The other day I was thinking about this idea, though not realising that it was Mandela who phrased it, not realising, in fact, that Mandela was about to leave us.
When I was little and we still lived in Canada, my mother was watching a tv drama that I did not understand at all. It was set in the past when women wore big swishing hoop skirts and their hair was braided and looped in intricate designs. That was probably why I watched it with her, I was fascinated by such costumes in a way I can never explain. Because there were certain things that just didn't make sense to me. The main character was a woman who looked like all the other characters, except they treated her as a great inconvenience to them, and while they ate lavish meals in a gorgeous dining room, she peeled an apple for her dinner in the kitchen.
My mother explained to me that it was because she was black, or that the other characters considered her to be black. This did not help me understand things at all. The evidence before me showed that this character was a part of this household and looked no different, didn't sound different, so what was the problem?
To my child's mind it all seemed to straightforward: don't treat people unkindly. I wish I still had that mentally, I wish I hadn't grown up and inherited this complicated adults knowledge of history and hurt. Now that I know what was actually going on, that people have been mean to each other for so long, it makes it harder to go back to that simple statement: be nice.
But the thing is, Mandela was right. It never occurred to me that being African American, or Asian, or Jewish, or whatever, was a bad thing up until I was about 9. I just couldn't fathom that there would groups of people out there who gather for the sole purpose of hating other people. Why? No one could explain it to me, and really, I still can't think of a good explanation, my adult mind is just better at accepting "that's just the way it is. That's just what they do." Worse still, my adult eyes have picked up on differences I never would have noticed as a child: How they talk differently, how they eat different food, how they dress differently. But when I was 6, watching The Cosby Show and Family Matters at my dad's house, I didn't even think about it. These were families, with brothers and sisters that drove each other crazy, and came together to express support and love when times were tough. I actually thought these shows were set in the same city I was living in, Calgary. I never noticed that very few kids in class were black, and the kids on the show were black. They were kids, just like me.
In middle school sometimes it was apparent to me that the white kids sat together at the cafeteria, and the black kids sat together. I was a little ashamed by it, but what would I say to them? That was their preference just was much as ours. But if I had been just a few years younger that would have been insane to me. We could have talked about My Little Pony and Barbie and barrettes and tv shows we watched and about Kraft Macaroni and cheese, and MC Hammer Mariah Carey.
In high school I never felt comfortable really enjoying hip-hop. Home alone I'd bop along to Jay-Z and Outkast on MTV. But I was sure that the black kids would laugh at me, a skinny white girl rapping, "Check the baseline out, uh-huh. Jigga (bounce wit it) uh-huh uh-huh uh-huh, yeahhh let it bump through." My white peers all said rappers had no talent, we'd make fun of them, and then sing along to bands like Disturbed or Backstreet Boys (I'm not proud of it), believing they had so much more talent. Then we said that we were too white to "get" rap, as though our skin colour was a sort of disability. But now, in the words of Hova himself, fuck it.
I like hip-hop as much as I like rock and roll. There is some really bad rock and roll out there (every rose has a thorn, every cowboy has a sad sad song) and there is some really bad hip-hop out there. And I know it's okay, because both the Beatles and Kanye sampled Ray Charles; Led Zeppelin had a crush on Robert Johnson and Jimmy Page played guitar for P. Diddy.
I have no reason to hate some random person, or group of people, who never said boo to me. I have no reason to seal myself off from anyone because history is a bit awkward, just as I don't seal myself off from Edmonton Oilers Fans (we just don't talk about it). Technically it is a history I appear to have participated in, because I let it matter in my life. It only matters in that it was absurd, and I knew it when I was 6. Why did I forget?
You accumulate fears along with age and experience. As a child you slip on a patch of ice and hurt yourself, so when winter comes along and it gets icy out, your awareness is heightened and you step with great care. But this is different; from my perspective, this is fear with no experience, only talk. So in that case I should also fear giant sea monsters, because I've heard stories about them too.
Mandela was a man who seemed to have no fear, just endless optimism that all of humanity could be the best it could be, and perhaps patience that could be exasperating to people who had a lot of fear. He had every reason to fear the people who jailed him, who divided and separated his country men, and no one would have criticised him and his government for satisfying that fear and punishing those that hurt other out of fear. Instead we admire him, and love him for turning away from that fear, acknowledging that what has happened in the past didn't have to decide the future, and showing others who were scared of stories they heard, of wild predictions, that those were just stories after all.
We admire him and revere him, and excuse our lack of being like him because, well, come on, the man was practically a saint, he was an extraordinary individual and we are just human. But his death shows that he was just like us, and we can be like him, if we remember enough.