Behind a father-and-son protest, a history of laughter and struggle

On a Northern Virginia street corner, a White professor and his Black son offer a lesson about humanity.
Robert Edgar, left, and Leteane Monatsi demonstrate in June in Arlington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Two Black women in a Hyundai honked their support. A White man in a Prius raised his fist in solidarity. An ambulance blared its piercing whoop-whoop in their direction. And Leteane Monatsi’s cheeks lifted from the smile behind his sagging surgical mask and Washington Nationals cap.

The look on Monatsi’s face as he sat protesting in his wheelchair on the Northern Virginia street corner suggested nothing of his struggle to get there.

A childhood disease had left Monatsi’s bones so fragile that they broke repeatedly, and his family in Lesotho feared he would be dead by now. Instead, he is parked across the street from a strip-mall McDonald’s, gripping a “Black Lives Matter” banner with his adoptive father, Bob Edgar, a historian who has chronicled the struggle for freedom in southern Africa for nearly half a century.

Father, in his red scooter, and son first rolled down the bike path to this corner in Arlington, Va., just after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. They’ve been back most weekdays since, more than 60 times so far, as demonstrators in Louisville and Atlanta marched for justice for Black Americans killed at the hands of police and protests surged following the police shooting of Jacob Blake last month in Kenosha, Wis.

The path to this small spot in the nationwide movement for racial justice started 36 years ago in the kingdom of Lesotho, a small, mountainous country encircled by South Africa. Their months-long protest vigil is the latest chapter in a story about shared humanity and efforts to leave a lasting mark, even while living within limitations.

“It’s a modest act, being on the corner there, holding up a sign,” said Robert Trent Vinson, who teaches African American and African studies at the University of Virginia and is friends with both men. But what they are doing, in their low-key way, is expanding who gets to shape history, Vinson said.

The men started with two hand-scrawled signs, and have been joined by a handful of supporters. Firefighters stop by to bring them water. There’s a taxonomy to all the honks, with a surprisingly expressive mix of impassioned blasts, urgent Morse code patterns and musical hoots coming from up to a dozen cars a minute.

From left, Anne Meister and Iain Armitage join Edgar and Monatsi in their Black Lives Matter demonstration. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

They’ve faced some light pushback. One man walked past them to another corner and stood waving an American flag, alone. Motorists have yelled “All lives matter.” They’ve seen an occasional middle finger. The biggest threat they’ve encountered is a stoned juggler who refused to wear a mask or social distance.

They felt compelled to join the swelling demonstrations for racial justice that followed Floyd’s death. Monatsi was also getting restless. The pandemic forced him to stay home from his job organizing documents and mailings, which provided him camaraderie and purpose, and for years covered school expenses for his family in Lesotho.

The way Black people in America have been treated by the police “reminds me of a long time ago, during the apartheid,” Monatsi said. “Me and my papa, we’re helping the protest to do something.”

For Edgar, who taught African history at Howard University for 39 years before retiring in 2016, it was another chance to engage with his son and the community. White people “need to listen and learn and take a hard look at themselves, and then act,” he said.

Joining crowds of protesters at the White House was out of the question, given the risks of the coronavirus and confrontation.

“When the police start charging, it would be difficult to run,” Monatsi said. “It would be terrible for us.”

Monatsi, 49, has a genetic condition known as brittle bone disease, which led to numerous arm and leg fractures. It is one of the more than 800 human conditions that medical researchers say can cause “short stature,” classified as height under the third percentile for a certain age. Edgar has a genetic nerve disorder called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, which has weakened his legs and finally pushed him into a scooter four years ago.

People sometimes mistake Monatsi as being much younger because of his size, and the sight of him protesting in his wheelchair alongside a gray-bearded White guy in leg braces has been confounding for some.

“It’s just not a simple image,” said Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, global disability adviser at the World Bank, who has known both men since she was a teenager living in Lesotho. “People don’t even imagine them to be father and son to start off with.”

Me and my papa, we’re helping the protest to do something.
Leteane Monatsi

But as the daughter of a White American father and Black South African mother, and someone who uses a wheelchair, McClain-Nhlapo sees power behind that image — and in how her friends are upending assumptions.

“People look to you as somebody who must be in pain, somebody whose life is not really worth living, somebody who should be pitied, somebody who’s been rescued — all of those things. But their relationship is so much more than that,” she said.

