History is often spelled in numbers.
Today, in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, that number is 10,052—the number of days he was imprisoned under the apartheid regime in South Africa. Born in the tiny hamlet of Mvezo along the Mbashe River, Mandela would devote some 48 years of his to life to the cause of human rights. Twenty-seven of them were spent sequestered behind bars, under the watchful eye of his jailers. He would emerge a global leader, bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize and father of a new nation.
In the coming days, as we begin to chronicle his life in various news stories and opinion columns, speeches will be given, songs will be sung and dances will be danced. Millions will pay homage to a man whose very life inspired a new class of social activists. We will teach our children about the man who said, “The is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
It is difficult to ascertain what our world might have been like without him. What would have come of us had he not pressed us into a new consciousness, had he not pressed heads of state to the cause of righteousness? Had he not—with equal portions of humility and might–inspired millions to stand in solidarity.
With him, for him, and because of him.
This day, as I join the cavalcade of mourners who celebrate his “homegoing,” I also take solace in what he leaves behind. Mandela, you see, gave us more than his 95 years. He gave birth to a new generation of courageous voices, people whose lives may never be recorded in the history books, people whose numbers may never be widely known. They are, in his words, never playing small, never settling for a life that is less than the one they are capable of living.
They are women of grace and intellect like civil rights attorney Maya Wiley, who is founder and director of the Center for Social Inclusion. A “front-liner,” Wiley has litigated, lobbied Congress and worked to transform structural racism in the U.S. and in South Africa. Sober, yet direct in her delivery, Wiley stands a part as one of most respected human rights thought leaders of our time.
They are scholar-activists like Lehigh University’s Dr. James Peterson and University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Anthea Butler, who are not only known for their acute appraisal of the most critical issues confronted in contemporary American culture, but for their ability to imbue the discourse with thought-provoking historical contexts that matter. Butler, a noted expert on religious and social issues, has a “straight, no chaser” style that rattles cages and re-sets the board.
Peterson, a featured writer for theGrio.com and MSNBC contributor, understands that real changes lives with the masses that are all too often muted and lost. His organization, Hip Hop Scholars, is dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. He often speaks for the unspoken for.
They are soul-stirring men like Joshua DuBois, president Barack Obama’s one-time “pastor-in-chief.” The son of an American Methodist Episcopal pastor, DuBois is the former head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and an expert on the intersection of religion and public life. DuBois is known for his clear-headed temperament and his uncanny gift for building relationships with spiritual leaders from across the theological spectrum.
They are chart-topping recording artist like Janelle Monáe, whose very career has been an ongoing conversation on what it truly means to be black and feminist. Without apology, she defies the hyper-sexualized, misogynist stereotypes that seek to objectify and devalue black lives, and black bodies. The magnitude of her impact on popular culture—especially among young black girls—will stretch far beyond the last track.
But for me, if any single person can embody the spirit of Mandela, it is Phillip Agnew. Recognized widely as “Phil Unchained,” he is perhaps best known for his leadership of the Dream Defenders and their role in fighting the so-called Stand Your Ground laws across the country. Agnew first came to community activism after the beating death of Florida teenager Martin Lee Anderson in a state-run boot camp. This fall, he turned his attention to voter registration.
“We intend to register the people that are forgotten — the black, the brown, the indigent, the poor, the LGBT community and we will meet them where they are, in the classrooms, in the mall, at the club, on the corner, at the bus stop,” he said at the time.
There is a certain lyricism to Agnew’s voice, a power so enthralling that it dares you to turn away from its truth. In recent weeks, Agnew and the Dream Defenders joined the battle for comprehensive immigration reform.
There will never be another quite like Mandela. His was a very necessary journey. But, there remains work to be done and, without question, the list of emerging human rights leaders stretches far beyond the six I have named. They have chosen the rocky road, the one yet untraveled, the one required by their calling.
Mandela, as President Obama said, “belongs to the ages” now. I am, however, not only grateful for his living but for the gift of those who have taken up the charge. Thank you, Madiba. Sleep well, sweet prince.
Editor’s Note: This has been a #breakingBLACK column. Goldie Taylor is a featured Grio columnist and her #breakingBlack columns will regularly appear every Monday. Follow Goldie Taylor on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor, and join the discussion at @theGrio with the hashtag#BreakingBlack.