Drawing lessons for life from Africa’s great liberator
December 11, 2013 12:00 AM
A mourner at the memorial service Tuesday for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
By David M. Shribman
The eulogy, a celebration spoken at death, nonetheless is one of the great art forms of life. In Adlai Stevenson’s eulogy of Eleanor Roosevelt, the two-time Democratic presidential nominee spoke of someone who “has gone from the world who was like a certainty of honor.” After the black girls were killed in the bombing of the Birmingham, Ala., church 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” Both those remarks could have been grafted onto a eulogy of Nelson Mandela.
But any future anthology of great eulogies will almost certainly include the remarks of the first black president of the United States at the service for the liberator of black South Africa. For Barack Obama’s remarks amid pouring rain and an outpouring of tears were a combination of reflection and exhortation, of gratitude and grief, of dedication and determination.
Mr. Obama, well into his second term, is liberated from the restrictions of a man looking for the public approbation of the ballot box. In this speech, unlike perhaps any he has given, the president spoke of the dreams that animated him, the fears that haunt him, the inspiration that guides him — and the history that shaped him.
The danger is that speculation over the meaning of the president’s handshake with Raul Castro may overshadow the significance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. Mr. Obama spoke what for him has so often been unspoken, the notion that Mr. Mandela (and Gandhi, Lincoln and King, all referenced in his 20-minute eulogy) “set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”
Though Mr. Obama’s is a peculiarly American life and Mandela’s was a peculiarly African life, the struggle for freedom and opportunity (and, let it be said, also for power) is the human struggle, spanning continents, spanning generations.
Some of the passages in Mr. Obama’s remarks speak of the passage of Mr. Obama and the message of Mandela:
In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, and persistence and faith. He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.
These are the remarks of an overachieving American man who in this difficult year has been portrayed as an underachieving American president. Like Mandela, Mr. Obama stretched the iron definition of what seemed possible, and in this excerpt he suggests that the overture to his own life is an unfinished symphony.
Mandela showed us the power of action; of taking risks on behalf of our ideals.
Mr. Obama was born too late to be part of the civil-rights movement that has been enshrined in American history even though, in real time, it was shunned as much as embraced. For his part, the young Mr. Obama was a social activist and community organizer, because the work of his forebears in the struggle for racial and economic justice was not complete in Mr. Obama’s youth, nor even now. As the president put it in his economic-mobility speech Dec. 4: “The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed.”
Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet.
The president often celebrates the life of conflict but in truth he lives the life of contemplation. He is a public man who is deeply private, moved by intellect as much as by intuition. Here he celebrates the life of the mind as much as the action of the body, and urges us to remember that all warfare is not physical, and that some of the hard work of liberation is literary.
Madiba’s passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate a heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It’s a question I ask myself, as a man and as a president.
No funeral, no eulogy, is without a moment of personal assessment, and this is as public an internal reflection as Mr. Obama has shared since he became president. (His books, written before he was nominated, are far more revealing than the stately bound volumes known as the “Public Papers of the Presidents.”) At yesterday’s rites, though, Mandela was the most powerful moral force.
The questions we face today — how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war — these things do not have easy answers. … Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that is true. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.
Here the president is using the broad language of the eulogy to issue a narrow exhortation to a discrete group, some of the world leaders — many of them from Africa, some of them violators of human rights, a number of them prosecutors of sectarian war — who have mastered the rhetoric of liberation but not the work of liberation. Their voice is the voice of Mandela, but their hands are the hands of Stalin. This passage is for the ears of us all, but for the souls of those leaders.
All of this reminds us that, as Jawaharlal Nehru said in his eulogy of Mahandas K. Gandhi, “there was so much more for him to do” — an implicit invitation, in 2013 as it was in 1948, to reflect on how much more there is for all of us to do.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1890).
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