Mandela and the Black Diaspora

Mandela made tangible the native history I was taught to be proud of, but to which I couldn't always relate.

By Marjorie Valbrun Dec 08, 2013

Nelson Mandela belongs to the world now. The outpouring of love for him from all corners of the globe since his death is a reflection of how far his long walk to freedom has taken him–and us.

I’m enormously gratified that people of all racial and political stripes have come to appreciate Mandela as they have other civil and human rights leaders once considered polarizing and dangerous, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. For folks across the black diaspora, who know a thing or two about oppression and injustice, it didn’t take any time to come around to Mandela. He had us at hello.

As the descendants of people who were enslaved, colonized, brutalized, subjugated, segregated and robbed of their humanity, we understood that Mandela’s fiercely principled stand was not just a stand for the rights of his people, it was a symbolic stand for oppressed people around the world, particularly black people who had been dominated by whites.

For me–an immigrant from a country enslaved and colonized first by the Spanish, then for nearly 150 years by the French and then militarily occupied by Americans for 19 years–Nelson Mandela personified the bravery of my Haitian ancestors. Like them, he clung unapologetically to the notion that self-determination was a birthright, not a right bestowed or denied by self-appointed ruler-occupiers. 

Mandela made tangible the native history I was taught to be proud of, but to which I couldn’t always relate. He was the living embodiment of the long dead heroes of the Haitian revolution. He also kept Martin and Malcom alive for me, despite their assassinations a few years before I arrived to my adopted country as a little girl.

I never imagined I’d be among the legions watching on television as Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, after 27 years of confinement. By then I was a young newspaper reporter in Florida and building a career writing about oppressed and abused Haitians. I was transfixed as I watched Mandela’s release unfold and saw him and his wife Winnie hold hands and then raise their arms aloft in victory.

Later, when Mandela and his now ex-wife toured the United States, they visited Miami, where I was working for the Miami Herald. I ended up watching them again on television, this time from the newsroom.

People around the world were watching too, many of them from the historical perspective of formerly or currently disenfranchised people of color. Mandela had captured their imaginations and grabbed a permanent hold on their hearts. His long imprisonment shored up their own resolve to keep fighting for what was right.

The man whose historical path began in controversy and whose very existence generated fear and hate, had managed through sheer force of character and principle to turn things right and become a deeply admired and widely respected figure.

Mandela earned our enduring admiration and gratitude for being our symbolic better selves, and that’s why he’s embraced by people of color in a manner that transcends geographic boundaries and cultural and historical differences. His fight was our fight and our battles were his battles. So we stood with him whether we lived in Haiti or Jamaica. We supported him whether we came of age during the civil right battles of Selma or Birmingham. We related to him whether we called ourselves black Brazilians or black Botswanans; whether we were the historical victims of colonization, apartheid or Jim Crow.

We stood for him for while he was jailed and unable to stand for himself, knowing in our heart of hearts that a change was going to come because when right was on your side, even the most powerful forces of wrong could eventually be broken and defeated.

That’s why today there’s a Nelson Mandela Park and Nelson Mandela Highway in Kingston, Jamaica, a country Mandela visited as president of South Africa. It’s why Haiti had a Nelson Mandela High School and why Uganda has a 40,000-seat Nelson Mandela Stadium in Kampala. There’s a Soweto Square and Nelson Mandela Avenue in the center of Dakar, Senegal, and Nelson Mandela avenues in Harare, Zimbabwe, and Windhoek, Namibia. Caracas, Venezuela, has a Nelson Mandela Boulevard and there is a Nelson Mandela Street in Port Louis, Mauritius, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

These expressions of gratitude are only a handful of the hundreds of monuments–buildings, statues, streets, schools, libraries, community and civic centers and health clinics–in majority white, black, Hispanic, Asian and other countries rich and poor, named in honor of  a singular individual who intrinsically understood our common and deeply felt desire for dignity. 

Mandela was one of our few remaining giants, a living, breathing repudiation of the ugliness and viciousness of institutionalized racism who somehow found within himself the ability to forgive his oppressors and give them a chance at redemption. He taught us important life lessons. And the best part of his own life story is that unlike Martin and Malcolm, Mandela lived to see his activism take root in South Africa. 

President Obama correctly described Mandela as a man who belongs to the ages and the likes of whom we won’t encounter again in our lifetimes. When the torrent of affectionate accolades for Mandela start to subside there’ll be less sentimental critiques and more critical reviews of his weaknesses and mistakes, reminders that despite his greatness at the end of the day he was all too human. And that’s okay, even our heroes are entitled to a few mistakes over 95 years. For the black diaspora, however, Nelson Mandela was family, we loved him flawed and all and that’s why we made him our own.

Marjorie Valbrun is a veteran journalist, essayist and lecturer at Howard University School of Communications.