We get tired of going to classes and having white students discuss things they don't know about, while we take a back seat and remain quiet. . . . When we came in the first day and saw how many white students were signed up for this (seminar on Malcolm X) , we had a decision to make. . . . We could either do like we usually do, and just say 'forget it,' because they weren't going to understand us anyway, or we could take charge and be the ones to set the pace.
From "Making Malcolm"
These are the words of young black male students enrolled in a class taught by Professor Michael Eric Dyson at Brown, in the spring of 1994. They were spoken in the aftermath of an explosive confrontation with Dyson, which opens "Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X." At the root of this confrontation was a fight "over Malcolm's tall body and short life, allowing no dibs on a legacy they felt Malcolm had bequeathed to them alone."
I recognized myself in the voices of these young black men. Their words took me back to the many classes and the long hours I spent wrestling with these very issues. I may not have spoken quite as loudly or expressed my feelings quite as aggressively, but my anger and feelings of futility were just as urgent. I was looking for a way out of the box that repressed rage kept me in. I was tired of the rhetoric of multiculturalism and "political correctness." For the daily experience of multiculturalism didnot feel like a sharing and celebration of our differences. Instead, as a person of color, I was constantly giving myself with little return; I was adding splotches of color to an otherwise drab and homogeneous landscape; I was yet again being told to have patience and understanding, as I taught someone else to understand and appreciate me. And still, racism and discrimination persisted. In the midst of all this, I was looking for someone to acknowledge these feelings as valid, to support and to help me to work through them. I was looking for a way to keep part of myself for myself.
In those moments of vulnerability, it was the words of Malcolm X that comforted and filled me with pride. Malcolm who was "a vessel for our outrage." Malcolm who didn't back down. Malcolm who could meet the white man on his own turf and manipulate him, make him dizzy with the skillful twists and turns of his rhetoric. Malcolm who could spew facts like venom and leave "the Man" speechless in the face of his tightly woven and solid arguments. It is this Malcolm who has become inextricably linked to, and indeed the symbol of, a resurgent black nationalism among this generation of black youth. In hip-hop and in rap, over any number of old-school beats and song fragments, it is commonplace to hear Malcolm's voice and image evoked in comment on and indictment of an American society whose racism and violence against black bodies, particularly those of black men, is just as virulent and rampant as it was when Malcolm lived.
Malcolm X was a brilliant and complex man, and in "Making Malcolm," Dyson acknowledges his centrality in the history of African Americans. But he also recognizes the dangers of "hero worship": On the one hand, uncritical and unconditional and, on the other, very selective about the aspects of Malcolm's life and teachings that we use for our own purposes. In his short 39 years, Malcolm X underwent several ideological and personal transformations. For this reason, Dyson stresses the necessity of critically examining Malcolm's life and legacy. "Otherwise, his brilliance will be diminished by efforts to canonize his views without first considering them, his ultimate importance as a revolutionary figure sacrificed to celebratory claims about his historic meaning."
I was skeptical of a critical evaluation of Malcolm X. At its worst, criticism can be a way to malign and detract from the merits of its subject, a device, as Dyson points out, that has often been used maliciously against the black community--and within the black community by blacks against other blacks. And criticism can be frightening. For in criticizing one such as Malcolm, who embodies so many of our hopes and vulnerabilities, we are also, ultimately, criticizing ourselves, exposing things that we may not want to acknowledge and change.
As a black student surrounded by a sea of white faces, how do you open that most cherished place, where you keep your greatest sadness and your precious joy, your fear and your faith, and risk sharks catching the scent, the faint taste of your blood and honing in for the kill? How do you begin to loosen your hold on the heroes and the history which you clutch so closely to your heart that the two have become indistinguishable?
Dyson's argument attempts to meet these fears not by dismissing them but rather by pointing to the reasons why they are well-founded, such as the continuation of racism and other forms of oppression, as well as the "racist history that has affected every tradition of American scholarship, and that has obscured, erased, or distorted accounts of the culture and history of African-Americans."
With great respect, sensitivity and love--a balance Malcolm himself mastered--Dyson assesses Malcolm's role in the resurgent black nationalism(s) of this generation's young black artists and students. He places this renaissance--as evidenced in film and hip-hop culture and music--and Malcolm's past relationships to black nationalist and cultural movements in their historical contexts. At the same time, Dyson criticizes this generation for failing to learn Malcolm's greatest lesson, that of self-criticism; for seeing only the parts of Malcolm, of ourselves, of our struggle that we want to see; for drawing lines that divide us, weaken the collective energy, prohibit difference and exclude potential contributors.
Dyson is particularly interested in the plight of young black males. He points to the social and economic forms of oppression that effect their lives in acute and very specific ways, and that create and sustain black male crises: joblessness, violence committed against and by black men, poverty, negative cultural stereotypes and stigmatization. Although Dyson's discussion of gender issues does not adequately address how these factors also affect relationships within black communities, he urges black men to follow Malcolm's lead in creating concepts of black manhood that "explore . . . (its) relationship to black women (and) dissolve its worst links to Malcolm's lethal sexism."
In addition, Dyson points to the need to challenge other often unchallenged issues, such as classism and homophobia, advocating the development of "a powerful defense of radical democracy and a sharp criticism of race and racism in the age of Clinton." Through his criticism of Malcolm X, and of us, those who love him and those who despise him, but especially those who love him, Dyson offers us a way to touch the man whom we have made a god, to see his shortcomings and his contradictions as we see our own; to see how his hands look like our hands; to see that his hair is like our hair, his nose like our noses, his skin is colored just like our skin, to love that skin, that hair, that nose; to see the god-force in that man, to feel the god-force coursing through our own blood. Oh, the sound of a nation being born, like the deep and powerful rumbling of a river rising up!