This is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, but you must bear with me to get to the tribute.
We moved to Oahu, Hawaii in late 1959. It was the second time my family had lived there, the first being the year when I turned four and my dad served in the US Army as a physician, doing his internship at Tripler Army Hospital after earning his medical degree. Our second venture, my parents had promised two things: that Hawaii was a melting pot of races and beliefs, and that we would only stay one year. An adventure from which we’d return to our lives in New Jersey and resume our East Coast friendships and pursuits. (Didn’t work out that way, but that’s another story.)
Now 11, I had a tough time on this island paradise. I wore bobby socks and saddle shoes, crinolines under my flared skirts, and spoke with a pronounced New Joisey accent. The local kids wore shifts (a sleeveless straight dress more like a slip than what I considered a dress,) went barefoot, and spoke Pidgin English. I’d studied classical ballet, opera, theatre, piano, French, and had read almost all the children’s classics. The Hawaiian kids went surfing, danced hula, played ukulele, strung leis, and knew all the ancient Hawaiian legends about the volcano goddess, Madame Pele, and the menehune, secretive elves who lived in the thousands of caves on the islands. Many of the island kids traced their lineage to Hawaiian royalty or to ancestors in Asia. I traced mine to Polish and Russian Jews who escaped Europe just in time. (For Jews who escaped Europe, it was always just in time.)
There was nothing wrong with the island kids. I just didn’t fit. I was outcast immediately at Punahou, the elite private school where Barack Obama was later educated. More than the personal torment from the island kids, who told me I would always be a mainlander in their eyes, and who put a fist sized cockroach in my desk as a way of welcoming me to school, was the torment I witnessed them inflicting on each other. Shifting social status was the norm, causing an uncomfortable ranking system. I was always at the bottom. Perhaps it increased my sensitivity to the plight of others.
You need to know that the center of Oahu is occupied by American troops. Everyone who lives in Hawaii is familiar with the military bases in the mountains. Ships of all kinds berth at the docks, and military transports fly in and out of the airbases on a regular schedule. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are all prominent. Young soldiers (I’ll call them all soldiers though I recognize that they each have specific identification depending on their military commitment) from their ranks often going into Honolulu on liberty to experience the bars and probably the brothels. Even at 11, I understood that my freedom and security were reinforced and guaranteed by the presence of these courageous troops who were only about ten years older than I and far from home.
Getting to and from school each day required I take two or three city bus rides that meandered through the suburbs. I sometimes walked the second transfer rather than wait for the bus, an easy task in the languid Hawaiian climate. One day as I walked, I noted two young Army soldiers about 15 steps ahead of me. They were dressed in uniforms sharply pressed and perfectly fitted, their caps at a jaunty angle on their short hair. They walked in long strides staying on the sidewalk, and if they spoke, I couldn’t hear them. Respectful and dignified. Did I mention that they were Black Americans? (Wasn’t the words we used then. I would probably have called them Negro and meant it with complete esteem.)
The bus I would have taken lumbered by, a steel cab of seats, wheels, and lights. Out of the open windows leaned its passengers, those who would have been my fellow travelers. They were the typical motley group of Hawaiian islanders in the late 50’s – mixed Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Haole (white,) Portuguese, the melting pot my parents had promised. It seemed the entire busload of occupants thrust their heads and arms through the windows, gesturing as if shooing foraging dogs. They screamed, “Go home, you niggahs, go home.”
Intaking daggers with my breath, I stopped walking for a few moments. The young soldiers did not. They didn’t respond in any way, at least not outwardly. The Pacific Command is headquartered in Honolulu. The safety of the passengers, of our country, was insured by the vast presence of military on the island, from where troops were trained and later deployed to fight in Japan and Korea, later in Vietnam, Iraq, other parts of the Middle East. That day the soldiers walked. Next month they might have been given orders to any dangerous hotspot in the world, and only God knows if they would have returned safely. The busload of passengers had reduced them to a nasty slur, discounting their sacrifice. In their prejudiced minds all they saw was the color of their skin and not the valor of their occupation, the dignity of their being.
It was probably a decade before I heard the name Nelson Mandela and knew who he was. It was a decade in which my sense of tolerance for those who are different from me grew with my frustration at the bigotry of so many. Mandela despised the moral turpitude that allowed the white population to discredit black people. He worked to right those social and political wrongs. Before I left Hawaii on my thirteenth birthday, he was already imprisoned for his actions against the government of South Africa.
Nelson Mandela spent his life working to build bridges between people of different colors, encouraging them to see that we are all connected by our humanity. He was not always gentle, he was not always soft spoken. He never gave up. He demanded opportunity for everyone; he demanded a voice for each person. He did not want to erase the color of one’s skin but praise the beauty of all people. He was anti-apartheid in a country ruled by the fist and power of a minority who saw him and his brethren as inferior and threatening and who controlled the native population by refusing to provide equal education to the children or options for advancement for the adults.
You scared me sometimes, Nelson Mandela. You woke me up to the injustices in South Africa. You won my admiration by the persistence of your devotion to universal rights. You showed us how a nation can be transformed. You inspired me. We will miss you but your legacy remains. The world is a better place for you having been in it, and I have no doubt that you are welcomed to whatever place of divine grace comes next.