President’s scholar Bryant Clayton is on his way to changing the world after studying abroad for a semester in South Africa.
South Africa was declared the “cradle of humankind” by UNESCO in 1999 because of the important human ancestral fossils discovered there near Johannesburg.
The moniker is also appropriate when describing the metaphorical rebirth Indiana State University senior Bryant Clayton experienced while on a semester-long study abroad trip there.
“I believe I gained strength in South Africa,” he said. “I learned people are people wherever you go, regardless of race.”
Part of that newfound strength is being comfortable with who he is and not feeling pressured to fit into a preconceived ideal.
“I felt a renewed sense of self-value and worth there,” he said. “My race and my skin color in Africa allowed me to share who I really was to a lot of different people. It really did not matter. I knew more that I was black around Americans than I did around South Africans. I needed South Africa in that regard.”
Indiana State Professor Arthur Feinsod, himself a graduate of three prestigious universities — Harvard, University of California-Berkeley and New York University — says Clayton is his most talented pupil.
Despite his warm and engaging personality, Clayton’s intellect is something that has separated him at times from his peers, he said.
“Being an African-American and someone who I would classify as an intellectual, I felt like an outsider. I don’t fit into any one group, because to my own context, I can appear to be arrogant or someone who looks down on my own people. If I go into other social groups, I’m different based on skin color or interests,” he said. “It felt good for once in my life to be an intelligent African-American male and to be revered.”
In South Africa, Clayton was free to have philosophical discussions with his classmates of all races and backgrounds. Of particular interest was what it means to be black in South Africa versus the United States.
To the former, “It means you are a part of a history and a tradition of struggle. But, in that struggle, there is hope, there is unity, there is grit, there is determination, there is a precedent established by people who let you know just because we’ve been in this state doesn’t mean we have to lower ourselves to our predecessors’ level,” Clayton said. “Meaning — we don’t have to oppress anybody, we don’t have to make them feel what we felt. It’s about unity, it’s about love, it’s about progress and moving forward. That’s being black in South Africa.”
When it comes answering the black-in-America part of that question, however, the response is more questions.
“It’s asking ‘Am I really of value?’ ‘Is what I have to offer to mainstream society significant?’ ‘Am I seen equally in the everyday workforce? Or do you judge me based on what you see on television?’ ‘Is there progress? Have we really progressed from the Rodney King riots in 1992?’” he said. “The dreams that Civil Rights activists felt in the 1960s — was Martin Luther King right? Or was Malcolm X right?”
Ironically, South Africa looks to the United States for lessons on healing its racial wounds, he said.
“Were there color lines? Yes, it’s very evident that apartheid ended 20 years ago. That is something they’re politically struggling with. They look to America as this pillar of a similar situation,” he said.
Clayton and his South African peers say they believe time will help society progress; it’s impossible to remove apartheid’s chains of oppression and suddenly feel free.
Clayton is one not to be confined by convention. Upon entering Indiana State, Clayton was a biology/pre-med major. He’s good at science and did well his freshman year, but it just didn’t seem to fit his four-year path.
Holly Hobaugh, coordinator of academic services and pre-professional advisor at Indiana State, recommended he consider an interdisciplinary degree.
“That really fascinated me. I didn’t want to go into one particular discipline. I have an interest in history, a keen interest in philosophy, psychology, sociology,” he said.
Clayton settled on a cultural communities studies program — a design that combines his interest areas with African-American studies. While a medical degree is not out of the picture, Clayton said he wants to earn a Ph.D. first, perhaps double majoring in psychology and philosophy.
“I didn’t know how I could combine poetry, philosophy, history and all my other interests into one path,” he said. “South Africa told me with the unpredictability and the uncertainty of life, with faith and the assurance in yourself and what you’ve done, don’t limit yourself.”
He was inspired by reading Mahatma Gandhi’s and Malcolm X’s writing while abroad.
“One of the things those two men taught me is if you’re not willing to fight for truth, if you’re not willing to stand up against the paradigm and what are the thoughts of the time, you’re not truly someone who can call yourself a man of integrity — someone who believes in something to his core principle,” he said. “I see myself as a man who will live to believe in something strongly and passionately enough that I would be willing to see it all the way to the end and die for it.”
Having one’s child become a doctor is a common aspiration for American parents. As his parents’ only child and a junior to his father’s name, Clayton says he understands the need for him to leave a legacy. For him, though, making that mark on the world will come in thoughts, not material goods.
“I want to be a voice to the world — to speak things that are not necessarily comfortable to hear, to speak truth and reform, whatever that might be. Give people the light they need,” he said. “I don’t want to get caught up in a place where money drives me.”
After all, wealth can be attained in other ways. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Malcolm X “had an idea. They had a principle, and they followed it to the end. You remember them because they had the courage to say, ‘If you follow me, I have a vision or dream that life as it is right now is not where you need to stay. There’s something better,’” Clayton said. “Maybe it’s because I’m young now, but that’s what I believe right now and I’m sticking to it.”
