Where do American heroes go when they’ve been swept from the board of Life? Where do the men who shaped the history of the United States, its conversation on its place in the world, the ideals on which America was born and the stride it has kept with time and an ever-changing world theater go? Where are these examples put to extend the value of their contributions to our nation? They end up on postage stamps; some as streets and avenues. Two men in particular shaped the latter portion of twentieth century America’s self-image. Both men worked tirelessly for the part of America that has often been muted in favor of technological and architectural advancement – its conscience. These two men represented an America of men and women partitioned through fundamentally similar lenses, but from different worlds. As two sides of the same coin, each bore witness and effected change as it changed them: on one side of the coin, fury and indignation and on the other, powerful forbearance.
Michael King, Jr., who would later be rechristened at five years-old as Martin Luther King for his namesake, the upstart Protestant who challenged the legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church by his minister father had his path chosen for him. He, like many African Americans growing up in the United States was tested by racism at an early age, but with the help of family and mentoring colleagues, the precocious youth was molded over time and coaxed from the affliction of retaliation to an ambitious system with a different philosophy. A national figure by the age of thirty, Dr. King forged a path through the long-standing American tradition of racism within the Civil Rights Movement – a theater of social change that is usually relegated to the fourteen-year period he was active, but truly an extension of the efforts of African Americans since 1865 – and eventually became one of the world’s global rubrics for overcoming the trappings of hatred.
Malcolm Little’s identity and world view would also be compromised by racism, but he would have few positive elements to mediate its virulent effects. His earliest memory was escaping his childhood home as it burned down around him, set aflame by white “supremacist” groups; the subsequent murder of his father, who suffered the last two hours of his life in nearly two separate pieces; the breaking up of his family by an apathetic state system and the crushing, blithe discouragement given him by authority figures despite his latent scholastic potential. These experiences birthed Detroit Red, a cynical, shrewd gambler, hustler, thief, and then later, after seven years of imprisonment and acceptance into the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, the most prominent detractor of the status quo that enabled the American tradition of destruction of African Americans the country had ever seen in his era. The impact of both men, over fifty years after their violent, government-supported deaths still resonates, but one side of the coin is valued in shadow.
These two men were the scions of a one hundred and twenty-three year battle to attain a place at America’s table, where its ideals were unilaterally plated and portioned. These ideals coalesced into laws, and then rights and finally crystallized into an indefatigable paradigm from which the table was built: the American Dream. Their murders were a causality of challenging the American Dream – a financial and social infrastructure created in imitation of Nature (as interpreted by humans) – a binary system of top and bottom defended by the pathological obsession with being, or being considered, white. For centuries, this identity has cast about and created institutions to house its pathology: religion, pseudo-science, government, laws and economics.
Dr. King, within a coalition of equally talented activists challenged the American Dream with a counter-dream, equality. He sought to transform the self-indulgent mirage of white supremacy (both the central hub and militant arm of this school of thought) with passive resistance directed at giving the oppressor the opportunity to see his actions in the face of one-sided aggression through nonviolence. The conquering of one’s basic instincts when others give free rein to theirs with no consideration toward the impact of their actions speaks of a character not matched in any era since. To put one’s body on the line to clothe the nakedness of a country’s morality must have seemed a surreal boon to the men, women and children who committed these acts of barbarism in protection of their whiteness; in the bricks, bottles, sticks, hoses, German shepherds and guns they wielded; in the way housewives accused innocent boys and men of indiscretion with a casualness that underscored the almost certain fatal reprisal; in the way the country pressed for this identity and its enduring proof of stature – to do with black life as anyone who believed themselves to be white willed – to remain unblemished by equality.
Malcolm X’s counter-dream was no dream at all, but an awakening exclusive to people of color, with harsh indictments against racism as its alarm clock. He did not, even after his conversion to Sunni Islam countenance a non-violent approach in the face of wanton terrorism against people of color. His supporting ideology was the law of reciprocation, a mutual call and response dialogue in the language the oppressor spoke in. The threat of violence racism imposed made protection of the body paramount to any ideal or hereafter concerns fomented by the institutions designed to check self-actualization and aspirations for human rights. Malcolm’s passionate intolerance interrupted America’s paradigm, stymied and upset the country-wide perception that color determined position, treatment or allocation of dignity. His admonishments to black America to cast off ancestral fear (the violence-ingrained mindset of powerlessness and resignation instilled in generations of men of color through America’s brutal institutions, first through the slave owner/plantation and its ancillary evolutions of government, state and federal laws enforced by our police system, the current body men to this tradition) and self-determine their own paths through social and political unity were obfuscated by the deep-seated fear possessed by a society of people seeking to assuage or supplant ancestral guilt – the outstanding moral debt signed in the blood of generations of African Americans and other people of color on the parchment of their bodies and left, as tradition, in arrears for the proceeding generations of those believing themselves to be white to dismiss or avoid at will – instead of facing it head-on. Malcolm’s drive to unequivocally hold that debt to America’s face earned him a deep, reflexive hatred and then later a grudging respect, not as an incisive humanitarian but as an avenging spirit demonized in the public eye.
