Sideswipes of Ideals and the Clash of Life, Experience and Hope: Malcolm X

With the exception of knowing the name- having heard the title many times in my life, I knew almost nothing about Malcolm X. So as I sat in class and the lights were dimmed I was prepared (I thought) for learning and to discover more about the man that I knew so little about- a shame as a historian, but I will admit I am woefully inadequate on almost any topic on American history; that is semi intentional and a long story. I have seen a documentary by Spike Lee before and found it phenomenal. And each film that I have seen in class has provoked so much thought that I wondered what I would gain from this one besides a better understanding of the man's life. Here are my thoughts...

The start of the film with the burning flag was a really potent image. The flag- whether it is a stamp, a name, a picture, iron on art, etc... makes a very specific statement. It is a loaded image that creates a picture no matter who looks at it and in many cases makes a political statement as well. For some, the flag is a symbol of pure nationalism- some love America to the point of blindness and the flag symbolizes this feeling... the feeling of power and strength, the assumption of God's blessing on this, the best country. Even that God fits a profile- white, Christian, silent and unchanging through the years. For others the flag is a symbol of a country that they love and feel loyalty for, but they are also able to recognize that America and its flag can also be seen in very negative ways not only by some of those who are protected by its laws, but by many around the world. The image of the flag is seen for what many see as its true colors... the symbol of oppression towards many in the world... it's citizens, other states...anyone that isn't useful or in line with what 'America' wants. It's hard to attack these ideals and governmental policies, so people attack it's image... and that is the flag. There are many ways to insult or desecrate the flag, but burning appears to be one of the most popular. By total destruction as flames quickly like over the sewn threads and they vanish into smoke that is pulled up towards the sun. So, as I watched this image, I felt the pull of both sides of the argument.... those that I know who cannot see anything but their idealized vision of the world and those who have felt the pain and oppression that is the flip side of nationalism. And there is no middle ground- because individuals will force you be be part of one side or the other. I do not allow myself to use the flag or its images on anything. I do not use it on stamps, hang it on the wall, or even use decorations that use the colors or patterns that suggest or remind. I have been told by people that my dedication to that 'idea' is treasonous and that I am ashamed of my country, but I see a very fine distinction between love of my country and it's ideals... and the reality of what it truly is. What is truly does... and what it has done in the past. So I felt that pain and that anger as I watched the flag... and as it slowly began to burn, I didn't need to hear the world to feel the suffering, the pain and the anger. I could see it grow and build as the flag burned... a flame of heat that might never be extinguished...even though its object has vanished into smoke and ash.

So many times I heard the word 'boy'... and finally I got it. When I was in high school I used to call male classmates 'boys' if I thought they were immature or acting that way. One of them was black and the few times I called him a boy, my kind teacher would pull me aside and tell me I couldn't do that because it was racist. And I would walk away really confused and frustrated. I have never considered myself a racist and I couldn't see how the word boy could be racist... The N word, yes... but boy no. I see it now. More than twenty years later I understand and I am really horrified by my lack of understanding. As a silly white girl, I didn't get it and as an older but still silly white women I know see a glimmer of understanding and I am filled with the shame and remorse. Tyler, I never meant to really hurt you. I never saw myself as being racist or making any comment about your skin at all. I saw myself standing up for myself and calling out immaturity when I saw it. I am truly sorry. I wish I could take those words back and I will admit I do not use them anymore. Since I couldn't understand why they were racially offensive, I just didn't use them anymore. I learned new words that were probably more effective and I still use those. I know of no way to make amends for my ignorance and foolishness; in fact, I suspect that my new understanding shows how immature I was and what a small child mentally. I ask for your forgiveness and hope that whatever pain I caused was small and hopefully gone.

Elijah Mohammed : The question is -who are you?

