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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31, 2013: 2013 in Review: Nelson Mandela

[Before we leave 2013 behind, a series on some AmericanStudies connections to a few big stories I didn’t cover in this space. Add your thoughts, on these stories and any others from the year that was!]

On a couple less prominent ways to AmericanStudy an inspiring icon.
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, numerous commentators—including this AmericanStudier—expressed the importance of remembering a series of dark American connections to the legendary leader: the ways in which the Reagan administration had supported the South African Apartheid regime; and the concurrent ways in which numerous American politicians and pundits defined Mandela as a terrorist, as belonging in jail, and so on. Given the widespread rush to forget these histories and pretend that Mandela had always been praised by all of us, I certainly believe that we must indeed remind ourselves of just how many significant American voices and leaders were on the wrong side of history in this case, and through such reminders to consider what lessons we might learn from that reality.
But there are other, less widely expressed but just as salient AmericanStudies lessons we can take away from Mandela’s life and death. For one thing—and I’m echoing the great Ta-Nehisi Coates on this note—many of the posthumous tributes to Mandela have paralleled quite directly what I wrote in this post about Martin Luther King Jr.: focusing entirely on Mandela’s late-life embrace of nonviolence and forgiveness and unity, and ignoring his earlier and just as strongly held beliefs in utilizing, when necessary, far more angry and even violent rhetoric and action in order to fight injustice. Moreover, these aren’t just two distinct stages; just as the optimistic conclusion of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech must be contextualized in relationship to the angry criticisms voiced in the speech’s first half, so too must we understand Mandela’s appeals to nonviolence and unity in conversation with his deep-seated understanding of the limits of those strategies and goals (and, for that matter, of any strategies and goals if they’re pursued myopically or without the abilty to adjust and respond to changing circumstances).
It’s also worth noting—as a few commentators did in response to Mandela’s death—that Mandela and his African National Congress were on the US Terrorist Watch List as recently as 2008. Partly that fact reflects the kinds of specific attitudes toward Mandela and his movement (and Apartheid) that I highlighted in my first paragraph. But partly it helps us recognize something that we tend, nationally, to be quite bad at considering: how much the concept of “terrorism” represents not a category of identity or action so much as a linguistic choice; and yet how much that choice, to call (for example) Mandela a terrorist rather than an activist or freedom fighter or even militant, impacts so many other conversations and realities for all concerned. That’s not to say that there aren’t people or organizations or actions that we could accurately define as “terrorist”—but because the term does not have a set of legal standards and definitions (such as, say, “murderer”), it will always remain, even in what seem to be the most clear or salient cases, a linguistic and semantic choice, and thus one that we must always analyze and question even (especially) when it feels most obvious.
Next 2013 event tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2013 events you’d remember?

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