Mything Mandela

By Deborah Menkart

Illustrator: Kadir Nelson

Mandela, the beautifully illustrated children’s book by Kadir Nelson, has been selected as one of the top books on Nelson Mandela by many groups, including Colorlines and Kirkus Reviews. Given Nelson’s talents and strong reputation as a children’s book author and illustrator, Mandela is likely to become a staple in libraries and classrooms.

One look at the cover and it is easy to see why the book is so popular. The illustrations are stunning. Unfortunately, this picture book presents the same mythological image of Mandela that has been the norm on the mainstream news. As journalist Bob Herbert lamented, the news media have reduced Mandela to a “lovable, platitudinous cardboard character,” and the vital role of the anti-apartheid struggle is effectively obscured in the process.

The mythmaking in Mandela begins with the book jacket: “Mandela saw fellow Africans who were poor and powerless. He decided he would work to protect them.” The text repeats this image of Mandela-the-savior: “Africans were poor and powerless. Nelson became a lawyer and defended those who could not defend themselves.” There is no reference to the fact that Mandela joined a movement. As Mandela himself noted: “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective.” And Mandela could not have launched the African National Congress (ANC) since that was founded in 1912, six years before he was born.

There is little indication in the book that African resistance to European colonization and white supremacy has a long history, dating back as far as the early 1500s, when African cattle keepers defeated Portuguese invaders. The one example provided of a pre-apartheid struggle paints the Africans as the aggressors: “The people . . . made war on the Europeans who came in search of land and treasure.” Actually, the Europeans weren’t just searching for land—they were taking it. And the Africans did not make war, they defended their land. This is much like descriptions of colonial U.S. history in which settlers were “attacked by unfriendly Indians.”

Nelson continues: “The settlers’ weapons were stronger and breathed fire.” This makes the Africans sound naive and so primitive that they attributed fire-breathing capabilities to the European guns. Unfortunately, these types of stereotypes of Africans are the norm in children’s literature and films, as Brenda Randolph and Elizabeth DeMulder explain in “I Didn’t Know There Were Cities in Africa!” (see Resources).

So how is apartheid explained in Mandela? With a painting of a beach and this text: “The people were set apart. ‘European only’ beaches. ‘European only’ parks. ‘European only’ theaters.” As John Meltzer notes: “In his presentation of apartheid policies and practices, [Nelson] privileges social segregation, what has been termed petit apartheid… It is incredible that the author does not mention the core of grand apartheid political exclusion, severe economic exploitation, and egregious social discrimination in areas of education, healthcare, and housing that were at the center of the ANC’s and Mandela’s opposition to apartheid.”

The brutality of the apartheid regime does not need to be depicted in a book for young children, but it would be age-appropriate to explain that black people in South Africa did not have equal access to education, jobs, land, and physical safety. These are all familiar to children; the concept of fairness is also understood at a young age. It would make a lot more sense to children that Mandela and others went to jail for decades to address core life needs rather than for the privilege of sunbathing with white people.

Similarly, the anti-apartheid movement is presented as solely focused on racial harmony. For example, the book notes that Mandela traveled to “free nations where black Liberians, Ethiopians, and Moroccans freely conversed with white Europeans and brown Egyptians. They shook hands—a glimpse of freedom for life at home. Nelson returned to South Africa to cleanse his homeland of hate and discrimination.” Actually, Mandela traveled to other countries to build support for the resistance movement. Asking others for help and solidarity are concepts young children can understand.

The few references to solidarity are posited as coming from the “ancestors.” Although possibly an effort to be culturally relevant, the use of ancestors in the absence of naming activists (other than Winnie Mandela) is misleading. For example: “Speaking out was against the law and Nelson was arrested and jailed for a fortnight with 100 men. They danced and sang, calling on the ancestors to join the fight for freedom.” As Meltzer notes: “While it is technically correct that many of the songs that were used in the liberation struggle had roots in traditional songs [about] ancestors, the author’s statement leaves the impression that the primary purpose of these songs was to intercede with the ancestors, ignoring the central role of music in strengthening commitment to the struggle for freedom and justice while attracting wider participation in the movement.”

This is particularly troublesome in a book that does not describe the work of other South African freedom fighters. Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, the thousands of children who fought for liberation, and many more are replaced by unspecific “ancestors.”

Of course, a Disney-like story needs a happily-ever-after ending, so here it is: “As years passed, the world pressed South Africa to change. The new president agreed, and ‘European Only’ signs came down. Beaches, parks, and theaters opened. Apartheid was no more.” The book ends with a painting of Mandela with his fist in the air, rising above a crowd of people whose faces barely make it on to the page. The text says, “South Africa was free at last.”

Not only will this leave children confused about the current struggles in South Africa, it also misleads them about any social movement. There are milestones and victories, but the struggle to make the world a better place is ongoing. This is especially true in South Africa, where the end of apartheid was by no means the end of economic exploitation and inequality. The happy ending mirrors the dominant narrative about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States: When legal segregation ended, victory was achieved. Students do not learn about Martin Luther King Jr.’s stand against the war in Vietnam or civil rights activists’ continuing fight for social and economic justice.

What do children learn from reading Mandela? That black Africans suffered for centuries because they could not go to white beaches and that they were hopeless until Mandela came along. Mandela was all-powerful, and (reinforcing an all too familiar stereotype) Africans are poor and need to be rescued.

Mandela will fit neatly on the shelf with children’s books about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Cesar Chavez. The formula for these biographies is to present the heroic individuals in isolation, not as part of social movements. So when it comes time to face injustice today, children learn to look for the next savior to come to the rescue. (Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa breaks this mold, demonstrating that it is possible in a reader-friendly book for young children to tell the story of a hero in the context of a movement.)

Some will say: “But this is a book for young children. They’ll learn the true story later.” Here’s the problem: Ask any adult to tell you about the Civil Rights Movement or the struggles of the United Farm Workers. Most likely they’ll recite the same few names they learned from picture books in kindergarten and have learned every year since. Not only have they learned to name Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez—they have learned that those people were omnipotent and that no one else mattered. The same will be true with Mandela. If we don’t address the mythmaking in children’s books, his image will be used to avoid the many lessons that can be learned from Nelson Mandela’s life, intellect, commitment, bravery, and humanity as part of a collective struggle.

I hope that future editions of this book and new books about Mandela will draw on the rich stories in his life to inspire and inform young readers. That would be a real tribute to his legacy.


Deborah Menkart is the executive director of Teaching for Change and co-director of the Zinn Education Project.