Title

The Leaders We Need Now

Of Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Zadie Smith, among others.

August 9, 2018
 
 

One of my favorite authors is Zadie Smith. She’s a mixed race British woman who grew up in a housing project in north London. I remember reading her debut novel White Teeth as a graduate student at Oxford 20 years ago and being deeply inspired by the music she heard in the multicultural mosaic of modern life.

She recently wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books about Brexit, an election in Britain that highlighted divides, revealed ruptures and sent shockwaves not unlike a recent election you might have heard about on this side of the Atlantic.

There’s a particular story she tells in that essay that I think says so much about where we are at now, and the complicated work we need to do moving forward. Zadie Smith is at the playground and her daughter is playing with the son of this white woman standing a few steps away. The woman is considerably younger than Zadie, although their children are about the same age. She speaks in an accent that signals membership in the broader social and ethnic class that voted for Brexit.

Zadie remembers a time when conversation would have come easily between them. In fact, friendships that cross boundaries is the overriding theme in many of her novels. Neither she nor this other person are antisocial, and the playground has plenty of racially mixed groups chattering away. And yet she can’t find words to share with this woman whose son her daughter appears to be enamored of.

The drama seemed to grow as they walk up the hill a few feet apart and still not talking, Zadie Smith watching this woman turn left into the housing project she grew up in, and feeling the woman’s eyes on her as she turned right into the new development of considerably nicer homes. The barrier between them felt like it had become an electric fence surrounded by armed guards – all of it invisible, all of it also feeling very real. 

Several things struck me about this scene. One, Zadie Smith is not neutral on Brexit. It’s a vote, not unlike the vote here, with deep and painful impact on her friends and family. After the vote, a skinhead directs a fascist slogan at her Jamaican-born mother. A local shopkeeper says in her general direction, “I suppose you’ll all have to go home now.”

Two, she’d seen a stranger and somehow imagined a monster. The fact is she didn’t know who this woman was, or who she had voted for, or why. She had imagined a story about this white woman on the playground, and it was the tale of a villain.

Three, Zadie Smith was self-aware enough to wonder, What story is this woman imagining about me, as she hears my Oxbridge accent and watches me turn the lock in a big house? Am I somehow the villain of her story?

The ultimate tragedy for me is that Zadie Smith and this woman, they loved things in common. Matters in which they had a significant stake. A friendship between their children, the thriving of the playground on which that friendship was developing, a neighborhood, perhaps a school. Whatever else might have divided them, why were they unable to at least begin with the things they loved in common? Why do we these days imagine monsters when we meet strangers, and turn away? 

For anybody who has read especially the early novels of Zadie Smith, it is a jarring realization. This is a writer whose imagination conjured the most optimistic visions of all identities of people, and combined them together in ways that made them better than they could have been alone. She herself is the product of a marital union precisely like that. But something about the poisoned social environment of post-Brexit Britain had deformed that imagination, and retarded even Zadie Smith’s superhuman gifts for conversation across boundaries.

For me, this scene says a lot about the times in which we live, the problems that we face and the work we need to do.

John Courtney Murray defines ‘civilization’ as “people living together and talking together.” Danielle Allen advances that definition by saying that a central act of citizenship in a diverse democracy is talking to strangers. She says that the goal of a nation like ours is not really oneness, which requires a homogeneity that is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, the goal is wholeness – the ability to have a sense of cohesion and coherence alongside our multiplicity. Michael Walzer defines it thus: “How are we, in the United States, to embrace our differences and maintain a common life.” Danielle Allen’s answer to this question is: when strangers are willing to build trust with one another, they have the chance to build a new wholeness, a society in which they can call one another citizen. 

So what do we do when injustice is so clear that you can no longer stay silent? When a country is so divided that we feel like a nation under two flags? And when the atmosphere is so poisoned that talking to a person on the playground who has a child the same age as yours feels impossible? 

It just so happens that as I was tying myself in knots defining the problem, Barack Obama shows up in South Africa and starts talking about Nelson Mandela.

One of the main themes of Obama’s speech was on Mandela’s willingness to work with people with whom he disagreed, even the ones who clearly oppressed him – his jailers. Mandela did things that I find superhuman. He learned the language of his jailers, Afrikaans, so he could understand them better. He met with them in private negotiations when he was in jail. When he was inaugurated President of South Africa, the person who held the keys to his prison cell was by his side.

For Obama, there is a deep spiritual wisdom in Mandela’s moves: “it was not just the subjugated, the oppressed who were being freed from the shackles of the past. The subjugator was being offered a gift, being given a chance to see in a new way, being given a chance to participate in the work of building a better world.”

The genius of Mandela was that he was able to speak about the problem of polarization in a way that didn’t paper over marginalization, and address the injustice of marginalization in a way that didn’t exacerbate polarization, and to do it all recognizing that there will always be legitimate disagreements between different groups in a diverse democracy.

He was able to paint a picture of a society where everybody thrived, and to get people to trust that he could play a role in leading them there. Aime Cesaire: “There is room for all of us at the rendezvous of victory.”

Michelle Obama said, When other people go low, we go high. Well, apartheid is the lowest low you can imagine, and Mandela’s actions the highest high. What he did reminds me of Edward Markham’s poem:

You drew a circle that drew me out

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win

We drew a circle that drew you in.

 

I do not for a second want you to think that I believe this is going to be easy. We have signed up for the hard work of being interfaith leaders in at a time in which large swaths of people have weaponized their identities and are wounding one another. It is enormously tempting in that situation to circle around your flag, burrow into your bunker, declare those outside your lines the enemy and fire away. My friends who work with young people who have been involved in violence tell me the line, “Hurt people, hurt people.” It is entirely natural.

And in a situation when hurt is all around, some group of people has to stand up and be healers. 

Obama ends his speech on Mandela by reminding people of perhaps Mandela’s most remarkable quality - his hope. His belief that day after backbreaking day splitting limestone in the unforgiving heat on Robben Island - even when apartheid felt to so much of the world that it would last forever – that he was somehow part of bending the arc of the universe in the right direction.

Mandela felt a cosmic wind at his back. He knew that young people were gathering to push forward. That gave him hope. He heard the voices of people who believed in societies that gave everyone dignity – voices ranging from African tribal leaders to the Founding Fathers of the United States – calling him forward. That gave him hope too.

I believe he heard angels whispering in his ear.

I hope you hear those angels, too. In fact, they are all around us. There is the angel of Swami Vivekenanda who spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, about the glory of nations that welcome all people and the righteousness of religion that builds bridges not barriers. There is the angel of Jane Addams, who imagines American democracy anew, welcomes the strangers of her time and sees in each one a contributing citizen. There is the angel of Abraham Lincoln, who says to a meeting of people in Chicago that America is not an ethno-state. It is not meant for one race or one religion. If you hold with the ideals of our founding documents, you are “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh” of the people who wrote them. 

I leave you with the voice of one more angel, the great poet of the south side of Chicago, Gwendolyn Brooks:

 

SPEECH TO THE YOUNG SPEECH TO THE PROGRESS-TOWARD (AMONG THEM NORA AND HENRY III)

Gwendolyn Brooks

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
"Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night."
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

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