An Affirmative Action Baby’s Reflection on the Birthday of Malcolm X

Today would have been Malcolm X’s 85 birthday. I searched YouTube to find some of my favorite clips of Malcolm in his hay day. And unlike many, my favorite Malcolm moments or quotes are not his speeches or quotes from his autobiography or easily swallowed quotes from his post-Mecca days. My favorite moments were the interviews he did with the white media. It was so very clear in all of those interviews how bias these “unbiased” newsmen were. It was clear how much they wanted Malcolm to be something he wasn’t. It was clear that they wanted Malcolm to be an inarticulate brute filled with contradictions and nonsensical ramblings. But he wasn’t that. He met them toe to toe and articulated his point to them using their language and syntax and cultural mannerisms.

And in a white dominated (supremacist if you will) world, there is nothing more frightening than a person of color that make sense, who cannot be dismissed. There’s nothing more frightening than a person of color who has seen the inside of the white world and knows how to communicate in that context and uses that context to communicate dissatisfaction with that world. And for white America that’s what Malcolm was. He was part white, in a way that was visible (light skin, red hair, freckles). He grew up in predominately white schools. Like Obama he knew how to switch out of that “negro dialect”. Yet he was not a “happy negro”.

As a black woman who, with the exception of two years, was educated in majority white prep schools, I resonate with this side of Malcolm. I’ve been thinking about the fact that many of your more “angry” black radicals and radicals of color spent a whole lot of time, specifically their formative years, in a very white cultural context. I often think about the beginning of Soul of Black Folks where WEB DuBois describes his early years as a child in an all white school in New England. This in turn makes me think about the justified anger of those of us who some fool at a conference I went to referred to dismissively as “Affirmative Action Babies”.

I feel that there is a whole generation of us who were the “only-onlies” in our all white schools who have similar radical anger. Yet in this generation we have found no real cultural space in black society and no political place in white society. So we sort of live in the liminal space between the two world communing with each other. We are activist and artist and preachers, who struggle to find space. In a world of the post-Civil Rights, “Dangerous Minds” and “Finding Forester” paradigm of educating children of color, there is no room for anger against the society that “allowed” you to get “out of the streets” and “be somebody”. But we are angry. We feel more isolated and alone than we actually are.

But this is why I, the one that some (maybe even Malcolm) might call a sell out, hold on to that side of Malcolm for hope that there is some truth in my anger and that there is some redemption to be found in this tight-rope walking double conscious journey.

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