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What Madiba Meant To The Barbershop Guys


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting the chairs for shape up this week are writer Jimi Izrael with us from Cleveland. In New York, Sean Jacobs. He's a professor of international affairs at The New School. He's also founder and chief writer of the blog "Africa is a Country." That's meant ironically, we hope you know. Also in New York, Michael Skolnik. He is editor in chief of GlobalGrind.com. That's a news and entertainment site founded by Russell Simmons. And here in Washington, D.C. with me, contributing editor for The Root, Corey Dade. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Fellas. Not too well today. But, you know, another Friday.

COREY DADE: What's up, Jimi?

IZRAEL: Yeah, it's one of those days. You know, along with the whole world, we're missing Nelson Mandela right now. As I'm sure you've heard, he died yesterday at the age of 95. President Obama added his voice to the tribute. Michel, we got some tape, yep?

MARTIN: Yes we do. The president honored Mandela as a world leader and as a personal hero. Here's a short clip.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or policy or politics was a protest against apartheid. I would study his words and his writings. The day he was released from prison, he gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears.

IZRAEL: Whoa. Thanks for that, Michel. So, fellas, I'd just like to ask everybody - what did Mandela mean to you personally? Professor Sean, welcome. As a South African man yourself, you go first.

SEAN JACOBS: OK, so thanks for welcoming me to the show. Basically, for me, I think it goes back to when I was a teenager in the 1980s. And South Africa, at that time, you know, was sort of the kind of prevailing - if you want - the fever in the country was one of, like, the state was quite repressive.

There was mass struggle going on. The people talk about - other guests talk about the United Democratic Front, which was a popular movement that galvanized people again. And that movement made Nelson Mandela one of its sort of icons. He was sort of the - you know, on posters like "Free Mandela," "Viva Mandela." So as a teenager, getting to sort of know about the legacy of that early leadership of the 1950s and the 1960s, and then they had gone to prison. And they sort of faded from view because the state was very good at keeping images of these people from us. You never saw them. And the only image you had was these grainy images of Nelson Mandela from the 1950s, and he's sort of full-bodied with a beard. And that's what I first saw. So that - those memories stay with me, galvanized as when I was in high school, when I went to university.

And later on, even, when I arrived in the United States, you know, I still kept those things with me. That kind of sense of struggle, and wanting to make a contribution to the world. That isn't just about sort of platitudes and easy saying things, but is about struggling to make the lives of people better in terms of their education, health care, housing. And I think that's probably what Obama was referring to in that clip when he talks back to the early 1980s.

MARTIN: Jimi, let me jump in for just a second 'cause Michael - you know, across the world at that time as a young white guy - if you don't mind my saying - in New York, he had a similar impact on you, which you wrote about. In fact, you wrote I am who I am because of Nelson Mandela. Will you talk about that?

SKOLNIK: Absolutely. You know, in the '80s, you know, and for good of for bad, you know, Paul Simon in Simon Graceland, for a lot of, you know, us young kids growing up in the states at that time, introduced to us these sounds of Vusi Mahlasela, who we just heard, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. My parents took me, in '88, to see "Sarafina!" on Broadway. And I remember going to African dance camp, and yes, my mother proudly was a hippie and still is a hippie and took me to African dance camp as a kid.

And we had these t-shirts. And on the back of the t-shirt it said stop apartheid. And I had no idea what that meant, but my mother said wear that with pride 'cause one day we're going to stop apartheid. And as I got older and started watching, you know, this incredible, you know, revolution happen in South Africa led by not just Nelson Mandela, but so many heroes of that country, I began to see a world that looked like a place that I wanted to live in.

A place that I only thought, as a kid who grew up in hip-hop in New York, that we only envisioned, that a place that race relations where black people and white people certainly could live side-by-side. I've been to South Africa many times. I know this is a romantic view of South Africa, and it's very, very complicated in that country. But nevertheless, Nelson Mandela and his comrades, they laid out a blueprint for us of what - a way a world could be that, as a young kid growing up during that time, we dreamed of.

MARTIN: You know, people are being very somber here, which - and you kind of understand because it is a sad day. But also, Michael, you have a sweet memory that made me smile. Do you mind telling it about the time that you stood out, like, for six hours just to get a glimpse of him in New York.

SKOLNIK: Yeah, you know...

MARTIN: ...And then, what impressed you was...

SKOLNIK: No. You know, I was in - I heard he was going to be in New York for this movie premier "Cry, the Beloved Country." And I was like, I got to go there. I borrowed my mother's camera and we had no flash in the camera. So it was a movie premier at night time. And I sat there and the police said move out of the way, and where are your press credentials? And I just stood my ground, and wouldn't move 'cause I had to see this man in person. I really wanted to shake his hand, but if nothing else, just to see him in person. This is 1995 so he had just, you know, sort of been elected the president of South Africa a year before that.

