Commentary: Remembering My Father and Nelson Mandela

William Oliver Boykin showed his son what it meant to be a strong Black man.

Posted: 12/06/2013 09:31 AM EST

With all the tributes to Nelson Mandela pouring in from around the globe, I'd like to share a personal story of my own.

I haven't talked about it publicly, but last month I buried my father in Chicago. He passed away at 71. His death reminded me of the journey we had traveled together and afforded me some much needed perspective on how I've spent, and sometimes wasted, my time in the limited number of days we're each given on this planet. 

My father, William Oliver Boykin, and Nelson Mandela couldn't have been more different. But each, in his own way, accepted me for who I am and taught me valuable lessons about life and love.

I met Mandela when he came to Washington for an official state visit at the White House in October 1994. As you might expect, the president receives lots of important visitors, celebrities and dignitaries, and White House staff members are supposed to maintain a professional distance from them. No photos or autographs are expected to be taken.

But this day was different. Everyone knew we were in the presence of a towering figure in human history. I had been reading about Mandela for more than a decade. I first learned about him when I was a young reporter covering campus protests for divestment during the anti-apartheid movement at Dartmouth College in the 1980s. I remember dancing to the song "Free Nelson Mandela" at frat parties on campus. The fight against apartheid was the defining social justice issue of our college careers.

So when Nelson Mandela elegantly walked through the lobby of the West Wing of the White House after meeting with President Clinton, he was greeted like a rock star. Normally reserved White House staff members fought their way into handshakes and photographs with the South African leader before he could make it to his waiting limousine. I was unprepared for the moment. These were the days before smart phones, and apparently I was the only one who didn't bring a camera. Not wanting to be part of the mob scene, I waited until the very last second, cautiously extended my hand, and for one brief moment we connected.

As a Black gay man who had recently come out, I viewed Mandela as the personal hero I had wanted President Clinton to be. I had signed up to work for Bill Clinton after I saw him speak at Harvard a few years earlier, where he promised to lift the ban on gays in the military. He never did. But Mandela, half a world away, had already steered his newly democratic nation to become the most progressive country in the world. I was impressed.

During Mandela's five years as president, South Africa became the world's first country to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution. Mandela's government effectively repealed anti-gay sodomy laws in 1994. The U.S. didn't do that until 2003. South Africa passed laws prohibiting LGBT discrimination in employment in 1995. The U.S. Senate just took the first step in that direction last month. Mandela's country also allowed gays to serve in the military back in 1998. The U.S. didn't do it until President Obama changed the law in 2011.

But this is how Nelson Mandela helped redefine Black masculinity for me and a generation of others. While some pastors in the U.S. were dwelling on foolish comparisons between the civil rights struggle and the gay rights movement, Mandela was building bridges with the LGBT community. And while Robert Mugabe was condemning homosexuality in neighboring Zimbabwe, Mandela was unabashedly aligned on the side of equality in South Africa. He didn't have to, but it was the right thing to do.

When I "came out" to my father in 1991, I didn't know how he would react. He was not as worldly and progressive as Mandela, and yet he responded by sending me the only letter he'd ever written to me in his life. He simply wanted to say one thing — he loved me. He didn't have to, but it was the right thing to do. The last time I saw my father alive, I returned the favor. I told him I loved him and kissed him on his forehead.

The night of Mandela's state dinner in 1994, a young Whitney Houston performed at the White House. She sang "Love's in Need of Love" and "The Greatest Love of All." When she was finished, she hugged Mandela for a very long time. He hugged her back. He was an influential world leader, but he was not afraid to be soft and gentle.

Now I've come to realize that, in different ways, my father and Nelson Mandela showed me that being a strong Black man was not just about responsibility, but mostly about love. And for that, I'll miss them both.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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