Before Barack Obama ascended to the Executive Branch of our government, my favorite Black historical figure was not the one most would expect, say Frederick Douglass or George Washington Carver. It wasn’t even Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, or even Jackie Robinson. And no, it wasn’t even Martin Luther King, the one who everyone these days worships and whose offspring have sold his legacy to whoever will pay good money for it.
No, my favorite historical figure was Malcolm X.
Malcolm X could probably have been described as one of the most prominent Black Thought Leaders of his day, as he was Elijah Muhammad’s rising star while in the Nation of Islam. His was a fiery message of oppression and pain at the hands of the white man, one he had very close, personal experience with as a boy growing up in Nebraska and Michigan, where his father was brutally murdered in 1931.
However, when Malcolm X made that pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, returning with a message of peace for all with the understanding of the necessity of the Black community’s need of self-defense, his newfound pragmatism and insight became a threat to the prominence of those who had profited the most from his previous rhetoric. Ultimately, it would cost him his life. James Baldwin, in his book No Name in the Street, described in detail what made Malcolm X so threatening:
What made him unfamiliar and dangerous was not his hatred for white people but his love for Blacks; his apprehension of the horror of the Black condition and the reasons for it, and his determination so to work on their hearts and minds that they would be enabled to see their condition, and change it themselves.
Today marks the second year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and later this year will mark the one-year anniversary that his killer, George Zimmerman, got off. With the pain of Jordan Davis’ murder and the incomplete, confusing verdict for his killer that followed still fresh, the malaise, confusion and unfocused panic that is currently on display in our community has been frightening, to say the least. We are burdened by fear, yet locked in place by bitterness and despair, donning hoodies and creating hashtags seeking to reaffirm our self-worth.
On this day, however, I left my hoodie at home.
Why, you ask, would I not wear a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin? Because there is a much larger point that is being missed here. A big red truck full of loud, foul-mouthed Black teenagers did indeed threaten the racist sentiments of a violent, narcissistic thug, but let us bear in mind why all this is happening: A well-dressed Black man, a Constitutional law professor born of a single mother and an absentee father; husband to a dark-skinned woman who is the most courageous and beautiful First Lady to ever call 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW home; father to two daughters who represent one of the brightest futures in Black political potential in this country, is the President of these United States of America, a nation historically designed for us to be nothing more than the property of the white man.
With Barack Obama, the lie of our limited potential in this nation was exposed. His existence as the leader of this country these last six years has been the cause of every shred of racial cognitive dissonance currently taking place in our nation, seen every time the Republican Party opens its mouth, creates laws, or silences entire states’ worth of African American voters through aggressive gerrymandering and draconian voter ID laws. No longer is the destiny of the young Black male restricted to being the next biggest rap star, athlete, or musical legend; we can command the power of nations, control armies, and sign bills into national law.
Black lives do indeed matter, but not just because we are fellow humans trying to live life in peace and safety; it is because there is now the ability for many more Barack Obamas to become President. And we dare to hold the solipsistic conceit to declare ourselves helpless, completely incapable of standing against the decrepit bones of white supremacy, despairing such that the supposed greatest minds on race would even contemplate suicide?
Foolishness. And shame on them for even letting the idea of ending their own life enter their minds.
We are capable of so much more. This is now a moment in which we must define who we are as a people, and challenge ourselves as a culture. The “violent, racist mob” Malcolm X spoke of does indeed threaten to beat down our doors and colonize us yet again, but like our ancestors before us, this moment demands civic action, not a reconfirmation of our defenselessness. Let us honor our dead sons by immersing ourselves in the democratic process, and fighting for laws that protect ourselves, and those that come after us. This must, in fact, become our self-defense. As Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz said recently, “…we’re not supposed to just sit back and let things happen but…we’re supposed to participate.”