Saturday, August 06, 2011

Reinvention on the fringes

As an American history teacher, I always felt it was my job to teach my kids the history that they wouldn't get the chance to learn elsewhere.  I never used a text book (except a few times as punishment or an example of bad historical story telling) and my classroom revolved around primary sources, music, video, discussion and thinking.  Oh, to teach a 16 year old to think for him/herself.  That was the goal and history was my medium.

As a person who likes history, I've always been drawn to the fringe characters.  The cooky and eccentric presidents (Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt).  The historical figures who changed history with their stubborn will (Joan of Arc, Ann Boleyn).  Those that shook society at it's roots and scared people like Malcolm X.

I've read the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" several times.  The first when I was in high school, probably a sophomore.  I borrowed it from the library, had to renew it several times to finish it and then lost the tome only to buy it - then find it later in my room.  I've read that library copy at least half a dozen times and it proudly sits on my bookshelf, library identification in tact.

Even though I'm no longer in a classroom setting, I still love history - maybe even more than I used to.  My retention isn't what it used to be (it's true...if you don't use it you lose it!) but lately it seems, the books I read are full of essays and biographies (founding fathers, Malcolm, Tina Fey....).  Knowing that I'm a sucker for a book about a radical, my sister gave me the newest biography of Malcolm X for my birthday.  "Malcolm X:A life of reinvention" by Manning Marable.  I just finished it about a week ago and it was excellent.  I found out that Mr. Marable, a well known African American Scholar spent 20 years of his life researching the 500+ pages and unfortunately died of pneumonia the week before the book was released.  After reading the text, it definitely was the life work and passion of a dedicated scholar, and a Malcolm hero-worshipper.  It was an eye-opening read.

In my classroom when we studied Civil Rights I would always have a "Malcolm vs. Martin" day.  It was one of my favorite days to teach, especially the year I had a students whose father was a white racist from North Carolina - I made sure to send his kid home everyday whith all kinds of information.  I had a giant poster of each civil rights leader and next to the poster wrote down basic facts about their lives and philosophies.  We talked about the men and their upbringings.  Then we read speech excerpts and watch videos of the men speaking.  Oh, if only I'd had YouTube back then - I would have totally rocked my students historical world.

People are drawn to Malcolm X, in general, because he was radical and militant and often considered a hatemonger and a racist and because "black power" was scary in the 1950's and 1960's for one group of people and absolutely engaging for another.  The Nation of Islam was (and is) an "interesting" organization.  There aren't many groups in the world who can take criminals from prison, convert them to a strict religion and turn them into upstanding men.  When Malcolm X decided however to split from the Nation and it's hate speech (and infidelities of Elijah Muhammad and interior violence) they hounded him until they were able to eradicate him - infront of his wife, children, and supporters.

The thing is - in my opinion of course - Malcolm X was turning into one of the most powerful forces in America - he was a voice to be heard, to be reckoned with, and it would have been amazing if he wouldn't have been killed, to see where he was headed.  In the two years before he died, as heavily detailed in the Marable book, he took a hajj to Mecca and converted completely ot Orthodoz Islam, thus seeing the world through a different light.  He was still (and rightfully so) an angry African American, but he came back from that pilgrimage and subsequent months long tours of Africa and Europe ready to radicalize politics and get people moving towards equality and human rights.

I cannot say that I agree with much of what Minister Malcolm said in his life (I can't, really.  How could I - a middle class new century white girl really understand "ballots for bullets" for example or how could I relate to having my home fire bombed with my wife and children sleeping inside?) - his speeches as a spokesperson and #2 for the Nation of Islam were scary - he was powerful and intimidating and no wonder the FBI wiretapped every phone he ever used.  But I wold loved to have heard him speak in person.  To see his charisma and humor.  I can watch videos online, but that doesn't do him justice.

After reading this book (Thanks, Haley!) and spending countless hours over the last few weeks looking at pictures and listening to speeches, and learning more on my own about Betty Shabazz and their 6 daughters, and the modern interpretations of Malcolm's advancing political and social ideas - I can saw that I have a new respect for Malcolm X and all that he was trying to do.

And THAT is your history lesson for the day.

1 comment:

Bing Math said...

Thanks for the history lesson. I read an article once that talked about how, in the last year or 2 preceding each of their deaths, Martin was frustrated and considering goin militant and Malcolm was frustrated and considering becoming more peaceful and pacifist.

Also, I once had a fried who said she couldn't believe in Martin Luther King because he cheated on his wife. I think this can be credited to an e-mail conversation you and I are having that: 1. good people have underlying racist tendencies and spread things that are exaggerated or not true and 2. how many important white men throughout history did things that were less than morally desirable and yet we "believe" in them.

Thanks for the post. Glad you liked the book.

Oh, and my ESL class found the Civil Rights Movement and slavery to be very fascinating, and can immediate draw parallels to issues happening today with a variety of diverse cultures, not just black people.


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