One of the most stirring moments of my youth — up there with riding between subway cars out to Coney Island and back in the June heatwave of 1986, in a vortex of wind and noise, and meeting Joey Ramone on the line for the toilet at a loft party in 1988 — was the April evening in 1985 when, as part of a marching mass of college-student protesters, I danced up Amsterdam Avenue to the joyful rhythm of the song “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Specials. Someone must have had an amplifier and a car, but all I remember is the song, the night, and the happiness.
Three weeks earlier, we had padlocked the doors to Hamilton Hall and set up camp on the cold stone steps to protest apartheid and insist that Columbia University divest its assets from South Africa until apartheid was ended. We had sleeping bags and pillows; sympathizers brought us sandwiches and hard bagels and there were many speeches and arguments. Our march to Harlem came on the last day of the building blockade, after a student leader had removed the chain from the entrance: We had won a promise from Columbia, which would indeed divest not long afterward.
“Free Nelson Mandela” was a protest song, but also an international dance hall hit:
Free Nelson Mandela
Free, free, free, free, free Nelson Mandela
Free Nelson Mandela
Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see? I said,
Free Nelson Mandela, I’m begging you
Free Nelson Mandela . . .
What good times those were. It’s true what those meanspirited right-wing commentators like to say on television: Protesting is fun and kids do it, partly, for the lark of it all. It was a great lark to sleep on the steps of a blockaded university building, in the spring, with the gingko trees in flower and the night air so sweet, and it was a burst of joy to march across 118th Street to the Canaan Baptist Church to the chorus of the sounding-brass ska horn section.
The anti-apartheid victory march of 1985 was also, theatrically — or maybe I should say “literally,” like something in a novel, literary — one of the most disillusioning moments of my youth. I’d learned the definition of the word “satori” the previous semester in a comparative-religion course: a sudden slap of Enlightenment, as experienced by Gautama Buddha under the bodhi tree. We had set off from campus in what we thought was a spontaneous parade, going who-knew-where, and were dumbfounded to discover that we had been led, a gaggle of giddy dupes, straight into a campaign rally for C. Vernon Mason, a muckraking lawyer who was running against Robert Morganthau that year for Manhattan District Attorney.
Our celebration had been handily hijacked, a nifty trick, by a pied piper; we, a bunch of Ivy League babies, were literally marched, body and soul, straight into the pews of the Canaan Baptist Church, as ready-made campaign-rally attendees. I was pissed.
I read, now, on Wikipedia that C. Vernon Mason is today an ordained minister, “thinker,” and teacher. If I met him, I’d like to thank him for teaching me not to be such a cliché of white liberal naîvete. He was sued after the 1987 Tawana Brawley imbroglio and was disbarred in 1995.
Anyway, I keep hearing that song by the Specials — free, free, free — because my eldest niece, Adelia, who is a senior at Dartmouth, is in Johannesburg this month for a public-policy program run by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, called Promoting Growth and Broadening Prosperity in South Africa.
How little the college kids of today are like those of the 1980s. At least those of my acquaintance are paying much more attention to their actual studies. Practically all I remember, myself, from college was the crush I had on my American history professor, Professor Foner; the television in the cafeteria that, weirdly, was always playing the 1970s sitcom “What’s Happening!” (with the disco-dancing character called Rerun), and a redheaded girl named Alison who wanted to be an astrophysicist and was a model with a modeling agency called Click. She had a bomber jacket that said “Lick” on the back because the iron-on “C” had peeled off. That’s what I remember. I’m only sort of exaggerating. My mind was elsewhere, completely, and my body was doing the bus stop at the Milk Bar on Seventh Avenue South.
Adelia’s one of a group of 13 Dartmouth undergrads on the South Africa trip, and I’m eagerly journeying along via their daily blog postings, which feature photographs of the local sights (a raging pink sunset over the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, a yellow-billed hornbill on a fence) and of their meetings with important people. Here is a snapshot of the Dartmouth students talking with Nhlanganiso Mkwanazi, an investment manager, about “the importance of having access to capital and economic expansion for social mobility”; here is one of them interviewing Dr. Sithembile Mbete, from the Council of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority and the Ministerial Advisory Committee on the Electoral System. There is my Dealie beside The New York Times photographer Joao Silva; there she is, with an expression I recognize of grave attention, touring the Apartheid Museum in Soweto.
Free, free, free, Nelson Mandela!
Nelson Mandela, having been moved from the infamous Robben Island, was still held at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town when I took part in the divestment protests at Columbia. He’d been in jail since the summer of 1962 — 22 years down, and five more to go. Someone on the steps of Hamilton Hall, amid the jumble of damp nylon, bodies, and discarded takeout coffee cups, would shout “Amandla!” and everyone else would shout in response, “Awethu!” Power to the people, the rallying cry of the anti-apartheid movement.
Again, how different the college kids of today are. In photographs — comparing images of Columbia in 1985 with Dartmouth 2022 — their hair is so much more carefully groomed. They are less of a mess. Society asks more of my nieces’ generation in terms of not just career-planning but image-polishing. I’m told the average college woman spends hours each morning with hair-care devices, flattening it on either side of a center part or creating those double-sets of long, tubular curls that won’t go out of style. But I trust that none of my nieces is fool enough to waste many precious hours of youth looking into a bathroom mirror with a Dyson Airwrap in hand.
For some reason, the song “Free Nelson Mandela” is lodged in a drawer in my memory alongside another song, and the two verses have been playing as a mashup in my brain this past week — actually, it’s a Bible verse, and one that bears no obvious relation, or even tangential textual relation, to the Specials’ pop hit. It is Corinthians 13.1.8, the chapter and verse that was carved into a warm stained wood plaque above the altar in the chapel at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, where I got a good high school education, although no one talked about racial justice at boarding school then. Corinthians 13.1-8 is a random association, in this column about South Africa and apartheid and progress, but if I quote it, I trust you will understand what I mean:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,
And have not love,
I am as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy,
And understand all mysteries,
And all knowledge,
And though I have all faith,
So that I could move mountains,
And have not love,
I am nothing.