A political prisoner changed my life.
That man, now free — always free, really — wore number 466 at Robben Island prison in South Africa. Today, he is slowly dying in a hospital bed in Pretoria. I know Nelson Mandela won’t have the opportunity to read this. But I do need to write it.
He was, in the end, my favorite college professor.
The photograph of me above was taken in spring 1987, when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Like thousands of college students in the United States and around the world, I saw myself in the struggles of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movements. And like many Americans, I saw the original sin of my own nation echoed in that country’s system of racial oppression, and was appalled by the unwillingness of so many of my elders — from the Chancellor and Trustees of my university, to the President of the United States — to use their power to lean in for justice.
On the morning that picture was taken in front of Kirkland Hall, Nelson Mandela awoke to his 23rd year in prison. And the apartheid regime, though under assault from within and without, still stood — with no apparent end in sight. Desmond Tutu and other activists had made it clear to the good people of the world that the best way for us to weaken apartheid was to impose economic sanctions. At the very least, we needed to cease profiting from it.
All across the United States, towns, churches, unions, and universities boycotted South Africa, and divested themselves of shares in corporations that did business with the apartheid regime. Students built shanties on their campuses, to draw attention to the horrid living conditions in Soweto and other townships, and to appeal to the conscience of university administrators, faculty, alumni, and their fellow students.
They built them in the places you might expect — Berkeley, Madison, Cambridge. And they built them at universities unaccustomed (and even hostile) to acts of protest and civil disobedience.
We built them at Vanderbilt, in the spring of 1987. My somewhat disheveled look above was a direct result of spending a sleepless night in our cold shanty, worried about whether the death threats on my answering machine were merely idle — and whether I had compromised my moral integrity by letting the campus police know about them.
I left the tony New York suburb of Greenwich CT for Vanderbilt in September 1985. My hometown was a conservative place, and I had been a conservative activist. I was a volunteer for William Buckley’s Young Americans for Freedom at the 1984 GOP convention, for example. And while my political journey leftward had already begun before I headed South, I selected Vanderbilt in large part because I thought it might get me where I thought I wanted to go — law school, and then a career in politics.
By the end of my freshman year, May 1986, I thought I had made a mistake. Vanderbilt probably thought so, too. While I read constantly, as I always had, I felt thoroughly disconnected from the place. And from myself, really. I loved the classes I loved — philosophy, mostly. And the classes I didn’t love, I didn’t bother with. Throw in the usual heterosexual freshman male pursuits, and its no small wonder I finished up the second semester barely holding on. I aced some summer school philosophy classes — and a hugely influential history course on the civil rights movement — which enabled me to return in September 1986.
And then, in the fall, I took a walk past the Divinity School on my way to the library. Directly across from the Div courtyard, I saw a small group of men and women sitting next to a kind of lean-to. One of them, a junior named Richard Jung, called me over, and asked me if I knew anything about something called ‘apartheid.’ I didn’t really. My abrupt Yankee instincts pushed me to say ‘thanks but no thanks.’ But there was something about Richard’s earnest and kind expression (and, I think, the physical appearance of one of the women in the group) that drew me in.
And I really never left. Something clicked, and it changed my life.
Vanderbilt was not friendly ground for the anti-apartheid movement. Neither was Nashville. Vanderbilt, you see, had a history. It had expelled the Rev. James Lawson from its brand-new Divinity School in the spring of 1960. Why? For running workshops in non-violent civil disobedience, to train young Nashville activists to do sit-ins in downtown department stores and lunch counters. Lawson was the intellectual and moral godfather of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The photograph above was taken in front of those very same Kirkland Hall stairs — in the spring of 1960.
Perhaps we were naive to feel a little frightened, when we built the shanties. But we did. Or at least, I did. I think I feared the possible consequences — suspension, expulsion, injury, death. Mockery. And failure. But there was another kind of unnerving feeling too. Hard to describe, though I think ‘awe’ captures most of it. In our own way, and in only partial knowledge of our limitations, we were trying to bend the moral arc of the universe.
