As a college student at Fisk University in 1990, I, like many of my "conscious" classmates, was overjoyed when news broke of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. I had learned about Mandela in elementary school from my radical teachers at St. Sabina School, the all-black Catholic school I attended from kindergarten through eighth grade. Mrs. Redd, Ms. Dukes, and Ms. Knight made sure we learned about prominent black figures, but they made an even greater effort to educate us about the work and legacy of the freedom fighters who had paved the way for blacks in the United States and around the globe. For them, Mandela's story was an example of the nascent and more effective socio-economic approach to liberation from apartheid, and, eventually, the oppression of people of color globally. My teachers' unique pedagogical approach reflected the burgeoning Black Liberation theology, radical Black Power ideologies, and an understanding and respect for the struggle, strategies, and successes of the Civil Rights Movement.
In thinking about Nelson Mandela, I remember my elementary school teachers who introduced me to the life and work of this important revolutionary, and how their commitment to progressive education shaped my interest in African-American history and culture - thus laying the groundwork for my very own teaching philosophy. It is not surprising that Mandela would have figured prominently in their lives and their teaching epistemologies given his stance on education, namely that "education is the most powerful weapon, which we can use to change the world."
Addressing the inequities in South African education became central to his work upon his release from prison and throughout his tenure as president of South Africa. In Soweto, during one of his very first speeches, Mandela declared the following:
"The crisis of education that exists in South Africa demands special attention. The education crisis in Black schools is a political crisis. It arises out of the fact that our people have no vote and, therefore, cannot make the government of the day responsive to their needs.
"Apartheid education is inferior, and a crime against humanity. Education is an area that needs the attention of all our people - students, parents, teachers, workers, and all other organized sectors of our community ... We must continue our struggle for people's education within the school system, and utilize its resources to achieve our goals ... We have consistently called for a unitary nonracial education system that develops the potential of all our youth."
For Mandela, full enfranchisement of African people meant access to books and the ballot. Sadly, while Mandela and many other African revolutionaries - Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Julius Nyerere - looked to the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Power Movements for inspiration and examples of successful liberation movements, it is we ourselves who are facing yet another struggle. This current crisis of an educational system that consistently fails to develop the potential of all of our youth is even more ironic and shocking when combined with the reality of eroding civil rights. While Mandela and his South African comrades looked to the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a benchmark for their movement, we now tackle voter suppression tactics that undermine the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, which could potentially strip some of the elderly, poor people, and people of color of their rights to vote.
The above is not to cast aspersions about our collective failures to ensure that each and every American has the tools needed to sit at opportunity's table, but rather to suggest we all look at Mandela's emphasis on equal education and full enfranchisement for all citizens, as well as his commitment to a shared reconciliatory governance that serves the needs of all the people.
There is a Ghanaian proverb that says, "A great tree has fallen," when a luminary dies. Indeed, our Madiba, our Baba, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has fallen, yet his roots run deep into the heart of Africa, across the Atlantic, and throughout the human diaspora. For that, I give thanks.
Dr. Patricia Williams Lessane is a cultural anthropologist and has served as executive director of the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture since 2010.