The faces of the formerly enslaved. I look at this picture again, and again. They were from Louisiana. They were recently freed, and sent on “tour” to raise funds for education. So much to consider and ache over. But the notion of the enslaved child slays me. I took this picture in the National Portrait Gallery, but I’d also seen it in a book at the Met.
I think that the best way to honor Nelson Mandela is to read his own writings, his speeches, and accurate histories of the man. If you don’t have access to direct sources right now, writers across the web are giving much needed history lessons on the life of Nelson Mandela. This is a blessed thing, for there is danger when we shift into elegy mode, when anything perceived as dangerous or distasteful about a man and his life is downplayed, re-phrased.
This piece will not be that history. This is a very small piece. I just want to share one of the millions of gifts Nelson Mandela has given the world. The one he happened to give to me last night as I was walking my son home from school.
Twelve years ago, I lived in Nigeria. I was told that one of the best compliments you could give a Nigerian was to compliment her patience. I was skeptical. Patience? Yes, I’d grown up with “patience is a virtue” and intellectually I could list several reasons why one should be patient. But, I always associated patience with passivity. As a woman of color, I looked back at all the times that our people were told to “wait” and “to be patient” and the voice I hear making this recommendation always seemed to have a vested interest in our inaction. That every time I heard someone way “be patient” it sounded like they were buying time—buying more precious time to enjoy their privilege and power.
But last night, as I walked home and contemplated Nelson Mandela’s life, I thought about patience. I realized for the first time that patience doesn’t have to mean passivity. Patience is also perseverance. That when I contemplate Nelson Mandela’s life sentence on Robben Island, how year after year passed and he had no reasonable expectation, as the number one enemy of the state, that the state would set him free, that this blessed human man persevered as the leader of the struggle. His patience was active and alive. Nelson Mandela was a patient agitator. Nelson Mandela was a patient freedom fighter. His force went deep underground when necessary. But his force maintained forward momentum, even when isolated, even when breaking rocks in the burning white light. And while I can’t know how broken he felt at times, I know he survived, that he walked out of that prison at age 71 and took his rightful place in the sun.
Last night, I read at the Apogee Journal winter reading. Chris Prioleau dedicated the reading to Nelson Mandela’s memory. When it was my turn, I spoke about these thoughts on patience. One of the co-readers, the electric poet r. erica doyle, did the beautiful: she read from some of Nelson Mandela’s speeches before she read from her own work. One thing she said is that when she was in college in the 80s, and doing her activist anti-apartheid work, she never, ever believed the South African government would free Nelson Mandela. Never believed it. And as we contemplate how his story ended, this speaks to the power of patience, to perseverance.
I am deeply grateful for Nelson Mandela’s works, for Nelson Mandela’s example. May we all study, study, study, and emulate as best we can. May we all persevere and be patient.
Tomorrow night! Come out to 61 Local. I’ll be reading an excerpt from my essay “Public Displays” entitled “Show Some Love for the World Famous Apollo Kids!”. And by the way, I just saw r. erica doyle read at the First Person Plural Reading Series. She’s stunning. Come on out. If my word isn’t good enough, The Rumpus listed our reading as notable…
At the REZ Reading Series in Kew Gardens, Queens (Nov. 7) Great to read with Linda Fisher, Karen Levy, and Katy Garrigan. Per usual, a gracious hosting by Deborah Emin. And the most delicious beet & cabbage soup by Suzanne (who also saved me from a streetcorner when I became hopelessly lost trying to find the coffeehouse). Loved being out there. Loved being able to read new work.
“Context can not improve this. “Context” is not a safe word that makes all your other horse-shit statements disappear. And horse-shit is the context in which Richard Cohen has, for all these years, wallowed. It is horse-shit to claim that store owners are right to discriminate against black males. It is horse-shit to claim Trayvon Martin was wearing the uniform of criminals. It is horse-shit to subject your young female co-workers to “a hostile work environment.” It is horse-shit to expend precious newsprint lamenting the days when slovenly old dudes had their pick of 20-year-old women. It is horse-shit to defend a rapist on the run because you like The Pianist. And it is horse-shit for Katharine Weymouth, the Post's publisher, to praise a column with the kind of factual error that would embarrass a j-school student.”
To read entire piece, go here.
LUMINA: What type of writing makes for great readings?
Erika: I think having a world created for you is important. Like Stacy Parker Le Melle’s essay at the last Renegade. So many nonfiction writers say, “Who am I to write about my life?” You can say, “I was just at a concert at the Apollo Theater and people were dancing.” Honestly, who cares? And yet, she slowed down so much in those moments to question sexuality, womanhood, initiation into womanhood, and parenting. When you are willing to slow down that much, I’ll go anywhere with you as a listener.
For her full interview, go here.
I’d just like to say a few unfiltered words about what I see when I see Bill de Blasio with his family. When I see Bill de Blasio with his wife, I see a man who followed his heart, who loved and did exactly what he wanted to do, relationship-wise, despite knowing that they would encounter hostility, despite knowing that if he wanted a big political future, the direct mail pictures would not look like all of the other ones. Yet, the irony is that it’s this very picture, in 2013, that I know brings so many to tears, makes people say yes, this is how we should be fearless enough to be—loving who we want to love, and being proud to do so. And then being man and woman enough to stay together, and raise such beautiful, impressive children…
Now, when I look at the de Blasio children, I still learn more about the father. I see a dad who wants their kids to be exactly who they want and need to be. Many a lesser dad would have looked at his son and said, you need to cut that hair. Many a lesser dad would have looked at his daughter and said, you need to take that (ish) out of your face. [Cue Romney saying, I’m trying to run for President here!] But he didn’t. They didn’t. They appear to the world as their full, beautiful selves. And I know that many, many, many New Yorkers responded to this.
The politics of identity are not enough—they are important, for sure—but his unwavering stance against stop and frisk, and his unwavering stance that everyone in NYC counts, not just the superrich—well, that’s what I think won this election for him. But you can’t overstate what you learn about the man by watching him with his family. He’s walking the walk. You can’t photoshop it. He’s doing it.
Congratulations, Mr. de Blasio. Proud to call you mayor.