I downloaded a couple of movies to watch on the airplane to and from Ireland. I ended up watching only one of them: I am Not Your Negro – the James Baldwin documentary. It was enlightening to say the least. In the documentary, James Baldwin talked how he was affected by the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and their context in his own civil rights struggle As I watched and listened, I heard things about Malcolm X, in particular that wasn’t familiar to me.
Upon arriving home, I borrowed The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), and again, I was inundated with information that I had never heard before. The most surprising thing that I discovered was Malcolm’s conversion away from the Nation of Islam and his change to a less anti-white activism.
I wonder if perhaps my growing up was too close to his time.
I’ve often wondered why I know so little about Vietnam, civil rights, women’s ERA, and activists who weren’t Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was born in 1966, almost two years after the assassination of Malcolm X. I was about eighteen months old when Dr. King was assassinated, and not even born yet when President Kennedy was, but I still had very clear memories of both men. I’m sure that most of that was due to media, but today I still wonder about the lack of attention, not only in the media I watched as a young child but also in the education I received.
I attended school from nursery through fifth grade in New York City from 1970 to 1977 after which we moved to the suburbs out on Long Island. I distinctly remember bussing. I remembered waving to classmates as they boarded buses to bring them home while I walked home with my brother and cousins.
I remember my Black friends in school, especially two boys, one named Lonnie and one named Robert, but they weren’t the only ones in my class, just the two boys I was closest friends with. They were different as night and day. Lonnie had a huge afro compared to the size of his head, and Robert wore his hair close to his scalp. The girls that I can recall on the schoolyard wore braids with colorful beads, and I was so envious of how “easy” their hair styled. I say easy because despite my stick straight hair, I was always walking around with knots and tangles and I would have done almost anything to have their hair. I could never jump double dutch – I was so uncoordinated on my feet, but I was thrilled that I was allowed to turn the jump ropes for the girls who could.
Now, I could see that it was a tumultuous time, at least that’s what I’m reading now about then, but living through it, we were more or less sheltered from current events. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but our insulated community didn’t really discuss what was going on in the political world. My neighborhood, the places we shopped, went to the doctor, my parents’ workplaces, the pizza place up the road – they were all diverse. I didn’t have a negative reflex in seeing Black people, or brown or Asian in my neighborhood and in my safe places. I didn’t know the word integrated. I just viewed brown skin as part of my world despite no one living and playing in my neighborhood who wasn’t primarily white, or partly white and/or Jewish.
I’ve always had Malcolm X in my mind as a radical, a revolutionary, a militant. All are not necessarily positive descriptions.
I realize that reading an autobiography is not always the entire story. It’s all about perspective, and so even in self-deprecation, I’m sure Malcolm X wanted to be seen in a positive light, and I can understand that.
I’ve just started reading a biography by Manning Marable that is described by the San Francisco Chronicle as a “masterpiece,” and by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as the definitive biography of this outrageously misrepresented figure,” titled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. It is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2012, after Marable’s death.
As I said I’ve just begun reading this, but I will include a video from C-SPAN that has some counterpoints to Marable’s work that I intend to watch later this week.
One of the things that really stood out to me, though about Malcolm X, his politics, and his views was how closely they seem to align with today’s Black Lives Matter movement, and other current civil rights protests and movements.
Working from the grassroots, in the neighborhoods, being self-sufficient, relying on each other instead of other groups or the government, self-confidence, pride, black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and others things espoused by Malcolm X, especially closer to the end of his life. It seems that while he was eschewed while alive, and it’s taken decades to come around, his way of thinking is almost mainstream in black politics today.
The more I read, the more I learn, and the more I see how much my education at the time was lacking. It shows me that I have to educate myself, and share what I find with others.