Mandela died. He had been imprisoned for decades to free its nation from apartheid and racial injustice. He fought the legacy of colonialism and racism that still has its grip on most of Africa, having become more than a man: an international hero that inspired all of humanity, a kind of people's messiah, the type that every nation has dreamed of at some point. But he was real. He delivered a promise, an ideal that people will forever hold in their hearts. He seized history and made history.
Mandela will forever make us ask questions about what in my French literature class has been referred to as la négritude, blackness and Africanness as a political, spiritual and cultural construct. Why is blackness so threatening to some ... and so redeeming and liberating to others? Why is it and why MUST it be so political? What is the history of blackness? Why does blackness matter? Does it still matter? And most importantly, why must we ALL deal with la négritude.
In the first hours in a post-Mandela world, I learned that the Dominican Republic has passed a law to disown its Haitian-descended citizens, some of whose families have been there since the 1920's. The Spanish-speaking Caribbean nation gained its independence from Haiti, not Spain, and has since sought to assert its identity as standing separate from Haiti, with which it shares borders and an island.
It's undeniable and natural that, since they share borders, many Dominicans have Haitian ancestry. But the law that was just passed is incompatible with international standards of human rights and forces us to ask: Why is Haiti such a source of shame? Should these Haitian-Dominicans not be encouraged to take pride in originating from the first free black nation? One that was born of rebellion against slavery?
Haitians have not had a pleasant history. They never had a Mandela, or a historical, national messiah of any sort. Most of their leaders have been tyrants. Aristide was able to do some damage-control but he did not, by any means, bring utopia or even normalcy to what still remains the poorest country in the hemisphere.
Is it poverty? Does the specter of poverty, with its accompanying ghosts of misery, crime and illiteracy haunt the very identity of a people, the majority of whom have never been able to lift themselves from it? Can we respect those who live in poverty? Is it really that difficult?
The disdain born of class divisions (and boundaries have always been blurry when it comes to class and race divisions), and the agenda of the ruling classes, is so embedded in our psyche and even in our language that we hardly take notice. I learned only recently that the word naughty shares semantic roots with the word needy; that need (read: poverty) and evil are such inseparable companions, always hanging in the same corners, that they acquired one shared identity, one shared word. The needy are to be pitied; the naughty are to be reviled, but the sense of one word lurks behind the semantics of the other.
What if we rebel against language, against meaning? What if we stopped pitying and reviling the poor and sought to solve poverty from its inception and from its roots? What if we choose to not produce any more poor people? What if we abolished the corporatocracy and raised the minimum wage ... globally? What if we took a second look at the poor person that lives next door and began to dig into the narratives of slavery, of exile, of apartheid, of chains, of négritude, of denied opportunities, denied access to education, of living under tyrants?
Can people choose to not be poor when poverty is all they know? Do they not have to re-learn their very identity? Is this not a long-term project that requires new models?
History can not be erased, but there is a narrative of redemption in Mandela, a narrative of reconciliation where mutual distrusts, old hostilities and hatreds were successfully put aside and new paths were forged forward, a new national identity constructed with new symbols, a complete reinvention of the paradigm. Nothing less. Mandela, of all people, understood the dynamics of how need demoralizes us, of how the needy come dangerously close to becoming naughty, and knew how much moral stamina was required to withstand the erosion of our morale.
Mandela died. May he live forever! We in the New World should look to Africa, for once, in search of inspiration and hope.