I remember when I first became acquainted with the name "Mandela."
In 1988, I was a 17-year-old college freshman at the University of California Riverside. During the fall of that year, there was a week of "Anti-Apartheid" demonstrations all over the campus. I wanted to get caught up in the revolutionary zeal, but I was embarrassed to admit that I did not know what apartheid was. I had heard the word apartheid, many times but I honestly did not know what it meant. Some of my more radical friends told me that apartheid was like Jim Crow segregation in the US only much worse. I remembered thinking that they must be mistaken. It was 1988 afterall, and black people in Africa (or anywhere) were still enduring the type of unhumanity that they had endured under Jim Crowism in America? I knew then I needed to attend all of the rallies and activities that week to learn more.
Kwame Toure, otherwise known as Stokely Carmichael, was speaking in the courtyard that week. I remember being excited about his talk because I had just written a paper on the Black Panther Party. Carmichael (Toure) had been a Freedom Rider, a member of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), and a Black Panther. And that day in October, he was to speak to the students of UC Riverside about the horrors of Apartheid South Africa. He told Nelson Mandela's story of resistance and over 20-year imprisonment. After Toure's talk, students watched a documentary of Mandela's life, and I was transfixed by Mr. Mandela's courage and determination to not be moved, to own his and his people's humanity, to rise up until South Africans were free, and to sacrifice himself for that aim.
And as an African American, I felt a deep kinship to Mandela and to South Africa. As a decendant of slaves in America, and an inheriter of the American Civil Rights movement, I felt the anti-apartheid movement was a part of me too. I carried that kinship with me for the rest of my life. I am an African in America, a apart of the African diaspora. There was something in my DNA that felt the struggles, the pain, and the eventual triumph of South Africans.
I was so proud of Madiba when he became the first black president of South Africa. When he united black and white South Africans through his famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he united the once oppressed and the once oppressor. This is something that America has never truly been able or willing to do. As a result of Mandela's humility and forgiveness, white South Africans and Black South Africans coexist today with so much more honesty and transparency than blacks and whites in the United States. After all, the US has never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We have yet to have a national discourse on race.
As President Obama proclaimed two days ago in his Eulogy, "Nelson Mandela is the last great liberator of the 20th century." He has been the light in a dark world. He has transformed the global world and become its moral compass. The persistent downpour of rain throughout Mr. Mandela's memorial service would have underscored a solemn event and represented mourning and grief if he had been a revered American dignitary. But as the legend goes in South Africa, rain the day of a memorial service represents the passing of a great man. The heavens opened for Mandela that day sending him back home.