All of us ask this question to ourselves at some point in our lives... and how we answer it determines our whole lives. His choices changed his life and the lives of many. Just as our choices change our lives. I know a few people who seem lost and I am unclear if they can answer the question that Elijah Mohammed asked. Sometimes I am not sure that I can honesty answer that question. There are times when I feel very confident of the answer, but the jargon that spews forth from my mind is a list of labels and if you think about it.... no person can be summed up in labels nor should they. Aren't labels really a way of wording or acknowledging a trait; a piece of the whole, but how can a label or lots of labels encompass the whole? I am a woman, used to be a wife, a religious observer, a writer, a mother, a celiac... and yet, none of those labels tell you much or give you a clear image of who I am, what is important to me.... anything. What a powerful individual Malcolm X was... to question and question and to work to really understand himself and develop his ideas. The self awareness and control that requires is something that many people never develop- it is certainly not one of my strong suits.

"Whites can help us, but they can't join us. There can be no black/white unity until there's first some black unity. We can not think of uniting with others until we have first learned to unite with ourselves. We can think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves..."

This is a really strong statement and a hard reality. Back at the beginnings of the women's movement, many of the leaders that we are able to look back to realized that women would never be able to get any rights as long as any men were also denied rights. That is one reason that many feminists worked and fought for civil rights for African Americans. Malcolm X understood something very essential. Until we can look and work together in our smaller groups, we can easily be divided. Look at any group of people – your church congregations, family, school mates, etc... How easily they are challenged and develop divisions, cliques, and outcasts. Look how easily the American government talked the country into going to war with Iraq – You're with us or against us, patriot or traitor, etc... no middle ground. When those that are in power want something, it is easier to distract and the less powerful majority with other things and such definitive statements. It crushes dissent, freedom of expression and gets many of us to focus on things that are not really important. It's how many of us use our votes to help people enter government who will actually make choices that hurt us and our families... we are distracted by other things and issues that keep us chasing our own tails. We can see this disunity now between not only the races and genders, but between those with economic disparity, health issues, religion, etc...

"I told you to look behind the words and dig out the truth...locked us in chains, 100 million of us, broke up our families, cut us off from our language, our religion, our history.... "

My last thought is not a comfortable one. As I sat and watched the life of Malcolm Little unfold to the adult Malcolm X to the close of his mortality, I found the same question running through my mind. Martin Luther King Jr. was a wonderful man and did some great things. I mean no disrespect to him by my next question. I wonder why we as a nation celebrate Martin Luther King and his achievement... and gloss over Malcolm X. My thoughts as to why we as a nation do that are not very polite or politically correct. I wonder if we celebrate King because we feel more 'comfortable' with him. He is easy to like and his message while hard came through a man who in many ways was nice and easy.... Malcolm X can not be seen in rose colored glasses very well. If you put both the men side by side, Martin Luther King is much more palatable for a white audience- he was Christian to boot. And so we celebrate him and what he stood for and forget some of the things that he did that we wouldn't find acceptable such as his womanizing. (Malcolm X was clearly a more responsible and focused family man.) I guess I wonder if we accept him more because we are trying to turn MLK into a 'good black person' or make him more 'white'. That is not possible to do with Malcolm X... and so as a culture we push him aside. I wish I knew more people of color so that I could ask them: What are their feelings on both men and which one do they feel more comfortable with? Which one matters more when they look at history? And which man do they think was right? A long time ago, I heard the story of the first black mayor of some city whose surname if I recall was Ford. He said that in his job, he had to be 'fairer than fair' and couldn't just try to balance things. He had to always make sure that the balance card leaned more towards his 'white' voters so that they didn't feel he wasn't caring for them and choosing the 'black' population only. How many of our politicians (mostly white) worry about that? Malcolm X was accused of being a black supremacist and a racist and I cannot agree with those labels- He didn't want to destroy or damage the white race... he only wants the black race to have the same choices as the white race.... and the same consequences. It seems that even in our modern, tolerant world.... we haven't changed as much as we would like to think. I feel a bit like a small child again and the world looks different and stark and harsh. I wonder if we will ever be able to get past race in America.... I wonder...

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