I was 5-years-old when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. It would be another 20 years or so before I learned what got him there. Mandela was a distant figure throughout my youth, but I knew he was deserving of respect. His salt-and-pepper hair, his slow yet deliberate walk and his booming voice made sweet by his African lilt informed me, even as a child, he wasn’t just some guy.
Growing up in Queens in the ’90s, however, made South Africa seem about as distant as Saturn. All the country’s woes and its wins wasn’t a concern for a shy kid, turned boy-obsessed teenager. “Whatever’s going on in South Africa is South Africa’s business,” I foolishly said to my teenage self.
But as I got older, and injustices became too blatant to ignore, pieces of Mandela’s teaching orbited their way from my peripheral to my direct line of sight.
Then, in 2013, when news outlets reported on Mandela’s touch-and-go health, I learned of his lofty sacrifices, his world-changing accomplishments, and his grace made more resolute with his warm smile. During his last year of life, I understood Mandela was actually more than any of us could imagine.
To honor the 25th anniversary of the first Democratic election in South Africa, Mandela’s legacy organizations hosted a luncheon at Marriott International’s Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. The affair, which celebrated Mandela’s becoming the first black president in South Africa, was attended by dignitaries, entertainers, guests and all those inspired by South Africa’s resilient leader.
BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee opened the two-hour event and assured everyone it’s her mission as a Marriott board member to execute all of Mandela’s ideals.
“I lead the company’s committee to ensure excellence in diversity and inclusion Globally. #LoveTravels – the cornerstone of our purpose-driven marketing program – represents our celebration and support of inclusion, equality, peace and human rights and we cannot think of anyone who embodies these values more than Nelson Mandela.”
Orange Is The New Black actress Uzo Aduba took to the stage following Lee’s welcoming statements. The Emmy-award winning actress and gifted orator delivered a passionate rendition of Mandela’s May 10, 1994 inauguration speech.
“Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”
Aduba, 38, continued, “We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom, that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil.”
After guests dined, Graça Machel, stateswoman, activist and Mandela’s widow spoke. Donning a small blonde Afro, a pink silk scarf and a navy blue knee-length dress, Machel expressed her appreciation to all those who continue to champion her late husband’s work and even quipped about her love for leaders.
Aduba returned to the stage this time as a moderator leading an intimate conversation with representatives from the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela’s Children Fund, and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. Before the afternoon was over, guests were treated to live entertainment from Grammy-award nominated singer-songwriters, Chloe X Halle.
Two hours wasn’t enough time to appreciate Mandela’s legacy or even come to a full understanding of his life, but guests left thankful, full, and gracious to have spent the afternoon honoring a man who showed the world that “it only seems impossible until it’s done.”