After the passing of Nelson Mandela last week there was a rush, a competition even, to commemorate him in the most superlative way possible. Everyone from Barack Obama to Rush Limbaugh released a statement marking his passing. Mandela was ‘a great liberator,’ the ‘hero of the apartheid struggle,’ even ‘the first politician to be missed,’ according to The Onion.
Statements such as these are natural in the wake of death-its never correct to speak ill of the recently deceased. They also function as a kind of balm for our own sorrow. In remembering someone’s accomplishments we are able to celebrate all they accomplished. In the case of Mandela there was certainly much to celebrate.
But along with the praise and hyperbole there was a smaller yet necessary call to remember Mandela as the man he really was. Mandela did not always conform to U.S., and certainly to right-wing, views, as would be easy to believe from the tributes following his death. He embraced Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, denounced the U.S.’ labeling of bin Laden as a terrorist without due process and criticized the Iraq war.
Mandela was a freedom fighter and a passionate supporter of human rights his whole life. The United States has not always been so magnanimous. Racism and inequality still run rampant. Mandela was never shy of calling America on its failings-whether claiming brotherhood with Detroit auto workers or addressing the “cancer of racism” during a speech in New York City.
The push to remember Nelson Mandela as a constant and sometimes controversial revolutionary was much larger than for some other leaders, making its way into the headline sin some cases. Musa Okwonga wrote a particularly poignant essay on the need to brand Mandela as a virtuous hero stepping straight from a fairy tale to save humanity.
In the end, Mandela was a hero, but one of an altogether human variety. His views may have clashed with America’s, but the failing was ours and not his. He was guided by an unfailing sense of outrage at the inequalities which still exist and are even perpetuated by our unwillingness to acknowledge them. Mandela’s legacy should be that of a tireless activist and leader who was unafraid of condemnation and punishment; not an angel hovering above us, but a human working with us.