Of the gazillions of words that have gushed forth after Nelson Mandela’s death, for my money the single most illuminating comment was uttered by Dwayne Morgan on Steve Paikin’s TVO show The Agenda. Morgan, an African Canadian performance artist, pointed out that his 6-year-old daughter Egypt knows who the president of the United States is, and that he is of course black. In fact the only U.S. president Egypt has ever known is this black man, so to her, black is simply what U.S. presidents are. It is hard to exaggerate the momentousness of this insight.
But that wasn’t all. Egypt Morgan had also learned that the most wonderful, the most universally loved person in the whole world was Nelson Mandela. It’s true that he was, sadly, now leaving us, but for Egypt, not only was the President of the United States black, so was the greatest man in the world.
It is highly probably that as she grows up, Egypt will find out that besides Mandela, the other two people in the world who are widely considered the most wonderful humans of all time were Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. I’m sure Egypt’s daddy will talk to her one day about gender equality too, but for now the critical issue is colour or race.
Since for the past 600 years, to our eternal shame, the racial inferiority of non-white people was a dominant theme of western culture, this is a truly thrilling, revolutionary development. First it was the European-driven slave trade that led to self-serving myths of white superiority in order to rationalize one of the greatest crimes in human history. Later, western imperialist rule, imposed forcibly on non-white peoples across the globe, generated pseudo-scientific gibberish about the evolutionary ladder that placed whites at the very pinnacle, blacks at the very base, and other colours in-between.
Yet today, there they are – Mandela, King, Gandhi – remarkable role models all, skin colour seemingly no longer an issue. Anyone who had predicted such a phenomenon would have been dismissed as a utopian dreamer.
But even the emergence of these three was far from inevitable. As I documented in this space last week, for decades most of the rich and powerful in western countries feared and fought Nelson Mandela, by no means venerating him as they now do that he’s gone.
Once Martin Luther King began speaking out for economic justice for all exploited Americans and against American aggression in Vietnam, his popularity in the U.S. plummeted. At the time of his murder by a white racist, he was a marginalized figure, with most Americans holding an unfavorable opinion of him.
As for the saintly Gandhi, it was no less than Winston Churchill, himself on some misguided lists as one of the all-time greats, who dismissed the Mahatma as a “half-naked fakir” or holy man. But Churchill wasn’t necessarily singling out Gandhi, since he also declared (among many other grotesquely racist statements): “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
Is all this ancient history? The truth is if you were inclined to feel the slightest bit grinchy this season, it’s easy enough to show that the reverence for these three men hasn’t done much to help most people of colour. Just ask those across North America who are rudely stopped by the cops and frisked without the slightest provocation except their colour. Just look at the stats for poverty, joblessness, incarceration. Look at a survey by the Association of Canadian Studies and the Canadian Race Relations Foundation that found fully one in four Canadians didn’t much trust Aboriginals.
Yet that figure actually makes Canadians sound relatively tolerant compared to the U.S. Just last year several American academics studied some data and concluded that an appalling, demoralizing 79 per cent of Republicans held anti-black attitudes. But so did 32 per cent of Democrats, Obama’s own party! Who can forget that a majority of white voters supported both John McCain and Mitt Romney over Obama? Or that tens of millions of Americans fear and despise the President and still believe he’s not really American? Does this not suggest that sick old American racism is still very much alive and thriving?
But let’s not go there, shall we? Particularly at this time of year, it’s simply masochistic, Scroogish, to dredge up these ugly factoids, when we have young Egypt Morgan to lead us towards a new reality. Heaven knows there is no shortage of those who deserve buckets of coal in their holiday stocking this year. But for now, let’s rejoice with Egypt’s proud dad and march hopefully into a new, enlightened, color-blind future.