The two have lifted each other, McClain-Nhlapo said, and Edgar has found a way to enable Leteane, “not in a charitable way, but in a way of building Leteane’s confidence. … It doesn’t always end up like this. That I know for a fact.”

There’s an ugly stereotype articulated in Rudyard Kipling’s controversial poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” which defines White imperialism as a moral act. Kipling’s ode to colonialism and a racialized view of the world are rejected by Edgar, who saw his own struggles and disability reflected in Monatsi.

“Some Whites go to Africa with a kind of salvation attitude. … or to make nice, humanitarian gestures,” Edgar said.

But over decades of research, and in the family he’s built with Monatsi, “I’m dealing with people as human beings, and not as somebody with a kind of missionary, uplifting attitude,” Edgar said. “I just wanted him to be part of my life.”

Monatsi and Edgar outside their Arlington home. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

An instant, enduring connection

On a recent Saturday, Bob and Leteane — friends often group them in a single breath — climbed into their silver Honda for a drive through the Virginia countryside, making stops for ribs and cookie dough ice cream. Leteane, pronounced lee-tee-ah-nee, commands the radio with his retro sensibility, and as Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” headed inexorably toward the drum solo, he let loose.

“He just starts bopping away,” Edgar said. “His whole body vibrates, his legs, his arms. He just gets into it.”

Friends say they balance each other. Edgar is the impassioned and prolific historian, drawing excited connections from decades of interviews — and driving himself with an intensity and edge that led to a heart attack in the late 1990s as he juggled travel, work and family.

Monatsi has the soaring disposition of a survivor. Despite being marked by disease and the cognitive aftermath of childhood malnourishment, which can trip up his ability to communicate all that he is thinking, he has a buoyant outlook and highly honed sense of how to connect with people.

They have disarming and comforting laughs, which seem to bind them like strands of DNA, Edgar’s flowing easily and Monatsi’s erupting in great, guttural bursts.

“I would love to be a grumpy old man. I can’t do that around him,” Edgar said.

While they sit quietly at the center of their corner protest, their warmth and spirit has spurred some full-throated support.

Retired Treasury Department official Anne Meister has joined Edgar and Monatsi's demonstrations. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

On one blazing afternoon, a retired Treasury Department official, Anne Meister, and the young grandson of former deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage paced the sidewalk behind them, taking turns waving a “Honk” poster and yelling out to drivers.

Behind Meister’s relentless enthusiasm — jumping around and shouting “All right, let’s hear a honk!” — lie quieter personal motives, including the lasting wound of her brother’s death in Vietnam.

“I didn’t know what to do, and then I saw them out here,” said Meister, 72, who has become a cheerleader, roadie and friend, returning to the corner dozens of times hauling signs and tying a balloon on Monatsi’s wheelchair for his birthday.

Iain Armitage, 12, who lives part time in Arlington, hopped out of his mom’s car in his pajamas one day when he saw Leteane and Bob. On another afternoon he cheerfully prodded drivers waiting at the light. It “feels so good knowing how many people are on the right side of history,” Armitage said.

“Amazing young guy!” Monatsi said, beaming.

Armitage, an actor who plays the genius kid on the CBS show “Young Sheldon,” did elicit a sharp reaction from one bicyclist who wasn’t feeling it. “He said, ‘Get the F out of my way, kid.' He didn’t say, ‘Get the F,’" Armitage said.

Edgar grew up a world away from Arlington, and southern Africa.

His family lived in the oil town of Bartlesville, Okla., 50 miles north of Tulsa. Edgar didn’t learn about the 1921 race massacre there, in which a prosperous Black district was destroyed and up to 300 people were killed, until many years later.

Edgar’s father was an engineer at a zinc smelter and his mother was a homemaker and a loving presence. They were staunch Presbyterians who preached community service. And three of their four sons were born with the same genetic nerve disease.

Edgar’s was the least severe, but he needed painful operations to straighten his curled hammertoes and insert metal plates to stop his feet from turning on their sides. After his full-leg casts came off, he learned to walk again. But he said he remained too clumsy and unbalanced to join his high school baseball team.

He rallied in support of conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater’s campaign against Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, but he also was shaken by images of police attacking Black demonstrators with fire hoses in Alabama the year before.

Then, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, some in his dorm at Oklahoma State University ran up and down the hall celebrating. “It still appalls me,” he said.

That summer, on a church service project, he advised Black families being pushed from their homes in Philadelphia. He started reading books on Africa by the British journalist and anti-imperialist historian Basil Davidson.