And I waited six hours. And then here this guy gets out of the car, and it's 8 o'clock at night. And he gets out of his limousine and he's wearing sunglasses. And I was like, that's hip-hop. That's so hip-hop before hip-hop was hip-hop. And I tried to touch him and I yelled, Amandla. And he looked at me and smiled and he, you know, sort of was ushered into the theater. And I took some pictures. They're as grainy as probably the picture from 1950s of Nelson Mandela 'cause there was no flash. But nevertheless, that moment, for me, was one I'll share, you know, with my children and...

MARTIN: 'Cause he was...

SKOLNIK: ...The family.

MARTIN: ...Rocking sunglasses at night time, which was hip-hop. Corey, what about you?

DADE: Well, I came to know about the apartheid movement as a child. I - one of my childhood neighbors was Randall Robinson, who formed TransAfrica of course, and that sensitized America to apartheid. So by the time - you know, growing up being sensitized to it - by the time I was a senior in high school - 1990 - Mandela was out of prison, and he made his journey to the United States. And I was excited about it. But I was in a hospital bed just having gotten my tonsils out in extreme pain. And someone - the nurse turned on the TV and I was transfixed. That pain just went away because this was such a monumental moment for us.

And I think - you know, when I think about sort of years later, I really have always looked at Nelson Mandela as the manifestations, the sort of self-actualization of the civil rights movement here in America. You know, many of our leaders, including, of course, Martin Luther King was cut down early. So we weren't able to see the fruits of his labor manifest in one particular person necessarily. Nelson Mandela was that person. He was the rightful heir to that legacy. And the fact that...

MARTIN: We got to see him age. We got to see him grow up.

DADE: Exactly.

MARTIN: We got to see him change...

DADE: Yes.

MARTIN: ...And transform...

DADE: That evolution...

MARTIN: ...And become an adult, and a senior, and an elder. Yeah.

DADE: That evolution was key for me. And I think that, you know, everyone tries to tie Obama to Mandela, and naturally so. But I think on his own, he represented the kind of evolution that it takes to realize that sort of promise of unconditional love in leadership.

MARTIN: Jimi, what about you? You know we have to hear from you on this. What are your memories?

IZRAEL: Well, I had a real sense - I didn't know much about that was going on in the world 'cause I discovered - I was in high school. I was maybe 15 or 16. And I was DJing at Cleveland State University. Shout out Cleveland State. And I learned about Mandela through Hugh Masekela, through his songs. And I just had a sense that - I spent a lot of time as a kid in the library. This is before the Internet. And I would spend a lot of time reading the classics, you know, like Moby Dick and Ulysses and researching topics that were a great, you know, interest to me like, you know, the Baroque period.

But when I found out about Nelson Mandela, I just - I had a sense I was looking at the wrong - I was looking in the wrong places. I was researching the wrong things. And I think it kind of switched my focus 'cause I had learned a little bit about apartheid from U2 and Bono, but I hadn't heard anything about the central figures. So it struck my curiosity.

MARTIN: It seems like he connected - he connected something that was intangible and made it tangible to a lot of Americans. I mean, it sort of - he connected...

JACOBS: That's right.

MARTIN: ...For a lot of people who are in that in-between generation, the kind of the post-direct...

DADE: Civil rights.

MARTIN: ...Civil rights activists to, you know - and people who were born, like, too late to have been directly involved, and then it kind of connected. And then we also saw a lot of that well-respected people going to the South African Embassy, getting themselves arrested in, you know, in their businesses suits. It's something that kind of connected an earlier era with the current - with the present for a lot of people.

DADE: And I think what also I will say that it did - especially this was led by many African-American leaders, many civil rights leaders, the fact that they were so early and so vigilant in their protesting against apartheid, it actually sort of helped sort of cleanse, in some ways, America's record on apartheid because obviously under Reagan, we still had almost normalized relations with South Africa when many countries were starting to divest. And so, you know, the movement on the ground by many activists in America actually repositioned America's, you know, policy toward - toward South Africa.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of activism. You know, we know that a lot of activism has moved online or it has an online dimension now. And if you're just joining us, we're having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're spending our entire hour talking about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, doing the same in the Barbershop. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, journalist Corey Dade - that's who was speaking just now - Michael Skolnik of GlobalGrind.com and Professor Sean Jacobs of The New School. I wanted to ask each of you, what are some of the things that you're seeing online that caught your attention? Corey?

DADE: Well, I put out a note earlier this morning and I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to give me their lives. Give me a line about what Mandela meant to you. And they're still pouring in, and some of them are just moving. I pick up one from a friend, Foluke Bennett, in Philadelphia who says, he represented the true definition of unconditional love. And I think that is something that, you know, if you've studied Martin Luther King, you understand that unconditional love was his ultimate weapon. People talk about him forgiving his captors.

But really, to me, it was the issue of racial reconciliation. And a lot of the tweets that I'm getting and Facebook posts, that issue of racial reconciliation was key 'cause it wasn't just him forgiving his captors. It was the racial reconciliation process also requiring whites to take responsibility for their role in this type of oppression. That was key. And I think America could learn hugely from that.

MARTIN: Michael, what are you hearing? What are you seeing out there? What's catching your eye?

