The Nobel Peace Prize winner inspired people throughout the world with his decades-long struggle against apartheid, and he spent 27 years in prison for his commitment to fighting injustice.
Although the 95-year-old giant is no longer with us physically, leaving us after a period of deteriorating health, African-Americans will always remember the spirit and legacy he gave us. In many ways, Mandela helped bridge the gap between Africa and African-Americans.
Although native-born Africans and African-Americans share a common origin which is reflected in the resemblances they share, there have been rifts between the two groups. It speaks to the legacy of slavery, and the bonds that were ruptured due to the hundreds of years and thousands of miles of separation. Black Americans harbor prejudices against their African-born brothers and sisters, and vice versa. Chalk it up to ignorance about each other’s culture, miscommunication and media stereotypes.
Some in the African-American community have been loath to identify with Africa. They may associate Africa with poverty and inferiority, primitive culture and a lack of civilization, or Eddie Murphy’s comedy Coming To America.
Meanwhile, some Africans may think that African-Americans are prone to criminality, care little about educating themselves, and gravitate towards sports. To further confuse things, different segments of the African diaspora have had different experiences with racism, slavery and European colonialism. These conflicts can arise when African immigrants and African-Americans come into contact with one another.
For black folks in the U.S., Nelson Mandela struck a chord. The African-American community reveres its heroes, those who fought against Jim Crow segregation, unjust laws and racial inequality. Many of these leaders, just like Mandela, were unjustly imprisoned. And some, not unlike the South African student leader Steve Biko, were martyred. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton are some of the more prominent names of fallen black American leaders that come to mind.
Although there were countless opportunities for the South African government to take his life, Nelson Mandela was a survivor. He was a living hero, and the most identifiable African hero for black Americans. He made being African cool again. Part of the reason was the ways in which the man and his movement made its way into the popular consciousness of the African-American community.
Mandela’s struggle was against apartheid segregation, a system which mandated the separation of the races by law, gave the power to the white minority, and rendered the black African majority foreigners in their own country.
His struggle made sense for America’s black community. After all, they had endured Jim Crow segregation, with “whites only” water fountains and inferior schools for black children. The Southern Dixiecrats who maintained Jim Crow resembled South Africa’s ruling Afrikaner National Party in political tone and tenor.
Moreover, African-Americans were a part of the movement to dismantle American apartheid, with bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, and the inevitable assaults from the Ku Klux Klan, police dogs, billy clubs and water hoses. And Mandela, like Dr. King, sought peace and reconciliation with the white citizens of his nation.
As a college student in the 1980s, I remember attending anti-apartheid protests and divestment rallies. My friends and I educated ourselves on the evils of the apartheid system, and we understood the need for companies and universities to divest from the South African regime. We attended lectures on campus by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others. It is hard to believe that when I was a teenager and a young adult, Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner. And he and his African National Congress (ANC) were designated by the South African government — and the U.S. — as terrorists.
Sadly, Mandela was not taken off the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008 — 18 years after he was released from prison, and 14 years after he was elected president of South Africa.
Meanwhile, while Mandela was behind bars, songs such as “Free Nelson Mandela,” “Sun City” by Artists United Against Apartheid, and Stetsasonic’s “Free South Africa” helped to politically awaken a younger hip-hop generation born after the civil rights movement.
After Mandela was released in 1990, he embarked on an eight-city American tour, with crowds filling up stadiums to see a man who had made history. I had the pleasure of seeing him speak at Tiger Stadium in Detroit in June of that year. And he received a hero’s welcome by the thousands in attendance.
For the African-Americans and others in the crowd, it was an emotional experience. Nelson Mandela was returning home in a sense, home to an African-American community that embraced him as one of their own.