The world lost one of its greatest leaders… and one of its greatest human beings, too (ABC News)

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela

Thursday night saw the passing of one of humanity’s greatest leaders: former South African president and political activist Nelson Mandela. And like many others around the world—after hearing of his death—my heart is broken.

You see, I never knew Mandela personally, even though I always hoped to meet him some day. As a child growing up in 1970s America, I heard of him several times, but given my young age, I never really knew who he was. It wasn’t until the 1980s that I really came to know the man. And to be honest, it was likely Bono from U2 that first introduced me to Mandela through his opposition to apartheid—the system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa at that time. I specifically remember the 1985 music video for the song “Sun City,” a protest anthem by musicians who called themselves Artists United Against Apartheid. I had no idea what apartheid was, so I started doing some research and obviously discovered Mandela shortly thereafter.

Mandela with Bono from U2 (AP)

And I have been a changed man ever since.

Growing up in the American South, I was no stranger to racism and injustice. In fact, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t stereotype people based solely on race, especially before I knew any better. We all do this at one time or another, whether or not we care to admit it. The difference is what we choose to do after we gain a deeper knowledge of diversity, race and the importance of bringing people together rather than dividing them.

Nelson Mandela taught me to look beyond a person’s skin color and to consider what is most important: humanity. For him—and for many of my other “heroes of color,” like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Marley—human beings are one people. We may differ based on race, culture and any number of other factors, but our species will never change and we will always be connected to one another. In other words, all people are created equal and should be treated with the same dignity and respect we expect for ourselves.

Amen to that.

Because of Mandela, my own views towards people different from me started to change—not only in terms of race—and now I consider myself to be more of a human advocate than ever before. Skin color is the result of geography—humans in hotter climates have darker skin while those in cooler climates have lighter skin—so judging people based on race simply makes no logical sense. In fact, I would argue that judging people at all is wrong, but that’s a story for another time.

Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk accept the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for bringing an end to apartheid in South Africa (Reuters)

Of course, racial equality and civil rights was only a portion of Mandela’s efforts to improve our world. He also involved himself in education, politics, health information—especially with regard to HIV/AIDS—diplomacy, the struggle for freedom and philanthropy in general. And he approached each of them with the same care, consideration, logic and understanding that eventually led others to label him as Africa’s conscience and moral compass. After all, he spent 27 years in prison to help bring an end to the oppression of his people, and you simply don’t do that if your heart isn’t in the right place.

Nelson Mandela lived to be 95 years old, so he definitely led a full life and departed this earth as one of the most influential people in human history. And even though we all knew this day would eventually come, it doesn’t make it any easier to cope with this loss. I, for one, have shed tears for this great man and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. He taught me so much about people—and about myself—that I honestly feel as though I lost a family member.

Madiba’s spirit will live on (Hans Gedda)

This likely isn’t the best analogy—even though younger readers may disagree—but I feel a little like Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter films. To prevent his defeat by good wizards and to guarantee his immortality, Voldemort split his soul into smaller pieces and hid them inside objects—as well as some living things, like a snake and even Harry himself—so they could not be destroyed. Referred to as horcruxes, Harry and his friends hunt down and destroy enough of them to make the dark lord vulnerable and—by the time it’s all said and done—Voldemort is killed.

In a way, Nelson Mandela was like a piece of my own soul. And now that he’s gone, I feel the loss deep within and will never fill the void. All I can do is take what I learned from him and try to make a difference in my little corner of the world—a difference that he would be proud of and that furthers the mission he pursued his entire life: to reconcile the problems that separate us and to start working together towards a better, more positive world.

I will miss you, Nelson… but I will never forget you. May you rest in peace, my friend.

Posted on December 6, 2013, in Perspectives and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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