happy birthday, brother malcom

when white people want to shame me, they invoke his name.

"You're not being like Dr. King! You're being like Malcolm X!"

They almost always raise their voices at that point, always so satisfied with themselves. I just laugh. 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 and (2) the historical location in which those words were said. He’s 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. Yet, those same Christians can't seem to grasp that Brother Malcolm’s audience was literally facing death every day. 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!"

Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" and white people are still impressed by him. Henry is 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.

America was saying "by any means necessary" long before Brother Malcolm was ever born, even if those means included polluting Boston Harbor, killing the ruling class, forcibly taking land from natives, and enslaving Africans to build their economy. Yet some people shudder to hear a black man say that he will stop at nothing keep himself out of the jaws of oppression. That kind of black behavior, they say, will not be tolerated.

Why should I be ashamed of Brother Malcolm? Because he spoke plainly about American injustices? Because he spoke as though he refused to tolerate being assaulted? He expressed the very ideals that America celebrates in its mythologies of revolutionary freedom: to speak truth to power, and to demand access to our alleged “inalieble 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’m a follower of Jesus, and therefore aspire to be such a person that does resist oppression without violence. As theologian 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." At the same time, I have to acknowledge that even Jesus flipped over tables and chased the moneychangers out of the Temple with a whip—he fashioned!—in his hand. One must discern carefully what means are appropriate to one’s context. But only I can make that choice for myself. The cheek-slappers don’t get to make it for me. Those under the threat of violence get to decide how they will respond to it.

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 subverting it in some way--can be noble and effective. But it’s their prerogative since they are the ones who will bear the consequences, whether they choose nonviolence or not. 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? Would you nail us to a cross and demand our intercession? Would you require us to live perfect lives, so that you won't have to? 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). Would you continue to label us criminals, like He was, to beat us as He as beaten, to mock us as He was mocked, to lynch us as He was lynched, all in hope that you will look up one day and finally see (and say), "Surely, they too were children of God?"

Our blood will not save you.

Brother Malcolm is skeptical of any would-be messianic attempts at moral influence. Is an abuser ever saved through their abuse? What if the aggressors has no conscience? These are good questions that Brother Malcolm challenges us to ask.  

How could i be shamed by being compared to Brother Malcolm? He was a bold, witty, subversive, common-sense, disruptive, truth-teller trying to do something for the empowerment of the oppressed. How could i be anything but honored? 

Happy Birthday, Brother Malcolm