Naturally I first heard the news on Facebook. A tv journalist friend of mine in Wichita posted “RIP Nelson Mandela” on her page and it showed up in my newsfeed. I was disbelieving initially. He’d been on the edge of death for months, it seemed, and I didn’t want to fall prey to a hoax. Was this really, really happening?
By now, of course, we know that it was.
I felt great sadness, a puff of pride, and then an uncomfortable sense of relief. But like President Obama said in his remarks shortly after the news broke, Mandela “achieved more than could be expected of any man.” His work was done.
I wish I could tell you that I learned about Nelson Mandela’s importance early on. I did not. My immigrant family wasn’t the least bit political and international politics definitely did not get discussed at our dinner table. That’s why it took this 1990 episode of “A Different World” to introduce me to the man himself and to South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.
In the show, a bright, premed student declines a scholarship from a big soda corporation after she finds out it has financial investments in South Africa. The characters were politically charged in a way that made me want to join them. My impressionable twelve year-old self wanted to dress in red, green and black to rally against apartheid, though it was my first time ever hearing the word and I had no clue how to spell it. (It also clued me in as to why the twin grandchildren born in a 1988 episode of “The Cosby Show” were named Nelson and Winnie.)
As I learned more about Mandela in my teens and began to follow the news more closely for myself, the gravity of his enduring strength and fortitude came into focus. By the time he was elected president in 1994, I was hip to him pretty good I guess. I remember email signatures becoming a thing in the late 1990s and I thought it was nifty to have a sage quote punctuating my messages. Several of Mandela’s were in my rotation.
Mostly, though, I thought about him as a living historical figure of legendary status, and that was cool but it freaked me out. It was as if Abraham Lincoln came to life on my five dollar bill and started an easy conversation with me.
My reverence for Mandela — shoot, everybody’s reverence for him — loomed so large that, to my young mind, he had to have lived a long, long, loooooong time before anything that I considered current. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. He was a contemporary revolutionary. He spoke at Yankee Stadium in a fitted baseball cap for goodness sakes! And in BBC News broadcasts, you could routinely find him speaking to large crowds or dancing at another of his birthday celebrations or humbling the biggest, brashest, toughest celebrities to tears by simply smiling his big smile and saying hello. Even then — even then! — he had two more decades of living to do. Remarkable.
I’ll be honest. If I saw a story like Mandela’s in a Hollywood film, I don’t think I’d believe it. And yet Mandela lived it. What an inspiration he was to the world. I will miss him.