It was around this same time that across the street at Troy High School, my AP English teacher was having us read Cry, the Beloved Country, published in 1948 (the same year apartheid became official law) and still in print (and which has been made into at least two films and one musical). Before reading this book, and knowing only what the same people who were usually doing the caterwalling said, it was hard to take apartheid seriously, I'll be honest. It can't be that bad, not like they make it, I thought.
After reading this amazing work, however, it was a different story. Apartheid was seen, at least in the eyes of this proud Orange Countian, conservative, idealistic, teenage Republican, as the evil that it was.
But then, at the time--key distinction--Mandela was a different story. All I knew about him was that he was a communist and a seditionist and was in jail for both reasons. That he was a seditionist was one thing. Given the circumstances, we could understand that.
But his being a communist, that was a different thing. In an age where the heroes in the milieu in which I came of age were Reagan, Judge Bill Clark, Democrat Scoop Jackson, JFK (for his anti-communism and tax cuts), and the soon-to-be-canonized JP2, being a communist was beyond the pale.
So we could bop about and sing The Specials' Free Nelson Mandela playing on KROQ all day long (and there were times we did, even though we could learn nothing about the man and why he should be freed other than that the chorus told us he should be "Freee-ee" and that we were stupid if we didn't agree). Were he released, however, many sincerely believed it would mean a bloody, potentially devastating civil war. The worst victims probably would be the very people Mandela purported to represent. After all, it wasn't as though the good folks in the "phony homelands" such as Soweto had it good to begin with. (I fully grant the confusion. Such situations are always confusing in their damned if you do ... fashion)
In that day, I don't remember we had any other way of getting opposing information. There were the Times, the Register (both of which my household took), the various newsweeklies, shows such as NBC Nightly News with Brokaw, and ABC's World News Tonight with Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings. There was no Internet. You could read National Review or The New Republic, but who did that? No one I knew.
And so this was my own suspicious view of the man until he got released. After that point, after I had more access to more information. I realized what an amazing man he was. He went from being someone I admired merely because no one could break his spirit in that awful jail (where even the menu was segregated) to a true hero of mine. As silly/frivolous as it might seem, that view was only reinforced by pop culture references such as the movie, Invictus, which I love as one of my favorites.
When the news came this week, I watched whatever I could about the guy. I made my children do the same.
These young ones take nothing of the ambiguity I once had concerning him. To them, he is simply a great man. Considering who he was and who he became and what he represented, that is a very good thing.
Long live Nelson Mandela in our hearts. Let us each resolve here to mirror his spirit and character in our own lives so that when we pass it can also be said of us, "He left the world a better place."