There have been a lot of moving tributes to Mandela and what this country has come through over the last few days. One which touched me most is the most personal, a letter from my husband, Matthew Brown, to a seven year old kid he’s never met.
My American friend Alan wrote me an email this week about his son, Raffi, who recently read the kids book, “My Friend Mandela” in class. Raffi got very angry at white people about the injustice of apartheid and Alan relayed a story I’d told him about Matt and some of what his activist family went through when he was a little boy.
Here’s Alan’s mail and the email Matt wrote back to Raffi.
Dear Lauren –
My deepest and kindest thoughts to you and your family and to your country for the loss of a true giant among humanity, Nelson Mandela. And thank you for your heartfelt comments on Twitter and on your blog.
Raffi had a school book come home with him on Monday and we’re supposed to sit with him have him read the assigned book. This one was “My Friend Mandela.”
We had been struggling with how to approach the issue of race in America with him for a long time now. He’s a bright boy and long ago would ask us things like “why do all the homeless people have brown skin?” Or “Why do all the basketball players have brown skin.” For one of the few times in my life, me a person who loves to gab about whatever, I had no idea what to say. I was terrified that my answer would somehow stamp into his brain in some kind of fixed way, a sort of “society’s verdict” about the black people, or about unfairness, and that he might be too young to understand the nuances and might conclude that that’s just the way it is.
Prob shortsighted of me, but that’s how I saw it. How to explain to a (very sensitive) 4 yr old the complex history of why most of the homeless people we see are black? So, I can’t even remember what I said. But I do remember once we were at a park and the Jesse White Tumblers were performing and he asked me basically same thing, why do they all have brown skin? And I remember my shitty, weak answer, something like, “Well, maybe they all grew up in the same neighborhood, and they know each other, so they decided to join this acrobatics group,” some stupid bullshit like that, and I think even he saw it was not a satisfactory answer.
Looking back I probably missed chances to teach him something, but aside from being terrified of “creating” a kind of self-fulfilling prejudice, I wasn’t sure if he really was cognitively capable for any real discussion about it.
Fastforward to year 3 and they’re learning about JFK, MLK, Twin Towers, etc, getting beyond the younger more innocent earlier years.
A few weeks earlier we read read a book called “The Romans” which talked about Roman slaves and slave holders and how miserable slaves were, including slave kids who could not go to school, had shitty food etc. He just could not bear it, and we actually had to abandon the book midway. He gets angry and pretends bravado and lashes out – “I would kill those Romans if there were in this room” but I think it’s a reaction more based on deep sadness and maybe fear.
So, I was worried about reading Mandela with him, and it’s hard reading from the point of understanding the concepts, but instead of just rushing through the words, he stopped to ask me to explain about Apartheid and the unfairness, and about the harsh treatment of Mandela, and about how black kids didn’t have the same things as white kids (this bothers him more than anything.)
Midway through the book, he started going “Roman” on me, and started saying “I hate these white people and I would throw them into a fire if I saw them.” At this point I closed the book, and we talked, and I told him that Apartheid is no longer the rule in South Africa and I also told him, remember my friend Lauren? Remember we went to Cubs stadium? I’ve mentioned you to him on several other occasions, and he said, yes he definitely still remembers you. Well, you know she and her family are white South Africans and during that time, there were many white South Africans who didn’t agree at all with Apartheid and worked hard to try to get rid of it.
I told him, you know Lauren’s husband is a white person and when he was just a little boy about your age, he was having a birthday party and suddenly helicopters from the South African Police started hovering over his backyard, because his parents were people who were involved with trying to get Apartheid removed and make South Africa fair for everyone, and the police were probably spying on them. He was probably scared, but his family didn’t back down from their work in trying to remove Apartheid. They kept on trying to get ride of it. And they were one family among many white people in that country who didn’t like it either and wanted it gone. He quietly listened and became calm and no longer wanted to throw white people into the fire, and I think identified with that boy his age and the birthday party.
We finished the book, he had lots of questions and I did my best. So, anyway, I was going to write to you tell you this and also ask you if you want to tell Matthew that through our friendship and his real connection to meeting you, Matthew’s experience as a child growing up amid that turmoil has, years later, that story that you once told me, helped my son get through an admittedly much milder turmoil of reading a book and understanding history, and get over some misunderstood anger.
