FREE MANDELA and other cardboard signs

“Suck my Dukakis!”

My friend Connor and I fashioned the “Suck my” on paper and magic marker taping over the original sign, the phrasing of which I can’t remember, but I’m guessing “Commie Dukakis” or “Down with Dukakis”. We pushed the sign into the vent so my Dad’s friend Dean could see it. We giggled until he came around the house, screamed at us, and probably wished my dad wasn’t some hippie peacenik type so he could beat the shit out of us. Quite frankly, he probably should have and saved the world some trouble… It was 1989. I was eight and already knew how to offend someone like a proper adult.

The sign was cardboard, nailed onto a 6ft long 2x4" along with a 1/2 dozen other signs. I don’t exactly remember them, but here are some guesses: “Nuke Iran”, “CIA! CIA”, “Better dead than Red”, etc. etc. It was part of my dad’s attempt at political theatre. Before the ’88 Bush election, he would bring the sign down to the center of Amherst and stand in front of Shawmut bank wearing his spy outfit: Coffee and cream trench coat with waist strap tied tight, aviator sunglasses, fedora hat, black leather shoes, red necktie, 1/2 bleached willie nelson style braids tucked into said hat, skull and sword dangly earring removed and stored at home. It wasn’t particularly convincing.

When I heard about Nelson Mandela’s death today, the first thing I thought of was a sign. My dad had another homemade cardboard and marker sign he kept in the back of our gold ’78 corolla. The car was long since deceased, but the sign was a permanent fixture of my childhood. The car’s main purpose for several years was simply to hold the sign. Positioned strategically at 45 degrees from the road, the sign sat in the back windshield so it would be visible for the maximum amount of time to the commuters flying down Rt. 63. It read “FREE MANDELA” in black, green and gold.

I vaguely remember my dad telling me about South Africa, Palestine, the Contras, Big mountain, Malcom, Martin, SNCC, Panthers and the rest. I suppose I don’t remember, but I know that I knew. I came into this world expected to fight injustice on every street corner of my comfortable little New England college town and that’s just the way it was.

It’s so easy to get self-righteous. Oh I have, and I do and I will. But if I look slowly, dispassionately, with some of the restraint beaten into me by age and understanding, it’s clear I am not in anyway responsible for my political or social views any more than a klansman is responsible for his.

I need to get on the path, lay it down, do something for that to count. I know this. I know that believing ain’t shit and this piece won’t fix a damn thing. And if I am really honest, my parents, for all their signs never changed all that much. And they have retreated to their computers, their apathy and their ignorance like the rest of us.

What I’m about to say is totally cliche and a cop out, but I’m going to say it anyway: I am very thankful for that sign. My dad’s handwritten font, the feeling, the pride behind knowing my dad was on the side of justice. That he is a brown man isn’t important, but it’s also crucial. That there is solidarity, and love and despite how little it probably matters, he felt he needed to teach his son about Nelson Mandela and not forget.

This morning I was talking to my three year old about a very special uncle who died today. I got to tell a different story. Yes, I told the story about people who hurt other people because of what they were, not who they were. But more importantly, I told the story of a man who forgave, who thought deeply, loved completely and transcended what he was and what he had been through to help us discover who we all are together. And I’m honored to have shared the earth with him.

Originally published at on December 6, 2013.

Jacob Singh
CTO in residence at Sequoia Capital. Independent product and Engineering Coach Mediocre guitarist, singer, rock climber, point guard and baker Dedicated dad. American in New Delhi.
New Delhi