In high school in the 80s, my friends & I wore anti-apartheid pins. It was the first political cause I knew. Long before I’d been radicalized. The lives and, even more, the heroic statures of people like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko were my first examples of political courage.
Songs like “Nelson Mandela” (The Specials), “Biko” (Peter Gabriel) and “Sun City” were part of my political awakening. Later, in the early 90s, I saw Hugh Masekela live and started to listen to music from South Africa. Later still, I read the poetry and prose of Dennis Brutus.
The anti-apartheid struggle in SA, embodied in Mandela & Biko, was my entry into the civil rights fight in the US. All of this is simply to say that my own personal path to activism was partly the result of the movement Nelson Mandela inspired.
“Dear everyone: Nelson Mandela was never a pacifist, never a Gandhi, never afraid to assert the absolute right of the oppressed to fight back.” — Mike Prysner
I would add that even Gandhi wasn’t a Gandhi in the way we’ve come think of him. I’m not saying I’m not a fan. I mean that what we now think of as his “pacifism” involved forcing huge amounts of violence on the part of others as a means of demonstrating their moral bankruptcy. Not to mention the external pressures on the British empire at the time of the Indian freedom struggle. Nothing is as simple as the easy stories we tell.
We don’t want to go too far down the road of mythologizing anyone. MLK (whose name was brought up during a Facebook conversation about Mandela) was a homophobe and womanizer. It’s not about our heroes being people without flaws. I find it inspiring that flawed people can do extraordinary things, given that those are the only kind of people who exist.
In a similar way, not talking about the fact that Rosa Parks was a trained organizer who intentionally refused to give up her seat as part of a planned boycott makes it seem like she was magical or a superhero. It takes away everyone else’s ability to do the same thing. I know this isn’t an exact parallel, I just offer it as another example of the myth-making that we’re so prone to. I wrote a poem about this very topic in February of this year:
/ / /
out of nowhere
what she did, she planned to do
from the NAACP to the Highlander Folk School
she had prepared for this moment
it wasn’t even the first time she’d done it
a decade before, that same driver had
thrown her off that same bus
for not entering through the back door
when we ignore the preparation
we turn an activist into an impossible saint
we turn resistance into a miracle
we say that what she did only she could do
we must all refuse to move to the back of the bus
we must all get educated, get organized, get ready
we are all capable of throwing our bodies
onto the gears of a corrupt system
we can all be — must all be — Rosa Parks
/ / /
The lessons I take from Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Steve Biko, Malcolm X, Assata Shakur are many and varied. For example, we must use the skills and talents and courage we possess, even in the face of danger and overwhelming odds. We have to be strategic and use a host of tactics to achieve our goals. We should take advantage of external forces that are putting pressure on our opponents, and leverage those forces toward our ends where possible. We should engage with as broad a community as possible, but not be so concerned about pleasing everyone that we fail to take necessary action. These are just some examples.
Tonight, I celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.