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After Apartheid: Heated Words About Rape and Race

Published: November 24, 2004
JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's president, Thabo M. Mbeki, frequently uses his personal essay, posted every Friday on the Web site of the governing African National Congress, to express blunt views on the state of race relations. So it was no surprise when, in early autumn, he vowed anew to battle those who stereotype blacks as "lazy, liars, foul-smelling, diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral, sexually depraved, animalistic, savage - and rapist."The surprise was his target, Charlene Smith, a white South African journalist who had been Mr. Mbeki's friend and ally in the long battle against apartheid.

In a newspaper article this fall, Ms. Smith had written that a slight drop in reported rapes cited in the government's latest crime report belied South Africa's failure to fight sexual violence and the horrifying consequences for rape victims who become infected with H.I.V. The headline was a grabber: "Rape has become a sickening way of life in our land."
Mr. Mbeki's explosive response, and the succeeding month of incendiary fallout, have had almost nothing to do with rape. But they speak volumes about the continuing sensitivity of black-white relations in a nation that in the past decade has made its name as a global symbol of tolerance. In his essay, Mr. Mbeki condemned Ms. Smith for perpetuating a white image of black men as "savage beasts," unable to control their sexual urges.

That touched off a shouting match on the floor of Parliament in which white legislators accused Mr. Mbeki of dodging the issues of sexual violence and AIDS, and the president accused them of pretending that racism died with apartheid.
Since then, commentators across the racial spectrum have sparred over whether Mr. Mbeki was spotlighting racism or inventing racist motives for those who disagreed with his views on AIDS and sexual violence.
Rhoda Kadalie, a black human rights activist in Cape Town, took the latter view. "I think it is unbecoming of the president to single out a citizen for castigation," she said in a telephone interview. "If we are going to brag that we are the rainbow nation, then people have a right to say what they think." She said Mr. Mbeki was obsessed with his own notions of race and was far too touchy about issues of black male sexuality. As a result, she said, he is failing to fight sexual violence and AIDS while "this country is being depopulated of its young women." But the City Press, which bills itself as the nation's biggest English-language newspaper aimed at black readers, said Mr. Mbeki had nailed a white stereotype of blacks.

Its editorial challenged whites to follow the president's lead and "speak up about the kind of dinner table conversations that go on when black people aren't around."
In another era, Ms. Smith's history of arrests under apartheid might have helped settle the argument.

But Shadrack Gutto, a black professor who heads the Center for African Renaissance Studies here, said whites could not claim to be free of racism today by virtue of antiapartheid activism a decade ago. Rooting out racism, he said, is a matter of "continuous engagement with oneself."
Still, Mr. Gutto suggested, Mr. Mbeki overreacted. "I don't think she was saying that black people are prone to rape," he said.
The war of words has been all the foggier because Ms. Smith's article in the weekly Sunday Independent relied in part on questionable statistics to make its case. She wrote that 41 percent of rape victims in South Africa are under the age of 12; according to the South African police, the true figure is 12 percent. Ms. Smith contended that gangs committed three of four rapes here, a figure she said she gathered from rape clinics. Lisa Vetten, an analyst with the Center for Violence and Reconciliation here, says the correct figure is about one in three. Although she disputes Ms. Smith's statistics, Ms. Vetten does not defend Mr. Mbeki's response. "Mbeki definitely has a problem, there is no getting away with it," she said. "Whether we have the highest rate of rape in the world or the 15th highest rate, is irrelevant. It is too much."

Mr. Mbeki also said in his essay that Ms. Smith embraced erroneous statistics because she believed that African men were conditioned to be sexual predators. He cited an opinion piece she wrote four years ago that said in part that South Africa's AIDS epidemic would continue "until we understand the role of tradition and religion - and of a culture in which rape is endemic." Later, on the floor of Parliament, Mr. Mbeki reworded her statement to be more inflammatory. When a white legislator pressed him to disavow his criticism of Ms. Smith, Mr. Mbeki responded that a white South African woman - unmistakably Ms. Smith - had written that "our cultures, religion and social norms as Africans condition us to be rampant sexual beasts unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants."

He took that language not from Ms. Smith's own writings, but from an article on how whites view blacks, published by Edward Rhymes, a visiting African-American professor from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Mr. Mbeki attributed the same statement to both Ms. Smith and Mr. Rhymes.

