It’s Not Them; It’s Us: On Martin, Malcolm, Then, and Now

The last post I wrote for the blog, on Van Jones, got more traffic than any post I’ve ever written previously.

In two days, over 30,000 people viewed it, and a few dozen people even commented, which has also never happened before.

I read every single comment. I felt honored that people had taken the time to engage with my words; I appreciated the seriousness of that engagement; and I felt beholden to them because I could only imagine how busy they are in their lives. I wanted to show respect for their time, and I wanted to learn something from their responses, if I could.

Aside from one really rather unimaginative troll, every other person that commented was good-intentioned and gracious, and some were extremely generous in sharing their own information and ideas with me, which I found wonderfully helpful.

One was a little disgruntled about the idea that black people are still “arguing” over whether Martin or Malcolm established the “right” philosophical approach for our freedom fight; he said my post was just another in a long line of anticlimactic meditations on that question; but even that didn’t upset me. It did the opposite. It planted a seed.

I won’t put words into this commenter’s mouth. I won’t say he was angry or disappointed because he didn’t say he was angry or disappointed. But I’m not angry or disappointed that black people keep agonizing over Martin and Malcolm. That I will say.

I think we understand that determining why and how they–indisputably two of our most accomplished leaders–matter to us may be one of the most instructive things we can do as we continue to eke out existence in this insane nation of ours.

When I wrote about Martin in my last post, I wasn’t necessarily restaging the old debate about whether he made more sense than Malcolm or vice versa.

I was trying to say that because he is one of our sole models of impactful leadership with an international scale of influence, it is difficult for us to consider that perhaps his method of framing the problem cannot be our method of framing the problem.

Martin and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew the weak spots that they could exploit in their fight; they knew they could do their most meaningful work in the gap between how White America acted and how it wanted to be perceived in its various social and political quarters. They battered at White America’s façade of morality, progressivism, exceptionalism, and brilliance with rhetoric, protests, boycotts, and litigation, and they helped galvanize the Fed into passing landmark legislation, among other things they so courageously accomplished.

I posit, though, that we can’t do now what they did then. We can’t effectively galvanize enough ambitious or sympathetic or moralistic or punctilious white people in power to, say, stop Trump’s onslaught. Because Trump changed the paradigm with his campaign. He hobbled the Democratic party on one hand, and he revealed its deep ambivalence about us and correspondent inability to effectively address our needs on the other.

Post-civil rights, bald-faced bigotry lost a significant modicum of its currency in the culture. But Trump–and he was enabled by the Republican Congress, corporate media, and embittered mass of white people in America–he didn’t do it on his own–has managed to restore legitimacy to the sort of pathological blind whiteness exhibited by the most prominent old-school segregationists (think George Wallace).

And that might also be why black people–while brainstorming how we will survive in his America–have harkened back in our minds to Martin and Malcolm and how they handled their respective mantles of leadership.

They were fighting in the age of a much more open brand of institutional racism than we have ever faced, and I think we are hoping they can provide lessons on how to handle this cluster the white electorate has instigated for us.

That said, I do not think that one of those lessons is that we should extend some sort of olive branch to Trump supporters. I stand by that assertion.

Talk of love and peace from the most visible and vocal among us can lead others of us–particularly those inclined to complacency–to prematurely and confidently retreat from the fight we need to put up against the coming tide of oppressive and exclusionary change (back).

Another of yesterday’s commenters asked me what my approach is, then, to this fight. I don’t have a comprehensive plan, but my starting place is the acronym I spelled out in my last post.

I think we need to level with people about their bigotry; opt into confrontational political action aimed at definitive positive change; vote in every election, and especially the midterm elections; and educate ourselves using authentically journalistic and academic sources of information.

I also think we need to divest ourselves of the notion that we cannot effect change unless and until we have white help to do it.

If we’re going to love up on anybody, I say it needs to be the 1.2% of American Indians or 17.6% of Latinxes in the population, who share so many of our same grievances and may actually be willing to unite with us.

I do not love anyone or anything that does not love me. Black people in America are conditioned to love white people, and we do, as I said before. Our abundant agape love for them is what keeps our rage against them in check. They get enough of our love. And enough of our compliance. It’s enough already.

