Yesterday I turned in my last set of grades, handed out Xmas cookies to some people in my building, and then rushed downtown to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. When Nelson Mandela passed away last month, I immediately thought of my Irish-Canadian grandfather and the way he used to save his copies of Maclean’s Magazine so that I could clip out articles for a school project on apartheid. High school wasn’t a happy time for me, but my senior year was memorable in part because I became “the” authority on apartheid in my mighty-white school. Like many “Black weirdos,” I had people in my family who felt I wasn’t “Black enough” and so did their best to undermine my self-esteem. I loved New Edition and Michael Jackson but I wasn’t into rap (unless you include The Beastie Boys) and I also listened to Duran Duran, Simply Red, and Depeche Mode. Occasionally my white peers would ask me about a rap group I’d never heard of, but mostly they accepted that I was just an “expert” on MLK and Mandela. I didn’t always attend school dances but when I did, the song most likely to get me out on the floor was “Sing Our Own Song” by UB40. The reggae song ends with a chant of “Amandla! Awethu!” My investment in the fight to free Mandela was, in a way, my only legitimate claim to Blackness—or so I thought.
As I left the theater yesterday, I realized that I stopped following Mandela’s journey after I graduated from high school. I don’t remember writing anything about South Africa in college, but I do recall writing a long op-ed for the campus paper about my disenchantment with King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The college I chose to attend was even less diverse than my high school, and I knew I’d made a mistake almost as soon as I arrived. But I graduated with a determination to change course and a year later I was living in the US, taking classes in Black Studies at Brooklyn College. I volunteered with a youth collective and started tutoring kids in an after-school program in Fort Greene. I started paying closer attention to the tales my maternal grandmother used to share about our “Negro ancestors.” I realized that the door I’d been searching for—the elusive portal that would admit me to the world of Blackness—was for those with a commitment to social justice. It wasn’t about the music I liked or the clothes that I wore. I went natural that year and stopped perming my hair, but even that wasn’t as important as my growing awareness of the global struggle for Black liberation. And I realized yesterday that that was what Mandela did for me—the fight to end his imprisonment gave me a way to connect with something so much larger than myself and my sad little world where relatives teased me for having “cow lips” and “a white heart.” There’s no way to measure the impact Mandela had on the world, but I’m so, so grateful that his rise to power coincided with the start of my own search for a sense of purpose and belonging.