Traveling to South Africa in 1973 for his doctoral research at UCLA set his path. Edgar had seen the segregation of Jim Crow in Arkansas, “but South Africa, boy, they took it to the nth degree.”

Laws sliced up every part of society by race. Black Africans needed “passbooks” to travel within the country, and if arrested for lacking the proper permissions, they would often be sent to work at White farms where they “were basically slave labor,” Edgar said.

I’d been through it. I was living it. And when I met Leteane, something was triggered.
Bob Edgar

Edgar was researching the 1921 police massacre of 200 Black African followers of a religious group known as the Israelites. A sign at his desk in the library read: “Europeans Only.”

He returned to UCLA as an activist. Protesting the visit of the South African national tennis team to Newport Beach in 1977, Edgar passed out fliers decrying the country’s “national sport” of clubbing the powerless.

South Africa banned him from the country, so for years Lesotho was Edgar’s backdoor base. While teaching there, he heard an exiled comrade of Nelson Mandela and trove of inside information on the anti-apartheid fight, Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyana, might still be alive and hiding in the mountains.

It was at one of their meetings later that Mofutsanyana asked if Edgar could help the boy who lived next door.

Monatsi was malnourished, and at age 13 weighed just 20 pounds. Without surgery, repeated breaks had left his legs so twisted they looked like corkscrews, Edgar said. Monatsi’s eldest sister would chase off children who bullied him as he moved around on his back.

“They used to throw stones at him, saying he’s not a human being. But still he would go outside,” his nephew Katiso Monatsi said in an interview from Butha Buthe, the family’s hometown near the South African border. “Leteane kept playing. No matter the pain, he kept playing.”

Edgar watched Monatsi dragging his head as he played, something he’d done so often it had created a bald spot. And, still, he had a joyous, irrepressible smile.

“That’s what melted my heart,” said Edgar, 72. “It was one of these moments. Your mind is saying, ‘Can I get really involved in this?’ And your heart is saying, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

The echoes of Edgar’s own disability hit him.

“I’d been through it. I was living it. And when I met Leteane, something was triggered,” he said.

Monatsi’s father died when he was a baby. His mother, Malikhutsana, was ailing and exhausted after watching her son suffering years of painful fractures. “My grandmother didn’t know what to do. She just gave up and said, ‘God will see,’” Monatsi’s nephew said.

Edgar found Monatsi a wheelchair. And as their connection deepened, he offered a room in his Lesotho home.

Neighbors at the university where Edgar taught grew used to hearing explosions of high-pitched laughter as the two rolled balls back and forth.

Then Edgar offered to take Monatsi to the United States.

His mother “was so reluctant. She didn’t want to be away from her child,” the nephew said.

But she let him go.

Monatsi came to the United States as a teenager, 34 years ago. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

‘I wanted everything for him’

Edgar brought 15-year-old Monatsi to Northern Virginia and enrolled him in school.

At a meeting in Arlington, an otherwise helpful school counselor sheepishly asked something her husband kept asking her at home, Edgar recalled.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but he asked the question, 'Why aren’t you adopting somebody of your own kind?’”

“You mean humankind?” Edgar responded. “That was the end of that.”

In the United States on a student visa, Monatsi was first placed in a middle-school English as a second language course, then moved to a special education program in 1987. He hadn’t gone to school in Lesotho. Though he was bright and curious, learning to read and process numbers was a struggle.

So was being a single parent.

“I wanted the best for him. I wanted everything for him,” Edgar said.

Edgar would rush home from his job at Howard University to pick Monatsi up from school, get him settled at home, then drive back to teach evening seminars.

They found surgeons at Children’s National Hospital experienced with Monatsi’s disease, and he endured his first operation.

“They basically had to break bones to straighten things out,” Edgar said, leaving Monatsi in casts for months.

Hearing of Monatsi’s progress in America, his mother‘s ambivalence faded.

“As a parent, at first she wasn’t fine,” Katiso Monatsi said. “But as time passes by … she released her heart slowly, slowly, slowly, until she realized: Leteane is at home when he’s with Bob.”

In the late 1980s, after his first round of surgeries, Edgar and Monatsi made their first trip back to Butha Buthe.

Monatsi’s mother had died and he was “nervous as hell” about whether his family would accept him, Edgar said.