Fucking sheesh.

I guess I haven’t given much discussion to Malcolm in all of this. Maybe that will be another post at another time. Even I’m interested to see what that post will bring up.

I was really just bridging off my post about Van Jones here and the comments it got. I wanted to make some clarifications and addendums. I wanted to be responsible and reflective. I feel like I owe that to all the amazing people that took the time to come to the site and take what I had to say seriously.

Still, I will quote Malcolm now because he had a gift for incisive speech, and deep wisdom about America and the black community, and why reinvent the wheel when you can just roll out an existent one, am I right?

Malcolm said:

The newly awakened people all over the world pose a problem for what’s known as Western interests, which is imperialism, colonialism, racism, and all these other negative isms or vulturistic isms . . . [those in power] can now see that the internal forces pose [a] threat. But the internal forces pose [a] threat only when they have properly analyzed the situation and know what the stakes really are.

I’m not saying Van Jones doesn’t know the stakes or understand the situation. He understands enough. He knows what’s weighing on people’s minds. That’s why he’s talking about it.

It may just be he isn’t in a position to address the situation as realistically as it should be addressed since his platform is provided by a white-owned corporation, one, that is beholden to Trump for its last months of survival.

I don’t think I’d remain on that platform, if it were me. I think about Dave Chapelle and how he walked away from his show when he suspected the white network brass was laughing at him and not with him, and he was slipping into minstrel territory. I like to think I would’ve done the same thing, even with millions of dollars hanging in the balance, out of a sense of accountability and concern for legacy. But I digress.

Whether Van Jones was sincere or strategic, or he was right or wrong, the debate over whether blacks should seek what we need peacefully or with violence is an old one, but it’s still a valid one; it just needs to be more nuanced, as do our evaluations of Martin and Malcolm.

They were both great men, who did great things, and they are wonderful teachers and models, but they cannot be the architects of whatever movement we erect in this age to attempt to end our oppression because they are not of this age, and this isn’t their fight anymore.

It’s ours.

11 thoughts on “It’s Not Them; It’s Us: On Martin, Malcolm, Then, and Now

  1. If we’re going to love up on anybody, I say it needs to be the 1.2% of American Indians or 17.6% of Latinxes in the population, who share so many of our same grievances and may actually be willing to unite with us.

    This Latina is With you!


  2. Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?

    –Abraham Lincoln

    Whats the alternative other than reaching out to our enemies with invincible and courageous love and disciplined resistance?

    Kill them all?


    1. No. Deal with them transactionally. The way we deal with people in the professional arena. Deal with them civility and decency. You don’t have to deal with affection or even amenity.


    1. You know how black people don’t love the structure of American society, but we work within the structure of American society because working within that structure allows for our survival? I imagine that if American society was restructured such that white people needed to go along with whatever changes in order to survive, then they would do what we do. They’d bear up under what they do not like or love, and do what they need to do. That’s what people do. What they need to do. If white people NEEDED to treat minorities better in order to, say, keep their corporations solvent or businesses running–things like that–I venture to guess that’s what they would do. But as long as we are willing to patronize entities or involve ourselves with institutions that feed into our oppression, then that’s what they will do. I say we boycott state colleges and universities, and go to HBCUs. I say we launch a national campaign in which we funnel as much of our patronage and money into black businesses as we can and name the names of the white-owned businesses whose politics with which we take issue. I say we hold our votes for strategic ransom and make Democratic candidates on all levels make specific and detailed commitments to our communities in order to get them. Stuff like that. And Trump supporters will deal. Like they dealt before Trump. They will stuff themselves back into Pandora’s Box, where they can sift through their own issues, if they’re inclined.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Using economic power for change is a good strategy.

    But I respectfully ask you to consider again and to respect Martin Luther King’s idea of “soul force.”

    “Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. … It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.”

    King, Jr., Martin Luther (1998). Carson, Clayborne, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0-446-52412-3


    1. I think it will take a powerful combination of different forces to change society. Love may very well be one of them. But everyone isn’t going to commit to being a lover. At least not publicly.


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