Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Visit to South Central College

Two days ago, on February 24, I visited South Central College in Mankato, to talk with students who were preparing to travel to South Africa on a study abroad program. Then I gave a well attended public talk, "Writing About Americans." Becky Fjelland Davis did a wonderful job of organizing my visit. She knew about me, and had even invited me to speak in her class in 2013, a visit she reported on her blog.

My conversation with the South Africa-bound class was part of the orientation for the trip. Since the class had been reading my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, I chose to dwell on answering questions stemming from the book and any other questions that might arise.

As it turned out, there were many engaging questions about cultural differences. One question that stood out arose from my observation regarding African work habits, which, I claimed, are rather relaxed, compared to those of Americans. I said that I feel Africans could learn something from the Americans and work harder.

An African American woman in the audience asked me pointedly whether I was implying that Africans are lazy. She observed that white people had historically described black people as lazy, and she wondered whether that was what I was implying.

I could sense that she was somewhat upset, perhaps very upset, even though she framed her question in a restrained and respectful manner. I thanked her for raising that question and assured her that I never meant to say, even suggest, that the Africans were lazy.

On the contrary, I said, I think the Africans apparent laziness reflects a culture of privileging social relations over anything else. With its stress on community and human relations, the African culture is an antidote to the kind of alienation that afflicts American society. Still, I said, l think it would be beneficial for Africans to adopt something from the Americans' work habits, if only in order to improve their material circumstances.

That gives a sense of what transpired during the class discussion. When the class ended, my hostess, Becky Felland Davis, escorted me into an auditorium full of people, where I gave a talk titled "Writing About Americans."

I shared the story of how I came to write my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, starting from the years when I offered advice and cultural orientation to Americans going to Africa as students, volunteers, tourists. I talked about how I wrote and rewrote the drafts for the book, and how that process enabled me to not only represent Americans but also  discover my own biases and prejudices.

I talked about how, eventually, I settled on a text that treated both the African and the American cultures respectfully, even though I chose humour as my strategy, in order to render palatable and enjoyable the things I was saying about both cultures.

I said quite a few things, and this might not be the place to report everything. Time flew past, and, as I concluded my talk, it was clear that people had enjoyed it. You can read a report about it that Becky wrote on her blog.


Peter Johnson said...

Dr. Mbele,
I attended the talk you gave at South Central and found it to be very interesting and insightful. You showed how valuable writing is in itself, by giving us a mirror of ourselves as authors.

Thank you for your willingness to share you observations of Africans and Americans as well as your own self-assessments.

I thoroughly enjoyed your talk and only wish that I could have remained loner to hear the questions from the audience.

Thank you for sharing your life and writing experiences with us at South Central College.

Mbele said...

Dear Peter Johnson,

Thank you very much for your message. I am humbled that you have such positive things to say about my talk. I enjoyed the event very much and was moved by the audience's attentiveness.

Becky Fjelland-Davis, who organized my visit to South Central, also wrote about it on her blog.