On Nelson Mandela’s Life, His Death And The Test Of A Man

“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, Long Walk To Freedom

Famed South African leader Nelson Mandela passed away today following a prolonged bout of illness. Mandela was 95 years old and had been battling what doctors called a recurring lung infection. Family was present at his home at the time of his passing.

Changing the world is a burdensome task. My grandma – many, many moons ago sometime between my ninth and tenth birthdays – informed me who Mandela was and why being South Africa’s first democratically elected, Black president was the groundbreaking news it was. In her words, “Hopefully I’ll be alive to see something like that over here one day.” Those who know my grandma know on the surface her skin tone is much closer to white than “Black.” But as with any person of color who lived through the Depression, the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights Movement, a scar of what once was eternally lingers.

Time passes, people and laws change, as do mindsets, but memories never fade. Memories of dogs set loose on peers because of simply walking down the wrong street at the wrong time. Memories of being hassled by police for the everyday task of loading groceries into a car. Or memories of Klan members and burning crosses in front lawns backed by threats demanding “Go back to Africa Nigger.” Indelible images and moments similar to those and many more lacking expiration dates depict horrors myself or anyone my age can never directly relate towards. The anger our parents/grandparents harness will always be repressed because to live a somewhat “normal” life, it has to be.

In America, the stories of Black leaders who changed the world and the legacies they created are beyond well-documented. Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Huey Newton, Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth and, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. represent angels with broken wings in Black American culture. They’re reminders of what once was, what once could have been and what is now, for better and worse. And while his sphere of direct influence never cracked concrete in Birmingham, Memphis, Compton, Selma or Greensboro, Nelson Mandela ranked as one of the last olive branches to a generation willing to die for a cause infinitely bigger than themselves or longer than their own lifetimes.

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same.As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” – Nelson Mandela

At 95-years-young, it’s no secret Nelson’s better days were far behind him. The constant battles with lung infections and repeated back-and-forth trips to hospitals manifested as the ominous final chapter and battle in a life defined by overcoming so many. These words aren’t meant to serve as the one billionth semi-biography on Mandela’s life. More qualified individuals exist, as do more well-written accounts. These are words from a young man who was still learning to color inside lines by the time Mandela completed 27 years of imprisonment. This is, if anything, a thank you letter, of sorts.

Chances of Nelson’s immediate family coming across what’s stated here are slim-to-none, which is to be expected. Hopefully, through faith, however, the thoughts and prayers of a random 27-year-old Black kid from North Carolina somehow produce a slightly more peaceful rest than the night before. Mandela’s trek through apartheid and a time period desiring nothing more than his own demise is proof the end result in life is what matters; a lesson I’m forced to learn and accept day in and day out. His letters from prison to his wife and children remain monuments on remaining dedicated to what a man’s true responsibility is and was – his family.

President Mandela’s marriage ended in 1996 because – surprise, surprise – nearly 30 years away from the dinner table is impossible to recover from. Mandela’s life wasn’t without flaws or severe criticism (Google “Nelson Mandela evil man”), once even referred to as the Antichrist. Yet, his story and his journey are what truly mattered. Taking a stand for personal beliefs in the face of overwhelming negativity and bigotry is the most difficult decision a person has to make. Conforming is easy when under scrutiny. Mandela, instead, gave his life, marriage and relationship with his children up for a cause that damn-near broke him in half for the betterment of generations who may not ever earnestly take the time appreciate his true sacrifice.

Several years back, the poem “Test Of A Man” is one I learned at a much different and tumultuous phase in life. Nevertheless, it’s an entry I’ve long associated with Mandela for obvious reasons given his life story.

The test of man is the fight that he makes.
The grit that he daily shows.
The way that he stands upon his feet.
And takes life’s numerous bumps and blows.

A coward can smile,
When there’s not to fear.
And nothing, his progress bars.
But it takes a man to stand and cheer.
While the other fellow stars.

It isn’t the victory after all,
But, the fight that a brother makes.
A man when driven against the wall,
takes the blows of fate.

With his head held high.
Bleeding, bruised, and pale!
Is the man who will win, fate defied,
For he isn’t afraid to fail.

Ironically enough, the man despised the label of “saint” given to him while he was imprisoned. And therein lies the issue. Because, realistically at least in the eyes of many who grew to know and love the man on a much deeper level than myself, not many words are better equipped to do so.

Images: Getty