As The New York Public Library joins the world in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, we are pleased to share multimedia exhibits celebrating his life at the Schwarzman Building and at the Schomburg Center.
Mandela’s inspiring leadership was unique in the twentieth century and into our present age. He was so much more than what we have come to expect from each other, and from our leaders. He never wavered in his pursuit of democracy even as he understood it would never reach perfection. He would not be put off by carping from those who said he pushed too hard or not hard enough, or even by threat of death. He seemed to achieve the miraculous in avoiding a civil war in South Africa and bringing an end to apartheid, setting an example for the globe. It is not surprising that the world has stopped to pay homage together in the last few days.
Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library
I have tried over the years to explain to my own children what this man stood for. I could call upon my own experience, small in impact but so meaningful to me, working against apartheid and living in the midst of South Africa's civil war in the 1980s. For us back then, Mandela was a vision of the possible held out of reach, imprisoned on an island we could see from shore but could not get to. It was with amazement we watched him released, as if a martyr brought back to life, and then witnessed his artful skills of diplomacy and negotiation put to the highest test. I will never forget being there when he was elected president and when he was inaugurated. For me, those are prized memories. For so many of us, they are indelible images of hope.
So much of what Mandela worked for and stood for is also what the Library strives for: to provide hope and opportunity, especially to those deprived of it. To be free and open to all, of any color, economic status, religion, and aiming to inspire creativity of a new and better world. We all know that the foundation of this work lies in learning, and libraries, of course, have been the bedrock for how civil societies engage in learning for millennium. It is where we learn from the past, envision the future, and work together across all differences. How fitting, then, that we honor Mandela here now.
If we waver as a society in our dedication to learning, then it may help to return to the wisdom of Nelson Mandela. I recall a speech he gave when accepting his last honorary degree, from Amherst College, at a ceremony here in New York. I confess that the moment was unparalleled for me personally in bringing together this great man with the college I worked at and the city I love. His words were stirring and still speak for themselves:
"We in South Africa also know that even the most daunting of challenges can be met. Ten years ago a new and brave country was born out of a long and difficult struggle. Many in the world doubted if we could find peaceful resolution, but we did. Even as problems remain for us, South Africa reminds the world that we can overcome struggles that seem insurmountable....
“We in South Africa believe that all can learn - that there are more who are capable of learning.... Systems that still deprive educational opportunity anywhere must change and open. We must change them, to foster talent everywhere, to the benefit of all, because that is where our commitment to fairness lies.... In South Africa, in America, in all the world - we must provide education, not as a privilege, but as a right; not for some, but for all. Let the doors of learning open....
“We are all threatened by entrenched inequality and visions. We all must prove ourselves equal to a better possibility. We are all South Africans now."
The New York Public Library honors the memory of Nelson Mandela in the hope that we will all remain inspired by him. Our doors of learning indeed remain open.