November 13, 2007
I’m still trying to explain why I’m so interested in Malcolm X and the Black experience, but I don’t really understand it myself, so it’s rather impossible to make it coherent for somebody else. I guess I’m also kind of shy about it, I’m not embarrassed, but people always asked me why, and I can’t explain it. Why would a white girl from Vermont, who grew up knowing only a few Black kids (most of whom were adopted) be interested enough to be an African-American Studies minor? My best answer at the moment is “I just am.” So in an effort to give a more satisfying reason, I’ll try to start at the beginning.
When I was registering for classes my first semester, I found a class titled “Intro to Black Politics.” It sounded like a good class to diversify my knowledge and it fit into my schedule, so I signed up. As soon as I hit the register button, I started to get nervous—what if I was the only white person in the class? What if the other students didn’t like that I was there, what if nobody talked to me? I called my mom, who told me that I would be fine and not to drop it, but she only succeeded in convincing me to stay in the class, not that I would be fine. I only had a few hours to freak out (I had registered late so the first class was that afternoon) but I used them efficiently!
Looking back from where I am now, it’s hard to understand why I was so scared. I think I was most worried about what people would think of me—would the Black students think I was intruding, trying to take over? Would my family and white friends think it was weird? I’ve never liked standing out in any way, but I was doing something that I was definitely different, and I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was excited about the class but was worried I would come off as a nieve country girl or patronizing liberal, trying too hard because I felt guilty, or just plain ignorant. I knew my interest was deeper than that, and despite my homogenous upbringing I had exposed myself to some aspects through literature, so I eventually I decided my genuineness would just have to speak for itself.
After preparing to be in the minority for 3 hours a week, I was actually a little disappointed when I walked in and saw that the class was pretty evenly mixed. I enjoyed the class, nobody gave me funny looks, and I made a few friends. I learned about a lot of things and people that I had never heard of before, and it motivated me to do more of my own research outside of class on the things that I found most interesting. I went to a movie about the Black Panthers that one of the clubs was showing, and I read books by and about people that came up in class, and I wanted to take more classes.
After writing this I realize I’m not really any closer to understanding where this interest came from, and this class wasn’t necessarily a pivotal experience, or even the beginning. It was the start of my formal education, but the interest was already there, and the class was significant because it was my declaration the world.
(Title from the Roots “Phrentrow”)
Since writing my first post and reading the comments, I have been trying to remember how I became interested in, or even learned about, Malcolm X. He certainly wasn’t studied or even mentioned in school. To my knowledge, African-American history was that Harriet Tubman ran the underground railroad until Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and everything was good for a while, until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat (I was never quite sure of the significance though), and then Martin Luther King had a dream. (Obviously this is slightly exaggerated, but you get the point, and I wasn’t alone–most schools, even if they are primarily Black, tend to give a very abridged version of history when it comes to the Black experience.) I didn’t know about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Little Rock, Jo Ann Robinson, Medgar Evers, Emmitt Till, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), the Selma-Montgomery March, Huey Newton, the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X…
So however it happened, I got The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I was fascinated, not only by Malcolm himself, but also that such an influential and important person could have been ignored, and I wondered who and what else had been conveniently omitted. Since reading his autobiography, I have taken classes and schooled myself in what we call “African-American history,” but it is as much “American history” as the (European) American history we learned in school, and far more interesting in my opinion.
Still, Malcolm is my favorite. I admore him because he said what nobody else would say, but everyone knew was true, whether they aknowledged it or not (if he was so full of lies as people would like to think, then why was he a threat?). It was easier for people to hate Malcolm than to deal with the issues, so he is still hated by some people today, over 40 years after his death. I also admire him because he was open to change, and never stopped examining his beliefs and methods. As a minister in the Nation of Islam, he preached and believed that white people were devils, but after his pilgrimage to Mecca, he saw that there were Muslims who were white, and he questioned and changed his original ideas. I think many people, especially powerful people, are either afraid or ashamed to admit they have changed, but I think it shows a person is conscientious and that they care about what they are working for and the people who believe in them. I think we have a lot to learn from Malcolm, both from his messages, which are still very relevant, and from how he lived his life, and I would like to do my part to honor his legacy and hopefully change some of the misconceptions that people have about him.
“By any means necessary” is one of Malcolm X’s most well-known phrases. During his lifetime and since, it has been used by the media and critics to sum up his message and show his “militancy,” but taken alone and out of context it by no means represents all of what Malcolm X stood for. He was intelligent, spiritual, logical, a powerful orator, and a threat. Because he didn’t “turn the other cheek” and beg for integration, because he urged people to shop within their communities and defend themselves when the the police didn’t, because he spoke a truth that many people, Black and white, couldn’t accept, because he encouraged people to get their freedom by any means necessary, he was villified as an extremist. Malcolm X was a Black nationalist, a Muslim, and a believer in human rights and freedom, especially for African-Americans and Black people throughout the world. He was hated and feared not because he was truely an extremist or violent, but because he exposed the contradictions and untruths many were comfortable accepting.