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Every Country’s Native Son

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95 years. We knew it was coming, yet we still find it wrenching our collective guts. World leaders from around the globe are pausing in memory and providing words for a life lived fully. “A man,” as the President of South Africa puts is, “who had no unfulfilled missions.”

At the Virginia Film Festival in November I was privileged to view the film, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” As a writer, I always come with a notebook and a pen, but in a darkened theater it is difficult to jot down ideas or good quotes. So moved was I, though, by his words spoken to close the film – the message of a life – that I found a small bench in the hallway and, fending off the throngs exiting past me, I sat scrawling frantically so I wouldn’t forget.

This is what I recalled to words:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion, people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Mandela was the kind of man who made you believe. A man…

  • with every reason to choose revenge but chose forgiveness
  • with every reason to choose hatred, but chose love
  • who worked through the system to speak on and act in the truth he saw
  • who made the people see a way between extremes
  • who let kindness take its course
  • who insisted reconciliation have its day because it was the only way to freedom
  • who every nation today calls their favorite son.

As Pastor Trevor Hudson said of his countryman, “Even in his death, this man is uniting a nation.” And today that nation, though mourning, is also dancing in celebration. That is the African way: lively, colorful, rhythmic, festive, full of heart.

A particular moment remains with me from my viewing of the film. Black South Africans have just received the right to vote and Mr. Mandela is seeking election as their President. There is a line extending for miles in the distance of black South Africans executing their new right. At the front of this line a young woman walks into a small building, pushes her paper ballot through a slot in a wooden box, and exits the building shouting and dancing and singing. And the line joins her in her celebration.

In my hometown a couple of weeks later, I cast my ballot because of this woman. And I lament. On that day in Virginia, not a single voter, coming or going, even wears a smile. The choice we have is among candidates who have not distinguished themselves as honorable, trustworthy or deserving. What a contrast. Where has our life and vigor gone?

Today, we pause to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela. A man who President Obama has said, “took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” Mandela was resolved, disciplined, dignified, smart, committed, and charismatic. He healed a nation. He was his country’s conscience. He said follow me and they did.

He was doing his duty for his people and his country. A duty for which he was willing to give full devotion, whatever the price. In his own words,

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” —Rivonia trial, 1964

Read other wisdom of Nelson Mandela here.

What a legacy lived and left for us all to live into. That “we are not born hating, we learn it. And if we can learn that, we can learn to love, which comes more naturally to the human heart.”

One man’s life healed a nation. Can the death of One Man heal a world? Nelson Mandela’s life renews my hope that it can, and it will.


Saved from our past by the arts in our present

The Loving Story is a documentary focused on Richard and Mildred Loving and the landmark 1967 Loving vs Virginia Supreme Court case that led to legalization of interracial marriage in all states. This was screened for Charlottesville area high school and middle school students as part of the Virginia Film Festival which celebrates its 26th year this weekend.

Of the screening, Festival directors recall, “the students couldn’t believe that a mixed-race couple would be breaking the law.” They invited the lawyer who argued this case before the Supreme Court in 1968 to come talk to the children and also the Loving’s daughter, Peggy, to tell them what her experience was like. “The kids gave them a standing ovation,” the directors wrote. Every time I think about this it brings tears to my eyes.

To kids, history is just an old story. Something that happened once upon a time.When they can see it – see how people were, how people thought, how people acted – and feel it – feel how people were mistreated, neglected, denied, disenfranchised, they’re changed. When they can see how little sense it made “back then” and realize the “back then” was not so long ago, we’ve got their attention. They stand and applaud people who had the courage to change what was wrong, even as they faced incredible hardship and long odds.

This is what the arts do. They help us see the unseen, hear the unheard, and make sense of it all. They give us eyes to see and ears to hear in a new way. A more expansive way. A more inclusive way. This seems a better way. The arts make things approachable and tangible. They allow us to discuss them around a common table.

Too often we find ourselves telling our old stories, expecting the “younger generation” to learn from us. Our old stories are not pristine. In fact, many are tarnished and worn. But we must tell them in a way that opens eyes and ears around a common table because that is how we can find common ground to make new ones.

Our world needs new stories. Stories of loving that may not be lovely. We may need to start with history but if we are to learn from it, we need the arts.

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