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Of South Africa and the South

A resonating look at Apartheid and civil rights

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Rare is the writer who can write, through personal memoir, the histories both of the American Civil Rights Movement and of the dismantling of South African Apartheid. David Houze, author of Twilight People: One Man's Journey To Find His Roots, is just such a rarity.

Born in Durban, South Africa, to a "coloured" (mixed race) mother, Houze moved to Meridian, MS, in 1966, while still a toddler, taken there by his mother's new black-American merchant marine husband, ostensibly Houze's father. Twenty-six years later, a down-on-his-luck part-time reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Houze discovered he had three sisters still living back in South Africa, their existence hidden from him by his mother. He traveled to South Africa to unravel the mystery, first alone in 1992 and then with his mother in 2004, hoping to reconcile the family.

Houze's evocation of Mississippi in the Civil Rights era -- as the KKK locked horns with the NAACP -- offers little original insight. There is the obligatory recitation of Emmet Till's murder without any meaningful personal perspective given from Houze's own memories. And yes, we're told, Houze grew up surrounded by "Co-Cola," sweet tea, grits and all the rest.

But once Houze gets to South Africa, the story gets good. (Though I wonder if a South African reader might flip my assessment.) In 1992, South Africa was beginning to undo Apartheid, but, as in the Mississippi of the 1960s, many whites still clung fiercely -- and violently -- to the oppressions of the past. In a Durban mall, Houze observes affluent whites shopping for gourmet coffee and women's fashions, while blacks serve as cashiers, custodians and security officers. "The whole scene felt like a relic of some discredited, soon-to-be-dismantled civilization hanging on to the last gasp of white privilege."

Most clearly, Houze's story speaks to the personal costs of these insane divides inhumanity perpetually imposes: families broken, love betrayed, companionship lost to loneliness. Though Houze follows the tough road of truth and reconciliation, there is no heartwarming "all is forgiven and everything is well" conclusion to his story. Roots go deep, but sometimes not deep enough.

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