Monday, November 24, 2008

Teaching Malcolm X

I have been teaching The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my Introduction to American Studies class. Leading up to it, we have read lots of “American” primary source documents---from a letter from Columbus to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution to David Walker’s Appeal. We just finished reading a book by Ted Conover, New Jack, which is his account of a year spent working at Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York, and an article by economist Glenn Loury exploring, “Why are so Many Americans in Prison?” (which is the basis for a new book he wrote under the same title). So we are thinking a lot about prisons and Malcolm X’s autobiography presents a unique and valuable perspective on this most American of institutions.

The first day we discussed the book was terribly chaotic. There were so many different things that the students wanted to discuss, from his name to his father’s religion. I had some questions I wanted to pose, but basically the wheels fell off because there were so many different questions on the table. Fortunately we are spending about 3 weeks with the book so I have plenty of opportunities to try to put them back on. Virtually none of the students had read the book previously, though most have seen Spike Lee’s film. They are very enthusiastic and are enjoying reading the book.

I guess the thing that struck me the most was our discussion of religion. We have been talking about Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (we haven’t yet reached Malcolm’s hajj and turn toward Sunni Islam, or discussed his influence on the late Warith Deen Muhammed) and I was surprised by the students’ openness. They were serious and accepting of Malcolm’s faith, which, at this point in the autobiography (mid-1950s), contains very little that would be familiar to my students, the majority of whom are Muslim. There was no skepticism or cynicism toward his religion, even one that draws so heavily on secular and political ideas rather than doctrines typically defined as religious. It made no difference. There was real earnestness that was in no ways naïve. The same attitude extends to their discussions of issues of morality. By contrast, their attitude toward government and that state does have a good bit of cynicism, similar to what one would find among young people in the US. I figure this is one byproduct of life in non-secular society; religion, regardless of what it is, is not questioned.

One strange aside: I am not sure if anyone caught reports of Zawahari’s latest al-Qaeda video, which is a criticism of Obama. Zawahari, who by the way is Egyptian, juxtaposes images of Obama with images of Malcolm X, suggesting that Obama is in the Powell-Rice tradition rather than the Malcolm tradition. He uses Malcolm’s historically flawed rhetoric on “house” and “field” slaves as the basis for the criticism. Nonetheless, al-Qaeda’s appropriation of Malcolm (he has been used in their videos before) is almost as fascinating as it is problematic. I may show some of the video to my class to get their perspective on what they consider to be Malcolm’s ongoing significance in this region and in the world.

The flawed comparison of Obama and Malcolm brings to mind one of my favorite moments of the presidential campaign when during one of the primary debates the candidates were asked, kind of bizarrely, who Martin Luther King would endorse. Obama replied clearly: “I don’t think Dr. King would endorse any of us.” He recognized that his own role in electoral politics was different than the role of movement activists like King (and Malcolm), who would, Obama went on to explain, continue to serve a vital role on the outside, holding those on the inside accountable. Obama is wise enough to know that he has not inherited, as many pundits posit, a movement mantle (though his opportunities are a result of the movement) and that the democratic sphere is not limited to electoral politics. (This is also why Hillary’s comments on LBJ and MLK were so disturbing; they represent a profound lack of appreciation for the role that non-electoral democratic movements have played in US history.)

I know it is a tangent. I guess I am like my students in that way.

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