Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The hate that hate produced
I've been trying to remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.
I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I can even tell you what I was wearing.
I remember the voice of the Principal over the intercom, telling us in somber tones, his voice filled with emotion, that "President Kennedy has been shot. The President is dead. School will be dismissed early. Please form orderly lines as you wait for your buses in front of the school. And, God Bless America."
I even remember how my teacher, Mrs. Lowenstein put her head on the desk, cried out, and heaved big sobs of sadness as the grief waved over her body and seemed to shake the entire classroom.
Interestingly enough, I don't seem to remember anything about the day, forty-seven years ago today, when Malcolm X was shot and killed.
I do remember being afraid. JFK had been shot in November of 1963. This was less than two years later. It felt as if the world were going mad. Assassinations seemed to be a virus in the air. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be shot and killed three years later in April of 1968. Robert Kennedy would be shot and killed in June of that same year.
Mostly, I remember being angry. My anger was mostly around what I remembered Malcolm X said when President Kennedy was shot. “[Kennedy] never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon,” said Malcolm.
I remember thinking, "Well, I guess those same chickens found another place to roost, didn't they?"
It would be years later that I learned that Malcolm X had been "silenced" by Elijah Muhammad for 90 days - reportedly, for making that statement.
In March 1964 Malcolm terminated his relationship with the NOI. Unable to look past what he discovered as Muhammad’s deception in his personal life, Malcolm decided to found his own religious organization, the Muslim Mosque, Inc.
Shortly after that, Malcolm went on a Hajj - a spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia - which marked a deep, life altering transformation in the man. For the first time, Malcolm shared his thoughts and beliefs with different cultures, and found the response to be overwhelmingly positive. When he returned, Malcolm said he had met “blonde-haired, blued-eyed men I could call my brothers.”
He returned to the United States with a new outlook on integration and a new hope for the future. This time when Malcolm spoke, instead of just preaching to African-Americans, he had a message for all races.
A week later, during a speaking engagement in the Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965 three gunmen rushed Malcolm onstage. They shot him 15 times at close range. The 39-year-old was pronounced dead on arrival at New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.
For whatever else Malcolm X stands for to various people of various races, he stands for me as a reminder of the power of racism to destroy the minds and souls of people of all colors.
Racism is a socially-transmitted disease that affects both white and black - and every shade in between - blinding us to the fullness of each other's humanity.
It's still difficult to read some of Malcolm's early speeches and the anger and hate that were seething just under the surface of his words.
It is, as both Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm preached, "The Hate that Hate Produced."
In a 1959 television program by the same title, journalist Mike Wallace interviewed Malcolm X and asked if all white people were evil. Malcolm explained that white people collectively were evil, saying, "History is best qualified to reward all research, and we don't have any historic example where we have found that they have, collectively, as a people, done good."
When he was asked about the NOI schools, such as the University of Islam, Malcolm denied that they taught black children to hate. He said they were being taught the same things white students were taught, "minus the little Black Sambo story and things that were taught to you and me when we were coming up, to breed that inferiority complex in us."
America couldn't hear those words in the late 50s and 60s without having a violent, angry reaction. We had a difficult enough time hearing the words of non-violent protest of Martin Luther King, Jr. We have a hard time hearing them now.
It doesn't make them any less true.
I know my American History classes in high school never revealed anything about the horrors of slavery. Oh, we studied the Civil War and learned that it was all about slavery which we knew, philosophically, was wrong. Then again, I lived in the North. Our hands were clean, we were told. It was those awful, ignorant people from the South. It was all their fault. See?
Eventually, the truth comes out. Eventually, we learned the awful, horrible truth about our complicity in racism. How it enslaves us all. How it damages the soul of the one enslaved and the one who enslaves.
No one's hands are clean. 'Sweet Honey in the Rock' sings of the complexity of this reality in their song, "Are My Hands Clean?" (You can read the lyrics here.)
We learn, if our hearts and minds and souls can bear to hear the truth, how racism continues to be perpetuated in organizations and systems like education, health care, employment, our government, and yes, even religion.
Things have improved - some - but the sad fact remains that the most segregated hour in this country continues to be during Sunday morning worship.
I don't mean to sound pessimistic or negative, but based on what I know about the Church, I don't expect that to change anytime soon.
In his Autobiography, Malcolm harks back to his time in middle school, when he was one of the top students in his school and made the mistake of telling his teacher he wanted to be a lawyer. “That’s no realistic goal for a nigger,” Malcolm’s teacher told him.
Thinking back on that, Malcolm says, "My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don’t have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get. . . I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer."
What gave rise to Malcolm’s rage and "the hate that hate produced" - was that for all his intellect, and all his ability, and all his reinventions, as a black man in America, he found his ambitions ultimately capped.
Today, the President of the United states is a black man who came up out of a single-parent home and illicit drug use, became a lawyer, and created himself as president.
I don't think it is either solicitous or untrue to say that the fact that Barack Hussein Obama is President of the United States of America stands today - and will for all time - as the greatest legacy of Malcolm X.
Oh, the work is far from done. Racism is still a virulent and persistent socially transmitted disease that infects too many hearts and minds.
In a 1962 rally, Malcolm said: "Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind?"
Since then, we have done much to re-image our ideas of beauty, but hatred has a persistent ugliness which continues to distort the images of every child of God of every race, creed, and age.
Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as “our own black shining prince.”
I think, today, forty-seven years later, more and more Americans - indeed, people all around the world - are willing to embrace that statement as our reality.
Somehow, because you grew past "the hate that produced hate", I think you'll understand and accept - and yes, even love - those of us who have grown past "the ignorance and prejudice that produced ignorance and prejudice".
May we continue to learn from your life and your legacy.
May "As-Salamu Alaykum" be, one day, more than a greeting.
May it be our commitment to the way we live our lives.