Continuing Education

It is one thing to understand someone whom you know and speak with regularly. It's still another to understand a stranger.


On Thursday, I was at Cornell making the case for reparations. I've never written anything that has garnered this much attention, and I confess some bewilderment at the response. Yesterday there were people sitting in the aisles, people standing outside the room, people sitting in windows, people outside of windows listening. I've been writing professionally for most of my adult life. I've done this because I love the act of writing, which is to say I love the act of discovery, of revelation, and then the attempt to share that revelation in all its fullness and clarity.

You can never be sure how many people will want to share in that feeling. And so I have found that it is best to not think too much about the ranks of one's readers, one's prominence or profile. The reasons to write were my own when I commenced 20 years ago, as a young poet, and they remain mine today as a not-so-young journalist. And yet sometimes you look up and there are people listening, and if not in large numbers, then in larger numbers than anything you ever imagined. You can never be sure quite why. No matter. This too, redounds.

The greatest boon of "The Case for Reparations" is that it has put me in conversation with some of the best minds of my generation, the generations preceding, and the generations following. My favorite portion of these talks, is after the speech when I get to listen to the audience, the small private lunches with students, or the dinners with academics. And so it was yesterday when I found myself listening, within a few short hours, to arguments for, and against, a binational Israel, then a short treatise on the history of black satire in America, and finally the possibility of reparations in a capitalist economy. In this sense, I felt myself back at home, back at Howard, out on the Yard, debating with the brothers and sisters, and catching up on the doings of various radicals, nationalists, and professed social democrats.

Those are the moments of magic for me because they remind me of why I came to writing—for discovery, revelation, for study. I find myself thinking of George L. Ruffin's estimation of Frederick Douglass:

His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.

He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.

Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.

I find myself thinking of Malcolm X in the jail cell, wearing out his eyes in search of the knowledge, and at the end of his life, searching still:

My greatest lack has been, I believe, that I don't have the kind of academic education I wish I had been able to get—to have been a lawyer, perhaps. I do believe that I might have made a good lawyer. I have always loved verbal battle, and challenge. You can believe me that if I had the time right now, I would not be one bit ashamed to go back into any New York City public school and start where I left off at the ninth grade, and go on through a degree. Because I don't begin to be academically equipped for so many of the interests that I have. For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. I don't know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can't understand. Especially when they are people who look just like you.

In Africa, I heard original mother tongues, such as Hausa, and Swahili, being spoken, and there I was standing like some little boy, waiting for someone to tell me what had been said; I never will forget how ignorant I felt. Aside from the basic African dialects, I would try to learn Chinese, because it looks as if Chinese will be the most powerful political language of the future. And already I have begun studying Arabic, which I think is going to be the most powerful spiritual language of the future.

I would just like to study. I mean ranging study, because I have a wide-open mind. I'm interested in almost any subject you can mention. I know this is the reason I have come to really like, as individuals, some of the hosts of radio or television panel programs I have been on, and to respect their minds—because even if they have been almost steadily in disagreement with me on the race issue, they still kept their minds open and objective about the truths of things happening in this world.

But time raced ahead of Malcolm, and he died not knowing—and knowing how much he did not know. So it goes for all of us, eventually.

At the end of my talk yesterday, a woman approached me with a question. She was a native of Côte d'Ivoire, and when I learned this I immediately asked, "Vous parlez français?" And to this she granted a mild, "Bien sûr." A great fear came over me, because I knew that if I were serious about my studies—if I truly aspired to be that hard student—I must attempt speak to her in French, if she were willing. She was. And so we talked about reparations for the enslaved, for the plundered, for the colonized—and we did it all in the language of the colonizer.

I am approaching the end of my third year studying French. This was the first time I'd had a complicated conversation with a native French speaker who I did not know, and managed to follow along. This means more than is immediately apparent. Before I began studying I did not understand that comprehension comes on several levels. It is one thing to understand someone whom you know and speak with regularly. It's still another to understand a stranger. And another still to understand a group of strangers who are talking about something of which you have no knowledge. So this small conversation was a moment for me—like the novice yogi going from bridge to wheel. And there again I felt one of the revelation, the discovery, the neurons firing, stretching, growing.

I started the case for reparations looking to answer a question that has burned at me since I was a child in West Baltimore—what was the wall which stood between the world and me? And now I feel myself to know the answer. And I feel that while my country may need to lie to itself, it can no longer effectively lie to me. That is a kind of liberation. And still I feel other kinds calling out to me.