He wasn't what I expected, this Nelson Mandela of which we had heard so much.
Though I had adopted the title of "African" American like most of my relations in the Diaspora, I was never more aware of how little I really knew about Africa and this African hero than I was on that day in 1990 he was freed from prison as the whole world watched.
His isiXhosa name is "Rolihlahla," which translates roughly as "troublemaker" in English. And that is what I expected that day. A tough guy, strutting out of those prison gates fist upraised, fire in his eyes.
But the man I saw did not look like a troublemaker. And there was no fire in those eyes -- though there was much warmth. And affection -- I remember that. As if he loved every single face he saw. And me. Somehow, me, too, all those thousands of miles away.
When he finally spoke, it was not with the clever catch phrases and rhythmic, church-inspired cadences of the black leaders I had known here in America. It was beautiful, but you had to pay attention. And you had to think about the words you heard.
I would later learn that Mandela had been born into an aristocratic family. And while there was none of the arrogance of the aristocrat, there was the eloquence of a well-educated man whom time had tempered somewhat.
And as he spoke, I realized that never having lived in South Africa, much of what he said and had lived was very foreign to me, in the end. I celebrated his victory, but I did not fully understand it. The struggle of his people was akin to mine, but I could not begin to imagine what they or he had endured.
I was chastened by this. But that was a good thing -- the real learning could begin now that I had admitted how much I did not know.
But in truth, I don't remember a word he said that day. I never listened to Nelson Mandela's words as closely as I should have. Because I was always watching Nelson Mandela the man so closely. And wishing that we had someone like him here in America to teach our young black men how to carry themselves with such quiet dignity and effortless grace.
I believe he was able to do the remarkable things he did because of the remarkable man he was. With that dignity and grace he could speak to the nobility in his enemies, and make them feel good about themselves and the tough decisions they had been loath to make.
So I would watch him, and wish he could spend some time on the meanest streets of America, just... walking. All he would have to do, I swear, is walk and talk a while, with those angry young men who grew up without a good man in their lives to show them what that looks and feels like.
As I watched all the tributes tonight, I forgot, again, to listen to what he said because I was looking into those eyes and laughing when he danced in that jaunty, puckish little way in solidarity with the jubilant people singing his praises.
They're dancing for him in the street in front of his house tonight and I know he is dancing with them. He was a good man who did what he was sent to us to do, and now he has gone on and will be watching to see what we learned from him while he was here.
Mourning the loss of the man he called South Africa's "greatest son," Jacob Zuma, the current President of South Africa, said, "...what made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."