Remembering Nelson Mandela and Racial Realism

Mandela-edit1-620x447I was in a workshop with teachers when I found out Nelson Mandela died.  Someone got a phone alert, of course, the best use of a handheld device that I have experienced all semester.  The tributes online and on radio have been simply touching.  On the radio stations that I frequent, it seems deejays everywhere are interrupting themselves to honor and remember Mandela with a relevant song or memory.  It seems fitting— Nelson Mandela interrupted the trek of white supremacy.  Interrupting our lives— from the regular sounds that surround us or our everyday discourses— seems like the most honorable tribute we could make.

I am annoyed, however, with the many spaces that attempt to remind us that inequality still exists in South Africa.  It is such a white paradigm (and this includes some of Democracy Now’s videos).  Black folk need the reminder that they are not equal?  Did slaves assume equality after the Emancipation Proclamation?  Did Black South Africans think the streets would be paved in gold for them after Apartheid was “officially” ended? Did Black folk all over the world think racism would be forever terminated when Obama was elected…two times? I don’t think so.  I am reminded of Derrick Bell’s emphatic plea that we be racial realists, yet another visionary whose loss I feel daily.

Racial realism, for Bell, was the most realistic vision and hope we could have. Racism mutates and shifts; it is not ended, not within what Sylvia Wynter calls this episteme of homoeconomicus. Racial progress often seems to move one step forward …and then two steps back.  Bell emphasized that the hope, triumph, and joy came not with an end result, but with the process of struggle… a process that never ends.

One of my favorite stories Bell tells is of an elderly Mississippian woman named Mrs. MacDonald. He asks her why she keeps fighting if she knows things don’t get much better, especially given the horrific results inflicted on her and her son.  She answers quite defiantly that she does not fight for the outcome, but intends to keep harassing white folks.  Here is how Bell tells it:

The year was 1964. It was a quiet, heat-hushed evening in Harmony, a small, black community near the Mississippi Delta. Some Harmony residents, in the face of increasing white hostility, were organizing to ensure implementation of a court order mandating desegregation of their schools the next September. Walking with Mrs. Biona MacDonald, one of the organizers, up a dusty, unpaved road toward her modest home, I asked where she found the courage to continue working for civil rights in the face of intimidation that included her son losing his job in town, the local bank trying to foreclose on her mortgage, and shots fired through her living room window. “Derrick,” she said slowly, seriously, “I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.”


Mrs. MacDonald did not say she risked everything because she hoped or expected to win out over the whites who, as she well knew, held all the economic and political power, and the guns as well. Rather, she recognized that-powerless as she was-she had and intended to use courage and determination as weapons “to harass white folks.” Her fight, in itself, gave her strength and empowerment in a society that relentlessly attempted to wear her down. Mrs. MacDonald did not even hint that her harassment would topple whites’ well-entrenched power. Rather, her goal was defiance and its harassing effect was more potent precisely because she placed herself in confrontation with her oppressors with full knowledge of their power and willingness to use it.


Mrs. MacDonald avoided discouragement and defeat because at the point that she determined to resist her oppression, she was triumphant. Nothing the all-powerful whites could do to her would diminish her triumph. Mrs. MacDonald understood twenty-five years ago the theory that I am espousing in the 1990s for black leaders and civil rights lawyers to adopt. If you remember her story, you will understand my message.


I think we are right to remember and honor Mandela alongside the deep levels of inequality that still exist.  But we need to do this remembering by keeping the vision of someone like Mrs. MacDonald’s in sight.  It’s about ongoing defiance and interruption, not the end result.