Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Malcolm X!

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Malcolm X (May 19, 1925 - February 21, 1965)

Growing up in Chicago's Bronzeville area, I witnessed the skeletal remains of one of Chicago's most prominent neighborhoods. Prior to its more politically correct name change to Bronzeville, this area was known as the Black Metropolis. A mecca for Black culture and financial independence, this Black Belt came about due to the segregation of Chicago expressed in the form of restrictive covenants.

Then came the victories of the Civil Rights movements, the passing of legislation, the lifting of restrictive covenants, and the general lure of better opportunities. As a result, there was a slow but sure migration of Blacks who had the wherewithal to relocate to other communities. Leaving this neighborhood behind, the interest in and the financial support of its institutions dwindled. I took a particular interest in the destabilization of this area when in high school when its gentrification became a prominent theme. How could a neighborhood so rich in history succumb to such poverty and destruction?

"There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity.... We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves."

Thinking about this, I took a serious interest in the teachings of Malcolm X. I began to study his ideas that revolved around Black Separatism and what he believed would happen to our communities in its absence. A quintessential leader in the Black Power Movement, Malcolm believed capitalism and equality could never coexist for Blacks. Borrowing from Pan-Africanist ideals, he advocated a separate society in America where blacks should control their own economies and communities.

I had grown up seeing Malcolm X as a figure in pop culture, based on his portrayal by Denzel Washington, in the movie bearing his name. I saw Will Smith staple a poster of Malcolm to his wall, while listening to the song "Back to Life," in the first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I knew the version of Malcolm X described by fear-mongering editorials, passed off as purely factual lessons in my public school history books. Yet, as I began to use his teachings to understand important sociological lessons, Malcolm X took a totally different meaning in my life.

I began to take a serious look into the oppression and the struggle blacks faced, and are still facing, as a result of constant oppression. Specifically, Malcolm taught me to focus on the social disruptions and cohesions of African Americans. His teachings led me to me to question what mechanisms make or break a community and a race.

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz at a Mosque in Mecca

One of the reasons Malcolm is still relevant today is because of the ways his humble beginnings shaped his life and ideals. In the latter part of his life, Malcolm would rethink his own teachings, shying away from his separatist ideas. It was these teachings that wrapped me up in his theories emphasizing accountability and empathy for all humans, despite external subjugation. Malcolm was an advocate for the powerless, believing their hunger to be treated as equals would fuel their fight in a revolution.

Now, on what could have been his 85th birthday, I rethink the ways in which Malcolm expressed his disdain for cultures of domination. His weariness in watching the oppressed become the oppressor. As I remember Malcolm, I reflect upon his understanding in the interconnectedness of historical, sociological, and structural barriers that could serve to either unite or sever our common decency for one another. I look at the problems and progressions of African Americans and can only hope that Malcolm's legacy continues to steer us in a direction exemplary of the life he died for us to live.
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