Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tony Karon on Mandela -- Three Myths

If you don't know Tony Karon you should, especially now, when everybody seems to have something to say following the death of Nelson Mandela. Karon is from South Africa. He's white. He's a Jew. And he knows his stuff. While the subject of Mandela's life and legacy is being discussed this reworked blog post from 2005 should get top line billing. He isn't blogging now since he began working for Time.  I've been following him for several years. His credibility with me is air tight.

Go to the link for Karon's full description. The three are...
  1. He was no pacifist
  2. The "Mandela Miracle" is widely misunderstood, and
  3. Marcus, Malcolm, Mandela and Me — It’s a Black Thing, You Wouldn’t Understand
All three points are myth-making in the fullest sense of that word. A blog post is a poor forum to explain a subject as complex as myth-making, so go read what Tony Karon wrote in this case. Marcus refers to Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaica-born black nationalist whose name is often invoked by black leaders with the same hope of association that causes contemporary Republicans who eschew Lincoln's legacy like invoking the name of Ronald Reagan (even as they like to forget the Bush and Goldwater nightmares). 

All three points are valid, and Karon tells it like it is in plain English. Here is what he writes about that third item (this is a great story):
When I first saw that on a T-shirt being sold in Chinatown, Manhattan, in 1991, I laughed out loud. And actually, when watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie at an ANC fundraising premiere in Cape Town, I’ll never forget how the audience of Mandela loyalists erupted in raucous laughter when their good-natured leader appeared in the final “Spartacus” scene, intoning “I am Malcolm X.” The implication that their leader was inspired by a figure entirely unknown in the South African liberation movement discourse was pretty funny. 
Louis Farrakhan was probably a little surprised when he visited South Africa in 1995, and received a verbal dressing down from Mandela over his separatist politics. 
My own favorite encounter with the Marcus-Malcolm-Mandela myth came one night in 1997, at a media party where I was chatting with a well known hip-hop scribe and his girlfriend, who ended up giving me a ride home in their rented limo. I should have known trouble was coming when girlfriend said to me “So, what was it like coming to America and meeting FREE black people?” I told her that I had worked in the struggle, and although the black people I met there were viciously oppressed by a colonial regime, their minds were always free. 
But the scribe and his girlfriend simply could not accept that I, a white boy — a Jew, to boot — had been in the ANC. “Mandela didn’t work with white people,” he insisted. Uh, actually, of the eight men on trial with Mandela in 1964, three were white (all of them Jewish, actually). By the time the regime fell, there were thousands of whites in the broad liberation movement led by the ANC. A minority of the white community, to be sure, but a consistent presence in the ANC. Neil Aggett was killed in security police detention, just like Steve Biko. David Webster was murdered by a police assassin, just like Matthew Goniwe. Of course the vast majority of the people waging the struggle and bearing its sacrifices were black. But there were always a handful of whites alongside them. And so I went on, but none of this was making any impression. 
Finally, the limo driver turned around, exasperated. He was Palestinian, he informed us. From Ramallah, where he’d been active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist faction of the PLO. “And we always had Israeli Jews in our organization,” he said. “Not many, but always a few. Because we were against Zionism, not against Jews.”  
And so it went on. The South African Jew and the Palestinian leftist trying, in vain, to explain Mandela’s basic non-racialism to the hip-hop philosopher who preferred the Mandela of his own fantasies. Only in New York.

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