As I watched President Obama deliver his stirring eulogy for Dr. Nelson Mandela during the former president’s memorial service here in Johannesburg, I was struck by a mélange of competing emotions—each one battling for supremacy, each one struggling to anchor me within its reality. Pride and nostalgia, but also a profound sense of loss, disappointment and anger at the dismal state of Black affairs, fought stubbornly for the upper hand.
As it was for millions around the world who were watching that day when Obama took the stage to rapturous applause, the symbolism of the moment was as poignant for me as it was powerful: America’s first Black president paying eloquent homage to the world’s greatest and most beloved statesman, himself a Black man and South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. For those who understood just how intertwined and interconnected were the struggles for civil rights in the U.S. and against apartheid in South Africa, the moment was profoundly bittersweet, a metaphoric crossing of paths for two long walks to freedom, walks steeped as much in tragedy as in triumph—and walks that are far from over.
Praising the humility, courage and tenacity of the man who helped the world better grasp the true riches of the human spirit, Obama’s eulogy sought to remind the world of how much Mandela has meant to America. How, far beyond his own shores, his example has inspired us, bracing the spines of generations of Americans who have yearned for justice and equality as he did.
But for many here in South Africa and abroad, the powerful symbolism surrounding Obama’s eulogy and presence at the memorial, where the groundbreaking legacies of two Black men of global stature converged briefly, stood in stark and glaring contrast to the grim realities which stalk the masses of Black men, particularly in the U.S.
On a day when a truly great Black man was being honored, I found myself questioning how deeply his example has forged itself into our collective consciousness, and whether many of us as Black men in America have really drawn from the well of Mandela’s spirit.
How many of us have taken his legacy beyond our lips and into our homes, communities, jobs and businesses?
How many of us can truly claim that we have championed the ongoing struggle for the dignity and advancement of a people that, nearly 50 years after the civil rights movement, lag behind in nearly all areas of American life?
How many of us are genuinely seeking to emulate the courage, tenacity and humility that were the hallmarks of Mandela’s character?
Admittedly, these may be awkward questions to pose, but we need to pose them. Almost 50 years after the end of our own “apartheid,” nearly 1 million African-Americans reside in jail, most of them men. Nearly half of all Black males are arrested by the time they turn 23. Two out of three Black children grow up without a father in the home. Black males comprise just 5 percent of America’s college students and, with a graduation rate of 33 percent, are the least likely of all racial and gender groups to complete their education. More ominously, young Black males suffer rates of violence comparable to war zones in Iraq or Syria, and are more likely to be housed in the penal system than in a college dorm.
Thanks to the international media, these grim realities have become well-known and are relayed around the world on an ongoing, steady basis.
As an African-American living overseas who travels regularly to different countries, I can bear painful witness to this fact. While the people in the various places I visit may not always be familiar with the statistics, conversations with them invariably reveal their perceptions of African-American men and Black men in general: in a word, “useless.”
African-Americans are the most globally-recognized and profiled Blacks on the planet. More than any other people of African descent, what happens among Blacks in America has a profound influence on not only upon how the world views Blacks as a whole, but how Blacks around the world view themselves.
Ironically, the achievements of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, while tremendously significant, tend to be viewed on the global stage as exceptions to the rule for Black men. They are seen as special, unique, and far cries from the general character and aptitude of Black males. As a whole, we are viewed as a bastion of failure, men who have abdicated our roles as strong, capable and committed agents of society, perpetually tossed aside by the tides of life.
Triumphs on football fields and basketball courts do little to dispel this notion, nor do hit songs or movie roles. Worldwide, people understand all too well that the power of a people and its men must extend beyond their ability to entertain. Communities and businesses must be built. Societal cohesion, health and harmony must be maintained.
Black men, with our disappearing acts from the home, from responsibility and from the front lines of society, are plunging our people into the depths of disintegration and self-destruction.
Brothers, where among us is the spirit of Mandela?
Thomas Mambande is a Philadelphia-born social entrepreneur and corporate consultant who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.