The Legacy of Desmond Tutu
A Year of Essays: December 26, 2021
In 1984, I was in a Lutheran choir that sang at an ecumenical service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The speaker that day — Desmond Tutu. It was a week before he was to travel to Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against apartheid. I still hear his call to action against apartheid from the pulpit that Sunday: “Whatever you do to protest this evil system will not go unnoticed among those to whom evil has been done.” And his oft-quoted clarion: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
I thought of those messages this morning when I read the news of Tutu’s passing. It was a message that resonated loudly with me, in my early 20s, as I attempted to navigate racial injustice in the city in which I lived and the world at large.
I had moved to Washington four years earlier after living abroad. That time abroad gave me different perspectives — on the U.S., the Cold War, equality and equity, how we all want the same things in life. After a year in D.C., I visited my parents in Orlando, and hanging out with friends at the mall, I noticed something — the absence of black people. To be honest, I did not notice it until I saw someone black. I thought back on my history with apartheid.
Three years old, a public bus in Newport News. Mom and I climbed aboard, and as she rummaged for bus fare, this gleeful toddler ran the aisle of that bus. My mother’s alert from the front: “David, don’t go back there. That’s where the Negroes sit.” How does a fledgling mind process that? They’re different. I’m different. We are separate. Are they dangerous? Might they hurt me?
I relate this story to my classes when issues of race arise. I think that moment in the Orlando mall mostly corrected those three-year old assumptions. I say “mostly” because, again, if I’m honest, those assumptions creep into my mind at inopportune moments. I know my mother was wrong to say what she did, despite the times and the situation. I know her family history which led her to say what she said. I know it’s been up to my generation of white people, and the generations after mine, to break these assumptions.
Forty years later, some places in the world still struggle with apartheid, and though we don’t call it that here in the U.S., we still have long-lasting effects of our own long period of apartheid, effects that simply have yet to be resolved in the hearts and minds of our country. We see it in statistics, in the court room, in the corrections system, in how the media report racial injustice, and in the recent past when this academic model, critical race theory, became a lightning rod in politics and education. There will be a great reckoning. Maybe not in my lifetime, but one will come.