Most of the people in our group, Vanderbilt Against Apartheid (VAA), were philosophy majors. And night after night — at Country Mack’s diner, in the McGill philosophy and fine arts dorm, and in the shanties — we tried to connect Kant, Rawls, and especially Sartre and Camus to the anti-apartheid struggle. We discovered James Lawson, and SNCC, and the American civil rights struggle. We read Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. We thought about what it meant, to live out your principles like Nelson Mandela. Using the tools at hand — the challenges posed by our professors, the moral complexities of the world we found ourselves inheriting, and one another — we slowly, tentatively, pursued a humanities education in the truest, best sense.
We learned that ideas matter.
We learned, with Camus, that even in the depths of winter, within each of us lies an invincible summer.
We learned about human interdependence, and that for each to rise, we must in some fashion converge.
And we discovered one another. And ourselves.
We knew that we were part of a national movement. Indeed, a global one. And that helped. We also knew that we were swimming in the broader stream of a history that buoyed us. That helped, too. So did the personal bonds we had developed in VAA. We loved one another, in a way that only people who take risks together can.
I was in heaven, if only for a minute.
Oh, and another thing helped: we knew we were right.
I’m still sitting in front of the shanties, in my own way, more than 25 years later. I’m trying to do what Richard did for me then — to gently prod folks to look, listen, think, and maybe act.
I’ve worked as a labor organizer. I’ve gone to grad school, and become a college professor. I served for a while as the co-chair of a Human Rights Commission. I’ve never gone to prison, though I certainly know people who have. And I’m not in electoral politics either, though I’d still try it if the opportunity arose. I’m 46 now — the same age Mandela was, when the iron gate at Robbens Island slammed shut behind him. I’m a father and a husband. I have many roles to play, and I try to bring whatever integrity I can muster to all of them. But when I teach — at my university, in the Clemente Course in the Humanities — I still lean in, and try to make gentle the life of this world, as Robert Kennedy once put it. I try to do it when I write, too, because I still firmly believe that ideas matter.
I became convinced during that heady time a quarter-century ago that America will never become the place it can be — “the land that never has been yet” — until the problem of the color line is resolved. And more pointedly, I became convinced that white American men must confront that problem (it is a white one, after all). They must answer it, as best they can. They must face it squarely. To do otherwise is to misunderstand ourselves and our fellow Americans, as well as our history. Privilege is always the flip side of deprivation, each tied to the other like we are to one another.
My teaching and my scholarship, as well as most of my adult life since that fall day in 1986, have been dedicated to that pursuit. I can’t claim any great victories. I doubt I ever will. Most great victories are collective ones, anyway.
I learned all this from my favorite Vanderbilt professor, Nelson Mandela.
Vanderbilt, to its eternal shame, never divested from its investments in companies profiting from apartheid. I addressed the Board of Trustees on two occasions. Restraining my increasingly radical instincts, I sought to persuade them that they could do good, garner positive P.R., and make more money by shifting the university’s endowment into some sort of social investment index. I showed them how other comparable private universities had actually grown their endowments after divesting. I told them it would help Vanderbilt to attract and keep students and faculty of color.
They were dismissive — not just of my arguments, but of the entire idea that we might have some kind of wisdom from which the institution could benefit. They thought that VAA was just some sort of modern day panty raid, thinly obfuscated by a veneer of intellectualism.
A number of us engaged in a week-long hunger strike in 1988. It drew national attention, and nearly pushed me toward a physical and emotional breakdown. I neglected my schoolwork, and got in trouble for it. I probably neglected my girlfriend of the time, too.
But the university would not be moved.
In February 1990, as I packed up to leave Nashville (and the country) to grab my piece of the suddenly fragile Berlin Wall, F.W. deKlerk announced the repeal of apartheid — and Mandela walked out of prison.
Just over a year before Mandela had been sentenced, Martin Luther King languished in a Birmingham jail, reflecting upon our responsibility to one another. “We will have to repent in this generation,” King wrote, “not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Vanderbilt was given that opportunity. Sadly, it chose not to take it. In a broader sense, our country continues to do the same.
All of us human beings are flawed. Each, in our own way; and together, in the very same fundamental ways. For Nelson Mandela, the time was always ripe to do right.
Rest in peace, professor. Oh, and Amandla Ngawethu!
All photos courtesy of Mark Santow. This essay was previously posted in Chants Democratic, a blog written by Mark Santow.