When white people want to shame me, they invoke his name.
(The following is a guest article written by award-winning musician, artist, activist, and producer Andre Henry. Andre Henry uses his perspective as an African-American, faith leader, and activist to convey the meaning (and often misconstrued image) of the late Malcolm X, who would have been 92 today. Please check out the original post here.)
“You’re not being like Dr. King! You’re being like Malcolm X!” they almost always raise their voice at that point, then sit back satisfied with themselves…until I chuckle at them. Yes, I laugh because it’s cute. I know that every person who has tried to use this tactic has never read or listened to one of his speeches, and I remind them of that whenever they try it, and since they can’t name one thing Brother Malcolm actually said, I will help them:
“ Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery.”
I marvel at people’s ability to completely bypass two things about that statement: (1) the first four clauses in this statement, and (2) the historical location in which these words were said. He is obviously talking about self-defense, not going out and initiating violence against anyone. Might I remind the class that a man that put his hand on a black person hearing those words may have very well intended to lynch that black person. Brother Malcolm is trying to keep people from being lynched so easily.
Some Christians love to quote “turn the other cheek,” and yet they seem to forget that very teaching when their little boy comes home crying because of a bully. The same Christians who quote Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount will raise hell over gun control legislation–because they need to protect themselves, their homes, their families…by shooting someone. And yet, those same Christians can’t seem to grasp that black people were literally facing death every single day that they walked out of their doors. Those same Christians can’t seem to fathom that any person would say, “Defend yourself. Give them a reason to think twice about attacking you!” that kind of talk got Brother Malcolm permanently blacklisted (no pun intended).
Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and we’re still impressed. He’s a patriot. Andrew Jackson ordered indigenous people to walk from Georgia to Oklahoma, and we put his face on our money. How many of our great American heroes are initiators, perpetuators, and accomplices of violence? And what is their punishment? We give them national holidays and grant them political sainthood in our history books.
America was saying “by any means necessary” long before Brother Malcolm was even born, even if those means included polluting Boston Harbor, killing the ruling class, forcibly taking land from natives, and enslaving other people to build their economy, and yet some people shudder to hear a black man say that he will stop at nothing keep himself out of the jaws of that beast. Oh no, that kind of black behavior will not be tolerated.I am supposed to be ashamed of Brother Malcolm they assume–and for what? because he spoke plainly about American injustices? Because he spoke as though he refused to tolerate being assaulted? He accessed the best part of the American tradition: to speak truth to power, and to demand access to our inalienable rights as human beings. He was killed for presuming that revolution was not a whites-only prerogative.
America would like to think that it has never been to us what it once thought Great Britain was to her. It would like to minimize it’s own atrocities in history and to outright deny its injustices in the present. But people like Brother Malcolm would be its memory.It is easy for people who are not at-risk of being slapped to obsess about “turning the other cheek.” I am a follower of Jesus, and therefore aspire to be such a person that does resist oppression without becoming a violent aggressor. At the same time, I am under no false pretense that “turning the other cheek” is an invitation for me to simply become a doormat. As Walter Wink puts it: “Evil can be opposed without being mirrored. Oppressors can be resisted without being emulated. Enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.” I also realize something that those on the outside of my experience don’t have to: that people get to decide how they will respond to threats to their cheeks, not bystanders.
For those who actually have to make decisions about real violence being enacted upon them, their decision to endure it, in hopes of exposing the evil of it or in subverting it can be noble and effective. But only they get to make that decision since they are the only ones who will bear the consequences. It is downright problematic for onlookers to demand that victims simply endure their suffering, even to the point of death–because, why are those onlookers standing by and witnessing a murder!?
Again, America asks so much of black people. Our blood, sweat, songs, souls, labor, and imaginations have contributed so much to this country. There truly is no America as we know it without the contributions of black people. Will we also become Christ for you? Would you try to make of us a Passover Lamb? Must we all become like the suffering servant, of whom the apostle writes, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). You can continue to label us criminals, like he was, you can continue to beat us, like he was, you can continue to mock us, like he was, you can continue to lynch us, like he was, all in hope that you will look up and finally see (and say), “Surely, they too were children of God,” but our blood will not save you.
Brother Malcolm is skeptical of any would-be messianic attempts at moral influence. Perhaps an abuser will not be saved through their abuse. What if allowing that abuse doesn’t reach the aggressors conscience? These are good questions that Brother Malcolm challenges us to ask. He’s at least worth listening to.
Happy birthday, Brother Malcolm.