SKOLNIK: You know, one thing I wanted to say, yesterday, when the president spoke about his first political action that he took as a young man in 1981 at Occidental College at an anti-apartheid divestment rally, my mentor Tim Ngubeni, who's South African, led that rally. And there's a great photograph in The New Yorker that I passed around on Twitter yesterday of young 19-year-old Obama in the corner listening to Tim Ngubeni.

And Tim was Steven Biko's secretary general of AZAPO during the '60s, and was later exiled from South Africa. But the one thing I'm hearing and the one thing I think that's important for this conversation - yes, you know, Mandela is the father of Africa and Tata Mandela and Madiba ad Baba. You know, he's the romantic grandfather to us all. But this man was a freedom fighter. This man - you know, there is language and things that he said that might offend many Americans about this country or many folks around the world about things that were happening around this world. This man was not just about hugging you and making you feel good. He was challenging you...

DADE: That's right.

SKOLNIK: ...Challenging us, and challenging this planet to do better. So I want to remember Mandela, certainly, as Tata and Madiba, but I also want to remember Mandela as this freedom fighter who spent 27 years in prison and did not give up.

MARTIN: Professor - I know, Jimi, you want to get in on this, too. But let me hear from Professor Sean.

JACOBS: I mean, what we've done sort of since we heard about his passing was we used our Twitter account to challenge people about these things that Michael is talking about. That, no, you know, this was a man who was involved in armed struggle, who said things like, there comes a time in a people's life when they have to submit or fight, who, you know, was - who went to have training in Morocco in Algeria, who was a Pan African.

Sometimes a Pan African is maybe not the soft kind, but, perhaps, almost sort of like a Malcolm X kind of politics. So we tried to do that yesterday. We're doing it this morning. We're challenging the way that the papers, like The New York Times, for example, are creating these one-dimensional views of him. That they headline...

MARTIN: Well, let me just ask you, what do you want us to think about when we think about Mandela?

JACOBS: I think what I want is that complexity. Like, Mandela could be all these things. There is no contradiction between calling for peace and calling for armed struggle and calling for mass struggle and calling for the world to be accountable. So if you have like, you know, some people - like, I think I saw this morning a tweet by Netanyahu that said, Mandela had renounced terrorism. No, that's false. Mandela understood that people, at some point in their lives, had to fight. So did someone like Malcolm X. And I think if you take the memory of Malcolm X, I think initially, there were people here in the U.S. also who wanted to shy away from Malcolm X.

But by the time of the late 1980s, early '90s, people had to rethink, and they understood the context that that was a very violent period in American history. That, you know, black people had to, and at some point, had to defend themselves. And people began to have a better understanding of it. I think we're not saying, yes - I mean, for me, I see Mandel as the father of the South African revolution. I see him definitely as sort of our founding father. He's in a way, he's sort of our George Washington. Although, we can debate...


JACOBS: ...You know, George Washington's own legacy in the United States, which is more complicated. But the thing is, that's how I see him. But at the same time, I also see him as this figure that had principles. When P.W. Botha came to him - this is the last point - in 1985 and said, you have to renounce violence and I will free - you know, and we'll free you. And he said, no, you are committing violence against our people. If you stop the violence, then we will give up the armed struggle. And again, by the early '90s, he said, we are done with armed struggle, now we need to negotiate with this state and we need to transform a country in which there is no more violence.

MARTIN: Jimi, we're going to give you the last word.

IZRAEL: You know, I like what Douglas Foster, the Mandela biographer, had to say. You know, he noted that, you know, up until the end of his life, Mandela was still an angry bitter man, but he was forced to wear the mask of forgiveness and reconciliation for a greater good. And I hope that we can - in measuring his - measuring his legacy, I hope that we can look at him as a noble leader, but also, realistically, that this was a broken revolutionary who spent 27 years in jail and he came out and got into the political machine for the greater good. And that's respectable. But don't think he wasn't a head knocker. He wanted to be a head knocker, and that's why they put him in the joint.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we'll leave it there for now. Tie a bow on it.

SKOLNIK: My man, Jimi.

MARTIN: Jimi Izrael's a writer and professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Sean Jacobs is a professor at The New School, founder of the blog "Africa is a Country" with us from our bureau in New York. Also in New York, Michael Skolnik editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind.com. And here in Washington, D.C., Corey Dade contributing editor for The Root with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much.

SKOLNIK: Fellas, great to be with you all.

JACOBS: Thank you very much.

DADE: Yes, sir.


MARTIN: Finally, we want to end the program by hearing once more from Nelson Mandela himself. This was from his appearance in 2008 at a London concert in honor his 90th birthday.


NELSON MANDELA: Let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Our work is for freedom for all. Our friends and those watching all around the world - we say good night. After nearly 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now. I thank you.


MARTIN: You can follow more of the reaction from around the world and give us your own on twitter, @TellMeMoreNPR. And we want to leave you now with South Africa's national anthem. Here is "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," which means Lord bless Africa, sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo.


MARTIN: And that's our program for today. You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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