It’s hard to know where to begin in paying any kind of homage to Nelson Mandela. President Obama hit so many apt points in his speech on Tuesday at Mandela’s memorial in South Africa that it should be required watching in every school classroom today. Unfortunately, so many of today’s students are so unconnected to history, they have little to no sense of who Mandela was, let alone the profound impact he had on the world before they arrived in it. The challenge for every teacher today should be how to make our students see, if even just one glimpse, who Mandela was and what his life has to do with their own.
Mandela, like all of the most powerful and eloquent fighters for justice of the twentieth century – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin – connected the plight of the oppressed to that of the oppressors. This is the only viable path to achieving true and sustained justice of any kind. In the US we face a human rights epidemic of vast magnitude, pernicious in its ability to remain largely invisible to the majority– this is mass incarceration. Mass incarceration in the US is a highly racialized system of disenfranchisement, of injustice. And yet even as we elected a new Mayor in New York City who ran on a platform challenging the racist and ineffective policy of stop and frisk, he appointed William Bratton to be our new (not) Police Commissioner: Bratton, who, as our Police Commissioner in the 90s, spawned the tactics that are the genesis of today’s stop and frisk policies; who, handshakes and placating promises aside, represents the approach of Rudy Giuliani rather than any new ideas or attitudes. There was an unmistakable irony to the fact that this appointment came on the day of Mandela’s death.
Mandela struck a profoundly important and impactful balance between focusing on changing people’s mindsets, as well as on the legal and political tactics necessary for substantive societal change. Remedying injustice, as Obama reminded us yesterday, requires changes in hearts, not just laws. Remembering how we came to know about Nelson Mandela might be a window into what moves us. His nearly century-long struggle for justice provided countless access points for those of us watching from a distance. For newer generations, born or coming of age after he was released from prison, maybe Nelson Mandela was imprinted somewhere in their minds through media coverage of him stepping onto Yankee stadium after being released. For others maybe it was through reading his biography, or news coverage of his fight against apartheid before he was imprisoned. For me, it was through listening to the Specials when I was in the eighth grade when he was already two decades into his imprisonment.
By the time I was in high school, music’s impact on the individual and collective consciousness of my peers (remember “We are the World”?) led us (and I mean the whole public high school of about 3000 students) to lobby to get Coke machines taken out of our school because Coke had refused to divest from South Africa. Transforming the hearts and minds of 21st century citizens may require new strategies and mediums, but the underlying principal is timeless – we need to feel connected in order to care.