I have been on a Nelson Mandela Internet Death Watch since news broke that he’d been hospitalized in late March, and each time I look at the Yahoo! main page and see his name “trending” I suck in a breath and squish my eyes closed then I move the cursor to his name and click.
I allow myself this brief, melodramatic indulgence.
Black Americans have but a few self-appointed modern (male) martyrs and they are, — not in order of social or racial importance — rather, in the order of the randomness of my thinking: the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (here, you must pick one or the other), Steven Biko, Mandela and, depending whom and how you ask, Michael Jackson.
But it’s black Americans’ collective relationship with Africans in toto and in theory that makes our collective relationship with Mandela so compelling.
Many of us weren’t down with Mandela until the bandwagon rolled past because in the mid-1980s when apartheid and Mandela were pummeled into our national consciousness, crack cocaine, Ronald Reagan, Hip Hop and jheri curls were our major interests and/or distractions.
Meanwhile, black South Africans were being coal mined and otherwise worked to death and murdered by their own police forces and those who did not meet that fate were protesting the prolonged imprisonment of the man they’d later call Tata (father), who was jailed for helping to annihilate the racist and separatist notions of apartheid the Afrikaner Nationalists instituted in 1948.
But since Mandela’s 1990 release, it’s almost been a watermark — no, a fad? a checked bucket-list box? — to be a black celebrity and be granted a brief audience with Mandela or have a picture taken with Mandela that will certainly be blasted worldwide.
Some make sense according to the hierarchy of black mega-wealth and uber celebrity: Oprah, Michael Jackson.
But Naomi Campbell?
Wasn’t always this way.
Back in the day, Mandela could’ve walked through the South Side of Chicago and been mistaken for somebody’s granddaddy from the projects.
To use my editor’s phrase to describe this very city, black Americans were indeed slowfooted to embrace the cause of apartheid and, therefore, Mandela.
When Steven Van Zandt gathered a mélange of Rock, Jazz and Hip Hop artists to sing, play and record his anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City” in 1985, Mandela had already served 22 years of a 27-year stint in three prisons, a sentence that was only lifted because of international outrage and attention.
Black Americans en masse in particular seemed slow to latch onto the dehumanization and death knell of apartheid because, like always, we were so preoccupied with and even enamored by the stench of our own Made In the U. S. of A. racial strife.
It is ironic that we’ve lagged in taking up the causes of blacks in Africa, the place we’re sooo quick to call “Motherland” — heard ad nauseam especially from the blaxploitative 1960s through the New Negroness of the early 1980s. And what of Her people we turned away from, the people whose nationality we rushed to appropriate when we began demanding we be identified as African-American?
We have Jesse Jackson to thank for that mudslide of a moniker.
“African-American” was merely spreading word of mouth throughout America’s black family of man until Jackson uttered it publicly — probably in a rhyming couplet — at a national event in a year the Internet cannot quite pin down.
But that’s all so much (recent) history now.
We’re all, most of us, anyway, waiting together for 93-year-old Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela to go.
How much can one man bear?
How much beating?
How much ostracization?
How many lies?
How much defamation, alienation and starvation?
How did his shattered spirit and his broken body remain fused together just so that he could heal into a whole being again and mend himself to walk upright through the open doors of his jailers?
It’s a wonder.
Because the South African government had long been gunning for Mandela’s black ass by the time they finally got him.
An educated lawyer, a trained boxer and a Xhosa clansman born to Themba royalty, Mandela joined the African National Congress to stem the rising tide of colonialism and later apartheid instituted by the Afrikaner Nationalists who ruled by a color caste system and who took land and all human rights from black South Africans.
In a five-year trial beginning in 1956, Mandela was prosecuted for treason but was,surprisingly, found not guilty and he immediately founded a militant party and, as its leader, spearheaded a bombing campaign aimed squarely at government targets.
In 1962 Mandela was arrested, tried and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government and was thrown into Ruben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison.
America probably doesn’t have a comparable prison system to rival the atrocious segregated South African prisons wherein Mandela’s fellow conspirators — ones who weren’t black South Africans or even brown- or black-skinned — were treated better, given blankets and long pants in winter and fed heartier food.
Mandela was beaten and tortured and I wish these so-called “hood thugs” who so blithely and stupidly throw around the “stop snitching” ghetto edict could score a few minutes with Mandela to witness the true meaning of clan loyalty.
Under immense United Nations scrutiny and international pressures, South African President F.W. de Klerk released Mandela in 1990 and in 1994 Mandela was elected the first black South African president of his homeland.
When Nelson Mandela dies and news of it pings around the globe I know many people will want to see the prisons that held him, but some monuments should not and cannot be allowed to stand.
Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison should be left to crumble and slide straight down into hell.
And this should commence the very moment it’s time for Nelson Mandela to go.
And until it is, I’ll keep watch.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]