Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Martin, Malcolm, and Me

We all come from somewhere. We learn first to see what is immediately around us, and often only that portion of our surroundings that directly affect us. Acting in the world with any semblance of political responsibility and directed radicalness requires a slow groping to consciousness of what lies beyond that -- what is right in front of our eyes that we have been socialized into not seeing, and what is completely beyond our experience. This process of becoming never ends.

For some reason, recently I have been thinking about the way that one of the important environments that has shaped me has distorted my vision of two men who existed in environments radically different from my own. I first came to a politicized consciousness of the world in a particular corner of the white-dominated left in southern Ontario. The two men in question are Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I won't try to characterize the landscape of the left in southern Ontario in any kind of detail. In fact, I'm not sure I could do a passible job of it even if I made the effort. But a few characteristics are relevant to the discussion at hand.

The first is the obvious but never sufficiently repeated point that the oppressive realities that structure society as a whole also frequently structure progressive and radical spaces: male radicals who take up too much space in meetings or abuse their female partners, straight progressives who unconsciously dominate space by refusing to develop comfort with queer expressions of self, white activism grounded in white privilege. The last is particularly relevant to this post. Even in Toronto, but especially in other Ontario cities, the various structures of resistance that white people tend to be a part of are largely disconnected from and often completely unaware of the existence of structures of self-defence and resistance in racialized communities. This is both partially caused by and serves to reinforce political consciousness among white activists that is "white normative" and that does not progress as fast or as far as it might down that particular path of trying to glimpse and internalize (to the limited extent that it is possible) what lies beyond.

Other important landforms in the geography of the white left are fault lines corresponding roughly to perceived "radicalness" and to orientation towards tactics. I think both of these are actually much more complicated than many of those who would identify as being on either side of the lines might be willing to admit without some prodding. For example, it is too easy to conflate real, functional, to-the-root radicalness with an intellectual affinity for aggressive posturing and slogans that has little in the way of underlying substance. As well, the most rigid partisans of the polarized, often puritanical, extremes of the debate between active nonviolence and the "by any means necessary" position (which can itself vary from ambivalence towards certain kinds of violence to its active embrace) often seem to me to be missing important stuff.

Enter Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In mainstream discourse, both are removed from their proper roles as potentially radical teachers from the past, Malcolm by demonization and Martin by selective historical purging that turns his legacy into a kind of white-supremacy-friendly puppy dog with little more substance than the last three minutes of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

The white left in Ontario (as I experienced it) allowed these prophets of African American liberation somewhat more substance and humanity than mainstream discourse, but still fundamentally refused to break with using them (racialized Others) for our benefit. In my experience, the active nonviolence side encouraged a full recovery of the complex humanity and grounded radical views of Dr. King, while not doing much to disturb the mainstream demonization of Malcolm X. The ambivalence-to-violence side occasionally valourized Malcolm (though still somewhat shallowly, it seems to me) and often seemed content to dismiss Martin as the weak liberal that mainstream discourse paints him to be. Each side could then mobilize a patron saint from what is a very important (materially and rhetorically) resistance movement in twentieth century North America. Obviously, the operative variable here is the utility of the past (Black) hero to current (white) ideological needs, not a truly nuanced understanding of the historical role, humanity, strengths, weaknesses, and wisdom of both of them -- i.e. it was mostly not about accepting their importance and deciding to learn from them in the context of their own communities and strugges simply because millions of oppressed people also learned from them.

Now, I know that is a simplification. I would bet there are people, including people I am very fond of and have utmost respect for, who would be quite indignant at that characterization. But it is very easy for an individual mind and heart to relate to these figures in deeper ways than I have outlined even while participating in a collective political micro-culture in which this depth never takes hold.

Now, I still come from where I come from, and my journey to remove the scales from my eyes is just as much in progress as anyone else's. I still have a considerably better understanding of Martin's contribution and life than Malcolm's, for example. However, I am thankful for hearing a radio discussion on KPFK while living in Los Angeles, between Jerry Quickly and (I believe) Erin Aubrey Kaplan, that first made me realize the limited perspective of these men I'd inherited from the white left of southern Ontario -- in particular, the complete absence of understanding of their impact on Black consciousness. And more recently it was this article by long-time African American civil rights lawyer J.L. Chestnut that started me thinking about it again and gave me a more developed framework with which to talk about it. But I still have a lot of learning to do. In fact, the larger lesson for me is a reminder that those of us with privilege seem to need over and over again, about listening -- why it matters, who we listen to, and how we listen, as well as the importance of understanding but trying not to be totally constrained by our own privilege, presumptions, and traumas while we do it.


rabfish said...

this is interesting. i think your characterization of how left uses malcom x and martin luther king is one of how the white left uses them. it misses how those figures are important, not just in the context of *their* historical time period for black consciousness, but in *this* historical time period, in southern ontario, for radical anti-racist politics. this shifts the focus--instead of being a matter of whether one is mouthing ideology without understanding ""their" "black" historical context, I see it more as a matter of their words being contemporary resources for articulating identity and resistance to a lived experience of oppression.

Scott said...

Good points...thanks!

Yes, I was definitely writing about how the _white_ left in ontario uses these figures, because that's what I know, by and large...I think I tried to be explicit that that was what I was doing, that I was figuratively tracing my own learning about these two men.

It doesn't come across explicitly in what I wrote, but the impact on me of the learning that I allude to at the end, of hearing the interview on KPFK, was precisely because it brought it home to me that there is this great contemporary (and not just historical) political relevance that I was totally missing. I remember hearing Jerry Quickly talk with real passion in his voice about how certain ideas from Malcolm X had a profoundly positive impact on his politics and his life as a Black man in the United States, and instantly contrasting that in my head with instances of hearing a few white activists in Ontario dismiss Malcolm as a whole in a kind of contemptuous way because he refused to renounce violence as a possible tool. What else and who else are they dismissing when they do that? What does it mean for their political practice outside of that moment? What could we/I learn and could that change how we/I act in the world?

Of course that learning by me was from a specifically African American context, and my awareness of M & M's relevance to radical anti-racist politics in Ontario has been vague and faint at best -- in retrospect, not completely unaware that a connection probably exists, partly just from assumption that they would be relevant and from little bits of observation here and there, but obviously not any kind of a clear picture that would lead to me articulating it in a post where it was clearly relevant. A good illustration of what I talk about in the first paragraph of my post, I guess!

In fact, my own ignorance of this is illustrative of one of the reasons why I thought this was important enough to write about but that also didn't come across in what I actually wrote -- I think that the relationship between the white left and these historical figures is very much intertwined with and, I suppose, symbollic of the contemporary relationship between the white left and the radical anti-racist left in Ontario. Taking bits and pieces of two thinkers who were very much focused on challenging white supremacy but doing it in a way that blanks out most of the bits that could force us to think about our own complicity in white supremacy is a parallel to and in fact happens because of the ongoing failure of the white left to respond appropriately, supportively, sustainably, and in an ally-like fashion to the challenges of the radical anti-racist left in the province.

Another point that your comment kind of makes is about our relationship to history more generally. I think what I wrote back in November makes it sound like I think any contemporary adaptation of a historical figure's thought and legacy is inherently bad, which isn't what I think at all. The only way we can learn from the past, both from events and from thinkers/writers/doers of the past, is by adapting it in some way to the present. To make ideas of the past politically useful today necessarily requires adaptation and active engagement with them rather than just passively knowing and remembering, because today's struggles are related to but not identical with yesterday's. It is crucial for our present struggles for justice and liberation to be able to articulate a politics for bringing that history to life in active, appropriate ways in the present.