Traditionally America, in the form of its institutions and its people under the sway of this pathology has handed down defacto or literal death sentences to any man, woman or child of any ethnicity who dared challenged its essential directive, its Dream; while not open to all men equally, the Dream nonetheless solicits all men to its maintenance. That service is well-compensated in some cases. The punishment for defying its directive is crippling and in many cases, fatal. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ term “essential below” is chillingly apt.
The definitive measure of a man’s legacy is exemplified by the people ignited from that spark of inspiration borne of his conviction. The next great question to arise from their sacrifice and the sacrifices of the men and women who supported them is whether or not forty-four million descendants of former native Africans, wholly American for their unimpeachable contributions to this country’s foundations create for themselves an identity distinct from the burdensome folk taxonomy of race (neither black nor white are legitimate ethnic designations). Parallel to this question are the considerations regarding the ongoing struggles of ancestral guilt: the collapse of naiveté with apathy (any social media comment thread that all but suggests a greater preoccupation with the non-cosmopolitan image of the racist than the actions of one) the selective erasure of color lines (re: All Lives Matter) and the paradoxical clinging to the identity of white while attempting to redact the collective social term from its primary legacy of imperialist homicide. Splitting an atom with one’s bare hands while juggling could be a comparatively easier task.
Both of these great men saw that their futures lay at the feet of the people they fought for and both knew, with a prescience all men ahead of their time possess, and as America has decreed for centuries, that it would require the ultimate sacrifice (to note, Dr. King’s inspiring but ominous “Mountaintop” speech and Malcolm X’s lingering premonitions of one day succumbing to a violent death echoed throughout his entire life). Even as the current wave of attrition for fair treatment has settled (publicly) on the lives of women, children and the lawfully compliant in disturbingly telling waves, the legislatively endorsed murder of out of all proportion to the American population by law enforcement – and the cache of state monies doled out to bereaved families for its most heinous cases – seems almost an implicit exchange for the right to take the lives of people of color at will. These upsets, including the most recent white nationalists riots in Charlottesville are what these two men gave their lives for over fifty years ago to help end. Two sides of the same coin. Malcolm X has a statue erected to mark the very place where he was removed from the board of Life; Dr. King has a monument in a place that demonstrates his national impact, our nation’s capitol. Who determines the side of the coin which sees the light and which rests on the flat side of the palm? If both sides create value for the coin, equal care must be given to both. For both men pushed back against the monolith that is the American Dream inch by incremental inch to provide room for the true reality: that all men are created equal.
The One Thing You Forgot
An open letter to my mother
Because I have heard it so many times, all times come to me at once when I remember. Because you have said it before, each moment is composited onto the last until you are a kaleidoscopic image. You are years of everything and nothing; you are wearing something and nothing; I cannot tell if you are here; I cannot tell if your face is real. You are aged and young, high and sober, pious and agnostic, violent and subdued, loving and distant. I am a boy and I hear the words clearly from your many, and nil, lips.
“Just be yourself.”
There is a pause from your mouths. They shift, and the corners of fragmented brown phase in and out of my memory’s focus. No more words follow. I am transported to the world. I want things. I want friends. I want a community to acknowledge me and look for where I am. I want romance, a job. I remember, “be yourself.” The direction floats in my mind. The direction.
I had no reason to doubt you. Like many parents possessing humble means and few options to elevate above them, there is a particular pride in providing the modern upkeep of their children. Despite an incomplete education you worked more than one job – extra hours, late nights – to make ends meet. And for that, the presents I wanted most were always under the tree, hunger was non-existent on my table and a place to stay was never in doubt. While I could never quite make it to the “cool crowd” with my fashion options, because of your diligence I managed to avoid the harshest scrutiny at lunch tables full of the haves, whose parents had given them more; as I was later to learn or see first-hand for myself when I went to their homes, this was at the expense of the essentials that I had in abundance. My clothing was further supplemented by the hand-me-downs of my elder sisters, whose tomboy phase was a welcome boon. This demonstration of investment earned from me a trust in those words
The way was uphill. Rejection, ridicule, enemies, heartache. Too much of not enough. Too tall, teeth stick out too much, too clumsy, or too awkward; too slow to distance from childhood and much, much too slow to enter the elite world of the false prophet – the youth with the explicit experiences of an adult.
became sailing in a ship with a hull made of paper on an ocean full of icebergs in the dead of night, no stars, no compass.
became Adjustment. Stoop when you walk. Make jokes instead of speak up. Pretend to know when you don’t. Disappear when the eyes, those eyes of judgment rest on you. Adjustment quickly became the replacement to that direction you gave to me. However, I learned, to my increasing pain that the Standard of society, ever in flux and shaped to fit the needs of our ideals which are built on a monetized sinkhole, has bills to pay, and “Myself” does not keep the lights on and so you either adjust or be swept out to sea in its riptide. Your direction became rhetoric that brought me nothing but suffering while Adjustment prepared me for the real world, for the jobs I got, the friends I acquired, the position where Standard’s roving eye passed over me in search of those lacking its acceptable criteria.
