I've written a lot about Malcolm X here at Cobb and I still think rather fondly of the man. I never read the Autobiography but I did read 'Malcolm X Speaks' in college and it knocked me for a loop. What I admired about Malcolm was that he was a smart man and a courageous man. He was both of these at a time when most Americans and certainly most black Americans didn't quite understand how to walk upright. Malcolm strikes me as someone who recognizes his own, and everyone else's original sin, in such a way that he discovered righteous redemption immediately at hand. So for him there was no need for shame. In the way of all who come before God, he found a way out of his past, and he saw a way to cleanse the future. So he sought to improve himself before God, and suddenly what everyone else thought wasn't so important.
That kind of confidence can be a dangerous thing, and so Malcolm made unnecessary enemies along his own path towards righteousness. His was an error of loyalty but he famously got out of the one kind of jeopardy (of his soul) and landed in another (of his life). It's difficult to say whether or not he was reckless, but he did electrify.
I have used the fact of Malcolm's religious conservatism to some effect here.
What made Malcolm great was that he had great faith and tied himself unswervingly to his religious discipline in ways that seem extraordinarily rare to us these days. He displayed an uncommon unity of mind and spirit. He embodied a kind of integrity we don't often see in public life. But he was also very clear about the work that he saw blackfolks needed, and it was very much in the vein of personal responsibility. I recall my brother's metaphors of the the past week. He works as a beat cop on Skid Row and he said of the indigent homeless that they do not wash their faces. They remain dirty because they have cut themselves off from society seeing no hope of ever fitting in. But of folks with hope, we wash our face every day because we expect to fit in. The culture of despair begins when one decides not to wash your face, when you decide to be dirty, and it is catching. Similarly, the dysfunctions of the black community Malcolm sought to address started with us washing our faces, of acknowledging our value in the eyes of God, of negotiating our respectability in society starting by cleaning up our act. To wit:
The platform that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, our religious leader, stands on is the platfrom of complete freedom, justice and equality for the 20 million black people or so-called Negroes here in America. And he teaches us that because of the seriousness of the condition that our people now find themselves in that it is absolutely impossible to solve our problems with means other than religion. And he teaches us that the religion of Islam is the only religion that will instill within our people the incentive to stand on our own feet. And instead of trying to force ourselves upon whites or force ourselves into the white society or blame the white man for our predicament and constantly beg him for what he has, he says that the only way that we can solve our problem is to unite together among ourselves, among our own kind, clean ourselves up, rid ourselves of the evils that we've become addicted to here in this society and try and solve our problem ourselves.
When I was quite interested in being a representative of the Old School, there was a lot of Malcolm to love. And to the extent that he still symbolically represents to many, various ideals of freedom, that is is very useful. There is a lot of bourgie baggage that people could discard in their pursuit of liberty and Malcolm could very well be a bracing reminder of that challenge. Malcolm wouldn't settle for slim pickings. No Affrimative Action could dissuade him from his righteous cause.
There is also, as I think of Malcolm, that nagging dissident counterpoint from Albert Murray. Malcolm was a city creature and as much as he spoke of radical ballots or bullets, we didn't see him down in the Jim Crow South putting his body in harm's way for the cause.
But I think Malcolm most importantly represents to me the gap between black Americans and Africans everywhere else. The failure of his post-Meccan ideas for the OAAU demonstrated how lofty and impractical trans-national organizations can be, especially unfunded ones. And for better or worse, it illustrated the difference between a man of the people and an academic. John Henrik Clarke was a founding member of the OAAU, and if it had any refining to do of its ideas and charter, he was certainly able. But like so many Pan-Africanists, Black Nationalist and other black power radicals, Clark found his home, not in the streets but in the university. And that comfy place is pretty much where all Black Nationalists remain. Pan-Africanism didn't happen because the superficial conditions that united one population in one year with another in another was completely a function of the messenger. As much as black Americans talked about how white Americans couldn't understand the black experience unless they lived in the ghetto, it was ironic that so many were convinced that people half a world away could feel each other's pain.
