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When I heard of Nelson Mandela’s death, my thoughts went back to that day – June 28, 1990 – when I hurried up Michigan Avenue towards Tiger Stadium to catch a glimpse of this man who has come to mean so much to the world. I knew about apartheid and Mandela but quite frankly was more concerned with the issues in my own life than what was going on in South Africa.
I was an African American, single mother, living a semi-closeted life working in an environment where none of these aspects of my life were valued, appreciated or wanted. In a city with a powerful Black Mayor, like so many residents, I felt powerless. In this land of opportunity, I saw little opportunity in the promise of America – well it didn’t hold hope for me. Let’s just say I didn’t have a chip on my shoulder, I had a friggin boulder on mine, heavy with the weight of discrimination, disenfranchisement and inequality.
I worked, surrounded by others who came to MY city every day, making the big bucks only to scurry home to the safety of the suburbs while casting aspersions on the sea of Black faces they passed on the way. They didn’t care about us – this sea of poverty, inequality, desperation that was predominantly African American surrounded by an affluent suburban minority.
So you see, I was more concerned about this American version of apartheid than what was going on in South Africa. But life has a way of reminding us that we are far more connected than separate and lessons for living a life of purpose can come from around the corner or across the globe.
We have all heard the accounts of how Mandela rose to prominence in the African National Congress. He was repeatedly arrested and in 1962 was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela served 27 years. An international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted in 1990. Just three months after being released Mandela came to Detroit.
Now the bigwigs where I was employed had been given special passes to Tiger Stadium, but only one (the lone progressive) wanted to attend, so rather than “waste the tickets” it was given to me (the lone African American) which, of course, only made this angry black woman angrier especially since my request to leave early just to meet and be with my friends had been denied. Now they offered me the scraps from the table.
But I took those tickets, and as I hurried up Michigan Avenue, I mentally prepared myself to hear angry words, words calling out the oppressors, words of righteous indignation, even calls for revenge. After all, if just sitting eight hours a day five days a week in my personal hell filled me with rage, I could only imagine what a man 27 years a prisoner must feel. His words would amplify my feelings, speak for me, and even inspire my brothers and sisters to rise up against the injustices we faced on a daily basis.
I did not find angry words that day in Tiger Stadium. I found a great warrior, a lion with words of gratitude, appreciation for our shared struggle, and solidarity. Mandela said he wished he could leave the stage and join us in the stands and embrace us “one and all.”
Then he quoted the lyrics to a Marvin Gay song tying it to the struggle of Black South Africans against the ruling minority. “Brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. Mother, mother there’s far too many of you crying.” There were raised fists, but not in anger, raised in solidarity.
I left Tiger Stadium singing “What’s Going On?” and thinking about that man – Nelson Mandela. One man who took a stand against injustice; who committed to ending injustice not only “by any means necessary” but at whatever personal cost/risk was necessary; A man who after 27 years of incarceration did not emerge beaten or defeated, but emerged even more dedicated, more determined to the cause of human rights. Dignity, grace, unwavering commitment and dogged determination – that’s what was going on, that was his message.
Nelson Mandela went on to become South Africa’s president from 1994-1999. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism, poverty, inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation. Through his foundation he worked at combating HIV/AIDS and poverty.
Although it wasn’t something he was always comfortable with, during his presidency South Africa formed a constitution in 1996 which outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. That became the basis for judicial action which ultimately led to Parliament legislating in favor of same-sex marriage. South Africa is a global leader on LGBT rights
Mandela was not perfect and his politics often made for very “strange bedfellows,” but he lived a life of purpose for which he rightly deserves our gratitude and praise.
Injustice knows no boundaries. It can be as blatant as South Africa’s apartheid; as brutal as the water hoses, lynchings and bombings during the civil rights struggles; as devastating as racism or as insidious trans and homophobia, but as long as we allow injustice and intolerance to exist in any corner of the world we remain prisoners of our own making.
They may have imprisoned Mandela for 27 years, but his spirit was always free. On that sunny day in June, 1990 I heard the message of Madiba and my spirit again soared towards the freedom of the rainbow.