12/11/2013 12:29 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

What Mandela Meant to an 8-Year-Old Boy: Looking Back and Looking Forward

I only vaguely remember the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. But the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela -- his fight against apartheid, his 27 years of captivity, his steadfast faith in reconciliation -- continues to resonate deeply within me.

After hearing the news of Mandela's transition last week, I was again that 8-year-old boy captivated by images of Mandela walking out of prison and onto the world stage.

Back then, South Africa appeared nightly on TV as a far-off place rife with strife, violence, and turmoil. People were passionate and ready for change; allies around the world were poised to support. The nightly news flashed images of Black South Africans, young and old, parading, singing, and even jogging in unison for the cause of freedom. Vivid footage showed children and teenagers in school uniforms dancing on dirt roads. And then there were the military men with tear gas, and long sticks, flogging and battering back crowds of people.

I didn't understand the upheaval in South Africa until grownups explained "apartheid" to me through the lens of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Actually, I found the name of the country, "South Africa", to be peculiar. Alongside countries like Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, South Africa sounded like a location designation, as opposed to a proper country name.

However, the "South" in South Africa made sense because the Southern U.S. conjured images of hostile separation. In addition, I was puzzled that apartheid meant separation, because something that was "apart" and then "tied" was supposed to be together, right? The term was strange to me.

Other images resonated. The proudly clenched fist of South Africans, held aloft while being beaten during protests, while delivering rousing speeches, and even while praying in church services, were powerful images. These fists were not intended for harm but for something completely different. Fists were clenched while mouths sang freedom melodies with words I did not understand. Whether sung in Zulu, Xhosa, or Sesotho languages, the repetition, rhythm, and imposing beauty spoke with enough gravity for this 8 year old to "get it."

The call for divestment in South Africa was widespread in media, even reaching the situation comedy I watched on TV, "A Different World." On the show, the Hillman Students Against Apartheid aligned with the marginalized of South Africa and built campus movement to encourage college officials to divest in companies that supported apartheid. At the time, I didn't understand the full meaning of divestment, but I knew it must have been a positive move to help lift the oppression of Black people in South Africa.

In February 1990, President FW de Klerk announced Mandela's release after 27 years in prison, and the slow dismantling of apartheid began. I remember seeing Mandela in his suit, with Winnie by his side, both with fists and smiles. The combination of fists and smiles seemed odd, but oddly right. To me this moment symbolized that finally, things were on the right path for them and for the world. Nearly 20 years later I would have a similar feeling when Obama was elected President.

Mandela's release symbolized a new era of racial healing, locally and internationally. And suddenly, South Africa was everywhere. Musicians like Paul Simon and singing groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo catapulted the sounds of South Africa to the forefront of popular music. Miriam Makeba appeared on "The Cosby Show," and the student band at my arts center ( learned "Grazing in the Grass," the No. 1 hit recorded by exiled South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. School choirs added Siyahamba, Singabahambayo, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, and other freedom songs to their repertoires.

Mandela's image was on T-shirts, posters, and in music videos. To me, everything about South Africa was hip because it truly reflected a revolution gone right. In the mid-1990s, Mandela offered an alternative, older, yet accessible role model to fledgling social justice-minded youths, as an international revolutionary. Nationally, we had Martin, Marcus, and Malcolm. Now we added Mandela among the giants of justice. With Mandela's ascension to presidency, my love and admiration for him and his beloved country soared and sustains till this day.

Although South Africa continues to struggle with racial and economic uncertainty, it remains a beacon of hope for 21st Century racial healing. And while I still have much to learn about the ongoing freedom struggle in South Africa, Mandela's passing calls me to reflect on his story, his purpose, and how his anti-apartheid convictions made such an impact on my early years. The dismantling of apartheid was one of the most salient historic events in my life, even if my 8-year-old mind didn't understand all its nuances at the time.

Reflecting on my own childhood in relation to Mandela and the revolution that surrounded him causes me to wonder about today's youth. Not only do I wonder what will they learn about Mandela, but I also am curious about what contemporary struggles they follow. Surely they hear the calls for justice in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's slaying; they hear debates about marriage equality; they hear about the endless struggle for peace among the Palestinians and Israelis, to name a few of the headlines. Today's youth also have the distraction of social media that I didn't have. Their attention is pulled in so many ways; it's tough for them to sift through the sheer volume of news and propaganda to latch onto a national or international cause to follow.

It's hard to know how we as adults can help our children become more aware of the historical and revolutionary events they are witnessing, but we must do so. How can we teach them the just way to fight for equality? How can we stimulate a resiliency in kids so they have the strength to stand up for just causes no matter the obstacles?

Perhaps the simplest way is to remember the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The mortal man is now gone, but his ideas, his actions, and his impact live on through us to future generations.

We owe it to Mandela to keep telling his story and keep singing freedom songs. With fists held high and a smile on our face, we must hope and pay attention to struggles across the globe, and we must urge our youth to do the same.