. Thank you again.” I replied. And with that Kenny exited.

Kenny was probably in his mid thirties, and he had a good job, being a bell hop at an upscale hotel in Sandton certainly was not bad, but I couldn’t help but wonder, being as I were in South Africa, were it not for apartheid would he be doing something different, something more? I’m not a talent scout, but I am a teacher — a good one — and Kenny was bright and articulate, in many ways similar to the students I teach at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C. I was too tired to take up the matter with him. I feared with his knack for detail he’d be talking at least until day break. Besides I needed to email my family to let them know I arrived safely, but the idea of clipped wings, of stifled potential, lingered in my thoughts.

As I prepared for bed I thought about how I hated my fear of elevators, about how those fears controlled me, and about how helpless I feel to change my conditioned response though I have tried. This fear of being walled in, of being separated from the real world, of not being fully in control of ones destination or in a sense ones destiny, is not unlike the feeling of living with racial oppression because both are based in a submerged irrationality that plays tricks on our conscious. For lovers of South Africa, the question becomes how do we fashion non-racialism in a society still menaced by the demons of its racist past? Can we speak it into existence? Is it enough for people to say South Africa is a non-racial society? Kenny and I were not trapped on the elevator but could have been. The key of course isn’t the reality of the situation; it is my perception of the situation. And my perception was saying — danger! When I pressed the button to go up and it didn’t work, that affirmed my irrational fears. We blacks often find ourselves dodging or swinging at racial phantasms, responding reflexively to signals from the environment whose meaning could be interpreted in different ways. This is mentally exhausting, not to mention stressful.

As I look at the world through the prism of my knowledge and experience, just as each of us does, what I see is a flexible distortion, bent by my historical memory and against which I compare the current interaction or object. The elevator was operating fine. I just did not know how to operate it, but understanding the rules is part of the social dilemma we face and fears of this sort are not always rational. Living as a perpetual outsider in a race conscious society creates the same sort of hallucinations whether in the United States or South Africa. I was angry at the elevator for holding me against my will when in fact this was a case of user error, as Kenny demonstrated. But I swing, and I swing, and I swing at the racial phantasms because white supremacy is real because I am not sure what I’m seeing, and because my reaction is involuntary. My swing reflex is driven by the pain of generations-old white supremacy, which extends deep into the inner sanctum of my subconscious.

At the heart of my claustrophobia is my fear of the loss of freedom: precious freedom, indivisible freedom. My claustrophobia is an irrational fear, and often our responses to fear are just as irrational. Fears and misconceptions distort our perception of reality. I imagine this distortion is why many of us, perhaps most of us, are functional neurotics.

I went to sleep that night thinking about this and about the long trip and the days ahead.