A defining moment of his experience in South Africa came early when his luggage didn’t arrive with him. To make do, he bought a couple of T-shirts, a pair of shorts, swim trunks and flip flops and washed them in the sink and hung them on a laundry line fashioned out of his belt.
“I put so much trust and faith in material possessions that literally means nothing. What about faith? I don’t need any of that,” he said.
After a week, he asked a friend, Garrett or “G,” to take him back to the airport to check if his luggage had arrived yet. He stopped once again at the main desk and told them his name.
“‘Mr. Clayton, we’ve been looking for you! Your luggage has been here since Tuesday.’ Here’s the thing: I got there on Wednesday. It was there the entire time,” he said.
During the rest of his stay, he didn’t wear half of what he packed and gave a lot of it away to homeless people. “That was the beginning of a long, adventurous journey while I was in South Africa,” he said.
Moving away from material goods and having faith was a recurring theme, and an afternoon with G and a couple of other friends cemented that fact. After some sand boarding, Clayton and G tried their hand at spear fishing.
“You’re asking me to go out in the middle of the ocean — I don’t know the depths of it, I don’t know what’s out there, I don’t know if you know what you’re doing. It sounded ridiculous,” he said. “But something inside of me said to do it.”
The two swam until they couldn’t see land anymore, and Clayton acted as anchor, sitting on the boogie board, while G dove deep into the water to spear the fish.
“We say that we have faith, but isn’t this the embodiment of faith, just what God asks you to do all the time? You’re out there in the middle of uncertainty and have no idea what’s out here. The waves are crashing in, you don’t know what’s underneath you that might be perilous, you don’t know if this guy in the water knows what he’s doing,” Clayton said.
“You’re just the person who’s above the water in the uncertainty, and God is the fisherman. You’re expecting him to catch something. I thought about that and started singing in complete peace. This was actually worth it.”
G caught two fish, which they cooked and enjoyed for dinner that night.
“Later, G says, ‘I didn’t want to tell you when we were paddling back, I was actually scared there for a second. Those were some pretty strong currents,’” Clayton recalled. “I just knew in that moment, God was speaking to me and telling me ‘This is what I require of you — not only on this trip, but what I require of you in life.’”
Clayton is no stranger to trusting his gut. As a senior at Heritage Christian High School in Indianapolis, he applied to universities all over the nation, including Southern Cal and Harvard. On their way back from a campus visit to Washington University in St. Louis, Clayton and his father passed by Terre Haute. His dad mentioned Indiana State is his alma mater.
Clayton started considering becoming a Sycamore after a personal tour of the campus by John Newton, the now retired executive director of the Indiana State University Alumni Association.
“I felt like it was a place I needed to be. I felt welcome, I felt appreciated,” Clayton said.
Being offered the university’s most generous award — the President’s Scholarship, which covers all tuition, provides premium housing and more — sealed the deal.
“All of the other schools I was accepted, there would have been these huge bills I would have had to pay for tuition. That’s not something I planned on doing,” he said.
The scholarship also requires and provides assistance for study abroad.
“The experience has been phenomenal. I would not have been able to go to South Africa, meet the people I’ve met,” he said. “Indiana State is a fine academic institution. Whatever you want to put into it, especially the honors program, you’re going to get out of it.”
Part of Clayton’s studies in South Africa included performing with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Choir and writing poetry. His triptych “South Africa: Love, Diversity, Pain” was written in 30 minutes and captures what he saw and felt there.
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South Africa: Love, Diversity, Pain
By Bryant Clayton
Your air patiently swallowing me
Your oceans kindly caressing me
My past envies your essence
My future longs for your presence
And in the present I’ve found no greater feeling
When I walk on your soil I embrace my healing
Comparable to the woman I love so much
You are love absent of tangible touch
My complexion is a reflection
A connection between those underneath this beating sun
No longer a spec in pools of white
I mesh with ancient colors
I sing songs that my tongue fights
In languages that pull me asunder
I gaze, think, and wonder
About these sights I witness
Races that coexist
Black, white, red, and yellow intermix
The Muslim, Hindu, and Protestant
Praying as one from different continents
They just want peace
It seems surreal to me
South Africa Land of diversity
Of mangled metal
Lined up in rows
Families live in these
Why are they segmented?
They know they are fragmented
Sterilized with poison
The dead system coats them with its ashes
A child’s smiles
Mothers dance in the streets
Cars bump rump and jump with kwaito
Men feast on indigenous meats
The dust clouds these roads
Filmy from blessings and disbelief
Engage these images so familiar
Pigmented people being oppressed
Racism isn’t confined in borders
Neither is pain
Jim crow or apartheid
Led to the same thing
My heart groans
While the township sings
My soul sinks
Knowing my mind is free