Lunchtime: Carter buys roasted maize for lunch from a vendor at the local "taxi ranks".
Lunchtime: Carter buys roasted maize for lunch from a vendor at the local "taxi ranks".

The Power of Privilege

The grandson of a U.S. president and the great-grandson of one of the Peace Corps' most famous volunteers spent two years with the Corps working in South Africa. In his new book on the subject, Carter has found his own voice.
October 1, 2002
Teatime: Carter and Selina "Gogo" Ndzukulu, matriarch of his host family in Lochiel

Teatime: Carter and Selina "Gogo" Ndzukulu, matriarch of his host family in Lochiel.

When Jason James Carter submitted his application to Duke to enter in the Class of 1997, the title of his admissions essay was "My Other Grandfather." After all, what could he tell the review committee about former President James Earl Carter Jr., that it didn't already know? Instead, Jason wrote about his maternal grandfather, J. Beverly Langford, a former Georgia state senator and legislator.

As the grandson of the country's thirty-ninth president, Carter has lived his entire life in the glow of his family's legacy. Born in 1975 in Decatur, Georgia, to Judy Langford and John W. Carter, he has early memories of spending Christmas at the White House. Like all presidential grandchildren since Lyndon Johnson's administration, he left a cast of his handprints in the private garden off the Oval Office. But with the publication of his new book, which chronicles his stint in South Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, Jason Carter is claiming his own voice.

Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa's Border, published this summer by National Geographic Books, describes Carter's work in Lochiel, a rural village near the South Africa-Swaziland border. Working with local teachers, he helped implement a new post-apartheid curriculum and methodology. But the book is more than a journalistic account of lesson plans and teaching strategies. Instead, Carter writes from a personal vantage point about the lingering, seemingly intractable aftereffects of apartheid. He also balances these stark observations by celebrating the spirit of community and togetherness that he encountered along the way.

The 1998-2000 Peace Corps trip wasn't Carter's first time on the continent. As a thirteen-year-old, with his grandfather and other staff members of the Carter Center for International Peace, he traveled to East Africa, including Uganda, staying in a hotel that once housed Idi Amin's secret police. After graduating from Duke, he volunteered for a Carter Center-sponsored trip to Liberia to monitor elections. Given first-hand exposure to the dangerous historical currents these countries had endured, Carter says he was initially disappointed to learn that his placement was in the country he thought of as "Africa Lite," a Westernized nation with a comparatively stable political and economic infrastructure."Political scientists and policymakers can analyze apartheid, but those analyses often don't include the personal stories you hear when you actually live in a community," says Carter. "And I don't think you can really be engaged with a community until you feel some sort of connection. So I wanted to demonstrate how recognizable these people are. They wake up in the morning and they try to put food on the table and make a better life for their children. They laugh and they love and they play."

"My great-grandmother, Miss Lillian Carter, had braved the hardships of rural India as a Peace Corps volunteer when she was seventy years old," Carter writes in Power Lines. "She had been miles from any contact with the First World, had gotten ill on several occasions, and had lost thirty-five pounds. My Peace Corps experience would not test my physical well-being like hers did. And for letting my great-grandmother take the tougher job, I was slightly embarrassed."

Teatime: Carter and Selina "Gogo" Ndzukulu, matriarch of his host family in Lochiel

As it turned out, rural South Africa proved to be an intensely demanding--and richly rewarding--experience. In contrast to the major metropolitan cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, Lochiel lacks basic services such as electricity. (The title of the book refers, literally, to the electrical lines that run through, but not to, Lochiel on their way to "First World Africa," writes Carter. Figuratively, the title's historical symbolism is obvious.) Houses are made of wood, mud, and metal, and people carry their water from the river. Because Peace Corps regulations require volunteers to be housed in a location with a lockable door and concrete floors, Carter stayed in an old hotel owned by Swazi National Council member and Methodist minister Elias Langa Ndzukulu and his family. Despite the green slime in the abandoned swimming pool and the aging buildings and grounds, he enjoyed amenities unavailable to other Lochiel residents, such as a toilet and bath with water drawn from a deep well.

Even with such such "luxuries," Carter was eager to shed other people's expectations of what a white American should do. He immersed himself in the traditions and daily rhythms of his new community. During one of his first meals with his host family, he noticed everyone tentatively fumbling with the silverware. Familiar with the local customs, Carter picked up his meat with his bare hands, causing everyone to laugh with relief that they wouldn't have to eat "like white people" so he would feel at home.

