On the utility of whitewashed prophets

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Nelson Mandela in 2008

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Nelson Mandela in 2008

Nelson Mandela in 2008

Nelson Mandela in 2008

If you’re a partisan, or just an historian committed to understanding the past as it really was, you are likely to be annoyed at the way great moral leaders get domesticated into respectable icons. So it is understandable that my colleague Omid Safi should denounce the tendency to smooth out Nelson Mandela’s radical edges. “Let us bury (the whitewashed) Mandela,” he protests. “Long live the real Mandela!” –

My own view, however, is that whitewashing our prophets is as desirable as it is inevitable. The whitewash is what preserves them in public consciousness. If the whitewashed Martin Luther King, Jr. had been buried, the real MLK would be just one more civil rights leader fading from the memory of society at large. It is because he has been erected into an unchallengeable symbol of the successful struggle for harmonious race relations that some of the more contentious parts of his legacy will be publicly chewed over for decades to come.

In the case of Nelson Mandela, there’s not much whitewash necessary. No, he was not a Gandhian pacifist. Yes, he joined the Communist Party. Unfortunately, he was overly loyal to old comrades in arms. Let those who object to his anointing be beaten into submission. Let the whitewashed statues be erected. This will keep him and his real legacy alive.

  • Peter Christensen

    Your notions about the good of creating martyrs ring hollow. Like burning witches once you whitewash the man his life will turn to ashes. Truth, reason, faith that is what will brings real change. Understanding that this man was violent in his youth and full of hate, that he appointed his comrades in arms once he was in power, that he became a strong-arm pacifist in old age is a much more powerful story that the one you would tell, of a lifeless and perfect man on a pedestal with whitewash on his black skin.

  • Bill Simpson

    Prof. Silk writes, “The whitewash is what preserves [prophetic figures] in public consciousness.” I’d add that the Santa Clausification process also renders the prophet harmless in death and protects the status quo from further critique. Silk should ask himself who benefits when a dangerous, dynamic human being is ideologically recast as a bland object of middle class / NPR aspirations to ineffectual niceness. Intellectual honesty demands no less.

  • Doc Anthony

    At least Mark Silk’s assessment is attempting to keep it real. He at least admits to the problem’s existence even as he tries to offer a justification.

    So far he and Omid Safi appear to be the only RNS writers who ain’t stone-drunk on all the Mandela hero-worship.