Thursday, December 5, 2013

Past Present: On Mandela and Rap

One of modern history's most famous heroes died today.

Nelson Mandela spent nearly all of his 95 years fighting for an end to segregation in his homeland of South Africa.  He tenaciously endured 27 years in prison after he gave up on peaceful protests against apartheid, the country's official system of discrimination, and turned to violence.  In 1962, he gave a speech in which he justified armed conflict as a means to an end, and a forced response to the violent suppression of civil rights imposed on South Africa's vast underclass of impoverished and disenfranchised blacks.

Not exactly the way most people picture him.  But then again, like it is for most heroes, Mandela's legacy, while remarkable, isn't entirely pretty.

Contrary to what you might hear during the next few days, he was no saint.  Years ago, American blacks counseled him to adopt Dr. Martin Luther King's practice of non-violence, but Mandela would make the point that things were far more dangerous in South Africa for his people than they were in the United States for King's.  It was for his refusal to denounce violence that Mandela ended up in prison, and it was the constant pleas to world leaders by his then-wife, Winnie, whom he'd married three months after divorcing his first wife, that finally brought international pressure to bear for his release in 1990.

Unfortunately for Mandela, after decades of imprisonment, he discovered that Winnie was carrying on an affair with a younger co-worker of hers, and they divorced while he was in office as South Africa's president in 1996.  It was that presidency, which seemed so improbable when Winnie was herself tortured for her efforts on Mandela's behalf while he was imprisoned, that symbolized the extent to which Mandela had achieved the bulk of his goals.

Respect, Irrespective of Culture

Although blatant racism still exists in South Africa, Mandela tempered it exponentially.  In a way, his forced confinement honed him into the respectable yet defiant agitator for civil rights that he didn't think would work when he advocated instead for violence.  His fellow prisoners marveled at how Mandela insisted on maintaining his dignity while being incarcerated, even to the extent of making sure his prison uniforms were always pressed with proper creases.  Intelligent, eloquent, idealistic, and charismatic, he built awareness for the plight of his black countrymen despite having to do so from behind bars, and even though all South Africans still have a long way to go down the road towards racial reconciliation, his life - and indeed, in all likelihood, his death - represents the key turning point.

Of course, many of his fans across the globe would bristle at such a eulogy, because it isn't entirely flattering.  But then again, Mandela himself didn't seem to work overtime hiding his imperfections from the world.  He never asked for supremacy, and he never appeared to expect the adulation others bestowed upon him.  He believed he had a mission to accomplish, and although some of his early methods were debatable, they ended up placing him at the point where the oppression against him and his people became unsustainable.

Indeed, it's not even what Mandela did, but what he didn't do, that ended up solidifying his reputation as a hero.  Upon his release from prison, with the world watching on television - including me - he could have announced a mass revolt against the government that had held him, and who knows the civil war that could have broken out during that emotionally tender time.  Yet Mandela committed himself to creating institutional change through the institutions he knew would need to endorse it.  When he ran for president, he only ran once, serving one term, so that he wouldn't appear power-hungry.  He could have probably served in office for as long as he desired; yet his desire wasn't fame, but progress.

Many will now mourn his passing as they would that of some eminently successful political figure, or even a conquering crusader.  Others, however, will recognize the deeper legacy of Nelson Mandela as being one of an unwaivering believer in basic rights who reminded the world that human dignity isn't something a government can bestow, but is something government should protect.

Human dignity is irrespective of politics, skin color, and culture.

Interestingly, it has been against the backdrop of evangelical Christianity's current debate over reformed hip hop that news of Mandela's death comes and reminds us of the not-too-distant physical struggle for civil rights, even here in the United States.

And as I've been reading many of the articles, blogs, and feedback posts from professing Christians who feel passionately about this issue of rap and its application to our faith, I wonder if I'm beginning to see why blacks, in particular, defend rap as strongly as they do.

The physical struggle for civil rights may be over, but that's the only one.

