This is the sixteenth installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short post about it. Here’s the start of our nonfiction shelves!
There are two books that have changed how I view the world and try to move through it, and one of them is on this shelf: Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night. The author, a psychologist who grew up in a Black South African township and who was among the leaders of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, conducted a series of jailhouse interviews with Eugene De Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” for his part in committing crimes against humanity as a part of the apartheid-era government.
Gobodo-Madikizela writes about her experience, and about the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s larger work, with remarkable candor and compassion and intelligence. Forgiveness is not simple, nor should it ever be treated as such, she writes. It is, however, a choice that victims and survivors can make, one that can create a new kind of freedom for an entire nation.
I am not, as a rule, someone who does very well when it comes to letting go of bad feelings. This book changed how I think about both forgiveness and guilt. Thankfully, I have not thus far suffered anything as devastating as many of the people she quotes in her book, and I’m nowhere near as accomplished a practitioner of grace and humility and forgiveness as I ought to be. Not so long ago, when I found myself stuck on a highway that was shut down while a certain politician’s motorcade drove by, I discovered just how readily accessible my feelings of rage remain. (For the record, I stayed in my car and kept the windows up. (At least there’s that.)) However, there’s beauty and new possibility available, I believe, in the expression of grace. I will continue reaching for it.
In a season when many people are recommending powerful and thoughtful works by Black authors, I hope you’ll consider this title as well. It is remarkable.