Here's a conversation that aired yesterday on Here and Now, in which I discussed my piece on Malcolm X in the May issue. Below is one aspect that's discussed in the piece, and in the conversation:
Last summer, I moved from Harlem to Morningside Heights, a neighborhood around Columbia. It was the first neighborhood I'd ever lived in that was not majority black, and one of the few that could not properly be termed a "hood." It has bars and restaurants on every corner, two different farmers' markets, and a supermarket that's open 24 hours and stays stocked with fresh vegetables. The neighborhood represents my new, fully cosmopolitan life.I had spent the past two years in voracious reading about the Civil War. Repeatedly, I found myself confronting the kind of white Americans--Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Adelbert Ames--that black consciousness, with some merit, would have dismissed. And yet I found myself admiring Lincoln, despite his diatribes against Negro equality; respecting Grant, despite his once owning a slave and his advocacy of shipping African Americans out of the country. If I could see the complexity in Grant or Lincoln, what could I see in Malcolm X?
One of the best things about my foray into the Civil War is that it's really forced me to face people who I once dismissed in all of their fullness. There is a debate team approach to history which allows you to say "Thomas Jefferson was just a hypocritical white slave-holder." Or it allows you to rummage through Lincoln's public statements, find him saying something racist, and declare "He didn't free the slaves!" As I've said before, I think that approach is limiting.
Learning to see Lincoln as more than hypocrite, learning to see Grant as more then an anti-Semite, has really taught me something about myself. Personally, I'm not really big on revolutionaries and radicals. It just doesn't fit my disposition. And while recognizing Malcolm X is often credibly be put in those two categories, I see him as I see Lincoln, as I see Grant, as I see Robert Penn Warren. I see him as a Walker, as a person willing to do the hard work of reassessment, of growth and change. I don't just apply that to the latter stages of his life. I apply that to his reincarnation in prison, where he read Kant and Du Bois and joined the debate team.
I don't know how I could extend the sort of broad reading that this country routinely offers to its patriots, and not offer that same courtesy to my own private patriots.