I received more reaction to my posting, The Iconification of Nelson Mandela and American Racism, than for any other of the 257 postings that I had done in almost seven years. Some of the responses were supportive, some critical, and some “yes, but.” Below is my original newsletter article, followed by a sampling of the responses.
At his death at 95 years of age, Nelson Mandela is being lionized as a freedom fighter, hero, and saint by the western media. The message is that his uniting of all South Africans into a rainbow nation after he came to power in 1994 was a remarkable act of reconciliation when revenge and retaliation was what could have been expected. This iconification of Nelson Mandela in the United States has its roots in slavery.
During slavery in the United States, White owners were deadly afraid that Blacks slaves would rise up in rebellion, rape their women, and kill all Whites in retaliation for the harshness of slavery. As a result Whites developed numerous legal and cultural means of restraining the Black male from any possibility of revolt. This was a projection of the Whites on to the Blacks since brutalizing Black males and raping their women was exactly what the Whites were doing. Projection – “a defense mechanism in which one attributes to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted attributes, thoughts, or emotions” (Wikipedia) – is most often seen as a personal psychological attitude, but can occur between cultural enemies.
Although legal slavery has ended, this projection of violence onto Black men continues. Segregation was based on the necessity of keeping the races apart so that violent Black men would not assault White women – as Emmett Till realized too late in 1955. Today the mass incarceration of Black men continues this myth of violent Black men. One needs only to read Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, to realize how pervasive this concept is still in the American psyche.
Consequently the American public expected Black South Africans to retaliate against their brutal White, now former, masters for the wounds that Whites had inflicted on them over the centuries. When this did not happen, when Mandela led the new South Africa to a multi-racial future, Americans, in order to keep the myth of the violent Black male alive, had to lionize Mandela as a “saint’ who showed Christian restraint.
Nelson Mandela, of course, was not an American but an African. The goal of the anti-apartheid – which literately means “against separation of races” – movement was not to destroy the White community. It was about the ability to join the ruling elite in the perks of government, business, and a free society. This is what has happened as a few Black South Africans, such as Cyril Ramaphosa, have become obscenely wealthy, while the vast majority of Black South Africans are mired in the same dead-end poverty that occurred during the apartheid era.
Mandela, himself, subscribed, not to the myth of the violent Black man, but to what Desmond Tutu, has called “Ubuntu” – “I am because we are.” This is a philosophy of inclusiveness. Mandela’s graciousness in “forgiving” Whites for their sins during apartheid is a normal result of the South African worldview.
When Kenya received independence in 1963 after the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion by the British colonial power, its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was also lauded by the West for not retaliating against the British. Likewise, in 1980 when Zimbabwe received independence, Robert Mugabe was praised for allowing Whites settlers to remain on their farms. Two decades later when his rule was being challenged for its corruption, Mugabe used the confiscation of White farms to prolong his rule. He therefore became the bane of the western powers, particularly, the former colonial ruler, Britain.
Africans here in Kenya lionize Mandela for completely different reasons. First, although he became President of the wealthiest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, he did not use this position, as so many African leaders did and still do, to loot the government treasury for personal aggrandizement and wealth. A second reason is that he voluntarily stepped down from office after only one five-year term – how unbelievable for an African politician. Jomo Kenyatta amassed a fortune during his 15 years in power and only left office involuntarily due to death.
The iconification of Nelson Mandela – as a counter example far away in Africa – is vindication of the myth of Black male violence. This has the effect of keeping the myth alive and healthy in the United States. ~~~
David: You are absolutely right, but this is no startling revelation. Since 2008 our politics have been dominated by the “evil black male” stereotype – in our case in the form of Barack Obama, a black male who, by becoming president, has gained power over white society. The black “threat” couldn’t get any greater! Within 2 months of being sworn in, before he had postulated any type of policy, the stated policy from the opposition party was to do everything it could to make sure he was not re-elected. Their method was to just say “no” to everything (right or wrong – country be damned) he wanted to do. – Jack Ciancio ~~~
David: I disagree. The myth does live on. But that doesn't make Mandela any less a hero. … In spite of his anger for all the years in prison, in spite of his anger for the way non-white South Africans had been treated, he did the radically right, pragmatically right, thing, and insisted on honesty, respect and equality. … Mandela is a pattern, an example, and in time may soften the hearts of many. – Margaret Katranides ~~~
Dear David: Given the horrific character of apartheid, European South Africans and their white sympathizers elsewhere were worried that Africans would exact a punishment that, in an eye-for-eye construal of justice, they knew they in fact deserved. . . . The bottom line is that the ANC – and Kenyatta, etc. – did not only forbear inflicting a violence created by a mythic fantasy. They forbore inflicting violence that (a) might be expected from any subjugated people, and (b) violence that Africans have tragically inflicted on one another. – Patrick Nugent ~~~
Dear David: Thank you. We have a lot of work to do to overcome racism. Nelson Mandela's ability to forgive and move on is also a good example for those who apply both racism and counter-racism in their lives, whether in USA, South Africa, or wherever. Lord, help us to be more loving, understanding, welcoming, inclusive. – Jim Fett ~~~
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Since 1998, David Zarembka has been the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. He is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region (available at www.davidzarembka.com).
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