United by the common thread of death, Nelson Mandela, McDonald Bailey and Michael Als have now completed the journey of a life spent with purpose and, to different degrees, in service to others.
Written large in letters of light, Mandela’s story is cast across the global sky as an epic struggle framed by courageous conviction and capped by a wisdom distilled by the conquest of self. By the end of his long walk to freedom in 1990, he was already more symbol than man, his name alone powerful enough to stand between the forces of South Africa’s searing past and the beckoning promise of a different future. Just by enduring for another quarter century, Mandela has given South Africa the gift of priceless time with the chance of holding the vengeful forces of history at bay. In freedom, he reshaped his life into a statement of forgiveness, dancing and smiling his people to some future place of healing. Now, it is left to time to determine whether he merely postponed the inevitable or truly succeeded in carrying South Africa beyond the retaliatory instincts of pain. That the reconciliation he negotiated has held up until to now is reason enough to hold on to hope.
In 1948, as Mandela was coming to prominence in the African National Congress, a young man from Hardbargain in Williamsville South Trinidad was emerging on the world stage of athletics. Basil Ince recalls the hissing that greeted McDonald Bailey’s image on the screen at Globe cinema in Port of Spain when he was introduced as a British athlete, having chosen to run under the Union Jack after being bypassed for the T&T Olympic team. However cheated we might have felt, the sight of our boy on the bronze step of the winners podium at the 1952 Olympics would have burst our breast with pride. There, in the finest form and on the highest sporting stage of all was an expression of us at our best. For a people fumbling their way towards independence, McDonald Bailey, the first Trinbagonian sprinter to win an Olympic medal and to write his name into the 100 metres record book, gave us the confidence to believe that we could indeed take the walk to freedom and stand among the sovereign nations of the world. His daughter Christine Tanker has recalled how the feet that scorched the Helsinki track also delighted in dancing while his life’s purpose turned towards building a legacy of writing and documenting as he headed towards the final score of four days short of 93. Even with his passing, it is not too late to settle our long outstanding debt to McDonald Bailey.
For Michael Als, death came in mid-step at the age of 67. A few weeks ago, his voice weakened by illness but still steely in fibre, he called to insist that something be done about the human rights atrocity in the Dominican Republic. Assured that it would not be allowed to pass, Michael insisted on being kept in the know because, whatever action was taken against it, he wanted to be involved “even if I have to drag my sick ass there”.
“This must not stand,” he thundered.
By November 6 when Jouvay Ayiti sounded the drum, raised its moko jumbies into the air and pounded the pavement to deliver its petition to the DR Consul in Port of Spain and to the Prime Minister as chairman of Caricom, it was too late for Michael to take a stand on anything in more than spirit. But by raising his voice he had already done so much more than so many others.
The story of Michael Als remains to be written as another life steeped in moral conviction in search of expression.
His was a journey through the radical politics of youth, the spirited trade unionism of adulthood and a settled investment in community development from his retreat in Toco where he founded the Toco Foundation and Radio Toco.
Like Mandela and McDonald, Michael was a writing man, his own seared sensitivities spilling onto the clean blank page, salve to the bruising experiences of his politics. The theme of our last conversation was love: love of the Caribbean family and of his own family as he stood his ground for the Dominicans of Haitian descent and laughingly described his daughter’s careful and loving ministrations, revelling in the joy of having surrendered himself into her hands.
To his baby brother Mario he bequeathed his love for justice and the dignity of working people. Clinical yet compassionate, Mario carries his responsibilities with level-headed cool as deputy president of one of the country’s most powerful trade unions, the Banking, Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU), born of the merger of the Bank Employees Union and the Bank and General Workers Union which was founded by his brother Michael in 1974. In his own reminiscence, deputy president of the National Workers’ Union, Cecil Paul, tells how Michael Als “almost single-handedly formed the Bank and General Workers Union from a single desk and small office space on Frederick Street, Port of Spain, provided by the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and the Council of Progressive Trade Unions (CPTU)”.
Today, in addition to workers across the financial sector, BIGWU is the single largest representative of media workers in T&T.
All of us write our own eulogies by our words and deeds and by the lives we touch, whether for better or worse.
Whether we know it or not or even wish to acknowledge it, all three, Mandela, McDonald and Michael, have left their mark on us. A fourth, Gordon Delph, who also took the train to the Great Beyond on Thursday, also deserves a space in our thoughts this morning as one who carried us to the heights of achievement when he was crowned Caribbean Under-17 Table Tennis Champion in 1972. To his son Sebastian and to Sebastian’s mother Josanne Leonard, let the music soothe the memories.
And may we find examples in the best that was in them to guide our own steps forward.