I stayed up all night the other night just so that I wouldn’t miss a minute of Nelson Mandela’s memorial. I found out that it was to be aired at 4 a.m. EST which is 3 a.m. in my time zone, and somewhere around 11 p.m. when I found out I decided not to go to sleep. I mean why would I and take a chance on missing this historic event. Yes, it was just that important to me. After all, it was when I was 6-years-old while sitting in the lap of my grandfather that I received my first lesson in racism. As a man of a certain age today, I can remember that conversation like it was yesterday.

I could remember it like it was yesterday. It was in the weeks after the Soweto Uprising of 1976. As a precocious kid living on a Caribbean island, while watching images of black people being beaten by what looked like policemen, my grandfather explained apartheid to me; and most importantly, who Nelson Mandela was as well as his significance in the anti-apartheid struggle. Fast forward to today, there was no way I was going to miss it.

Here’s an excerpt of Obama’s remarks:

Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited, “a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness” from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”

But like other early giants of the ANC – the Sisulus and Tambos – Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,” he said at his 1964 trial. “I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Barack Obama delivers a speech during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013 (AFP, Pedro Ugarte)
Barack Obama delivers a speech during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013 (AFP, Pedro Ugarte)

Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.

Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiseled into laws and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the Apartheid regime that, “prisoners cannot enter into contracts.” But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the Constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small – introducing his jailors as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS – that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

This snapshot has become more important than the historic moment itself.
This snapshot has become more important than the historic moment itself.

Like everyone, I looked forward to President Barack Obama’s remarks. And as usual, Obama didn’t disappoint. For some, Obama’s remarks were, well, more pof the same expected rhetoric. But the symbolic nature of his presence was not lost on me. You see, symbolism is important to one’s psyche, well being, and development. For me, America’s first black president — who happens to be the son of a Kenyan — delivering remarks at the memorial of Nelson Mandela is one such moment in history. For me, as a student of history and an immigrant, it was an important moment.

Unfortunately, as shown by all the talk of Obama shaking the hand of Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, the historical significance of the moment was lost on many. I mean here we are a day later and the handshake along with the impromptu but somewhat awkward selfie has dominated the discussions in media circles as well as on social media. I swear, some of us are so shallow it ain’t even funny; yes, and it shows just how petty some of us can be. But I guess this is to be expected because, well, Mandela was nothing but a communist who hated and killed a lot of white folks in South Africa for no clear reason other than being racist. And of course with Obama being a Kenyan murderer of white folks with his healthcare law, what else is new.