Posts Tagged ‘legacy’

The look

April 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m sitting in row five, 40,000 feet somewhere above the Oklahoma panhandle on my way back home to Colorado. I’ve just left Oklahoma City to spend Easter weekend with my dad, a new widower. My mom’s birthday was yesterday, Easter Sunday. She would have been 68 this year.

I’m staring at a picture my dad took of her on one of their first dates. Dad was in the Air Force in Shreveport, LA and Mom was a drama major at Centenary College in the same town. My daughter, Lauren, came across this picture as she put together a slide presentation for my mom’s funeral service and I’ve been captivated since I saw it. My dad tells me it’s from an air show at Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, circa 1967.

At once it’s a picture of a woman I never knew and a picture of a woman I know intimately. She’s wearing a pristine white sleeveless dress suitable for Audrey Hepburn. Her arms are folded across her body as she looks over her right shoulder back at the camera. Her dark brown bobbed hair is windblown as she stands on cracked tarmac under a bright blue sky.

I’m struck by her gaze. She has porcelain skin, with bright pink lips slightly pursed under a perfect nose. Broad, high cheekbones frame the eyes… it’s those eyes I can’t escape. They belie curiosity, intelligence, spunk, desire, and a little irritation.

In telling the story behind the picture, my dad said that he took her to the airshow for a date because he was just broke: an enlisted airman doing his time for the military. She doesn’t look impressed by the venue or by the particular idea of an airshow, but she looks a little intrigued, like she’s kind of up for anything.

That look pierces me every time I see it. There is a depth to her eyes that I can’t escape. It’s the look I saw in much later years as we’d share ideas and test each other’s tolerance for our debates during my adulthood. They’re eyes of my kindred soul.

She was restlessly inquisitive. No question was too big, and no answer worth having came easy. Of all she taught me, the lesson I value more than any other is that faith that is not worth questioning is faith that is not worth having.

I see that in that look on the tarmac at Barksdale AFB. It’s a look of skepticism but of a willingness to be persuaded. A little dubious, but curious. A look that says, “I’m not convinced… yet.”

The elegant, beautiful woman on the tarmac is only a couple of years older than my oldest daughter, Lauren. She will be leaving home in a few months to head to college. As I stare into the photo of my beautiful coed mom I can’t help but think of Lauren – a new chapter of her life opening, as a chapter in our lives closes.

I see glimpses of the look in both my girls. The look of expectation, curiosity, electricity.

I love that look.


Categories: Thoughts Tags: , , , ,

Mandela and Kennedy – marriages

December 9, 2013 Leave a comment

I was asked an interesting question about my analysis of Nelson Mandela’s marriage to his second wife, Winnie, and what I thought that failed marriage meant to his legacy. Specifically, Winnie was widely publicized as advocating for Mandela’s freedom and worked hard in the struggle against apartheid during Mandela’s imprisonment. (She appears to have been quite radical in her practices for liberation. See Telegraph article here, and Reuters here.)

It’s been awhile since I read his autobiography so a fresher reader may have a different take than I, but if I recall correctly, Mandela expressed a great deal of regret about the failure of that marriage. His marriage to Winnie was borne in the resistance movement; the struggle was in the marriage’s DNA. The fight for liberty was always Mandela’s mistress and his personal relationships took the brunt of it. This is, in part, what I meant in the previous post: Mandela would sacrifice anything – himself, his freedom, – and anyone for the cause of freedom. Those sacrifices included his marriages and the relationships with his children. Only when he was well advanced in years did some of those relationships find reconciliation.

During Mandela’s imprisonment, Winnie’s advocacy and actions apparently reached some extremes that contradicted Mr. Mandela’s quest for a peaceful liberty for all. Yes, Mr. Mandela had advocated armed resistance against apartheid, and he headed up the ANC’s militarized efforts in the years leading up to his imprisonment. To call him purely a peaceful activist would be inaccurate. But it seems as though he favored peaceful means to achieve freedom and eschewed the inter-African conflicts among other black Africans that Winnie became involved in through the 1980s and 1990s. Details here, here, here, here, and here.

Mandela spoke very highly of Winnie in his autobiography. But as I read the account, she was always more of his “comrade in arms” than his wife. This may not be fair, and it may not be how she viewed the marriage, but that’s the sense I got from his story. Her actions during his imprisonment show, at a minimum, she was no shrinking daisy; she was an aggressive advocate for liberation, with no apparent fear from violent means. The distance of his imprisonment and the eventual release drove a separation that appears to have been insurmountable. I suspect that her means of pursuing liberty also ran against Mr. Mandela’s tastes, but that their marriage was politically useful for both of them until it was finally dissolved after his election.

Rabbit trail ahead: There is another important distinction worth bearing out. We in a non-tribal Western culture view marriage differently I think than do many indigenous cultures. To understand Mandela’s story requires a reach into a culture that many Anglos don’t relate to. The tribal indigenous cultures of Africa in the mid 20th century are not the same as the urban cultures in Africa today, nor are they the experience of the diverse peoples who comprise western Europe or the United States. The native tribes are indeed very diverse among the various tribes, but the experiences, mores, perspectives on relationships, elevation of children, and many other perspectives are simply different due to time and place.

I don’t know what this means in the context of Mandela’s marriages. He was a highly educated and brilliant man. He was a professional, an amazing debater, and one of the most thoughtful icons of our time. Mandela was, I think, a once-in-a-generation leader. To assume he would view marriages and other interpersonal relationships the same way as we would risks superimposing a personal moral judgement on someone whose culture many of us can’t fully appreciate. It would be much like explaining to an indigenous Chinese person that they have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Without first-hand experience inside another culture, it’s really hard to make value statements that don’t belie our personal biases.