More significantly, he had learned to speak Siswati and Zulu, which established his credibility as a truly invested outsider. It also let him eavesdrop on South Africans who were unaware that he could understand their dialect. "I cannot overestimate how important it was that I did this," he says. "Once people realized that I cared enough to learn how to talk their language--and that I wasn't going anywhere--they really welcomed me in." Early in his Peace Corps stay, Carter was included in a meeting with his grandfather, Nelson Mandela, and U.S. Ambassador to South Africa James A. Joseph, now a professor of the practice in Duke's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. When Mandela learned that Carter speaks Zulu, the two engaged in a brief exchange, underscoring Carter's commitment to fitting in his adopted homeland.

Wherever he went in South Africa, particularly in more rural areas, Carter found himself becoming a somewhat reluctant spokesperson for America. Questions ranged from trivial to poignant: Do you have cows? Why don't people in America vote? Do you know Michael Jordan? Is there apartheid in America?

"The more people asked me about America," he says, "the more I realized the power of the idea of America." Inevitably, these exercises in cultural comparisons forced him to examine his status as a white, Western male born to privilege--and that of people who do not share a similar degree of opportunity and status.

Even two years after his Peace Corps stint, it's still a theme that stirs Carter's passion. "We have the luxury of saying that we weren't personally affected by apartheid--and it is a luxury," he says, while on a summer book tour through North Carolina. "But you're talking about a country that produced four Nobel Peace Prize winners, and 90 percent of the people never got an opportunity to express themselves to the world. Who knows how many great things could have come out of South Africa had it not been for apartheid?"

The impetus for the book came at the prompting of his grandfather, who urged him to keep a journal of his time in South Africa. Upon his return, Carter was invited to speak about his experiences at the National Geographic annual general meeting, where his grandfather was the keynote speaker. Impressed by his illuminating recollections, lively wit, and ability to weave political and historical threads through his speech, National Geographic executive vice president Terry Adamson invited Carter to craft the journal into a book. He spent the better part of the next year in the New York Public Library, writing out pages in longhand, then typing in the text at night in his apartment.

Despite the often sober subject matter, Carter's curiosity and self-effacing humor shine through in the work. Like his grandfather, his easy-going Southern charm and natural ease in connecting with strangers proved particularly apt in South Africa. "There is a concept in Africa called ubuntu, which means that everyone is fundamentally connected rather than fundamentally individual," he says. "It's that idea of community, the human element, that I hope people will take away from this book."

Carter confesses that he wasn't as "directed" as he should have been as an undergraduate, but he nonetheless credits his years at Duke with laying the essential groundwork for his Peace Corps assignment. A political science major, he took such demanding courses as James B. Duke Professor of English Reynolds Price's seminar on Milton; political science professor Robert Keohane's transnational relations class; and philosophy professor Alasdair MacIntyre's nineteenth-century philosophy and twentieth-century continental philosophy courses.

James Hamilton, associate professor of public policy, says he first became aware of Carter when he asked students in his "Introduction to Policy Analysis" course to write, anonymously, about any political experiences and/or general interest in the subject. "Usually students write things like, I was the president of my senior class in high school," recalls Hamilton. "Then I got to a card that said, 'Grandfather was president of the United States.' So I did some asking around."

Carter revealed his family connections judiciously. "For a long time, I didn't know he was Jimmy Carter's grandson," says Thomas Bates '97, who roomed with Carter sophomore through senior year. "That was not something he advertised. He's an engaging, personable guy in his own right and doesn't need that entrÈe to impress people."

Classmate and Kappa Sigma fraternity brother Keith Cossrow recalls one afternoon when he, Carter, and several other first-year students were hanging out discussing a range of issues. The conversation turned to race. "We knew who he was, but it wasn't something anyone mentioned," he says. "Still, I kept baiting him--'What do you think, Jason?'--and he wouldn't participate. Finally, he just busted out and talked for nearly an hour straight about his views. His face was red. And we all quickly realized we were out of our league."

Cossrow also credits Carter with inventing the name and concept of the Kappa Sigs' legendary "Go To Hell" party. "Due to housing policy changes, our fraternity was moved from the prime real estate of the main quad on West Campus to Edens quad, and we were really upset," says Cossrow. "But once we got there we realized it was a cool place to have parties--there's a nice courtyard and big front yard. So Jason came up with the 'Go To Hell' idea to say, in other words, West is dead; Go to Hell!"