In an interview, Ms. Smith said she had hoped to provoke a discussion about rape, not race. After she herself was raped in 1999 - an event that led her to champion better treatment of rape victims - she wrote that rape "is about what a few sick individuals do" and "has nothing to do with race."


UMD professor quoted by South African president

By NANCY COOK, Standard-Times staff writer


NEW BEDFORD -- A local professor, Dr. Edward Rhymes, was surfing the Internet in late October when he stumbled across a passage of an article he wrote in The New York Times.

"It is African Americans that get accused of being rampant sexual beasts, unable to control our urges, unable to keep our legs crossed, unable to keep it in our pants," the quote read.

And to Dr. Rhymes' immense surprise, it was a quote that South African President Thabo M. Mbeki included in a personal essay posted on the African National Congress Web site. Dr. Rhymes has never communicated with President Mbeki, or with anyone in the South African government, he said, but through the far-reaching power of the Internet, President Mbeki somehow read one of Dr. Rhyme's essays: specifically a piece titled "The Continuing Miseducation of the Negro" that Dr. Rhymes wrote for the online magazine, The Black Commentator.

President Mbeki used Dr. Rhyme's quote in his criticism of a South African journalist, Charlene Smith, who, he said, ignored racial issues in an article on rape and the transmission of HIV through sexual violence. Mrs. Smith, President Mbeki said, re-enforced racial stereotypes of oversexed black men through her writing. Ms. Smith said Wednesday in The New York Times that President Mbeki misinterpreted the article and made an issue she thought unrelated to race, into a racial one.

Dr. Rhymes doesn't know who's right in this debate, "whether President Mbeki was using it (his quote) as a smokescreen or a valid statistic," but either way, he's always pleased when people tackle racial issues, he said. "It created a dialogue for people on both sides," Dr. Rhymes explained.

"Was it wrong to call attention to these (racial issues)?" Dr. Rhymes continued. "It was not wrong. As the president of South Africa, President Mbeki has a moral responsibility to deal with racism."

As a country still reeling from apartheid, issues of race are still raw and emotional in South Africa, Dr. Rhymes said. "If we haven't dealt with racial issues in this country, how much more are they (South Africans) dealing with it?"

Dr. Rhymes, who holds a doctorate in sociology with a minor in African-American studies, teaches at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and helps run the Frederick Douglass Unity House, an on-campus center for students of color.

Originally, he moved to New Bedford from Minnesota to accept a job at the Salvation Army working with youth. Although he has worked as a teacher, activist and counselor, he prefers to describe himself as a "scholar with a conscience," he said.

Since President Mbeki referenced his writing, Dr. Rhymes has received e-mails from all over the country and from France, Germany and Ireland, he said. Although he is happy that this mention helped his work reach a wider audience, he still feels like his comments on race, racial profiling, affirmative action and racial stereotypes, are better received nationwide than they are in the SouthCoast area: a fact he largely attributes to this area's "fear of outsiders."

President Mbeki's mention aside, Dr. Rhymes feels passionately about the importance of honestly discussing racism in our society, which Dr. Rhymes called "very male, very Eurocentric."

The solution to tackling racial issues in both the United States and in South Africa, Dr. Rhymes said, is to deal with issues directly. "You need to deal with every aspect," he said. "You can't choose what you inherit."

This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on November 27, 2004.


Students learn the score of African-American history

By COLLETTE PELLETIER, Standard-Times correspondent

In celebration of Black History Month, New Bedford High School teacher Ed Rhymes delivered music and a message. His program, presented last week in concert with the dean's office, retraced "African-American History Through Music."  The history lesson covered from when slaves were brought to the American colonies from Africa to the present. Mr. Rhymes explained how different types of music emerged from different points in history. "This is American history," said Mr. Rhymes, who teaches social studies. "All of this happened in the same place that you call home."

Many types of music were illustrated, with selections from artists including Sounds of Blackness, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Public Enemy.

Mr. Rhymes told students that if nothing else, they should learn one important thing from the program. "Slavery wasn't wrong because it happened to black people. It would have been wrong even if the situation was reversed."

He started by explaining spirituals, songs used by the slaves on the plantations to send messages to one another and to help pass the time faster.

