The passing of great men

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela reminded me of my first visit to one of my favorite cities (San Francisco) with one of my favorite people (James Blaine Hudson — the now deceased Pan-African studies professor and Dean of U of L’s College of Arts & Sciences). One night, I ate dinner with Blaine and a few other friends at Fisherman’s Wharf and looked out over the watery expanse at Alcatraz. There it stood at dusk — “The Rock.” The sight of the great prison was downright eerie. We wondered aloud what life there must have been like for the inmates. How long would it take to break a man’s will in a place where there was supposedly no chance of escape?

We visited “The Rock” the next day and Blaine reminisced about one of his trips to Cape Town, South Africa. He told me of his visit to Robben Island, the Apartheid era’s most notorious prison, where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. Once the prison was closed in 1996, post-Apartheid officials decided that having former prisoners lead tours of the facility would be a good way to reintegrate them into society. I found this incredibly interesting. How could these men bear to revisit their hell daily?

Whatever the psychological effect on the tour guides, Blaine confirmed that it certainly did lend an unparalleled degree of authenticity to the experience. Like many people who have been through traumatic trials and tribulations, the former inmates were reluctant to talk about particular experiences unless asked targeted questions. For example, Blaine asked his guide if prisoners were ever abused by their guards. The guide responded with a simple, “Yes.”

Upon realizing that there was no intent to elaborate further, Blaine proceeded with a more precise inquiry: “Specifically, what were the types of things they would punish you for and what were the methods used?” This led his guide to open up and talk on the subject. As he painted a horrific picture of the abuse visited upon the men at Robben Island, he made it clear to the tourists that the administrators and guards of the prison made sure no inmate who entered the facility left with his humanity intact. All were reduced to the level of animals.

The incredible thing about Mandela is that he left prison in 1990 with a fierce grip on his humanity. Much has been made of his capacity to place the greater South African good above his own pain, suffering and deep-seated scars. Unlike most of us, he did not submit to his darker, bitter self.

Our conversation near Otis Redding’s dock of the bay so many years ago logically turned to another atrocity of the Diaspora — American slavery and its repercussions. Like Robben Island and Alcatraz, slavery was a prison. It was a prison without walls or water. At one point in our country’s history, far from San Francisco and farther from Cape Town, other black people were also reduced to less-than-human status simply because of the color of their skin.

While American slavery and South African Apartheid are far behind us, their legacies continue. To be sure, like segments of South Africa, blacks in America have made great strides since Emancipation. Unfortunately, a heavy load of psychological baggage remains for many in both. The contents of the bag are nasty indeed: self-loathing, cultural neglect, racial escapism and paralyzing fear that manifests itself in innumerable ways.

The deaths of men like Nelson Mandela and Blaine Hudson set us back. I am concerned that as more of our world’s true warriors, icons, geniuses and progressive humanitarians age and pass away, we sink to disturbingly low levels of expectations. We are now so mired in mediocrity that we regard painfully ordinary people as great. We lionize cubs and deify demons. We are losing our way.

In a way, I guess our country lives on in its own “Rock” and Robben. We continue to struggle within the prison house of our nation’s soul. More accurately and disturbingly, we seem not to struggle. We are passively watching as we sink deeper into the muck and mire — drunk on Kim, Kanye, Jay, Bey and Barack. The great men and women are dying at a disturbing clip — and people of similar timbre are not replacing them.

Rest in peace, Baba Nelson. Whatever gods may be — help the rest of us!

Follow Ricky L. Jones: @DrRickyLJones on Twitter and on Facebook.