Long-winded but frequently beautiful memoir traces the author’s evolving identity, from childhood in upper-middle-class suburban Minneapolis to joining the desperate struggle against apartheid in South Africa and beyond.
Wilderson (African-American Studies and Drama/Univ. of California, Irvine) moves erratically through time. He begins with the startling moment in Johannesburg, where in 1995 he learned that Nelson Mandela believed he was a threat to national security. But soon we are hearing about his first visit to South Africa in 1989, when a journalist urged 33-year-old Wilderson to come and bear witness to apartheid. He worked for several years in the ’90s as a writer for the African National Congress, recording eyewitness accounts of violence against black people in the townships and sending them to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Wilderson was an outspoken, well-read Marxist given to lecturing the underground militants he worked under, namely white Trevor Garden and black activist Stimela Mosando, who ran guns and ideas for the ANC’s more radical arm. The author fell in love with and married a young law student named Khanya. They lived briefly in New York, but she disliked the covert racism she found there. Back in Johannesburg, they endured the violent repercussions of black politician Chris Hani’s 1993 assassination and were eventually torn apart by ideological discord. Alternating chapters cover Wilderson’s seismic awakening to racism in America as the child of one of the only black families in well-off Kenwood, Minn.; his adolescent activism in the ’60s; his studies in African literature at Dartmouth; his ten years as a stockbroker; his decision to become a teacher and writer. His account of a long affair with an older white academic provides perhaps more information than most readers will want, but it fits with Wilderson’s mission to be brutally honest with and about himself.
Angry and paranoid, with moments of stylistic clarity.