Opinion: John Lewis Gave Me the Greatest Bearhug of My Life by Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., PhD

Photo: nycaribnews

October 5 will be exactly 5 years that Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving of the keynote speakers at the historic 1963 March on Washington, came to my State University of New York Community College to give a brief assessment of the Martin Luther King, Jr-led African-American Civil Rights Movement. Recently, one of my colleagues and friend, Prof. Kim Ballerini, emailed me a picture that she took of me during the post-book-signing reception that was held in Mr. Lewis’ honor. In the picture, I am wearing a beige-like brown leather jacket. Kim emailed it to me several weeks ago, as both a reminder of the historic John Lewis visit and in supportive response to a virulently sardonic email that one of our colleagues, a Black Lives Matter demonstration tourist, had written to all the faculty of our department that was clearly aimed at trivializing the all-too-familiar racist circumstances surrounding the neck-asphyxiation death of George Perry Floyd, the video shot of which went viral around the world.

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The beige-brown leather jacket is in the most recent of picture of me published by the Modern Ghana media portal. In the background of the aforesaid picture can be seen major television network cameras set up in preparation for the arrival of Cong. Lewis in the reception hall. I had almost forgotten the fact that it was nearly 5 years ago, until another colleague who had cohosted Cong. Lewis as a member of the campus hosting committee, in her own words, wrote a terse note about the same on our faculty email thread yesterday. To be frank with the Dear Reader, my colleague’s note did not read like a traditional tribute to me; it read more like a bragging right to me, albeit a very coy one at that. Almost as if to smugly say that, yes, I was there in person, and I played an active role in the event, I am not such a bad person, after all, or am I? Which, of course, is all well and good by me, although, truth be told, for the past 5 years, or so, the same colleague, I was hired several years before she was, but she is white and, of course, higher up in the proverbial pecking order, has been strenuously trying to literally make life a “Personal Holocaust” for me.

Talking of which reminds me of a “pretend tribute” that an 86-year-old renowned Ghanaian journalist, he shamelessly claims to be much younger than he actually is – like an aunt that I had who claimed to be of the same age for ten years until she died some five years ago at 89 years old; she had made us all, his children and nephews and nieces believe that he was 79 years old – which is all well and good with me, wrote about Mr. Nelson R. Mandela’s youngest daughter, Zindzi, South Africa’s Ambassador to Denmark, who died just last week. We learn that Zindziswa had been tragically felled by the godforsaken COVID-19 Pandemic. May her soul fiercely continue with the still-unfinished Global African Liberation Struggle wherever she may find the same. Zindzi was especially close to my heart and my age, too, being just some 4 months older than I am but the exact same age, nonetheless.

She was very dear to my heart because she was one of the reasons why I staunchly took up the Anti-Apartheid cause as an undergraduate student journalist at the City College of New York of the City University of New York (CCNY of CUNY) in the 1980s and ended up getting inducted as the only non-South African citizen Honorary Member of the City College Chapter of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was the only student organization on campus that not just about any student could join, because it was also a citizen-oriented political party. I was graduating in 1990 that May when Mr. Nelson R. and Mrs. Winnie M. Mandela paid a widely multicast and massively reported official visit to College, which was at the time reported to have the largest South African student body of any American college or University.

Anyway, the Zindzi pretend-tribute writer ended his rather vapid piece by saying that he had been one of the privileged foreign media guests to have made it to the inauguration of the then President-Elect Mandela. Good for him, of course. It is on videotape somewhere in the Audiovisual Services Department at the college where I still teach and have been teaching for a little over 23 years now. I am, of course talking about the historic visit of Cong. John Lewis to Nassau Community College of the State University of New York. You know, legends like Nelson Mandela and John Lewis are never really addressed in print or even in verbal conversations as “Late,” which was why I was a bit turned off by the pretend-tribute for Zindzi which only turned out to be scarcely anything more than loosely strung up quotes from the Internet from South African politicians and other local luminaries who had worked the trenches in the Anti-Apartheid struggle.

By the way, I almost forgot to also add that Cong. Lewis had been invited to Nassau Community College, popularly known as NCC, together with his two much younger white coauthors of his bestselling graphic roman a clef titled “March,” a 3-volume book about both the Martin Luther King, Jr-led 1963 March on Washington, DC., and former President Barack H. Obama’s inauguration as the First African-American President of the United States of America in January 2009. The Multipurpose Auditorium at my college was jampacked to standing-room-only capacity with college administrators, students and faculty. There must have been at least close to 200 book purchasers lined up to have their books autographed by the legendary Alabama-born but Georgia-based United States’ Congressman. I cheated, somewhat, by joining the queue somewhere in the middle. I cannot vividly recall, presently, but it was most likely a colleague dean or one of our senior administrators who “winked” me into the line.

When it got to my turn, I told Cong. Lewis that I hadn’t really come to the book signing meet to hear him speak or even sign the book-reviewer’s copies that had been sent to me from his publisher somewhere in Maryland or Virginia. I had written and book review-edited the world famous African-American newspaper of record, namely, “The New York Amsterdam News,” for some 15 years. From 1987 and 2002. To be certain, it was in 1987, or thereabouts, that Cong. Lewis had just begun his glowing and very progressive congressional career. He was therefore a very familiar face and public figure in my compendium of global African personalities. I had simply come to receive a hearty hug from this living legend. “A hug, Congressman Lewis. That is all I need from you.”

Well, Cong. Lewis stared intently and wistfully at me, eyeball to eyeball. Nothing doing. I had already moved away from the desk where he sat busily autographing purchased copies of his books. The person behind me was about to have his book signed by Mr. Lewis. I felt somewhat bashful and mortified for having attempted to be so familiar and presumptuous with this globally renowned gentleman Civil- and Human-Rights legend. Then, just as I began to descend the staircase from the stage where he sat, the revered and well-beloved Georgia Congressman shouted for me to come back; actually, the person behind me must have tugged at the cuff of my jacket. Then just as I turned to look back at him, Cong. Lewis briskly stood up from the desk, tore away from his chair and said to me, “Come on, let me give you a hug.” Then he opened his arms and gave me the strongest bearhug I had ever been given in my life. We must have hugged for at least 30 seconds to close to a minute. Then, suddenly, as if Niagara Falls had busted the banks of its gorge, a flood of students and faculty rushed up to give the 75-year-old, 40-ish-looking Democratic Congressman from Georgia a hug.

As I write this tribute, a flood of tears is/are fast suffusing my eyes. God bless his heart and his soul. Congressman John Lewis, 1940-2020.

*Visit my blog at: KwameOkoampaAhoofeJr@modernghana.com

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