The thing I remember most vividly about beginning my internship at TransAfrica Forum, the foreign policy lobbyist group founded in 1977 to pressure the U.S. Government to do right by Africa and the African Diaspora, was that I didn't want to be there.
As best I can recall, I began as an errand boy one hot summer during junior high, 1987. While friends of mine were back home in Texas in a football summer league, I was in D.C., cutting out articles on apartheid and hand delivering position statements to members of Congress — for free. I even had to pay for my subway rides to and from work. What a bust.
What a kid I was.
I swear I don't know why Randall Robinson, founder of the organization, tolerated me. But I'm forever grateful that he did. This was how I met Nelson Mandela. It wasn't an hour-long sit-down or anything, but it was incredible.
Each summer that I came back to TransAfrica — I worked there off and on until my junior year of college — I realized the important work that was being done, largely in the spirit of a man who'd been in prison since before I was born. The more I clipped, the more I read and the more meaningful the errands, and then projects, and then activities, became.
Then, in a summer off, while I was in Texas, a free Mandela toured the United States, and I missed it.
It was the worst.
I'd missed my opportunity to encounter a real-live freedom fighter. It was my chance at meeting the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stephen Biko, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. I'd missed my opportunity to be in the presence of greatness.
Then, in a summer back in D.C. enjoying working for TransAfrica, Mandela came to the offices to meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other politicos.
I was at the front of the line at the front door that Mandela came through amid a crush of secret service. He entered, knelt down — he is Muhammad-Ali-like huge — smiled and said something deeply profound like, "Hello, a pleasure to meet you," and proceeded to greet the other staff and interns in the office before gliding up a flight of stairs to the Du Bois Room where he met with the likes of Dorothy Height, Johnetta B. Cole and other intellectuals and political types.
It was the best.
But I didn't realize how great a moment it was, really, until recently. To be able to say to my son, Biko, who's 9 months old, that I met Nelson Mandela is a big deal. To be able to say that he spoke to me — big. That he had a million conversations with me in the warmth of that "pleasure to meet you" — a big deal. It was a gift.
Oddly, the gift was not in my proximity to him or in my shaking his hand. That was icing on the cake. The gift that we can all reflect on, in celebrating Mandela's 90th birthday, is his example. His deep and thick embrace of revolution, right, strength, true wisdom, courage, fear, forgiveness, humanity — to have this in one man is a gift that should give us pause.
To do 27 years in prison, hard labor, on a principle of right for the whole, is amazing. To embrace those who have wronged you, your people, violently, unilaterally and relentlessly, also amazing. Really, it is a blessing to have Mandela in the world.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela. Thank you for embracing us all.