Mellon Fellows Explore Significance of Race, Social Class in South Africa

CaVar Reid '11, second from left, speaks to his peers during Mellon South African Summer Program, held Jan. 4-10 in Cape Town, South Africa.

CaVar Reid '11, second from left, speaks to his peers during Mellon South African Summer Program, held Jan. 4-10 in Cape Town, South Africa.

In 1966, the apartheid government controlling South Africa began forcing more than 60,000 residents of color from their Cape Town homes in attempt to destroy a multi-racial neighborhood called District Six.

On Jan. 8, 2010, Taylor Cain ’11 and CaVar Reid ’11 toured this area, once a flourishing and lively community of freed slaves and immigrants. The township exploration was just one way Cain and Reid gained an understanding of the South African socio-economic, racial, cultural, historical and environmental landscape while interacting with students from academic institutions in the United States and South Africa.

“Knowing the history involved in District Six made going through it a sombering  experience because as we saw all the newer building but we always had in the back of our minds, the thousands of people who were physically forced out of these homes and schools,” Reid recalls. “Some areas have been redeveloped a little but … There is actually big plot of land with a lot of rubble from some of the destroyed homes.”

As Wesleyan Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellows, Cain and Reid participated in the Mellon South African Program, held Jan. 3-10 in Cape Town.

Pictured in the green shirt, Renee Johnson-Thornton, dean of Diversity and Student Engagement, associate coordinator of the MMUF Program, participates in "a human knot" in Cape Town.

Pictured in the green shirt, Renee Johnson-Thornton, dean of Diversity and Student Engagement, associate coordinator of the MMUF Program, participates in "a human knot" in Cape Town.

The Wesleyan Mellon Program is coordinated by Krishna Winston, dean of Arts and Humanities, and Renee Johnson-Thornton, dean of Diversity and Student Engagement. Johnson-Thornton accompanied the students in Cape Town, conducted a seminar, and facilitated one of the discussion groups.

“The curriculum encouraged reflection and took us from observing physical beauty to the painful history of the country,” Johnson-Thornton says.

The intense eight-day program included workshops, tours, readings and reflections, research presentations and informational sessions on the graduate school/doctoral process. Students attended lectures on ‘coloured identity’ in South Africa, higher education and service learning, and the ways South Africa grapples with the legacy of its history and is healing itself in the post-apartheid era.

The opportunity to travel to South Africa came out of discussions between the Mellon Foundation and its coordinators in the US and South Africa. Last summer, students from South African universities—University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, and University of Witwatersrand–participated in MMUF summer programs at Wesleyan, Williams, and Bowdoin. In return, junior Mellon Fellows were offered places in the Cape Town program.

The highlight of my experience was having the opportunity to interact with students from various academic institutions in Cape Town and surrounding areas. While many of their experiences in the world of academia were different than my own we all shared a similar perspective on the benefits of education and its potential to help address inequalities in society.

Taylor Cain '11 is gravitating towards studying the discourse of health social movements, in particular breast cancer as a social movement.

Taylor Cain '11 is gravitating towards studying the discourse of health social movements, in particular breast cancer as a social movement.

Reid and Cain enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to begin the year 2010, in the company of 24 other Mellon Mays Fellows from Williams, Bowdoin, Emory, Fisk, Morehouse and Spellman.

“The advantage of going to Cape Town rests in its significance as a site of change,” Cain says. “Its intricate history of colonization, apartheid, reconciliation and present celebration of its place in the ‘Rainbow Nation’ is fascinating and made the experience that much more profound.”

In addition to the District Six tour, the Mellon Fellows visited the Robben Island Prison, where former South Africa President Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. The prison is now a museum, and is staffed by former inmates who share their stories during the tour.

“Touring the jail and learning how the wardens and guards treated different races and how they dehumanized people during their imprisonment was a very powerful experience,” Johnson-Thornton says.

The group also made a stop at the plush Cavendish Square Shopping Centre, located only five minutes away from a poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of this neighborhood with the mall area,” Cain says. “These families were living in such poor environments, in homes made of corrugated metal, which can be toxic.”

As students interested in conducting research on questions of poverty and social justice, Cain and Reid reflected on the ways in which the things they saw related to their own interests and plans for an academic future. Reid’s study focuses on how prison affects a man’s ability to be a father. His study will include interviews and analyses of prison fatherhood by historians, social workers and anthropologists. .

Cain is gravitating towards a study of the discourse of public health, in particular the social movement focused on breast cancer.

“In looking at the development of the breast cancer movement I wish to find or give voice to the women who are commonly disregarded. When thinking about the history of breast cancer I find that the experiences of African-American and homosexual women are severely underrepresented, and I think that exploring that fact could be an interesting and worthwhile endeavor,” she says.

In the United States, the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) aims to increase the number of underrepresented minority students, and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities, who will pursue Ph.Ds in the arts and sciences. The goals are similar for the three Mellon Mays programs in South Africa, with the exception that the students who are underrepresented in academia represent the majority of the population of the country.

“We hope this experience makes our students ask themselves, ‘What can I accomplish as a Mellon Fellow? How can my research make an impact on the world? What can I do with the knowledge I acquire?’” Johnson-Thornton says. “We ask our Mellon Fellows to be intellectual leaders as we prepare them and encourage them on this path.”

The MMUF program is administered by 39 institutions in the U.S., three universities in South Africa, and a consortium of 38 historically black colleges and universities within the membership of the United Negro College Fund.

The MMUF Program accepts applications from sophomore students in the early spring of every year. To learn more about the program, please contact Krishna Winston at kwinston@wesleyan.edu or Renee Johnson-Thornton at rjohnson01@wesleyan.edu.