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The First Time I Heard of Nelson Mandela

It was fitting where I learned of the former president's death -- and reminded me where I first heard his name.

A man puts a bunch of flowers before portraits of the late Nelson Mandela outside the South African embassy in Beijing on December 6, 2013



I had just posed a question about emergent definitions of family within the hip-hop generation to a group of panelists at the Gender, Sexuality, and Hip Hop Conference at Tulane on Thursday afternoon, when Melissa Harris-Perry stepped into the room to let us know that Nelson Mandela had indeed passed away.

I felt a pang of sadness. I know people are not supposed to be here forever. I know Mandela fought the good fight and finished his race. Still, his life and legacy has served as an anchor point for my own understanding of the global problem of racial domination. So I was thankful for a moment of silence to gather my thoughts, even as we all tried to deal reverentially with Mandela’s passing in the space of an academic conference about a topic, culture and group not especially preoccupied with being reverent.

Trying then futilely to connect Mandela to the conversation that was happening before MHP’s announcement, I asked again about the proliferation of romantic titles for women in hip-hop culture  – wife, wifey, boo thang, side chick, lil’ buddy, baby mama, ride or die chick, et cetera.

In Mandela’s 95 years, he had three wives, married to each of them for more than a decade. It is clear, particularly based on Mandela’s last two wives, that he liked smart, politically savvy women. Winnie Mandela was a formidable political leader and organizer, having served prison time, much of it in solitary confinement for her role in various revolutionary activities in South Africa, including the Soweto Uprising of 1976. Graca Machel, as former first lady of Mozambique, served as minister of education, and drastically helped to reduce illiteracy rates in that country.

Perhaps it is fitting that I learned of Mandela’s death while attending a conference dedicated to the critical study of popular culture. I first heard the names of the Mandelas in 1988, when the character Sondra on “The Cosby Show” named her twin daughter and son, Winnie and Nelson.

Just two years later in February of 1990, I remember watching news coverage of Nelson Mandela emergence from prison. The look of bewilderment and relief on his, by then, elderly face has remained imprinted in my thoughts over the course of these nearly 24 years.  I was only 9 years old when he walked out of prison, and injustice was only in the beginning stages of making, or rather not making, sense to me.

How does a 9-year-old black kid make sense of the global realities of white supremacy, apartheid and racism? How does a 9-year-old make sense of someone being locked away from society for three times as long as she’s been alive?

When I think back to the moment of Mandela’s freedom, I am struck by just how early race education begins for black children, how we must learn about a world that hates us, even before we reach double digits in birthday candles.

A couple of weeks later, the sitcom “A Different World” took up the question of divestment in South Africa, when the character Kim felt pressure to reject a scholarship funded by a company with holdings in the apartheid regime.

I marvel now at the loving context that Bill Cosby created to bring these issues, blackissues, into popular American consciousness, particularly since the Bill Cosby of 2013 is not nearly so caring or politically astute. And I’m reminded of a moment in hip-hop culture, when it had not been so fully co-opted by corporate interests, that artists could hold overt political critique, right alongside joy and entertainment simultaneously.

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