In memory of Mandela: What a life worth living his was

imageJuly 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013

A Facebook tribute (December 5, 2013), courtesy of Melanie Ulrich

In honor of one my most admired heroes, I’m sharing one of the many social network tributes distributed the day Nelson Mandela died.  The chosen salute (posted on Facebook) serves as a reminder that as brothers and sisters of Planet Earth we should love one another.  Rest in peace, great servant of humankind.

Are we getting along yet?

"Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidote of both."

Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 1, 1816, in a personal letter to John Adams

Turns out there was a reason I took out my Canon AE-1 that afternoon 20-plus years ago and started snapping  black and white shots in the sun-drenched room. Two 4-year-old friends, one black, one white, after returning from dance class, hamming it up for the camera. No script, no prompt.  Little girls having fun.  When another friend showed up, instant acceptance.  Little children with blank slates are pretty good at that. Then they grow up.

Hadn't thought of those pictures in think about my early childhood period, growing up in the Deep South. My world was not in black and white. It was all black, except for church parish priests, the nuns at my Catholic school and the family doctor. Mine was a typical working class traditional African American family. Practically Norman Rockwell. Daddy went to work everyday. Mama stayed home and took care of the kids.

My first voluntary  interaction with anybody outside my race occurred in the '70s when a group of University of Wisconsin students participated in an exchange program at my historical all-black college. Wow, was I curious about those students that had chosen to spend a year at a tiny black school in the South. In particular, Karen with the Nordic surname and matching fair skin. She was a pretty girl, blondish silky straight hair and a "weird sounding" Midwestern accent. Why was she here, living on my dorm floor? I often wondered but didn't dare to ask out loud.  During their immersion, Karen and her Wisconsin classmates studied and socialized with black students and connected on many levels intellectual and academic. But we never discussed race or our different backgrounds, and she and I never spoke again after that year.

There began my period of enlightenment. Oh, I knew in the '60s as a young girl there had been an explosive movement to change things in the Jim Crow South and across the United States. But that had taken place in my preadolescence years in places far away.  Brought to me in VERY limited release on a black and white TV in our family den where I felt safe and secure. The relatively unsophisticated  Huntley-Brinkley Report and other television network broadcasts then were not exactly breaking in live at 5 to cover the marches, the speeches, the beatings, the murders. Later in the '60s, as I became more aware, I would occasionally put down the afternoon paper funnies to read headlined stories.  Scary stuff.

My parents, as parents of the period were inclined to do,  sheltered me from the direct evils of racism. Everybody on my neighborhood block looked like me, shared my family values and most importantly were nice people. They would do me no harm. The white priests and nuns were religious, and they had chosen to be in my community. The other scary white people were far far away.

Then I grew up. I popped out of the bubble of my Southwest Louisiana surroundings in the 1970s and headed north in the state for college, taking with me my girlhood spirit, along with a renewed value on patriotism. Thanks to the numerous black Americans that paid the ultimate price for my basic human rights, I would no longer be separate and unequal. I would no longer be clueless. All would be right with the world.

As the celebration of the 50th anniversary of The The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom approached last summer, I kept going back to my childhood innocence and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's dream speech that launched eternal hope. In the middle of a movement that had created violence and upheaval, he dared to envision a time little black children and little white children would play together, their parents party together and maybe even their families pray together.

A  half-century beyond the march and the dream, 13 years into a new millennium, and we still struggle on both sides to cross the line drawn in the 1600s. Forty percent whites polled summer 2013 are surrounded exclusively by white friends, a statistic that startled many whites I talked to and alarmed the non-whites I canvassed.

I hang on to another figure released in the same Reuters survey that was precipitated by Summer 2013's dismaying verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing. Only 25 percent of other Americans have no white friends. While the poll does not specifically break down "other" by racial or ethnic origin, it's clear that more Americans of color embrace diversity as a lifestyle than whites.

The United States population is 61 percent white (77 percent when whites of Hispanic origin are included), according to the 2010 Census. How can race relations improve if the clear majority is not attempting to meet at least halfway? Racism  is seeded, then rooted in ignorance. Knowledge fosters understanding. Understanding leads to tolerance. We can do better in our homes, communities, on the job, in our schools and in social circles equipped with better awareness of how we roll in an increasingly more diverse world.

Which brings me back to the black and white image on this page. Our children, this generation, matter. Their blank slates are seeds of hope.  You'll be reminded of that in some way each time you visit this forum for straight-talk about our differences and our similarities. The goal is to plant seeds that foster self-reflection, awareness and broader acceptance across the racial divide. Millennials, the real melting pot, are on the path to reaching that goal. They're the generation that will be carrying the lightest baggage of difference into adulthood.

While the focus here is on understanding race, after all it's the most institutionalized and polarizing topic and the one we're least willing to openly discuss, e RACE your isms , is a blog about the isms that foster hate, gender bias, discrimination against gay and Lesbian people and ageism, for starters.

From the tragic Trayvon Martin murder trial in June to the sobering commemoration of the '63 march in August, Summer 2013 reminded us in tragic and dramatic ways that the struggles with intolerance, bigotry and racism continue.  On Aug. 24, 2013, Civil Rights stalwart Dr. Joseph Lowery put it best from his wheelchair perch at the Lincoln Memorial, addressing the throng of new dreamers on the Washington Monument mall to mark the original gathering: "Everything has changed, and nothing has changed."