“The grandmother, especially, came out to embrace him,” Edgar said, and the family took them both in.

In Arlington, the school system rules let Monatsi stay enrolled until he turned 22, in 1993. He reached about a third-grade reading level, and was still stymied by math. But his confidence and independence blossomed.

He got into Queen and the Moody Blues. He Americanized his name to Lee sometimes.

Then the law threatened his new life.

Why aren’t you adopting somebody of your own kind?
School counselor, in a conversation with Bob Edgar

Lesotho barred foreign adoptions, so Edgar had to wait until Monatsi was 18 to adopt him. However, under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, Monatsi needed to be adopted before he was 16 to be eligible for permanent residency and citizenship. Once Monatsi’s student visa expired, it became illegal for him to stay in America.

Then-Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) found special meaning in Monatsi’s struggle.

“It’s just a fascinating story of human achievement,” Moran said, describing Monatsi’s perseverance and Edgar’s unselfishness.

Moran and Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) wrote “private legislation” specifically for Monatsi.

Just before the planned vote in 1994, the extraordinary effort was blocked by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), nearly ending their American story. Simpson said he didn’t remember the case but that private bills were abused and an unfair evasion of the law, and he opposed them for his constituents too.

“The wrenching of emotion, the success of what happened, how that person went on to a full life, those are the themes,” Simpson said. “That violin was played in every occasion.”

After several tense days, Monatsi’s congressional allies persuaded Simpson to make an exception and let it through, and President Bill Clinton signed it.

Edgar met Monatsi while in Lesotho researching the fight against apartheid. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Stirring returns to southern Africa

In the quarter-century since, Monatsi and Edgar have lived with feet in both continents.

They’ve balanced lives and jobs in Washington — with Edgar mentoring students and writing, and Monatsi joshing with co-workers stuffing envelopes and prepping government records for scanning — while making dozens of trips to southern Africa for research, teaching stints and extended visits with family.

It was a deft and inspiring turn that stayed true to a promise Edgar made to Monatsi’s family: that he would not lose his roots.

Their travels to Lesotho and South Africa play to their strengths. Both men are empathetic and generous, qualities that seemed to build off each other in years of bumpy drives through southern Africa to meet towering figures and ordinary people.

They recall the first time Monatsi met Mandela, in 1992, and how the freed political prisoner greeted the young man in his native Sesotho language. They met again in Parliament several years later when Mandela was president. By the third time, in 2001, Monatsi confidently rolled up to Mandela and said: “Do you remember me?”

“Yes, I remember you,” Mandela responded, his political charm undiminished in retirement. “Do you remember me?”

Monatsi rode shotgun as Edgar chased lost artifacts and conducted far-flung interviews, making return trips over decades to build deep relationships.

On a trip the two made to Eastern Cape province in 1994, Edgar discovered the holiest artifact of the Israelites, the millennial religious group he started researching in the 1970s. Edgar found their lost Ark of the Covenant in a museum basement.

Monatsi was also with Edgar in Pretoria as he tracked clues in his hunt for the missing bones of a doomsday prophet, Nontetha Nkwenkwe, who had warned her followers that the 1918 flu pandemic was God’s wrath for their sins. Fearing she’d stoke unrest, the government locked her away in a distant asylum in 1924. Edgar later helped oversee the exhumation and return of her remains to her home, where thousands gathered for an emotional reburial in 1998.

One of things that motivated me was to talk about Black lives. The dominant presentation of history was about White lives.
Bob Edgar

Days after the reburial, rushing back to the stresses of life and work in Washington, Edgar had his heart attack. As he recovered, he thought Nontetha must have put in a word for him with God, buying him a bit more time.

The two traveled a half-dozen times to see Edwin Mofutsanyana, Monatsi’s old neighbor who had become a good friend. Edgar eventually wrote the Communist Party elder’s biography and another about his former wife, Josie Mpama, a pioneering feminist, which was published in April.

From his first visit to Africa, “one of things that motivated me was to talk about Black lives,” Edgar said. “The dominant presentation of history was about White lives.”

Monatsi has also stayed on his own for weeks in his hometown, reconnecting with life there and talking about America, where he became a citizen in 2004. “It’s a wonderful country,” Monatsi says, but “life can be good and bad, both ways.”

Being back with family could be jarring. A distant relative once yanked Monatsi’s leg up and down, demonstrating his disability to her son. His experiences have given him an eye for those who could use a bit of kindness.

