While a student in the United States at the height of the Jim Crow era, a young Kofi Annan needed a haircut. He was curious about the divisive racial politics of the era but unaware he would be caught in its web upon entering a local barber shop in Minnesota by the shopkeeper. “I don’t cut nigger’s hair.” Kofi looked at him in disbelief – but replied with the gentle but tireless manner that would become his trademark, “I am not a nigger. I am African.” He received the haircut. This was a favorite of his anecdotes used to amuse and inspire us, his young and aspiring apprentices.
The first black African Secretary-General of the United Nations, a stubborn optimist by his own description, Mr. Annan presided over a decade of the most glittering triumphs and the darkest hours of the United Nations, redefining its role all while it seemed the torch of human rights could be extinguished forever. Ideals we see imperiled anew today, as hatred creeps across even the most developed of our societies.
At the United Nations International School, my friends and I knew Mr. Annan as Secretary General, a moral pater familias. Men and women like him – like my father, Stefano Trincia, a journalist of great esteem honored posthumously in these pages only a few days ago – believed in a more perfect balance, an unflappable vision that a better and fairer world is not only possible but within our grasp.
Emboldened to try, to reach as far as my arms could carry, many years later I found myself sat at my first job – at the Kofi Annan Foundation – where I had the chance to work alongside Mr. Annan to help find the words to describe the unprecedented global challenges at our doorstep. We sat together one afternoon to discuss a speech he was to deliver on Holocaust Remembrance Day, pouring over our attempts to find the right words to describe an affront to human dignity of this magnitude. This was impossible. It was then that I proposed a passage by Primo Levi, our countryman, who was troubled in “Se questo è un uomo,” by the exact inability of any words to adequately capture the demolition of mankind. Mr. Annan and I fell on the same words by Levi – that despite the shortcomings of language to describe these timeless wounds, we needed to push on. “They will even take away our name,” Levi wrote, “and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”
This is a clarion call for strength and vision, to carry the torch borne by our idols, to face the forces of hatred and bigotry that challenge what we know to be right – in Mr. Annan’s own words from his Nobel lecture, that “peace must be made real and tangible in the daily existence of every individual in need. Peace must be sought, above all, because it is the condition for every member of the human family to live a life of dignity and security…because beneath the surface of states and nations, ideas and language, lies the fate of individual human beings in need.” A fight that is more imperative, more relevant now than any other time in our history.