06 September 2016

Talking to Malcolm X

One of history's great fascinations is that we experience time, for a time, in reverse, looking back in order to look forward.  In that regard, the past is a great teacher, rich soil in which to plant seeds of inquiry, grow heroes, learn from them and then, painfully but lovingly, lay them back to rest.  

At least that's how it goes for me.  

I was born into the past, conscious of a lost world.  A pallor and depression hung over my grandmother, it followed her to the grave.  My dad would never explain it.  And then he died, not having made sense of it and leaving me with an inheritance of inquiry.  

My mother wept every year on the anniversary of her murdered father but his death brought few explicable lessons and instead represented for her a performed, but genuine and silent martyrdom.

It wasn't until my trip to Germany and Belarus this summer, stumbling over "tripping stones" in Berlin and listening to words pour from the mouths of second and third generation penitents of National Socialism; or walking on the obscene bloodlands of Minsk and finally discovering just how many members of my family were killed in one day in 1942--until a response to the questions I've been asking my whole life began to emerge from the fog of the past.

Those questions propelled me, yet again, back in time.  

I was talking to a friend and recalling how during our freshman year in college (1981 for those counting) we had decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I don't exactly remember what prompted this exercise.  In the early 80s there was an odd mixture on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison of 60s nostalgia, a Reagan-esque trickle-down, preppy patriotism, and another emerging consciousness, new and unformed.  Congress had proposed a national holiday for Martin Luther King that year and President Reagan had opposed it (eventually signing it into law in 1983.) Black students on the Madison campus were increasingly vocal about low student enrollment numbers and a lack of support, especially as some members of the Langdon Street Greek system were hosting infamous King celebrations in blackface, serving Hi-C punch and fried chicken.  Talk about privilege.

So maybe we were just pissed off.  And Malcolm's literary militancy was to be a salve from the zeitgeist of insensitivity as our generation stumbled along, in search of a way.

We were both enthralled by the telling of life, the trouble, the awakening into Islam, the re-creation of a man, and again his second transformation after Mecca as he moved away from Elijah Muhammad; and crushed by his death, as we were by the knowledge of the assassination of others in history.  

We were coming of age as Jews, digging deep into the wells of American history and Jewish history to forge our paths and despite Malcolm's anger at and militancy toward Jews and Israel, he spoke a truth about race in America that resonated nevertheless.  We didn't forgive him his anti-Semitism. But we did try to at least understand it; put it into a context; even argue you with him, as if he had lived and kept up his own inquiry.  Among many of history's humbling lessons, it seems we owed him that.

My pal finished school and went off to serve in the Peace Corps in Niger, taught English and French in a remote village, worked on irrigation projects, and became a "global citizen," long before the invention of the internet.  He used to sign his long letters back home as "Detroit Red," Malcolm's nickname during his checkered and adventurous youth.  It was our acknowledgement to one another that sometimes we finish the day differently than how we awoke.  It happens.

Maybe that's why Malcolm might have found it interesting to know that his story was one of a few that propelled me to Jerusalem in 1985.  Just as his bildungsroman testified to his black awakening, it would be among a number of books that compel me to my Jewish awakening.  I identified with his fierce embrace of a claimable past.  After all, Malcolm's mentor, Elijah Muhammad, had begun his own awakening following Marcus Garvey, who we might call a Black Zionist for his embrace of a return to an African homeland.  

So it was that a couple weeks back I rode the train up to 165th and Broadway to visit the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was killed.  

It's a mournful place.  And not only for the horrible murder that took place there but for the meager way the story is told.  The Audubon Ballroom is a shell of a memory, underfunded and inadequately supported in its endeavor to be what it ought to be:  a place of critically important civic conversation about the matter of black lives.  The story of the building's preservation alone is an interesting one. Columbia University was interested in tearing it down to build a biotech lab; Mayor David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor was in favor of the project for the jobs it would bring to Harlem; and it was Malcolm's widow Betty Shabazz and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, a Jew, who ensured that the facade would be saved a memorial built to the slain leader.
Inside the front entrance is a statue and up on the second floor, where he was killed, are photographs, a mural, and one of the most modest memorials I've ever seen.

Even in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska (before he was Detroit Red) there is a state historical marker.  New York has no such thing.
We build and build and build in this city but rarely take time to remember, so much in a rush are we to escape the past and forge on into the future.  Observers of this city far more accomplished than I have theorized that this drive is what "makes New York great."  Sometimes I think the opposite:  that we when walk all over the past, we silence the stories needed to teach and even redeem us.

So it was, in a mournful mood, that I went to visit Fairlawn Cemetery in Westchester County, where Malcolm X is buried alongside his wife Betty.  Fairlawn is also the Forever Home to James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, Thelonious Monk and, for good measure, Judy Garland, Harold Arlen, and many others.  

Wouldn't you know it?  After touring my kids around and telling stories about and playing the music of these great people, we come upon Malcolm's grave to find that someone has adorned it with a Palestinian flag.  What projections are heroes are, eh?
And so the conversation begins again:  Malcolm's coming of age; his critique of capitalism; his anti-Semitic diatribes against Zionism and "dollarism" and his insistence, wrong I believe, that Zionism was colonialist and a foreign, European implant to Muslim lands; his trips to Ghana and Gaza in 1964; and his life cut so short that no one really knows what he'd say today about anything but wouldn't it be interesting to know. 

One of my kids was so mad she wanted to remove the flag; the other cautioned that we should leave it there because it provoked a lesson in history and drew us into an ongoing argument about the past. My heart skipped a beat in militancy but my mind won out and so we left the flag.  And maybe, because it's there, because we can visit the grave, it affords us lessons to live by.

Part of preserving the past is not so we can agree with everything it represents; but rather, so we who are here can keep talking to those no longer here and possibly light the way forward for a better world.

1 comment:

Eliot said...

Malcolm was an occasional guest in my house. Not personally, but on the radio. From time to time in the early to mid 60s, he would show up as the guest on WOR's News Extra ("the different angle on the news, direct reports from people in the news"). That show ran Monday to Friday from 6:15 to 6:30pm. Malcolm had five minute interviews on that show several times over the years. From what I heard, my take is that Malcolm had reasons behind what he believed and that I could understand how he arrived at where he was. No interview that I can recall mentioned Jews or Israel.