He said spirituals led to the blues, music in which African-Americans told of the pain of slavery and segregation.

With the 1920s came the arrival of jazz, a fusion of styles, from the classically trained to the improvisational. With the Harlem Renaissance going on, it was a time when African-Americans began to define themselves and tell their own story, Mr. Rhymes said.

Gospel music came after the Great Depression, as more people started to turn to the church. It was a personal expression of a higher power, Mr. Rhymes said.

With the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s came rhythm and blues. Music began to get more bold and aggressive, just as African-Americans did as they demanded equal treatment, he said.

Soul music, spurred by the assassinations of leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, evolved in a time when people were questioning society and trying to find reasons for what was going on.

The last form of music Mr. Rhymes covered was rap. "There was still racism that was institutional and had not been dealt with," he said. Rap music was in response to that.

"There are many wonderful examples of courage, strength and character in African-American history," Mr. Rhymes said. "There is no law that says you can't have a role model that has a different skin color than you."

Many students praised Mr. Rhymes' presentation. Jose Aniceto, a sophomore, said, "I thought he really cleared things up. He opened your mind to it."  "I thought it was a good description of what African-American history through music was," said Heather Alves, a senior. "I can relate through the types of music that he used."

Mr. Rhymes said he himself has one special hope.
 "I'm living for the day when African-American History Month and Women's History Month won't be necessary, and American history is truly told how it is," he said.

Professor brings passion to the past 
By BETH DAVID, Standard-Times correspondent

Dr. Edward Rhymes, a professor at UMass Dartmouth and assistant director of the Frederick Douglass..

DARTMOUTH -- Dr. Edward Rhymes is a big man with a big voice and a big message. And he's taking that message to area high schools during Black History Month.

"I'm just working toward the day when it's not African-American history anymore," Dr. Rhymes said after a presentation at Dartmouth High School yesterday. "It's just American history."

The 90-minute program, "African-American History through Music," traces the emergence of different kinds of music created by blacks and links it to the events of the time period.

Dr. Rhymes, a professor at UMass Dartmouth and assistant director of the Frederick Douglass Unity House, has a booming voice and a presentation style that demands participation from his audience. He starts by asking them what black history has to do with them.

He illustrates that history in the United States is one history by pointing out that the traffic signal and the clock were both invented by blacks.

"Last time I checked, not only black folks use the clock. Last time I checked, not only black folks stop at traffic lights. That's what it has to do with you," said Dr. Rhymes. "This is your history, no matter what color you woke up in this morning."

Dr. Rhymes walked the audience through the horror of being snatched out of the African jungle to land on the shores of America's South. And that led to the creation of music called the "spirituals."

A form of worship, spiritual music also contained hidden messages. According to Dr. Rhymes, slaves took the words from white Christian churches and used them to create hidden messages.

"Lay my burden by the riverside" meant meet me by the river to run away. "Pharaoh" was the slave master, "Egypt" was the South, "Hell" was the Deep South, and "Moses" was the conductor of the Underground Railroad. After a few moments of demonstrating the music, he stated, "You think I'm talking about the Bible right now."

He laughs and it is contagious, even to a room full of teenagers. Saying that slavery is the tool of racism, not racism itself, Dr. Rhymes said slavery would not have been possible without a culture that allowed itself some incongruous beliefs, such as that slaves were lazy and the "people on the porch sipping tea" were not.

Then the Jim Crow era arrived. After the great expectation of slavery being abolished, the letdown led to the creation of blues. "You could not have a great disappointment if you didn't have great expectations. It's like running downstairs and there are no presents under the Christmas tree," said Dr. Rhymes. "From this great disappointment came the blues. Out of that disappointment came some of the most creative music ever devised in this country."

The jazz of the 1920s came out of a "marriage" of sophisticated music and street music. Gospel came from the soul-searching after the Great Depression.

Then rhythm & blues, the age of soul, then rock 'n' roll, then rap. With the emergence of each kind of music, Dr. Rhymes intertwined the events of the time period, making connections with the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, the music became more "aggressive, bold, confrontational." Blacks stopped asking for rights and started demanding them. This was during the time of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. In the end he told the students they were "the answer to the prayers of your ancestors."

"It's an awesome privilege, but also a great responsibility," said Dr. Rhymes. "What are you going to do with it?"

This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on February 16, 2005.