Now you know my story. Race is a hard topic to navigate. Everyone carries baggage along the route to understanding and acceptance. I'll post thoughts on relevant issues to try and lighten the load. The forum is open...

"Can we all get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people? And the kids?''

Rodney King, April 1992, responding to rioting and looting in South Central Los Angeles following the acquittal of LA police officers accused in the 1991 beating of King captured on video camera


14 thoughts on “In memory of Mandela: What a life worth living his was

  1. Dee Barello

    Wonderful piece, Jean. I so totally love hearing about happy childhoods and am glad the ugliness of racism did not raise its head during those most important years of your childhood. Because of my circumstances, race did not enter my world until my teens, when I arrived in Dallas. Like you, I am hopeful that our daughters' generation breaks the noose of intolerance from around our necks. This subject is such a wide one and I look forward to reading more of your pieces. Loved it!

  2. Francyne Kelley Kennedy

    Congratulations Jean. This couldn't be more timely. I'm truly having a difficult time adjusting to "living blue in a red state," and welcome a safe place to discuss race and race relations. Both of my parents were born in Texas but I was born and raised in California. Though I visited Houston often throughout my childhood, I wasn't prepared for such a difficult transition when I moved to Katy several years ago. As an older parent of an African American man child, my heart's desire is to enrich his life with a balanced and confident sense of self. So far it's been a bit challenging but my husband and I are committed to raising an independent, God fearing, well educated, young Black Man.

  3. jmwn

    Fear is mixed in there somewhere. I suppose that when what you have considered your exclusive domain and privilege for decades starts to crumble and fall away, its a scary feeling, and one tries to hold on to what was, but at the same time the crumbling is liberating for the folks who finally see and feel a lightening of the load that "they" have borne for decades. I think you are correct that a larger segment of our youth may be the most liberated yet, but we still have a good large number that have been thoroughly indoctrinated by their fathers and grandfathers and will be with us for years to come. Hopefully, they will be introduced to your pages and the disease of ignorance is replaced by buoyant enthusiasm. We will also have many of those bigoted fathers and grand-fathers (mothers and grand-mothers) with us for years to come, as the age of mortality continues to increase.

  4. Tinker Gogggans

    This is a wonderful idea and is beautifully constructed. Like you, I am optimistic about the Millenials. We are constantly reminded of discord, distrust, and intolerance, and surely there is a strong element of racism in the recent strife in Washington. But as the President attempts to teach us, communication and reason will in the end win out. Empathy and love will ultimately trump fear and hate.

  5. Linda Vaughan

    This is wonderful, Jean. Growing up in NYC, I had friends of all color and religions. Guess that's the way the big city is. It wasn't until I came to Texas that I saw the divisions.

    1. Francyne Kelley Kennedy

      Linda Vaughan, I agree whole heartily. Texas has sparked such growth in my spirit. I'm just getting in from seeing 12 Years A Slave and my words are few. Still digesting....

  6. Diana Farrar

    Our 'isms' become debilitating, rendering us powerless although we believe they somehow make 'us' better than 'them'. We cling to these 'ideals' despite the destructiveness and divisiveness they bring to our lives and to all those we abuse with our attitudes. Kudos Jean, for having the courage to tackle such sensitive subjects. Can't wait to see more!

  7. Caffin Gordon

    Thanks for highlighting this issue. I read the paper and watch the news daily and wonder why so much divisions exist between the races. On the other hand, I try to rationalize the reasons and it does not make sense. Thanks for sparking a discussion.

  8. Irwin Thompson

    Thanks Jean Nash Johnson for a very pleasant start to a long overdue conversation. As Dr. Cornell West puts it, "Race Matters."


      Hope you've had a chance to look around. You may already know this but The Cover piece "Are We Getting Along Yet" is a standing feature on the eRaceyourisms Website that describes the blog's mission. Visitors to the eRaceyourisms Home Page, can access the blog from the Menu bar to find posts. (There currently are four posts, plus a post on what's coming.) If you subscribe via "Contact Me" (also under menu), you will be notified of future posts via email.

      (You may already know how this works. Since I've have had visitors and subscribers ask about the actual the blog, and any other content, I'm assuming visitors are not going beyond the Web site cover page.)

      Thank you for visiting the site, and thank you for the support. Please feel free to add to the conversation on each blog item. Comments are welcome and encouraged.

  9. Pat Gaston

    Wow Jean, I love the premise and your first piece.....i am so looking forward to reading and to hopefully contributing to your conversation. Here's some food for thought: I was reading a New York Times piece the other day on how as the conversation about race shifts, that new movies and books remind us that the long shadow of oppression still lingers....your readers might find this interesting:


      Hey Pat, thanks for the feedback, and thanks for reading. The cover piece you read is a standing introductory feature to It will remain on the Website main page for first-time visitors/subscribers. Access blog posts from the Menu line underneath the Website's signature photo and logo. Click on "Blog" to see what's coming up, as well as old posts, including two posts on the n-word. Also, check out other pages on the site.

      Thank you for the Times link. It's easy to talk about starting conversations on race, not so easy to do. Many pols and talking heads called for more honest discussion on race last summer in reaction to the Trayvon Martin trial. I believe that such conversations have to be a part of our everyday lives and communities and not only driven by tragic events. I've never been more sure of that as I am now. Please poke around the site and weigh in. You always have important things to say. Don't forget to subscribe.


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