Sanitizing Mandela

I fear that kids will never see Mandela as anything other than a nice grandpa.

I feel awkward as a white guy saying that Nelson Madela is one of my heroes. I think it's the word "my" that can be easily misinterpreted. For all the talk of Mandela "belonging to the world," it's easy to forget that he fought for a specific marginalized group. He spoke out against injustice and he wasn't afraid to call the U.S. out on it (such as Reagan's refusal to take a stand against Apartheid.)

I've read two of his autobiographies and I love his introspection and his honesty about his own human condition. I love the fact that he fought hard against Apartheid and that he fought hard for reconciliation as a result - and that reconciliation wasn't simply a feel good activity.

I'm concerned already about how the public memory has sanitized him. Some of it's almost a sense of protecting the image of a hero. He made allies with dictators like Castro and Gaddafi. He said things that made people squirm.

In other words, he wasn't a nice man. Kind, yes. Humble, true. Strong, honest, courageous. But he wasn't Mickey Mouse. He wasn't a moderate. He was always a radical - even when pushing ideas like humility and reconciliation.

This message is confusing to kids, because they know intuitively that nice people aren't hated. Kind people, yes, but not nice. The truth is that Mandela might be praised now, but he was hated then and the truth is that there are still people who hate him, the real him, and not the action figure version. Will students ever learn, for example, that Mandela was on the U.S. terrorist list for decades?

My Facebook feed is already filling up with Mandela quotes. Things like, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." And yet, Mandela's vision of education was steeped in social justice. When he spoke of empowering people, he wasn't referring to passing out iPads and letting kids do their own thing. Really, he wasn't. He was talking about real power. Scary power. The kind that make people of privilege cry foul.

The quotes and pictures become a sort-of Hallmark highlight reel that makes him innocuous, inaccessible and reverent. He becomes another chapter in a banal textbook that will no doubt be used as close reading by people who have never closely listened to the content or the character of Mandela.