Voices of our Community


Reflections on Mandela Day: Failure is Not an Option

July 18 is celebrated around the world as a day of service to honor the birthday and legacy of former South African leader Nelson Mandela. He became a human rights icon for his work to fight apartheid and for winning his presidency in a 1994 democratic election after serving 27 years in prison. Mandela died in 2014 at age 95.

At The Center, we celebrated Mandela Day this summer with a visit from Nelson Mandela’s 29-year-old great-grandson, Luvuyo, who spoke at a free public event about civil and human rights movements led by our events director, Dina Bailey. Our partners CARE and ONE (with featured speakers Late Lawson-Lartego and Scoggins Berg) also participated in the evening, which focused on social entrepreneurship and activism as avenues to improve human rights around the world.

While in Atlanta, Luvuyo Mandela visited The Center’s exhibitions, which showcase the stories behind the voices of the American Civil Rights Movement as well as global human rights movements. (Listen to his interview with WABE’s Rose Scott and Denis O’Hayer HERE.) Mandela’s visit inspired him to think about the current climate of civil rights movements as they relate to race, gender and privilege. We’d like to share excerpts from his essay with you below:


Failure is not an Option

By Luvuyo Mandela

What is The Black Self? This seemingly simple question begins and ends with self-exploration. Unpacking the experiences of Black heroes and heroines has taught us how to discover and unpack our own unrecognized Black Selves. This journey makes apparent that The Black Self is an identity that can only be defined through unfailing will and determination. For example, the binding force that connects Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Mohamed Ali, and Shirley Chisholm is their common belief that, “defeat is not the worst of failures [but] not to have tried is the true failure.” 

To fully understand the resilience and genius of our heroes and heroines, one must realize the unimaginable difficulties they endured. It is important to know that “nothing green ever grew in [their yards]. The only touch of green [they] could see was far away, beyond the tracks, over where the white folks lived.”2 Their state of deprivation at times rendered them flat on their faces with miscarried dreams and nowhere to put them. Their life lessons were never taught in nourishing classrooms. They never had individuals reminding them that they belonged and deserved to learn in the comfort of a classroom or library. Our intelligent black leaders had to fight for every bit of knowledge they suckled from the bosom of this selectively barren world. Our heroes and heroines were never given the reassuring confidence that was being instilled in the white youths born beyond the tracks. Their emerging selves realized the difference between having and being without. They needed to secure all that they never had for themselves and those around them. Their emergence from a state of child-like acceptance of the world made them recognize the harsh reality of a world that bore them nothing a reality they deemed unacceptable.

During civil rights movements, Black efforts to confront their plight and their urgent need to overcome the many obstacles brought them closer to a recognized Black Self. Their awakening beckoned them to question the known facts and identities that exist in the world. But questioning the prescribed world comes with consequences that did not exist during the previous stage of unconsciousness – being held responsible for one’s actions. Black discontent led to action. Action led to an initiative for change. The initiative for change was met with brutal oppressive force. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Black effort to change their world and the various spaces they were confined to was confronted with the inhumane restrictions and abuses of the white Jim Crow laws.

The battles fought by our heroes and heroines behind the trenches of Jim Crow forced them to move in tip-toe-stance. They embarked on life journeys that put them on paths that put them in situations that were compromising and life threatening. But they continued on never knowing if their paths would lead their followers to the Promised Land. Yet Cesaire, Fanon, Malcolm X, Ali, and Chisholm stayed driven by the need to make the world better for others, who like them, were born and had gone too long without. And even while fighting to positively change the world for all humanity, they were met with ruthless resistance, both from within and outside their respective camps of defiance.

Cesaire had to fight a predetermined identity that was imposed by the most championed name in his beloved field of philosophy – French Surrealist Jean-Paul Sartre. Fanon had to fight the self-hatred of his Antillean brethren and others who lived in the bondage of Western colonialism. Malcolm X had to fight ignorance, anger, white supremacy, the Nation of Islam and its fear of the power in his newfound truth. Ali had to fight everyone both literally and metaphorically. Chisholm had to fight men and women, both black and white, for her right to run for the presidency. At no point were our heroes and heroines given the reassurance that their battle was a righteous. Some, like Chisholm, fought knowing very well that victory would not be theirs. They put themselves on the line knowing that a day would come when America could celebrate the inauguration of a president of color – President Barak Hussein Obama. They fought for future leaders – realized Black Selves – that would soon follow in their footsteps. Some unfortunately fell before the grandeur of their struggle was ever realized. They fought ever ready to lay their lives down, still never knowing if their efforts would be championed as critical to changing our world for the better. They all fought to hold the world accountable for the honor it claimed to have. Their emergent state allowed them to find their voice to use it and in using their voice they found it.

So where do we stand in our journeys of self-discovery? Can we reenter the world, as we know it, without disrupting its complacency? Our awakened consciousness will not let us return to our child-like acceptance of our predesigned world. We are all citizens of the world and as citizens it is our duty to help change it for the better. To accept the world as is would be to commit the gravest injustice against our silenced brethren. The Black Self has taught all of us – black, white, Ghanaian, South African, Haitian, Colombian, and American – how to challenge the world and our spheres of influence to change for the better of all humanity. We have gone from nascent potential to emerging individuals. The Black Self teaches that after climbing this great hill, we will find that there are many more hills to climb.

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