I learned of Nelson Mandela’s passing while waiting for my delayed flight at Atlanta Airport. I thought how much his painful and extraordinary life had exposed the terrible danger that faced those who fought for the rights, the dignity and the freedom of people of African origin or descent. That despairing reality was made all the more vivid because I was coming back to New York after several days spent with Kathleen Cleaver, immersed in documents and photographs from the Black Power Movement.
When I heard TV commentators shocked at the inhumanity of the apartheid system that let Mandela spend 27 years in prison, I thought of the late Black Panther Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, wrongly jailed for 27 years too, not on Robben Island, but in California. I thought of the other political prisoners from the '60s and '70s still behind bars in the U.S. And of all those who languish in far too many parts of the world.
Another connection came to my mind. I pictured Mandela visiting Goree Island, off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. It was 1991, just a year after his release from prison and the fact that he wanted to be there was highly significant. I have been to Goree perhaps fifty times, and cried on each occasion; I know that very few of the 12.5 million Africans deported to the Americas passed through the island, but the symbol is potent. According to the late curator of the "Slaves House," Mandela sat in one of two small, suffocating cells for rebellious captives, and emerged with red eyes, deeply shaken. One can only imagine his empathy for the departed Africans, his communion with the unconquered rebels, his outrage at the ignominy of the slave trade, and his feeling of connection to the people of the African Diaspora.
In that airport lounge I remembered Nelson Mandela as I saw him on June 21, 1990. I had been privileged to be invited to a town meeting at City College. I can still feel the incredible excitement that took over when he walked, smiling and waving, onto the stage. But one of the moments I remember best was his exasperation at a question regarding his visits to Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. "They support our struggle to the hilt," he sternly responded. And added, as the room erupted in applause, "any man who changes his principles according to whom he is dealing with that is not a man who can lead a nation." And a nation, he did lead, on a path that only he could imagine.
We all have our Nelson Mandela moments: words, images, stories, memories; from close or from far. We cherish them, we reflect on them. Today we feel orphaned and grateful for the astonishing life, example, courage, indignation, hope, strength, optimism, and love he shared with us.
See photos of Nelson Mandela and a video from our online exhibition "Africana Age."