Ever since I was in my 20s and read all of Doris Lessing’s angry early novels, set in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where she was raised in the 1940s, I have been fascinated by events in southern Africa. I’ve followed the literature, film and music of the region and championed from afar causes related to the banishment of apartheid. When Nelson Mandela died last month, I stayed close to media coverage in order to follow the eloquent tributes in the days leading up to his funeral and South Africans’ celebration of the life and accomplishments of their beloved leader and example. We were reminded of the suffering he endured in prison but also of his immense capacity to forgive and his vision of moving beyond pain and hatred through the healing power telling one’s story and being heard by a community.
This process of healing immense pain and suffering took place primarily through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This amazing process began to allow South Africans to put the past behind them and reach for a more just and peaceful future after the country’s first democratic election made Mandela president in 1995. It provided a place for people to tell and hear the stories of the violence, terror and human rights abuses of apartheid days, horrific as they were, and to use those stories to create the possibility of reconciliation and healing rather than vengeance and punishment. A young woman named Amy Biehl, and her family, represent one such story.
Amy was a young white woman who had gone to high school in Santa Fe and continued on to Stanford University, focusing on African studies. Upon graduation in the early 1990s, her work in college earned her a Fulbright fellowship in South Africa, where she worked on voting issues leading up to the first election and was swept in to the drama of South Africa’s transition to democracy. She championed racial equality, women’s rights and a positive future for children. Just days before her scheduled return to the US, her car was attacked by a group of young black men, members of the Pan African Congress, and she was brutally murdered. It was 1993, and she was just 26.
Her death was a terrible tragedy, but the story does not end there. Amy’s parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, were inspired both by their own daughter’s courage and compassion, as well as Mandela’s example of the power of forgiveness. They were invited to attend the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings for the four men convicted of Amy’s murder. If it was determined by the commission that her murder was a political act, the four men could receive amnesty. Linda and Peter made the following statement when they arrived: “We come to South Africa as Amy came: in a spirit of committed friendship. But Amy was always about friendship. About getting along. About the collective strength of caring individuals and their ability to pull together to make a difference…. We cannot, therefore, oppose amnesty if it is granted on the merits. It is for the community of South Africa to forgive its own.” The four men were freed as a result of the hearings.
A few years later, the Biehls arrived in Albuquerque for the opening of the Amy Biehl High School, and we heard how the story had continued after the hearings. Amy’s commitment and spirit had inspired her family to start the Amy Biehl Foundation, whose goal was to continue her work for democracy, peace and justice for all in South Africa. Not only did they raise money to return to South Africa regularly to carry on Amy’s legacy through a myriad of projects, but they had hired two of the young men who had killed Amy to work with them!
A year or so after that, Linda returned to Albuquerque on a national tour with one of those men. Together they told Amy’s story to students throughout the city, adding their own story of meeting one another and the transformational power of forgiveness that led to working toward a common goal. The auditorium was hushed as the story unfolded, and I believe others felt the same goose bumps I did as I listened to these “ordinary” people talk about their courage in creating a positive future from a bloody past. I’m quite certain each of us wondered as we left the auditorium how we would have faced similar circumstances and what we could be doing right then to make a difference in our own small piece of the planet.
When I began this blog, I thought the focus would be on Nelson Mandela and the power of forgiveness. But as I wrote I began to see that an equally important focus is the power of stories—stories that can lead to changes in attitudes and actions. To speak and share the raw truth of our story is to open the door to forgiveness with understanding, a more sustainable forgiveness based in seeing the common humanity that we share.
At our best as teachers, we know the power of stories to engage and motivate students and help them remember. Stories are why I became an English teacher. And as Rudyard Kipling observed, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Amy Biehl High School in Albuquerque continues to use the Biehls’ story to guide its curriculum based on social justice and service learning and to inspire its students to make a difference in the world. Nelson Mandela understood the power of both stories and forgiveness when he called forth the TRC, hoping that people speaking their truth and listening to others in a spirit of reconciliation could be redemptive and create an unassailable record of that terrible time in history. Amy Biehl and her family are one of many examples that live on as proof of Mandela’s convictions. Their legacy provides ongoing inspiration to people across the globe, lighting the way for us to chose the power of forgiveness and truth each day.