Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Malcolm taught me

I'm a little late...but for those who are unaware, this past Monday, May 19th, was Malcolm X's birthday. He would've been 83. I am not about to write one of those "what if..." posts because, at this time, it is not inconceivable that he would not have lived to 83 naturally. I think the discussion should focus more on what can we still take away from his message and from his life. He remains one of the most misunderstood figures in American history. Because of our own intellectual laziness and cultural prejudices, it is very hard to really get close to a holistic view of any major historical figures. This remains doubly true for prominent African-Americans in history. The most illustrative example involves the figures of Dr. King and Malcolm X. They are often, and inaccurately, portrayed as the lover and the hater. The all forgiving teacher of non-violence vs. the white-hating militant. This duality serves neither man as both were much more complex.

Malcolm, in particular, has had a great influence on my life. I was required the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" the summer before my freshman year of high school and it changed my life. I have written before about my issues with self-hatred and it was the Autobiography that helped to recognize this self-hatred and place me on a path to combatting it and learning to love myself and my people. And what made the messages within the work so powerful was because you travel along with Malcolm through all of the stages of his life. My confusion and despair mirrored his own and I took strength from his life. In addition, I don't know if there is a better work that will help anyone come close to understanding the deep rooted despair, anger, nihilism, and hopelessness that many American blacks deal with in their everyday life. Malcolm X eloquently illustrates how poisonous America has been for some of its people, but there is also a fierce strength and hope to combat all of the negativity that tries to overtake us. It is not only the will to survive, but to demand that all be treated as humans.

After his treck to Mecca on the hajj, Macolm returned to the US preaching a gospel of unity, peace, and common humanity. But this message did not blunt his belief in defense and preservation of the self. While all men are our brothers, I will not allow a man to lay a hand on me. It was that uncompromising stance that alienated and still alienates those that hear of Malcolm. His earlier incendiary statements scared and infuriated white America. He fearlessly called white people devils, liars, and hypocrites. Never before had black anger, rightceous indignation, and moral force been so eloquently expressed than when Malcolm would speak on the evils of America's racist history. It was a message that many feared and hated because it called everyone to account. It called white people, not only those who actively beat and degraded blacks but also those who stood by and did nothing but profit off of being white in a racist country, charlatans and hypocrites, the inheritors of a country with a rotten and ugly history. In the same breath, Malcolm would chastise blacks for falling into moral degeneracy. But he would temper that message by explaining to them that he knew how easy it was to get by on the white man's scraps and to discount yourself and your value when from the first time you draw breath, the primary message you absorb is that because you're black you're nothing. He exhorted blacks to take responsibility for their lives, to help each other collectively, and move forward in spite of white people. It was loud, brash, angry, collective and terrifying for the majority. It was beautiful and inspiring to me.

And later, his message is modified, but his core truths remain the same. He was unforgiving of American history. He was still unimpressed with the actions of the federal government because too often in the past the federal government tried to act and made only half measures, and blacks were still left destitute and exploited. But his message now contained the essential truth of common humanity. But, in order to fully participate in this common humanity, blacks had to demand that they be seen and treated as human. That was something Malcolm changed. He demanded to be looked at as a man and treated as such. He would not bow his head for another man because he was black. He would embrace anyone who came to openly and with love and he would kill any man that would mean to do him or his family harm.

It is that strength, that conviction to defend one's own humanity, coupled with openness and a true love of humanity that I have tried to use to guide my life. I am not perfect. I am by no means a morally strict or ascetic person. I try to do right by the people I meet and I try not to break any laws. In that sense, I am wanting. But everyday of my life, I try to wake up and remember that I am not just an individual, but I am a man in a vast world and everyone around me should be treated with openness and warmth. But if anyone were to ever come to me with the intent of doing harm, then I cannot hesitate to protect my own humanity. I am a man. That was what Malcolm taught me.