Author’s note: I realize that this is going on my third post with a Mandela reference. This should hopefully be the last of such post. But I promise that it’s relevant to traveling and being an experience junkie. It’s a pretty good read too!
Over the holiday, I had the opportunity to see two movies that chronicled the lives of two influential black men: The Butler and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. The former followed the life of Cecil Gaines, a butler who lived through some of the harshest times for blacks in America, while Mandela chronicled the life of Nelson Mandela and his struggle to win freedom for both he and his people.
These two men were very different, as were their approaches to transform the unjust world around them. Mr. Gaines led what I like to describe as a quiet revolution. The kind that, to the untrained eye, can be easily brushed off as Uncle Tom behavior and even interpreted as nonexistent. Mr. Gaines’ son seemed to be the harshest critic of his father’s role as a butler and was totally oblivious to the important yet subtle inroads his father was making. To be honest, I’m not sure Mr. Gaines even understood the importance of his role in the fight for justice for blacks in America. I have to admit that while watching the movie unfold it took some time to even understand this poignant point myself. In fact, it wasn’t until I heard the following quote did I really come to understand:
“The black domestic defies racial stereotyping by being hardworking and trustworthy, having a strong work ethic and dignified character. Though subservient, they are subversive without even knowing it.”
While Mr. Gaines’ role in the changing of America and others like him could have easily been mistaken and/or belittled, there was no mistaking Mandela’s fight for freedom. While watching A Long Walk to Freedom, I quickly noticed the stark differences between Mr. Gaines and Mandela. I watched as Mandela led both peaceful and violent protests. I could feel his resoluteness when it came to winning freedom for his people – he was prepared to live his life fighting for it or die fighting. There was no other option. Even as he left prison an old man, his mind was still made up – his people deserved to be free, so he continued the fight and eventually led them to the freedom they had sought for years.
Having the opportunity to view each of these men’s lives within such a short timeframe, I was able to come up with a rather significant conclusion: Every revolution is not the same. It was just the kind of revelation I needed at that moment as, ironically, a few days before my blackness was, once again, laid on the table for all to see and was called into question.
I’m no stranger to the “blackness barometer” in the least. I’ve received this type of judgment all of my life, mostly coming from people in my family. This time the basis of the argument of me not being “black enough” was different than any “reasoning” I had heard before. My low measure of blackness wasn’t blamed on the way I spoke, the way I dressed, or my inclination for culture – whatever that means. At this particular moment, my blackness was being called into question because I wasn’t “in the trenches.” I wasn’t fighting for my “brothers and sisters” who were in the deepest down pit of life America had to offer. Although I had yet to view The Butler and the Mandela movie and hadn’t had the opportunity to juxtapose the two men’s differing experiences, in my years of living, I had come to realize that everyone’s fight is different. We are not all called to be in the trenches. Although I knew this and believed it wholeheartedly, it was watching Mandela and Mr. Gaines that brought it all home for me.
The reality? I was and am, in fact, fighting. Not like Mandela – very few can. And no, I’m not in the trenches. Like Mr. Gaines, I believe my revolution to be one of quiet defiance. I have come to see that the way I live my life “defies racial stereotyping” and changes minds both black and white and bigoted at the same time. Maybe not all at once, but surely the small doses help. I have come to believe that every trip I take, every new experience I deliberately place myself in, every time I step outside of the perceived parameter of what being black is presumed to be…
- I stretch stereotypes.
- I expand limits.
- I increase the status quo.
- I make it possible.
So while my experience of looking out over the Champs Elysees while atop the Eiffel Tower or viewing the Bavarian Alps from my hotel room in Oberammergau don’t equate to being in the trenches, my fight still counts – quiet and all.