Malcolm X – Darkness to Light

This week’s blog is a complete 180 compared to last weeks blog on John Quincy Adams. I am still trying to read all the Penguin Classics, and because of that I just finished The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley. Malcolm X is a mystifying character in history, and I didn’t know anything about him before picking up this classic. This is one reason why I highly recommend making it a goal to read the classics – you will be forced to read books that expand your worldview. We can’t improve discrimination or racism without empathy – one of the best ways to practice empathy is by stepping into the shoes of someone else through biography. 

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Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925, in Omaha, Nebraska – he shortly moved to Lansing, Michigan where he lived until the age of 14. At 14 he moved to Boston to live with family and eventually found himself in Harlem at the age of 21. While in Harlem, Malcolm Little – Little was his original last name – lived a life of crime, drugs, and racketeering. His lifestyle caught up with him, and in 1946 he was arrested for larceny. The prison he was sent to was unique in the sense that it promoted rehabilitation and education. Malcolm began to read and participate in debating events. His family in Michigan had moved to Detroit and while there became involved with a new movement called “The Nation of Islam.” Malcolm’s brother introduced him to the preachings of Elijah Muhammed – a radical black leader who preached a twisted version of Islam. Malcolm converted to Islam in prison, and upon his release in 1952, became a full-time disciple of Elijah Muhammed.

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Elijah Muhammed with his follower Muhammed Ali

Malcolm got rid of his last name and replaced it with an “X” to represent his crossed out African name which could never be discovered. The Nation of Islam was a movement targeted towards frustrated blacks who were sick of discrimination and “white” Christianity. Elijah Muhammed taught his members the following about the white race…

“Though he was a black man, Mr. Yacub, embittered toward Allah now, decided, as revenge, to create upon the earth a devil race – a bleached out, white race of people. From his studies, the big-head scientist knew that black men contained two germs, black and brown. He knew that the brown germ stayed dormant and being the lighter of the two germs, it was the weaker. Mr. Yacub, to upset the law of nature, conceived the idea of employing what we today know as the recessive genes structure, to separate from each other the two germs, black and brown, and then grafting the brown germ to a progressively lighter, weaker stage. The humans resulting, he knew, would be, as they became lighter, and weaker, progressively also more susceptible to wickedness and evil. And in this way finally he would achieve the intended bleached-out white race of devils.”

It gets worse…

“But finally the original black people recognized that their sudden troubles stemmed from this devil white race that Mr. Yacub had made. They rounded them up, put them in chains. With little aprons to cover their nakedness, this devil race was marched off across the Arabian desert to the caves of Europe…When this devil race had spent two thousand years in the caves, Allah raised up Moses to civilize them, and bring them out of the caves. It was written that this devil white race would rule the world for six thousand years.”

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Malcolm X truly believed these falsehoods and regularly recited the message that all white people were the devil. This obviously was not well received by whites, and prominent black leaders like Martin Luther King denounced the separatist hate speech. Malcolm X actually didn’t want desegregation and believed there was no way for the white race and the black race to cohabitate. Eventually, Malcolm X became more prominent then Elijah Muhhamed and was kicked out of the organization. Once he exited the cult-like Nation of Islam, he traveled to Mecca to see for himself what Islam sincerely offered. While in Mecca Malcolm saw people of all races and realized that all his former beliefs were lies. He came back to America a new man…

“In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I never will be guilty of that again – as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.”

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Unfortunately, the changed Malcolm X did not have enough time to reverse his public image of hate – on February 21, 1965, he was shot 21 times by assassins of the Nation of Islam. I understand the reasons behind Malcolm’s hate speech and I respect his change of views later in life. We all have the capacity to hate – no one race has a monopoly. Malcolm taught me the danger of fundamentalist teaching and the power of real knowledge – we must seek the truth if we desire to rise above the ignorance of the past.

