"Let us forgive them.” So said Nelson Mandela. The "us" meant Black South Africans, after they had finally tasted their own history, participated in democracy and were now savoring that moment when this nation officially – politically at least – also belonged to them with the 1994 election. The "them" was White South Africans, whose fear of being driven out of the nation or facing retaliation for the brutalities meted out via apartheid was a global focus and concern. Pundits and politicians would explore the importance of this politicized forgiveness the entire world over.
The vote offered a political belonging—the same belonging articulated by so many celebrating the 2008 historic election of Barack Obama. It was evidence of things – and a people – unseen as human, it was the substance of hope turned into action. Political belonging mattered. It would mean the creation of policy to begin to right the wrongs of institutionalized injustice that stole land, liberty, work, and offered only brutality. There are revolutions around politics, freedom, rights, policy—about understanding naming and challenging the institutionalized injustice and legislated inhumanity.
And then there are intimate revolutions.
I learned this during my first trip to South Africa in 1997. I landed in Johannesburg, interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Cape Town. I Spoke with Steve Biko's son, Nkosinathi and his widow, Ntsiki, and with Adelaide Tambo, who was gracious and warm, but didn't say much. As we were getting ready to leave, I told her my pop had served in Kwame Nkrumah's government in newly independent Ghana in the 1960s, at the same time the ANC's armed wing – Umkhonto we Sizwe – would travel to Ghana to train. We were at the door. She hugged me, wished me luck on my assignment. Adelaide Tambo hugged me again. She told me: “Go to the townships, go to Alexandria and Soweto, get the stories of the women.”
Alexandria. Desert and magic. Like all ghettos, creativity flourishes mixed with violence, lack, poverty, laughter, family and love. I would remember these women forever, their faces and words. One told me, “This forgiveness the world talks about is just politics, what do I care about White men – how do I forgive my Black husband who lies down next to me every night?” Another mother: “My daughter told me I won't live in shame. I was proud. I was terrified. Do you know how terrifying it is for your child to tell you she will protest a government that will kill her in her school uniform? And to know that you – her mother – raised her to be that. She went with her school-friends to protest. She was 10. I am here. How can she now be an ancestor? I see other girls. Grown, now. I am angry. Why them? Why not her? And Mandela asks me to forgive White men – how do I forgive myself?”
These women taught me that forgiveness can feel like a curse word—a spitting on the graves of buried babies, stolen joy and disappeared dreams. I listened to brothers who told me they do not forgive, that forgiveness is weak. Another told me “I want them to ask me for my forgiveness, so I can tell them ‘no.’” Some spoke of not “feeling like men.” Another shouted: “They care that White people feel safe, they care about them, always them first!” There was bitterness, rage, resentment, tears, pain, passion. I hear those voices now as I play songstress Imani Uzuri's haunting track “Gathering”: 'I'm living on stolen breath.'
"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies," Mandela famously stated. I learnt from that township and Mandela's words that forgiveness is not about transcending anything. It is not this magical, mysterious thing. The global gaze of world media, pundits, politicians, activists turned Mandela's call for forgiveness into performance. The stories I heard in South Africa reminded me it is not that. It is practice, it is process. It is a path. It is intimate. It is for you first.
A legacy of untreated trauma has multiple expressions. The toll of daily, relentless injustice can distort how you move through the world. It can make us emotional terrorists towards each other as we navigate these economies of and our intimate relationship with violence. The ache of loss, its legacy, its silence is language. We can become fragments, frozen. We can have calm, functioning exteriors, revealing nothing of the emotional turbulence within.
And then Black folk talk about that tough love that strengthens backs, builds character, readies bodies for a hostile world, the many micro-aggressions of racism. Sometimes, that love is simply trauma made manifest. Sometimes we need something else. We need a soft place to be, to fall, to stand. Forgiveness is the process of making peace with the person who stares back at you in the mirror, or your reflection in the eyes of your babies or your mama or daddy or a person you have loved and lost; or left or have been left by; or hurt or been hurt by. It is the work of walking through feelings, articulating them, it is finding language for what hurts and what has harmed in order to not let that pain motivate, dominate, shape your every action.
EBONY.com partners up with Esther Armah and Emotional Justice for #theFword: An Intimate Revolution, an annual creative campaign about forgiveness and global Black love. Click here for details.