It appears that this discussion has tapped into a deep suspicion, skepticism, anger, and perhaps even hatred that black Americans have towards whites.  Am I wrong about that?  Some people who identify themselves as African Americans are framing the debate over rap as one between blacks and whites, us vs. them, and freedom vs. bigotry, whereas many whites simply seem to be asking if form follows function.  On some feedback forums, it's almost as if the Biblical merits of rap music are beside the point; what people want to address is the suspected bigotry and veiled audacity whites have to bring up the question in the first place.

A lot of similar frustration came to the surface earlier this year, during the trial of George Zimmerman, when conservative whites like me pleaded with blacks to wait and let a jury decide based on the facts.  Now, however, there's no mainstream media involved in the debate upon which whites can levy blame for distorting the perspectives of their viewing audience.  This is purely a tribal battle within our Christian subculture, and it seems that only we conservatives whites have been caught off-guard by it.  Meanwhile, the resentment being directed towards those of us who do not consider rap to be an appropriate way to express the Gospel has obviously been building among rap's fans for a long while.

During the Zimmerman experience, I found myself almost as perplexed as I am now by the radically different worldview - and, seemingly, theology - being expressed by our black brothers and sisters in Christ.  But now, I'm convinced that the Zimmerman dichotomy was no fluke.

There is something separating us.  And it's real.  And it may be very, very deep.

Respect, Irrespective of Culture

A lot of what separates us must stem from our country's dreadful history with civil rights.  A lot of what separates us involves blatant disparities in areas such as economic attainment, incarceration rates, and educational achievement.  For the most part, we go to different churches.  Both whites and blacks are aware of all these disparities and differences, but how likely is it that these mean something else entirely to whites than they do to blacks?

I'm not saying that blacks today blame today's whites for how their ancestors have been treated.  It's just that cultures evolve, and they evolve based on historical precedents, and hey - from that perspective, things don't bode well for future African-Americans.  I'd like to think that we've come a long way, but - at least emotionally - how much farther do we whites have to go than blacks?  That's not to say that reparations are in order, or that affirmative action is necessary, or that social promotion has validity.  What it does say, however, is that in terms of "overcoming," it's not the blacks who forced whites to use different drinking fountains, or sit in the back of restaurants, or walk a gauntlet of screaming bigots on their way to Little Rock High School.

After all, we're on the "favored" side of all of these differences.  When we walk into a store, clerks don't check us out defensively.  When we're stopped by a police officer, we don't have to brace for how improperly we might get treated simply because of our skin color.  When we listen to music, we don't think about how "white" it is, and likely, it doesn't speak to how white we are.  It's just music from some genre, like country, or classical, or Gregorian chant.  Even jazz or blues seems to be devoid of race and color, but when it comes to rap, whites may not understand how many blacks - particularly younger ones - may identify with it.

I don't "identify" with the music I like.  I approach music purely on the merits.  But then, I'm not a terribly romantic guy, or enthralled with any particular lifestyle, or a follower-fan of certain trends or fashions.  And maybe a lot of blacks aren't, either.  At least, on the surface.  But subconsciously?

For many people, music speaks more than just aurally.  It gets under their skin.  And for blacks, having a musical style that originally spoke uniquely to their presumed position in life may be far more meaningful to them than we whites realize.

Now, I'm not using any of this racial reality as a reason to exonerate rap, or to excuse the problems I have with it.  But I can't ignore the growing evidence that there is a hurt and a pain in here somewhere that I don't feel, but African Americans do.  They've been subjected to humiliation and cruelty by the broader white culture, and now, we're picking on something that they claim as theirs.  Could that be sparking a new release of resentment?  Resentment of us and our white culture's historic treatment of them?  Maybe even more than they're aware?  How dare we whites presume to have the right to criticize something that is a direct link to black pride and passion?

I'm not going to trivialize either the passing of Nelson Mandela or the evangelical debate over rap music by trying to tie the two together.  But I will point out that in both narratives, the plot may be the same:  getting to where you want to go can require overcoming afflictions of historic proportions.

For a similar perspective regarding the late Nelson Mandela, consider this op-ed by Gideon Strauss, a native of South Africa who served on his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For more on the growing divide between black and white Americans, consider this recently-released report on race relations.

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