by Sylviane A. Diouf, Curator of Digital Collections, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Excerpted with permission from original post on NYPL’s Africa and the African Diaspora blog)
[ED: Nelson Mandela passed away December 5. With his death, a number of in memoriams and reflection pieces have been published across the webisphere, including this piece by Sylviane A. Diouf, Curator of Digital Collections at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She reflects on seeing Mandela at a town meeting at City College of New York in 1990. Read an excerpt of her piece below and visit the New York Public Library’s website to read it in its entirety.]
I learned of Nelson Mandela’s passing while waiting for my delayed flight at Atlanta Airport. I thought how much his painful and extraordinary life had exposed the terrible danger that faced those who fought for the rights, the dignity and the freedom of people of African origin or descent. That despairing reality was made all the more vivid because I was coming back to New York after several days spent with Kathleen Cleaver, immersed in documents and photographs from the Black Power Movement
In that airport lounge I remembered Nelson Mandela as I saw him on June 21, 1990. I had been privileged to be invited to a town meeting at City College. I can still feel the incredible excitement that took over when he walked, smiling and waving, onto the stage. But one of the moments I remember best was his exasperation at a question regarding his visits to Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. “They support our struggle to the hilt,” he sternly responded. And added, as the room erupted in applause, “any man who changes his principles according to whom he is dealing with that is not a man who can lead a nation.” And a nation, he did lead, on a path that only he could imagine.
We all have our Nelson Mandela moments: words, images, stories, memories; from close or from far. We cherish them, we reflect on them. Today we feel orphaned and grateful for the astonishing life, example, courage, indignation, hope, strength, optimism, and love he shared with us.
Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, an award-winning historian of the African Diaspora, is a curator at the Schomburg Center or Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.