Carter's other extracurricular activities included many afternoons playing shuffleboard at the Green Room, an off-campus pool hall, and intense sessions on the Sony Playstation game "Tomb Raider." Perhaps not surprisingly, his personal sense of fastidiousness was still, uh, developing.

"Our approach to cleaning was to let everything just go all the way," recalls roommate Bates. "We performed no interim maintenance. With laundry, we'd just throw all our clothes in a big pile. I remember one time we didn't have any clean clothes left so we piled all our dirty clothes together and took it to the Washtub," the campus self-serve and drop-off laundromat. "We had 100 pounds of clothes."

"Once people realized that I cared enough to learn how to talk their language--and that I wasn&squot;t going anywhere--they really welcomed me in."

"Once people realized that I cared enough to learn how to talk their language-- and that I wasn't going anywhere--they really welcomed me in."

Frat-boy appearances notwithstanding, Carter was clearly serious about things that mattered. During his junior year, he took a semester off to work for the political campaign of North Carolina senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt. "I had been around political campaigns all my life," he says, "but I had never worked so intensely before. I decided that the most important thing I could do was help get Gantt elected, and we won every statewide election except the last one."

He also earned a reputation for nurturing important personal relationships, both fraternal and otherwise. One day, he spotted Kate Lewis '99, then a fetching first-year student finding her way around the campus. "I was super smooth," Carter says, laughing. "I volunteered to show her the Gardens." The two started dating, and were married in Duke Chapel in 2001. Kate is an investigative journalist with the Athens Banner Herald in Athens, Georgia, where Carter is now a second-year law student at the University of Georgia.

During his senior year, Carter lived off East Campus at 708 N. Buchanan Street, then known as the Halfway House. One morning when everyone was still sleeping, the phone rang. It was Duke president Nannerl O. Keohane, calling Jason to see if his grandfather would speak at commencement. When the elder statesman accepted, a curious thing happened. "We had been trying to get the landlord to fix up the house, which was in pretty bad shape," says Cossrow. "I don't know who called them--maybe the Secret Service or Rosalynn--but when we came back from Myrtle Beach [after exams], the house was completely cleaned up."

Jimmy Carter's speech that year still resonates deeply with Jason. Addressing the Wallace Wade Stadium crowd, Carter informed everyone in attendance that they were rich. "I'm not talking about bank accounts," he said. "A rich person is one who has a decent home, a modicum of usable education, and access to reasonable health care. Rich people like us feel that the police and the judicial system are on our side and think that if we make a decision, it'll make a difference, at least in our own lives."

"I think it's very easy for us to lose sight of that point," says Carter. "It's not just that I'm Jimmy Carter's grandson that makes me privileged; obviously that does. But what makes me privileged is that I was born in the United States instead of Rwanda or Liberia. And that I was born white instead of black. And that both my parents had advanced degrees--and a whole host of other things."

Despite his lineage, Carter says he doubts he'll pursue a political career. "I like being involved on a grass-roots level. Being involved in your community and attending school-board meetings is really important. But there's too much you have to do to run for office, like sitting on the phone for hours trying to raise money. And you don't make that decision just for yourself; you make it for your whole family. Now, if Kate wanted to run for Congress, I'd support her 100 percent--and maybe she will."

Even though he's appeared on NBC's Today show and NPR's All Things Considered to promote Power Lines, Carter maintains a low profile. He is settling in to married life and devoting himself to his law studies while maintaining close contacts with his Duke buddies. For his bachelor party, he and his fraternity brothers took a trip to Taos, New Mexico. (The trip also served as a going-away party for Doug McClary '97, who was departing for his own Peace Corps work in Uganda.)

Besides, say Carter's close-knit friends, the affable, energetic world traveler and published author isn't that much different from the guy they spent time with in cluttered dorm rooms and at rowdy keg parties. "Jason was always the smartest guy in the room," says Cossrow, "but he wasn't out to prove it every minute of the day. Because of his family, he'd already been exposed to so much of the world that he understood how lucky we were to be living in a forest surrounded by beautiful young geniuses.

"He immersed himself in everything he did, whether it was a Tomb Raider marathon, an essay for Alasdair MacIntyre, or a Senate campaign for Harvey Gantt. On the surface, he was as carefree as the rest of us, but he knew where he was going the whole time. A neat trick if you can pull it off, and he did."

--Booher '82, A.M. '92, a freelance writer, is assistant director of the Hart Leadership Program at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.