I never thought that I would be spending so much time thinking about Nelson Mandela and whales, but I have been. In paying attention to the many commemorative magazine covers honoring him, what appeared more profound than his passing was the documentation of a black man with a raised fist living as long as he did [A view similar to the one Rosa Parks offered through her remarks upon the death of Robert F. Williams, and reported by Timothy Tyson, in contending that she was “delighted…to find herself at the funeral of a black leader who had died peacefully in his bed”].
Black men who raise their fists like this, in a suit and tie–not a football, basketball, or baseball uniform after a championship game–are not supposed to live to be 95. In the United States, unarmed black teens can’t carry Skittles and iced-tea in their hands and make it past 17; and just forget about unarmed black men experiencing their mid-twenties as they lie face down on a rapid transit platform making it home to their four-year-old daughters; and no Lord, don’t even consider an unarmed black man getting married and celebrating his three-year-old’s birthday in two weeks or experiencing the personality of his five-year-old child after being shot four times in the neck and torso. It’s hard as hell to become a 25-year-0ld black man in these United States. In this country, any white person who declares themselves dedicated to “the daily practice” of making it possible for a community to “live safely,” is free to kill black boys and black men long before they could dream about living to be 95-years-old! Trayvon Martin never saw the other side of 17; and for Oscar Grant and Sean Bell turning 23 and 24, respectively, wasn’t even an option.
South Africa’s apartheid government certainly meant to kill Nelson Mandela. Held captive on an island, forced into performing hard labor in a quarry, and permitted meager access to visitors for 18 years at Robben Island, 6 years at Pollsmoor Prison, and rounding out his final years at Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela was supposed to die long before now.
In reaching the age of 95, Mandela experienced the longevity that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t even expect. I have been more surprised by the fact that Mandela lived as long as he did, than I am by the fact that he died. Captives aren’t supposed to flourish.
“If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:18). If we pay attention now, Lord, can we still have “peace flowing like a river?” Would that then compel us to set “the captives free?”
Peace is unlikely in captivity, but money flows from it “like a mighty stream.” For centuries, the desire for money has despicably trumped the desire for peace. This must be true because captivity has been and continues to be a habit of history–from sea to shining sea.
I don’t know how you can view a film like Blackfish and not connect it to this world’s routine theme of captivity. If you haven’t seen this film, I highly recommend it. I first learned of it through a review where the director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, cites Tim Zimmerman’s article “The Killer in the Pool” as her greatest influence. After watching Cowperthwaite’s film, it serves as the perfect visual accompaniment to Zimmerman’s article.
Though some have criticized this film for being a biased, unbalanced, and thus self-serving visual screed against SeaWorld, I don’t really understand why that even matters. There is no way that SeaWorld can deny that they put an animal that can weigh as much as 22,000 pounds, grow as long as 32 feet, and travel up to 100 miles a day, into the equivalent of a kiddie pool. This nonsense about “rescuing” and “rehabilitating” animals in the wild has long been a ridiculous claim to me. If whales get sick and die, that’s what happens to living things; that’s that circle of life stuff. Instead of “rehabilitating” animals, humans need training in minimizing their waste and polluting the environment.
Human rescue missions into the animal kingdom make me very suspicious. I lived in an apartment complex when I was in college that was very close to campus. I saw this girl, who also lived in the building, carrying a squirrel in her backpack; so I asked her about it. She told me that she “saved” this squirrel when it fell off a wire and its mother did nothing to help it. It wasn’t clear to me how she knew that the larger squirrel was the smaller one’s mother or how her intervention coincided with what the squirrel needed to learn on its own about city living. Domesticating wild animals echoes justifications of human captivity wherein “civilized” people declared that their intervention into the affairs of presumed “savages” equalled salvation. Rescue efforts coupled with captivity and domestication have never facilitated peace, but they have produced lots of money.
Recognizing enslavement as the urtext of SeaWorld’s tale of Shamu emerges prominently in the way pods, or whale families, are disrupted when their babies are captured. Orcas form pods that may be as small as five whales or as great as 50 whales. They speak their own languages and form very close bonds. Once a baby Orca is captured and then released back into the wild, it is very, very difficult for those whales to ever find their pods and in the rare and unlikely chance that they do find them, reintegration becomes difficult if not impossible; basically, it’s the Orca version of Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.
Mandela and the Whale
Mandela overcame captivity, which is extraordinary, but captured Orcas tell the most likely tale of captivity: brutality, trauma, and death. SeaWorld has seen profits exceeding $500 million, but “what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)