One Man in Two Middles

— J. Quinn Brisben

Twilight People:
One Man’s Journey to Find His Roots
by David Houze
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
329 pages,  $24.95 hardback.

DAVID HOUZE WAS born in South Africa in 1965. In late 1966 he left that country with his mother and went to Meridian, Mississippi. In South Africa, where he has returned several times as an adult, he would not be classified as African but as “coloured,” a person of mixed European and African ancestry with a definite but uneasy place in the apartheid society which existed at the time of his birth.

The record of a light-skinned African American who barely escaped falling into the abyss of the underclass, becoming a respected journalist covering the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, and who is simultaneously a member of a South African group which has been both privileged and oppressed, can give us unique insight into both our past and our future.

The “coloured” South Africans spoke English or, less commonly Afrikaans, and had almost no connection to black African language or culture. They were allowed to hold some jobs that Africans could not hold, but were denied posts of political or economic leadership. They lived in better housing than the Africans and sometimes had African servants. They were not subject to some of the pass laws and less often subject to arbitrary arrests than Africans.

The coloured were despised by the ruling whites, resented by the Africans, and distrusted by the Indians. Despite the fact that the coloured had produced writers like Peter Abrahams and Dennis Brutus and musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) and Henry February, they were accused of having no culture and of being disproportionately drunkards. A coloured character in Athol Fugard’s play Boesman and Lena says “Our people were a great mistake.” They survived anyhow and sometimes even flourished.

Deep Missisippi & South Africa

In Mississippi David Houze witnessed the slow crumbling of the segregation edifice in its strongest redoubt. When Cecil Price, a former deputy sheriff in the county north of Meridian who had been responsible for the 1964 murder of Meridian resident James Chaney and his two white civil rights worker companions Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, tried to revive his career in the 1970s as a security guard in a Meridian store, a Black community boycott forced his dismissal. Houze witnessed that effort as a boy.

Houze was subjected to taunts because of his light skin, sometimes given better treatment by whites because of it, and occasionally faked an expertise in African culture for school programs.

His father, a merchant seaman with a white Mississippi grandfather and children by a previous marriage, died when Houze was eight. Houze had a younger brother who was mentally disabled and eventually institutionalized. His mother left David Houze in the care of his paternal grandmother, with whom he did not always get along, and moved north with a new husband. David Houze survived.

In late 1992 David called his mother in Detroit from the offices of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where he had a part-time job. He wanted to ask about a picture that he had seen when he was growing up. It showed three small girls and had been taken in Durban, South Africa, in 1965, five months before he had been born.

His mother had never told him about the girls in that picture or anything about her life in South Africa, except that she had married his merchant seaman father there and followed him to America.

Now she finally admitted that the three girls were his half sisters, all still living, although she had never communicated with them. She knew only the address of her sister, David’s aunt Bessie. He immediately made a telephone call and found that he was welcome to visit his African family. He had only two hundred dollars in savings after purchasing his ticket, no college degree and few marketable skills, but he could not resist this adventure.

One of his brothers-in-law ran a small garage, one of his sisters was a teacher, and David Houze spent months in South Africa moving from one spare room to another. However, he could not get a job or a market for articles on the new knowledge he was acquiring, especially from the coloured lower-middle and working-class perspective. His mother’s first husband was still alive and seemed sure that he, not the merchant seaman, was David’s biological father.

Eventually both his money and his welcome ran out and he returned to the United States. Houze cooked in a Hard Rock Café, worked part time in the library of Atlanta’s newspapers, and struggled to stay out of an underworld of crack and alcohol.

One way out for David was a return to South Africa. He had known the daughter of Chief Albert Luthuli at Morehouse College, and was able to find a berth with a team monitoring South Africa’s first all-race elections in April, 1994. He stayed in Capetown this time and learned even more about South Africa’s complex history and culture, so similar to that of the United States and yet so different.

Back in the United States David completed an undergraduate degree and pursued a graduate degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. His equivalent of a masters’ essay was a radio documentary on Pullman porters. Full disclosure: he stayed at my house in Chicago while doing some of his research, and I arranged for him to have a conversation with Studs Terkel which he says provided him with the inspiration to complete this book about his roots. In 2005 I criticized an early draft of the book for the University of California Press. The final result is well-written and as tightly structured as a book about a person uniquely positioned between two worlds can be.

What We Can Learn

The last portion of the book is the best. In 2002 he was able to take his mother back to South Africa, re-introduce her to her family, and listen while she explained why she felt she had to abandon her African daughters and why she had been absent much of the time when David was growing up. It is a nuanced and heart-breaking story, well worth attending to in great detail.

David Houze is now a dual citizen of South Africa and the United States, and his unique position should be of great benefit to both countries. In this country David Houze has covered the trials and convictions of whites who murdered blacks in the 1960s and has witnessed the work of South African Truth Commissions as well.

Most of us have both oppressors and the oppressed among our own ancestors. If we can read journals like Against the Current and the book discussed here, we are already part of a privileged minority worldwide — who can fight for the rights of an illiterate majority, but are separate from them. All the more important to be honest about our position, and to be aware of all the complex gradations between the absolute top and absolute bottom.

ATC 128, May-June 2007