On December 5, 2013, we lost, at least in the physical, one of the world’s greatest and most heroic historical figures with the passing of Nelson Mandela. However, that’s the funny thing about history and labeling a person a historical figure: history always seems to have the potential to paint a brighter, more vivid picture of the past and to bring the present into context, but also has the potential to deceive us, make us complacent and turn us indifferent.
Therefore, due to the life that he sacrificed, the struggle that he endured, the time that he lost and seemed to be owed, it seems almost failing to simply label Nelson Mandela as a “historical figure”. From the many books that were written on his life (Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela; Mandela: A Biography; Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela), to the Hollywood actors that have portrayed him on the big screen (Morgan Freeman, Clarke Peters, Danny Glover, and Idris Elba most recently), to the many roles that he played throughout his long life (descendent of royalty, professional lawyer, boxer, freedom fighter, activist, president, peacemaker, humble servant), it is more important than ever, especially for the sake of teaching future generations, that Nelson Mandela be seen as much more than just a historical figure that we read about in text books, articles, websites and Wikipedia pages. He was a man that, even with all of his flaws, frustrations and failings, gave of himself to improve the dire situation of his people.
My generation as well as millennials mainly knows of Mandela as the white-haired, suit-wearing statesman released from prison after mounting pressure from politicians, businessmen and students worldwide finally resulted in Mandela walking free in 1990. We know him as the man that appeared on screen at the end of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X speaking in his signature South African accent to a room of youthfully militant African students shouting “I Am Malcolm X!” We know him as the first ever black president of South Africa, taking the oath of office in Pretoria in May of 1994, looking to dismantle the last vestiges of Apartheid and set his country on the course of democracy, self sufficiency and economic empowerment.
We know him as the old yet unshaken warrior that visited Detroit on June 28, 1990, giving a speech at Tiger Stadium, requesting to meet Rosa Parks and referring to Detroit as “the industrial heartland of the United States.” We know him as the fatherly figure that celebrated South Africa’s Rugby World Cup victory in 1995, and that used his larger-than-life influence to bring the FIFA World Cup to South African soil in 2010.
But many times, it’s very easy and convenient for us to remember Nelson Mandela in these says and at these moments in his life, while forgetting the struggle, hardships and loss that he endured to get to those places later in his life. Many of us may not know of Mandela and his fellow African National Congress members using the term “comrade” as a preferred term of address to build solidarity between themselves while imprisoned on Robben Island. We may not know of the label “The Black Pimpernel” that Mandela gained as a result of having to go into exile on the run from the South African Government for a year and a half of his life. We may not be aware of the man that served as Mandela’s mentor in prison, Walter Sisulu, who recruited Mandela into the African National Congress and was one of the prisoners that served time along side him. Or that Mandela lost his eldest son, Thembekile, in 1969 to a car accident while the elder Mandela was imprisoned. Or that he helped to found the African National Congress Youth League in 1944 at age 26.
And in 2013, there is a danger in not knowing of Mandela’s previous struggles and sacrifices. With so many social issues dominating news headlines, social media outlets and blogs, including police brutality and the senseless murder of young men and women of color across the U.S., voter suppression, and the effects of the prison industrial complex among them, Nelson Mandela’s life and example should have a special place in both history as well as in our overall consciousness. And for future generations of teachers and educators, learners and students, activists and community organizers, leaders and followers, it is vital that we not fall into the trap of mourning Nelson Mandela for the moment, then moving on to the next news story that dominates the mainstream media. If we do, we run the risk of allowing the history of the struggle that Mandela and so many others endured, to repeat itself.
Upon his release from prison at a speech in Capetown, South Africa on February 11, 1990, Mandela referred to himself “a humble servant of the people.” He also reiterated one of his most famous and repeated quotes, stating, “ I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal which I am prepared to die for.” Now that this warrior, activist and champion for justice has passed on into the next life, it’s imperative that we remember the man and his life, the legacy of the tireless work that he and many of his dear comrades did for our benefit, and work towards his goal for the present and for the future.