On the cover of Long Walk to Freedom is a quote from the Boston Sunday Globe. It says this book “should be read by every person alive,” a statement with which I am tempted to agree. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography is required reading.
The struggle of apartheid was something that happened before my lifetime. When the country was casting its first ballots in an open and democratic national election, I was only three years old. South Africa and apartheid was something that was on the fringes of my consciousness. It was hardly touched on in school. It was something I always had a vague idea of: I knew there was an injustice and it was “corrected,” quote unquote. It was just never something I knew that much about.
I first became interested in gaining more insight into this section of history and part of the world after listening to the radio piece Nelson Mandela: An Audio History, produced by Radio Diaries. It is an incredibly moving and visceral radio hour and it sparked in me a desire to learn more. I found no better place to begin than with Nelson Mandela himself and his account of the events in his own words.
The book itself is beautifully written. Mandela’s cadence is melodic and thorough. He writes about an incredibly troubled time in a clear but rousing manner. I never found my attention waning once in the over 600 pages. It is a fascinating account, beginning with his boyhood in the Transkei and ending with his election to the presidency of a free South Africa. It goes into great detail of the inner workings of the African National Congress, their protests and fight against injustice and the move to a more violent struggle. It recounts his twenty-seven years in prison for freedom fighting and the strain it put on himself and his family. The atrocities committed by the South African government against Africans made my stomach turn, at times having to physically put down the book. It boggled my mind that any one could treat human beings in such a way, that democracy and justice could be so flagrantly ignored and abused.
It is a powerful and gripping read throughout and a journey that I recommend everyone take. The book made me realize there are a great many things that I do not know about this world and the many people living upon its earth. It inspired in me a desire to continue to educate myself about the things about which I do not necessarily know and am yet to understand, to have an open mind and heart to the stories of others, and to always stand for justice and freedom.
In apartheid South Africa, the police did not hesitate to abuse protesters demonstrating peacefully nor to refrain from gunning them down even as they fled. They did not hesitate to arrest and put those people on trial. It was a witch hunt to shut down any one that might threaten the government and enact any real change. It was a much more open and hostile form of segregation and racism than that which we see in America today.
But I would argue the quiet and “secretive” racism and segregation that is integrated in American culture is just as destructive. I hear about young black men and women dying in police custody, of teenage girls getting pinned to the ground by grown white, male officers, of citizens doing nothing wrong being racially profiled, interrogated, and harassed and I am at a loss.
I understand I occupy a privileged space in this society. I am a white woman and inhabit a world that gives me certain privileges, most of which I’m hardly aware of. The color of my skin has never affected my life. I also understand that there are people who look like me who don’t understand this privilege. I know there are people who look like me who are racist and cruel and have no intention of changing. This fact saddens me deeply. I cannot understand people who don’t see the problem plaguing our society, who don’t hear the news and read the statistics about this kind of systemic racism and don’t despair. When I hear the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” I want to scream them too.
I though this video by Laci Green titled Is Racism Over Yet? was a good explanation of the kind of systemic racism ingrained in our society, for those who may need an introduction to the problem. Racism isn’t over and hasn’t been. It is there in stereotypes and generalizations and racial profiling and police brutality and it is a system that NEEDS to change.
For a long time, I was not sure where my place was in this issue, as a white person. I knew how I felt: I wanted the injustices to stop. I wanted black people to feel represented and involved and protected as Americans. I also knew it was a huge issue and didn’t know how to even begin. I felt like speaking up about it wasn’t necessarily my place, that I should let people of color speak or people I felt were more intelligent and educated on the issue than I was. I didn’t want to upset or offend anyone from their community. But I think I know better now. My place is as an ally. My place is as one of the voices of reason among a sea of mass confusion and veiled and unveiled racism. There are people who look like me who are only making this problem worse or who don’t even recognize that this is an issue, who cannot see the systemic problems in place in our society, but I don’t have to be like them.
I recognize the injustices faced by people of color. I hear you and I stand beside you, however you need me to. I offer my support and my voice in turn.
I’m not sure how to end this post. LWTF left me with a lot of thoughts, as have the events of the last year. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg, but I think it is a conversation we all need to have.