In the previous Mandela-Kennedy post I referenced that both had great flaws. Looking back I realize that this indeed belies my personal Western bias. But I think there is a big difference in the “failed” marriages of Mandela and the historical view that Kennedy was a poor husband. Although I believe that both men were charismatic leaders who were, by many accounts, catalysts for great change, I haven’t heard stories of Mandela being a philanderer like the stories I’ve heard of Kennedy. Again, I think Mandela’s “mistress” was the struggle to end apartheid, not a physical “other woman.” I’d argue that by any account, Mandela’s mistress was far nobler than any Kennedy ever had.
(By the way, comments are always welcome. I crave thoughtful conversation – virtual or real – when proffered with an open mind.)

Thoughts on Mandela, Kennedy

December 5, 2013 Leave a comment

I was at the Orlando airport drinking pints with a friend when I learned Nelson Mandela died. I had the good fortune to go to South Africa a little over a year ago on business and enjoyed an off afternoon taking in Robben Island. Moved by that experience I picked up a copy of Mandela’s autobiography at the Robben Island bookstore and worked my way through it over the following month.

Mandela’s life was one that humbles the proud, privileged, and self-important. He was a man of humble beginnings who made his way to the city and became a practicing lawyer in Johannesburg as the greatest era of apartheid persecution swelled to consume a nation. He made tremendous sacrifices – many that most of us would deign to make – out of his devotion to liberty for black Africa and to reject injustice. His sacrifices included two marriages and his relationship with nearly all who loved him, but his legacy of those individual sacrifices and the individual sacrifices of others who joined him in the cause of freedom brought a new liberty and a measure of democracy to an oppressed indigenous people.

South Africa has yet to get its feet firmly beneath its nascent democracy. Nearly 20 years in, the nation has foundered in gaining traction and casting off a resentment-based new nepotism that often accompanies a sudden change of fortune and the overturning of a power pyramid. Those previously on the bottom – black Africa – suddenly found themselves on top of the pile, but only as represented by a handful of insiders. In recent years those insiders proved that they are capable of substantial corruption and pocket-lining, suppressing free speech and silencing their critics. The acute pain of the past and solidarity of the movement that brought liberty has obviously faded in the past two decades. The generation has aged and polarized, and the youth who didn’t live the revolution lack personal context and a passion to see the revolution through to completion.

“Madiba”, as his friends called him, was the strongest unifying persona of the era that saw a nation cast off oppression and victimization of native peoples. As a lover of South Africa and a respecter of Nelson Mandela, I fear that the nation will continue to suffer in mediocrity, unmet needs, and broken promises now that Mandela is gone. Like the revolution, his memory and legacy will fade unless a younger generation rises up to finish lifting South Africa to full freedom for all.

I’m sure I’m a bit Pollyannaish on Mandela. He had his detractors, and I’m not South African. I’m perhaps a little more educated than most on the country’s history, but I may be overstepping the bounds of my knowledge or any right to proffer an opinion on South African politics, Nelson Mandela’s legacy, or the progeny of the final end of apartheid. But I see Mandela’s story in a slightly different – and more American – context, too.

On November 22 of this year we observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Born of great wealth, privilege, and personal connections, Kennedy reshaped the political culture within the United States. At a minimum, he represented a generational and technological shift in our Presidency. The first President to be elected who was born in the 20th century, he was also the first of a new “television generation.” Although he was born into great wealth, he served the U.S. in war and bore injuries that would follow him for the rest of his life. He was also an Irish Catholic in a generation when neither was cool.

Although his detractors are many, history generally remembers Kennedy very fondly, as the beginning of a new era. He didn’t deliver America from a regime of great oppression and didn’t make anywhere near the personal sacrifices Mandela made. But maybe like Mandela, his legacy marked a turning point in history. There were many intervening influences but there may be some merit to an argument that Kennedy’s Presidency laid the groundwork for an era of progressive civil rights that benefited black Americans, and has ultimately increased the rights of women, Native Americans, and the LGBT community today.

I write this as one who is a generation removed from Kennedy’s legacy. My parents were 20 and 17 when Kennedy was killed; I wasn’t born for nearly another decade after Dealey Plaza. My only reference is what I’ve learned from them and from the Kennedy legacy built up in our popular culture and literature. Like the youth who have grown up in a post-apartheid South Africa I can only piece together my model of Kennedy from the experiences, memories, and biases of forebears.

Maybe like Kennedy, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela will similarly serve as a turning point in South African history. Will his legacy spark a generation that pursues liberty and progressive thought? In 50 years will we see a South Africa that has cast off nepotism and the pursuit of self interest?

Don’t hear (or read) what I’m not saying. American culture and politics are deeply flawed – some say broken. Many believe that progressive thought has exceeded moral bounds and I’m not in a position to argue those points right now. The point I’m making is that Kennedy marked a big shift in how a generation addressed civil rights of those traditionally outside the power structure. I will be interested to see if Mandela does the same for South Africa.

All great leaders have great flaws; Kennedy and Mandela were no exceptions. They were human, and in many ways exhibited the same selfishness and failures of integrity that we all face in our varying degrees at different times in our lives. And these two are likely far more different than they are similar; I get that. But I think that in a way, each of them has the potential to mark a turning point for a nation.

Another seed of a thought: Are leaders the catalysts of change, or are they markers of a greater change waiting to be made? Are they the genesis of a wave, or are they merely the break as the wave builds and rolls? Are they the drivers, or are they just the willing ones who sense the building force, give it voice, and sacrifice themselves (and others) to bring the wave to shore?