Saturday, December 07, 2013

Lucky to Have Had Him

While were engaged in the (entirely justified) enterprise of honoring the memory of Nelson Mandela, may we pause for a moment to generalize-- to reflect on how lucky we've been in the civil rights movement as a whole, not just once in South Africa.

There used to be a catch phrase back in Kentucky, whenever anybody got appointed to anything: you think he's funny looking'?--you should have seen the guy they almost appointed.  Cute if unkind, but it's worth reflecting on when we consider Mandela v., oh well, almost anybody else in Africa.  Or when we compare Martin Luther King, Jr., to, um …. Or my own hero, Thurgood Marshall, with his bravery, his keen sense of justice, and his sometimes antic wit.  I might even throw in Malcolm X, at least as represented by Alex Haley, although I recognize that here I veer into fiction.  The point is: the people I'm remembering are the ones who knew how to make their points without losing their dignity and while respecting the dignity of others.

I'm tempted to  broaden my list to the formidable roster of black celebs noteworthy, inter alia, for their enormous likability: Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, the big O itself: all at one time or another on anybody's list of most admired Americans.

Yet I can see that there is a trap here.  My friend Evelyn (herself black) bleakly reminds me that "likability"--making themselves agreeable to whites--is a venerable survival skill among blacks who have always had to concern themselves with fates far worse than failing to make the "most admired" list.  Flip side, I can't think of any pop entertainment in my lifetime more revolting than the spectacle of poor, short, skinny, one-eyed Sammy Davis Jr. trying so frantically to win favor with a bunch of thuggish old drunks--while the rest of us cheered him on.   Well, maybe Little Miss America, but you get my point.

Sometimes you can have it both ways, of course. Likeability certainly has led Oprah to a level of wealth and power that the vast majority of white folks can only dream about.  And sometimes you can do it without losing your honor.  The first time I ever saw Cosby--it would have been late 60s--he was hosting some show about the black experience which was blunt and disturbing.  And the Coz never smiled.  And he intended it that way, and it worked.

With "political" figures like King or Mandela, there is another problem: swaddling them in a gauzy afterglow tends to defang the very things that made them famous and influential to begin with    King was in so many ways a model of civility and courtesy that we could forget: the burden of his message was (is!) turbulent and confrontation.   Interestingly, we haven't seen a lot of swaddling around King  yet--a lot of the people who hated him back in his day are still alive and not in a conciliatory mood.   But once Disney makes him into a feature-length animated cartoon, we'll know the game is up.

With Mandela, it is easier.  Face it, for all the fewferaw, most Americans never did have any more than the vaguest notion of why Mandela is famous to begin with.  So it''s not that hard to present him as a right jolly old elf--a point I think, Cornel West was driving at on CNN today when he warned against "Santa Claus-ification." (thanks, Caroline).  Mandela is famous not for being a nice old man; he is famous for speaking truth to power with great courage and at great personal sacrifice.

So there are delicate lines to be drawn here.  Not too cute, no Santa Claus.  King and Mandela and their ilk raised momentous issues.  But the point remains: patience and civility and fundamental human decency are not to be dismissed lightly.   Not only for what they did but for how they did it, we can only be grateful.

Update:  Just after posting, I ran across this, thanks to Chaucer Doth Tweet.

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