For Nelson Mandela

Soweto’s soccer stadium is packed,
Obama’s speaking in the rain, the crowd
is wrapped in plastic. Words like freedom, black,
equality ignite some cheers so loud
my TV speakers vibrate. What am I,
a white American, to make of this?
Another great man’s died. Madiba. Why
is this name new to me? A teacher, Miss
Mdingane, had named him Nelson years
before. Colonial quashed Tribal in
those days. Those days in prison, too: he must
have burned with fury, then with love, with tears
that cleared a vision: Free yourself within.
Free others. Serve until your body’s dust.

A Monday, MLK Day, everyone
is free from school. Mandela’s on my mind,
and Malcolm X, and Jackie Robinson.
It’s too easy to be white sometimes: a kind
of blindness, yes; and guilt, of course; and smug
name-dropping in a sonnet. Vow to be
a better man, I tell myself. Don’t shrug
and shuffle. Act. We know the brave man’s he
who conquers fear. Mandela talked and walked
it: twenty-seven years in prison, Peace
Prize, ANC, World Cup, apartheid blocked
and nullified, black president. Release
your demons, then defeat them, then forgive,
he’d say. It is the noblest way to live.

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