The prospects for Black Nationhood are dead and gone, and that is precisely because there is no black orthodoxy. Those like Clarke who would write them out, those like Cornel West who would compare and contrast them, those like Lorraine Hansberry who would meliorate them to a hungry public, are few and far between. They have the distinct difficulty of being heir to a legacy, largely that of King and Christianity, that provided quite substantically the substance of the Negro desire. As I like to say, when I was born there were only 20 million Negroes and most were poor. Today there are 38 millions of African Americans and most of us are middle class. We wanted civil rights and we got them. You would be hard pressed to go to the UN and plead the case for the poor African American, you'd be laughed out of the building.
When people talk about a separate black nation, they almost inevitably talk about 'taking back' Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia. Indeed when Georgia got its first black mayors, it was called the Black Mecca. The perversity of wanting to take over a slave state suggests strongly to me that it is not so much a question of forward looking freedom, but racial revenge. And of course Black Nationalism is inextricably bound to its racialisms. 'Cultural' black nationalists, of which I was one, say culture but do so with the intent of raising the culture of the black raise and loudly imposing cultural privileges and prerogatives on non-black races. There's really no call for that in the world, but it gets one fairly far in Georgia. So perhaps that's the last and only place for it. There's nothing quite like the beautific irony of tree lined neighborhoods teaming with happy upscale black families in the shadow of Stone Mountain. When I lived in Georgia, having moved there from 125th and Broadway in NYC back in 1995, nothing could prepare me for the gushing solicitations of white real-estate agents offering me discounts in the huge new houses built in Forsythe County, which used to be Ground Zero for the KKK.
I used to keep track of the many court decisions which marked the success of civil rights law. Many people heap all praise on the big congressional packages, but there were many individual court decisions that ordered integration. When we list them today, things like having black state troopers or going to the YMCA or serving on juries, seem almost trivial. And yet there remains something about the American South that lives in the bones of people in that region. What we in the non-slave states take for granted, they still struggle with and the slightest insults there set of racial recriminations that don't resonate everywhere else. But that is the lived black life that many desire. I say for them, they have their black nation. And where it is that big deal that Memphis has had a black police chief, the rest of us don't mind and don't care. I say there is a black nation in the South and for better or worse, it is what it is. Which is to say only symbolically relevant to the rest of the nation and the world.
We know quite well how one arrest, one trial, one murder, one disappearance, one accident, one sexual assault can keep millions fixated to their television screens and yelling at each other online for weeks and months. And surely the American South volunteers up a little hamlet or housing tract on a regular basis to feed such fires of folly. This is the drama that is our racial background noise. And it remains convenient for people who remain alive 40 years after Malcolm X died to try and make our jaws drop. But those matters that involve life or death for many more people, like the human trafficking over our border to the south are much more compelling on a human scale. Racism is not the problem for my generation that it was for my father's generation, and I recognize how straightforward it is to see the very same pattern repeating itself in this country. Everybody wants their own little nation inside the American empire.
My father's requirements for Nationhood were the four Ls. Law. Liberty. Love & Land. People hold such promises as impossible, living in their own enclaves. But we the American people still provide these things to each other. It starts with trust. Well, I should say it starts with trust for me, because I have what my grandparents did not have, the experience of seeing America beyond the local news - the experience of getting around the country and seeing for myself. This is the same formula that helped Malcolm to see beyond the provincialisms of Elijah Muhammad's 'white devils'. Brave journeys are the beginnings of all stories of villagers who become heroes. Brave journeys are what make wise men out of foolish boys. So it takes a brave journey to acquire the four Ls. Those who venture forth will have the opportunity. This nation remains new enough to be flexible and it still bends towards justice.
We should remember the courage of Malcolm X and understand that freedom is not convenience and it is neither gained nor taken away easily. We should recall that standing tall before God and working towards righteousness is not for the faint of heart. It is a brave journey. Simply remembering or dealing in symbols is not enough. There are mistakes to be made and works to be done.
"In all our deeds, the proper value and respect for time determines success or failure."
"Stumbling is not falling".