Cold Comfort Farm

“Well,’ said Mrs Smiling, ‘it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean, it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”

-Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

I once went through this weird phase where I wanted to be a gentleman farmer. I spent countless hours researching heirloom crops to grow and obscure breeds of animals to raise. I romanticized the agrarian lifestyle; always picturing myself leaning on a fence looking out at a pasture of sheep or goats. I thought there was no better life of freedom or satisfaction – at the end of the day I could kiss Christina, eat apple pie, and read the Bible to my 10 children. In an attempt to test the waters of farming, I convinced my parents to put a garden in the backyard. To make the long story short, I dreaded watering and weeding the stupid thing and when something did finally grow, a wild beast ate it before I could gain any tangible satisfaction.

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After that failed attempt at farming, I put my rural dreams to the side and took up a much more suitable occupation – reading books and writing obscure blog posts. Every now and again the dream resurfaces of eating pie while staring at my goats but Christina usually squashes them with an impersonation of myself during the aforementioned gardening days…”(in an old man voice) Oh, my backkkkk, I fricking hate bending over, I need a chair to sit down to get these things out.” This precarious relationship with agriculture framed my mindset while reading the 1932 classic Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – a parody of the rural novels from 19th century England. Suffice it to say it motivated new Google searches for “how to garden in a wheelchair.”

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The title of Cold Comfort Farm is named after the main farm in the book and paints the picture of natural beauty while simultaneously highlighting the backwardness of rural England. The main character, Flora, comes to the farm to essentially mooch off her relatives with free room and board. Her relatives, the Strakadders, are best described as Sussex hillbillies who are superstitious, uneducated, and set in their ways – even though their ways make zero sense. Flora spends the book, in a quite hilarious manner, fixing the Strakadders problems, and facilitating them to lead better lives. At first, it is slow going, but with finesse and humor, Flora helps each member to truly blossom to their full potential.

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This novel is meant to show that no person is irredeemable and that the countryside not only has beautiful landscape but also beautiful people. England at the time was still quite pretentious when it came to class differences and Cold Comfort Farm is a direct attack on the negative attributes of the “stiff upper lip.”  It is not that Flora tries to change the Strakadders into pompous-city folk but rather helps them see their skills in a new light – leading them in the first steps towards their lifelong dreams. Many times we judge others who live differently and we try to change them to be reflections of ourselves; like a farmer trying to coerce me to weed when I am just more suited for Wikipedia.  In a world rife with division – Republican/Democrat, Rural/City, North/South, Black/White – we need to be reminded of this more than ever.

 

From Russia With Love

The name is Bond…James Bond. This is one of the most infamous phrases ever uttered in popular culture. When one thinks of Bond they think of a clever English man who is quick on his feet and miraculous in bed. Men want to be him and women want to be with him. It seems like there are a million Bond films that have gone through more lead characters than Dumbledores in Harry Potter. I remember watching old Bond films and marveling at all the exotic locations, expensive cars, and sexy women. Unfortunately, I am nothing like James Bond – I could be a spy as long as I got 9 hours of sleep and could swoon women while wearing my bedtime bite guard. Bond is synonymous with excitement and this is why I was pumped to read my fourth classic, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming. From Russia With Love is the fifth book in the Bond series and it was written in 1957. In total, Fleming wrote 14 bond books starting in 1953; he wrote up until his death in 1964 and several authors have taken up the series since then. From Russia With Love is considered one of the Top 100 Classics and was immensely popular when it was originally published. The plot takes place in Istanbul and entails a beautiful Russian woman seducing Bond so he can be assassinated by an evil Cold-War spy. The book has a lot of twists and overall it is a pretty fun read – my take away from it may surprise you.

Reading this book allowed me to step back to a time that many people claim to be the golden age of “morals.” The 50’s are always remembered as the era of poodle skirts,  milkshakes, greasers, and drive-in movie theaters. It was a time when teenagers only held hands on dates, drugs were a rarity, and marriages lasted forever. I always hear this from baby boomers, “society has gone down the drain in the past 50 years…kids these days.” Of course, every generation says things like this but I think the 50’s stand out above all other decades as the benchmark of nostalgic-purity. The more I read though, the more I realize the actual 50’s was far different than what was portrayed on Leave it to BeaverFrom Russia With Love is a book that contains killing, adultery, rape, slavery, racism – making modern-day Bond films look like kid’s movies. Of course, this is spy novel – I didn’t expect some liberal-hippy fest – but I did think it would be sanitized due to its systemic popularity at the time. The thing is, the 1950’s was no more pure than today – sex and violence are universal pastimes. To make matters worse, women and all non-white races were living in a time that saw systemic segregation – literal and figurative . What one realizes is that today, more than ever, people of all backgrounds are treated with greater respect, kindness, and humanity – perhaps we should rethink our benchmark? Read the book – it may brighten your outlook on the world.

