This is my favorite picture of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, has been since I was a child, her fist raised in the air, defiant, unshaken. On Monday, when I heard the news of her passing, this was the image that persisted in my mind: courageous, complex, flawed, so very woman.
Yet, I mourn for Winnie also because she has been denied this ability to just be in death as much as she was in life. We’ve simplified her, we’re trying to deny her the very characteristics that shaped who she was. The headlines scream out the laziness of particularly Western journalists to attribute her political consciousness to her. They call her a mere activist, instead of a revolutionary. They reduce her to just Mandela’s wife, or Mandela’s prodigy, immortalizing him while erasing she who kept his name alive for twenty seven years, even though her own political consciousness was shaped long before she stood up to lead the anti-apartheid movement, even though we can argue for days about how badly he treated her. Twenty seven years is almost a generation: a child is born, goes to school, graduates, goes to college, and starts a family, in twenty seven years. This woman gave twenty seven years at the peak of her life to bringing down a white supremacist apartheid regime, and in your ‘think’ pieces and newspapers, you reduce an icon to a sociopath.
Winnie was a living lesson in all the things black women are: radical, unflinching, flawed, strong, beautiful to the very end. She showed us that please and thank you are not appropriate responses to colonialist hegemony, that you can’t sanitize oppressive regimes to keep up appearances. That safety should not be a privilege. That fighting for freedom is not a pretty gift wrapped up neatly with a bow and a note card of appreciation. That our society fails our fore-mothers when we strip them of their well-deserved context. They did what they had to do, and we are better for it. That we fail them again and again when we hypocritically sit on our perch in better times and erase the debilitating trauma of white supremacy from their stories.
The past few days have shown me why exactly African women must keep writing, even when literary canon doesn’t acknowledge those who look like us, even as we fight to be seen as just human, to be seen as complex and ourselves in a world that in its rush to tread on us, doesn’t often recognize us. Our writing is important because it lifens us. We get to be angry, and have that be a good thing. We give glory to our emotions, we preserve them in their raw, unpalatable, unsanitized form, we let them fester out in the open. If we don’t write about us and our pain, they will write about us anyway. They will villainize us anyway. They will demonize us anyway.
We will be the proverbial lion whose roar emboldens a nation to fight for its children, and yet we will be remembered as predators that had to die by those who are part of the oppressive systems that kill us.
I hope when we write about a woman like Winnie, we write about all of her. I hope we show pictures of her smiling as often as we show pictures of her protesting, because while her smile was beautiful, so was her struggle. I hope we don’t write her in the archives of history as a docile wife. I hope we write about her vibrant anger. I hope we write it so that we can’t ignore it seeping out of the pages into our own lives, and that her anger catalyzes us to imagine a better future for ourselves. I hope we canonize her, with every one of her flaws, because who are we without the things that try to break us? I hope we write about women like her while they are still alive, and then long after they are gone. I hope we name our daughters after her, and as we watch the next generation of strong women be really and truly themselves, in freedom and grace, we will know that maybe, just maybe, our time here has been worth it.
As Dr Foluke Ifejola so beautifully wrote:
“Winnie was a rock. They struck her and complained she was too hard.
Winnie was a vuvuzela. They played her and complained she was too loud.
Winnie was a black woman. They saw her fire and said she was too much.
They will not let her rest in peace, but she was never interested in their cold and fragile peace. She was a warrior who never rested…so Reign in Power Mama Winnie. Reign on.”
A legend has gone to be with the angels, and we didn’t deserve her.