Several years ago I took a course on the life and work of Malcolm X. I studied Brother Malcolm in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and studied the intellectual, political and spiritual transformation under which X had gone. His radicalism especially in the earlier phase of his activism has certainly cast a large shadow over some significant parts of his legacy leaving him an often unmentioned figure in not only popular American History, but the history of the Civil Rights Movement that is celebrated in mainstream society. Understanding my political ideals, a dear friend of mine recently said that had I grown up in the 50’s and 60’s she believes I would have been marching with X before King. I suppose the outwardly apparent anger I’ve often expressed toward social injustice would not have, for many observers, made me appear to be a potential subscriber to Kingian nonviolence and I do believe that I am still working to fully integrate an understanding of nonviolence into my own life as I grew up learning to stand for self-defense, a proposition upheld and promoted by Brother Malcolm early on in his journey. Truth is, I don’t know where I would have stood in that moment of our history, but I do know I stand for equality and justice. I suppose then the devil is in the details of the methods I am willing and would have been willing to employ…
In any case, studying Malcom X’s autobiography in addition to the now “public” FBI records on Brother Malcolm infuriated me in my journey to fully comprehend the facets of racism that are woven into the very fabric of this nation. A Black boy who grew up in predominately W/white schools, I learned about the Civil Rights Movement and the atrocities inflicted upon Black and Brown peoples from afar until I found myself as a student in the Africana Studies Department of Rutgers University. It was there that I not only began to understand Black History and the ugly parts of American History which my textbooks so eloquently hid, but to understand myself and my multiple identities within the context of historical and now present discriminatory racial practices and unequal systemic influences that continue to greatly sever Black and W/white life in America.
In researching the life of Brother Malcolm, I took it upon myself to write an evaluation of the racist practices that influenced the infiltration of the Civil Rights Movement and race relations in the context of the struggle for Black liberation and freedom. In my analysis I often wrote the word, the identity “white” with a lowercase “W” and of course as a young Black man studying and being empowered by the history of his people, I wrote Black with a capital “B.” I did not, at first, see this difference for myself but a professor who reviewed the paper actually pointed it out and until this moment, at age 24, as I continue to study race relations now in the context of the American education system, I have not fully understood why. Even now, I can only speculate as I try to correct this trouble in my own perspective of the world beyond my light brown sometime pinkish-red skin.
Blackness for me was and is a thing, a practice, a foundational component of the political, social and cultural values by which people who self-identify and are socially identified as Black operate. Embracing my Blackness was a process by which I had to find enlightenment and strength in both the historical and contemporary injustices inflicted upon those “other” Americans who look like me. In that time, W/whiteness for me was an abstract intangible distant thing that engulfed our society in a way that did not have to be identified as its presence was just there, as the norm.
For me it was as if asking a child to look inside of a tank with a lizard inside and to identify everything he or she saw. A child and even an adult would certainly name the lizard as a thing. Perhaps there would be dirt, some small plant, a small log or two on which the lizard would climb. However, the child and the adult would not necessarily call out that there was oxygen in the tank. Surely if you asked the observer if there were oxygen in the tank the answer would be yes but as something that is always there and perhaps taken for granted it wouldn’t come to mind to call it out, to identify it as present because subconsciously its presence was just understood.
Surely there are limitations to this analogy; so much so that I will not delve too far beyond acknowledging their existence, but the main point remains that for me W/whiteness, at the time, was a common not a proper noun and I felt in that time that by not capitalizing the term I gave it less significance in my own research as if it were less of an identity. In truth it is a major identity that needs acknowledgement and honest analysis.
Even now as I write, I am learning to more fully understand Whiteness as a tangible thing and identity even when those who are White do not identify with it as a race but mention specific ethnic group when describing who they are. The largest lesson of this is for me to appreciate the truth that part of understanding myself is understanding others in the context of the community in which I exist and that despite cultural clashes there are countless cultural intersections between Blackness and Whiteness. Moreover, out of respect for the identities of others I speak of Whiteness and being White as legitimate and recognizable parts of our American fabric and not the abstract oxygen that surrounds us in this tank we call America. This is particularly true because the pride I hold in being Black objects to the conscious inhalation of Whiteness, an identity that even if I tried, I could never attain but only imitate in a process of self-denial and identity suicide.