As for sex, well, I mean sex is a perfectly respectable subject as far as Shakespeare is concerned. I mean, all history is love and violence.

-Ian Fleming

MLK Day as a White Man

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-Martin Luther King Jr.

Let’s be honest for a second. Have you ever done anything to celebrate Martin Luther King Day? I for one have done squat nothing. Usually for me, MLK Day in the past entailed no school and a visit to the Pizza Hut lunch buffet with my Mom. As a privileged white youth, I didn’t have a lot of personal connection with a black pastor from the 1960’s. To me it was difficult to relate to the struggle of African Americans throughout the history of the United States. I was taught that after the 1960’s, everything was essentially peachy in respects to race relations. There was no longer slavery. There was no longer “separate but equal.” There was no longer systemic institutions that oppressed a race. What made my ignorance worse, was the fact that I thought racism only existed in the south. Michiganders weren’t racist. We helped free slaves during the Civil War. We never had Jim Crow Laws. We were the safe haven- Pure Michigan.

Of course, you are probably thinking to yourself, “…what the frick, this guy is the whitest man alive! Did he really think that racism was over? Was he that obsessed about the Pizza Hut buffet that the hate of the world never hit him in the face? I for one was not ignorant and always watched Roots on MLK Day.” Yes, I was a sheltered fat kid who had rose-tinted glasses of the world. Please refrain from your Roots ego trip to hear me out for a second. My ignorance has been decreased through my journey of seeking wisdom. Racism is still an ever-present thing in America. Racism was not reversed after the Civil War. Racism had no borders between North and South. Racism was not extinguished by Martin Luther King Jr. I know now that the United States has systematically targeted the black population through policing measures and mass incarceration (click here). I know now that there were and still are policies in place that keep black and white children from intermingling in schools (click here). I know now that we are psychologically predisposed to fear black men because of cultural imagery (click here). To put it another way, I know now the importance of MLK Day.

As a white man, I feel responsible to acknowledge these wrongs and to do my part in identifying ways to reduce racism in today’s world. How can I personally reduce racism? I think one key way is to educate others about the systems in place that oppress African Americans. As a white man I do not fear getting pulled over by a police officer (click here). I do not fear imprisonment because I lack the money for a reputable lawyer (click here). I do not fear for the quality of my future child’s public education (click here). These systems are in the spotlight currently and I am glad that people are talking about them. What I think we shouldn’t do is downsize them and imagine that all things are equal. Growing up as a white male in a suburb, all things being equal, provides a much greater advantage in life compared to growing up as a black male in the ghetto. Is it possible to become a doctor as a black woman raised in Detroit? Of course it is. But the path to get there is so much harder because of the general environmental differences between white and black. That woman may not have had access to the college prep high school because of her address. She may not have had a Dad because of “search and frisk” quotas. She may not have had access to summer education because a lack of funding.

The individual is always responsible for decisions but the United States is responsible for making the playing field fair. My aim today is to inform everyone that there is still a lot of work left to do on a system wide level. We shouldn’t be like my younger Pizza Hut self and think everything is just dandy. We should never say, “I overcame challenges so they should stop whining and work harder.” It is that logic that was once used to argue for “separate but equal.” It is that logic that makes people passive observers to everyday racism. So, as a White man I for one thank you Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for making the world more understanding and fair for all Americans. To celebrate this day, I honor you through this post and will make it a goal to educate those about the present-day inequities of the world so that one day a Pizza Hut boy may be correct in wearing his rose-colored glasses.