Myself, in a state of arrested development, shuffled off stage left and was replaced with Adjustment’s proxies; paralyzing discernment, quiet intellectual arrogance, a practiced, passive-aggressive sex appeal. The rewards grew; lovers, jobs, friends. Incrementally, the disquiet and resentment from Myself, its spindly arms just out of focus in pictures, a little boy hiding behind the table legs of the kitchen or with his nose in books – the only time when he really had the freedom to stretch his legs – began to multiply. I put Adjustment to the side whenever I was alone and sought out Myself like a parvenu seeks the old friends left behind, but he wouldn’t listen. He was just too angry, because he knew something that I did not know at the time. He had been pushed aside for hollow gold and could do nothing about it.
The reasons to justify an identity that tipped whichever way societal standards bade began to recede; none of my jobs were fulfilling; my displaced self-image could not sustain the friendships I made; all my love affairs and relationships were one-sided because eventually someone quit playing the game of negotiated commitment and saw possibility in something real. It was never me. I was too busy carrying the weight, the weight Myself left me to bear alone while it languished in the dark. It wasn’t until my last falling out with a true friend that my knees buckled and the weight squashed me.
I did not die a full death. I went to purgatory, the place in the mind where one goes when he has reached his nadir and contemplates taking the last, lowest step into oblivion. And there, I listened to my suffering for the first time; I did not have the strength to adjust any more. Behind me was a young boy, impossibly thin and disheveled with round, aged eyes and shabby clothing. I recognized Myself. He looked into my eyes in silence, reading me and my failures plainly. “I could have helped,” Myself said after a while. I did not answer. I did not have to. “It would have taken longer, but you would have arrived on time. Being yourself is no skeleton key. It does not ensure that you get what you want. Being yourself is, was, never about that. Being yourself does not unlock every door put before you. It does not get you everything you want…no, boy, being yourself is a karmic lodestone that ensures you attract everything that is meant for you as the person you are then, and nothing that is not. Doors will close and paths will hide themselves from you. Suns may give you no warmth, moons will not light your way at night. But there will always be the way that you choose when you choose it. Because you choose it, it will be there.”
I reflected on your kaleidoscope face, your moving lips, and strained to remember if you had said something more than
The final component that completes a child’s separation from the world of a child – in their own eyes – is when their parents disappoint them. Disappointment in you flowered. Direction with no instructions? Why? Did you not know what that meant? Was this a communal rite of passage that you were instructed to pass down? Is this how your mother educated you on the subject that, clearly from my mistakes, you did not study well? Did you not know what you were doing? Is that why there was such a narrow focus on the body and nothing for the mind? Was that all you knew to do? The Christmas tree, the Thanksgivings, the Easter outfits, the roof over my head turned to pale, meaningless gestures against the backdrop of my suffering. My ascent from purgatory did not bode good tidings for you.
There is no passage of time in that place; the real world did not stop. I still went to work. I still maintained my friendships. I still went on dates, made love, visited family and did all the other things that were important to me, or I told myself through habit was important to me. When I reached the entrance and stepped into the light, years had passed. I was a man. The sunlight was harsh in my eyes and my disappointment was still there.
I used the echoes of that incomplete wisdom as your bookmark and I returned to that place time and again. Each time you opened your mouth, I knew better than you did.
Our relationship suffered as I did, and the chasm between us grew. Later conversations with Myself – when I listened – informed me that you, my mother, didn’t tell me not because you didn’t know, but because you weren’t supposed to. That was a job for Myself. You guarded my body as best you could with what you had as the person you were, and that in of itself is a full quota. I am alive.
Adjustment is now my enemy. It has served too long in the capacity as captain of my self-image and has now been dishonorably discharged. That emaciated boy in the shadows, now an adolescent has gained weight in the sunlight. The sharp edges of his cheeks are rounder now. The dull abandoned pools that were once his eyes have now the twinkle of promise there, in time. The scars of neglect are slowly being replaced with the wear of experience. Regret is a display of pious arrogance, a pseudo talent of the well-meaning who collapse this with action in order to moderate the pain of those they, including themselves, hurt. And still, I wish I could go back in time and tell Myself, in a hidden letter for him to find at his lowest point, before he descended to Purgatory, or perhaps whisper to that seven year-old child as he slept, that to be Myself would mean a longer journey, but guarantee a timely arrival. I would never forget it, and strive for the advancement of personal achievement, in of itself a motivator, to increase the power of attraction. I would shun the concept of the ephemeral hall pass to approach the stalls of inclusion, where each visit demands higher tithes of conformity. I would be free to
because I chose. You, my kaleidoscope mother, are frozen in time and I know you cannot hear me when I say I love you and smile. Something in you, a fragment of the edges that make up your lovely, aged/ageless face falls into my hand. I will never forget your wisdom. Never again.