The bridge

Hugh Masekela – singer, composer, trumpeter – in Washington D.C., 2007.

Hugh Masekela – singer, composer, trumpeter – in Washington D.C., 2007.

Like many this week, I’ve been haunted by the death of Nelson Mandela. In watching the coverage, I was flooded with memories of my years as a cultural writer for Gannett who reported on the arts and sports worlds’ reactions to apartheid in the 1980s.

Culture is more than gala productions attended by ladies in couture and jewels. It’s about the fabric of a people.

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at his home in South Africa at age 95, understood the transcendent role that the arts and sports can play in uniting a people and galvanizing them to recognize that no one is truly free as long as some remain enslaved. That’s why I can think of few better ways to pay tribute to him at this time than to listen to the music of Hugh Masekela, Paul Simon, Annie Lenox and others who voiced a movement. (Some may wish instead to watch Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” about how Mandela used rugby to bring his nation together, or await the Christmas release of Harvey Weinstein’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”)

Often when I met with South African musicians and filmmakers, they would ask me the same question, How did America do it?  How were we able to create a racially integrated society?

I was almost ashamed to answer, because it begs another question:  Have we?

In my forthcoming novel “Water Music,” tennis superstar Alí Iskandar seeks to unite the people of his two countries – Iraq and the United States – through tennis and song. But he comes to understand that when someone belongs to two worlds, he sometimes ends up belonging to neither.

Still, there are people who are put on this earth to be a bridge, to lay down their life as it were. It takes time and hard work. But soon others gravitate to the bridge, stand on its strong foundation, link arms.

Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela was that bridge.