They sought out their friend Charlotte McClain-Nhlapo, who was in a car crash in South Africa and facing the psychological reality that she could no longer walk. Edgar and Monatsi arrived at her parents’ home, but she wouldn’t come out to see them, Edgar recalled.

They kept at it, with Edgar later insisting she join a dinner he arranged with friends.

“I was like, ‘Oh God, do I want do this?’” McClain-Nhlapo recalled. “He just wanted to normalize things: ‘I’ll pick you up with Leteane!’”

It was a good night, with their presence providing “reassurance that life goes on,” she said.

“There’s nothing like Leteane’s laugh for me,” McClain-Nhlapo said. “What I see in Leteane is a very content human being. I see a person who is happy. He’s not angry at the world.”

Edgar, left, has protested for months with Monatsi in Arlington, with old and new friends sometimes joining them. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

‘A deep humanity’

From 8,000 miles away, their corner protest seems risky.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Katiso Monatsi said of his uncle’s months of activism. “We know he’s a very brave man. I didn’t know that could take him that far.”

Others closer by have found inspiration.

“He’s not letting his disability stop him. So what is your excuse?” said Rachel Oddoye, who works with Monatsi at an Arlington site run by Melwood, a workforce group for people with disabilities.

They didn’t choose this corner for its symbolism. It’s just an easy ride down the path from their home. But the hours at the intersection of George Mason Drive and Wilson Boulevard have given the historian time to consider its aptness.

George Mason’s writings on individual liberty underpinned the Bill of Rights, but he also had more than 100 enslaved people and gave many to his children when he died, Edgar said. President Woodrow Wilson held a White House screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan.

At the corner one day this summer, Monatsi waved at a supporter zipping by on an electric skateboard and Edgar pointed in gratitude at honking drivers.

People recognize them now on the bike path and come up to talk. Edgar had a searching conversation with a mental health specialist on the role of police. A military leader shared his own reckoning over whether officer promotions have been fair for African Americans.

“That’s basically what I hoped would come from this — it would spur people to have conversations,” Edgar said.

Edgar’s protest with his son, and the way he’s built connections across races, “is consistent with how he’s lived his life,” said the University of Virginia’s Vinson, a former student of Edgar’s. From the start, Edgar was interested not just in Vinson’s academic work but in who he was and what animated him.

“Not every White man I’ve met in academia or life has been particularly interested in me learning more about anti-Black racism and how to eradicate racism overall,” said Vinson, who is African American. “He just has a deep humanity to him. He has a deep empathy. He listens carefully.”

The problem of racism in America, Vinson said, is not “individual bad-apple racism” — one bad cop, one bad boss — but “structural and systemic racism.”

It’s about a society that disadvantages Black people, in education, economics and health care, said Vinson, whose grandmother was the fifth member of his family to die of covid-19. “We have a system that says with these disparities that Black lives seem to matter less,” he said.

They hope to connect what they’re doing at the corner with that broader struggle, Edgar said, but don’t yet know how. They’re planning to be there indefinitely as they figure it out.

Edgar struggles to walk now, let alone march. He was once worried about Monatsi’s longevity, and the pain of losing him, but he “survived with everything against him.” Now his son rarely gets sick, and Edgar thinks “he’ll be taking care of me.”

That’s basically what I hoped would come from this — it would spur people to have conversations.
Bob Edgar

One day recently before heading out to the corner, they were home with their tabby cat Nacho. Monatsi shouted in approval as he watched former president Barack Obama deliver the eulogy at the funeral of Rep. John Lewis, the longtime civil rights leader.

They fall into their routines. Monatsi listens to the BBC or watches “Seinfeld.” They call family or catch a movie — they relish the scene in “Forrest Gump” where Forrest races off, his leg braces falling behind him.

And Edgar writes. He’s finally turning to the story of Christopher Gell.

The British colonial official was paralyzed by polio while in India and moved to South Africa in 1948 as White politicians imposed rigid segregation. Gell was confined to an iron lung 16 hours a day. But he started writing letters to local newspapers eviscerating apartheid, prompting security police to track him down.

“They saw the guy, in a direct sense, was already in prison, in the iron lung,” Edgar said. Gell spent years hosting a stream of activists at his bedside, becoming a prolific and untouchable critic. “What could they do to him?”

Photos by Jahi Chikwendiu. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Stu Werner. Edited by Victoria Benning. Designed by J.C. Reed.

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