And then Nelson Mandela died. So now I write you. Again, deepest and fondest thoughts for all the people of South Africa.
Lots of hugs,
And this is Matthew’s response, which he wrote to Raffi:
My name is Matthew. Here is a photo of me and my older brother, Andrew, taken when I was about 9. I know you have been reading a bit about Nelson Mandela, and I’m sure you know he died last week, peacefully in his bed – he was 95 years old after all. Our country is sad, but also very happy and thankful we had such a good leader.
When I was a kid our South African government had some very cruel laws that said black people had to live in a certain place and white people had to live in a certain place. Because the government was white and the only people allowed to vote were white, of course all the white people got the best places to live and go to school and all the people who were not white got all the worst places to live and bad schools and bad hospitals. We called it apartheid. There were lots of reasons for this, but I think the biggest was because the white people were just plain scared of everybody else, like a small child not wanting to meet other children and hiding behind their mommy.
The white people of South Africa just got used to this way of living. It was good for them and they just followed their leaders, who said this was the best way. Of course black people knew this was wrong and they tried to fight against it, and many white people also realised this was wrong and tried to fight against it. I was sooooooooooooo lucky that I was born into a family that knew apartheid was wrong and had decided to fight against it peacefully.
Our biggest hero was Nelson Mandela, who was in prison on an island just off the coast of Cape Town, where we lived. You could even see the island from Cape Town and we had all kinds of plans to rescue him, that were probably a bit silly and dangerous.
My parents and brother joined groups and protested against apartheid for many years. My mom used to stand at the side of the roads with posters saying things like “Free Mandela” and “Apartheid is wrong”. People even spat at her in the street, and that made me very angry. As you can imagine I wanted to kill those people. It also made my brother very angry and he used to cause fights with policemen and he had to go to jail. That made me even MORE angry! But there was not a whole lot I could do being 9 or 10 years old and that made me EVEN MORE ANGRY!
So my brother found a way to get me to make a difference. One of his friends was Thembenkosi, and he was black and had to live in a slum that we called townships. Thembenkosi had a younger brother, Kwandele, and Andrew brought him to our house to play. Now, that was against the law, but a strange thing happened. Because he was a kid, nobody seemed to know what to do. My little friends who had never really thought about why they didn’t know any black kids had fun with me and my new friend. We were just kids and we swam in the pool and ran around the garden and my mom made us iced suckers out of orange juice.
Now that seemed like a little thing that would make no difference to the world, but now there were white kids and their parents who were meeting black people and realising that they did not have to be scared. At the same time that was going on in my house in Cape Town, Lauren’s family in Johannesburg were doing the same thing. They had fun on weekends with white kids, black kids, brown kids, whoever. In fact Lauren’s family even adopted a black boy called Thabo, and he became Lauren’s brother. And no government could stop us – how could they stop kids having fun? They didn’t have a law for that, only for the adults.
And yes, the police used to follow me to school and tell my teachers I came from a bad family and listened to our boring phone conversations and visited to search for posters and flags, but in the end we knew we were doing the right thing.
And then at last Nelson Mandela was let out of prison after 27 years. And he wasn’t even angry at the white people. He said we could all live together. He said nobody would be punished for the bad things they had done as long as they stood up, by themselves and told the truth. And so, virtually overnight our country became a country that other people looked at and said: “that’s the way we should do it”.
So why am I telling you this loooooooong story? Well, I learnt that when you are a kid you sometimes feel like you are too little to make a difference to the world, but the truth is usually it is the adults who are more scared than you to try and make a change, even in a small way. I have seen kids make a difference to the environment, cities and even governments (ask your dad about Malala Yousafzai).
By the sound of it you are a smart young man who cares about the world and its people – let’s be honest: that’s a head start most kids don’t have.
Once, Nelson Mandela was just a kid, playing in the street and wondering why the world was the was it was and how to make it better.
Now it’s up to you what to do with that brain and heart of yours.
I hope to meet you one day, either in America or here, in South Africa.