Sunday, May 23, 2010

Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, and the Texas-made history book

So I just got finished watching Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” again—I saw it the day it came out in theaters and probably at least two other times after that. I hadn’t seen it in a while and given that the anniversary of his death was this past week, May 19th, the same day my parents were married, I thought the timing was good. After seeing the film, Vincent mentioned Amiri Baraka’s poem, “The X is Black (Spike Lie),” and I’d never read the poem so I asked Vinny to break it out now that the film was fresh in my mind. I’m not exactly sure how to interpret the poem, but Baraka addresses the opening sequence where a U.S. flag burns into the X symbol, retaining the stars and stripes. Baraka correctly points out that the X would burn black, much like the space devoid of history for African Americans and anyone in the African Diaspora. I believe that Spike Lee was trying to create a space for Malcolm X in our legitimate U.S. history; my younger readers may not realize that when I was growing up, Malcolm X was a historical leper. No one outside of the Black community wanted to talk about him in any respectful way. He was always portrayed negatively. The film changed that. However, it seems that Baraka still feels that despite the goals of the film, ultimately what is done with Black culture is that it is used to create wealth for folks who don’t respect it. The poem implies that the film is a sell-out. If there are any other interpretations of the poem, please bring them on because I am not at all too sure of my own.

I am sure of some ideas, however, that have come up for me. The first is that I have been trying to fill in the X of my own absent history for all of my 38 years. Again, my younger readers and/or students often have no idea what I’m talking about or why it might matter, but as a child, I suffered greatly because I did not know who I was. My grandparents lived in countries outside of the U.S., our family tree was not recognized with well-kept records because we were poor and because our African and Asian/Middle-Eastern ancestral migrations/kidnappings were faint, and my parents did not know much about U.S. culture. As the first U.S.-born in my family, I was expected to adjust to the world without any information about my family, my ancestry or how to navigate U.S. culture. When Malcolm is in jail, it is the first time he is asked to think about who he is, by an Islamic leader, and this is when his enlightenment begins. It is at this time he is able to decide who he wants to become and what he wants to do in the world. When he acknowledges that his history has been erased, it becomes his goal to help others who are also “lost,” as he put it. Most of my students do not understand that we need to know our history in order to know who we are and what we want to do in the world. What Malcolm X may not have realized back then is that nearly everyone in the U.S. has an X. We are all given history with holes, history with an agenda, and this is what allows us to be so divided.

After the film, I told Vincent that today’s world is very different to the world I grew up in, according to what my students reflect back to me. The racial lines are still there—statistics often prove this, as do visits to the poor areas of the Bronx or Cartagena, Colombia, or South Africa—but the movements in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, did make changes. Most of my students have a diverse range of friends and many of my students of color come from middle class backgrounds. Bush’s cabinet had several people of color represented. I did not see these sorts of things as a child, very much. I certainly didn’t see the number of people of color in the media as I do now. However, we must keep Baraka’s message in mind. The changes that we can see, a Condoleeza Rice here, a Jennifer Lopez there, do not fill in the black X. The X is filled in with legitimate study and community. As I wrote before, it took me 38 years to begin to fill in my X. I had to make it to DOCTORAL study in order to find the facts that showed me that yes, there were Middle Eastern migrations to the Caribbean coast of Colombia, which explains why some of my cousins look Middle Eastern. It took persistent questions to finally find out about the African ancestry in my Cuban family. It took years of reading and hunting and privileged access to a university library in order to find out about the Caribs, my ancestors, and how they joined forces with African slaves on the islands and how letters written centuries ago document persistent desires to become independent from Spanish and English rule. This group was so smart and strong, it took brutal force and, ultimately, MIXING to dominate them. That is, we are taught that the Caribs were decimated, but they were not. The Spanish and the English had babies with them in order to secure rule. But wait, I wrote, “we are taught,” but that is wrong. We aren’t taught anything about the Caribbean except maybe a paragraph on the Bay of Pigs. I don’t believe we are even taught about Toussaint L’Ouverture, the man who led a successful slave revolt in the Caribbean (we are told it is the only successful revolt, but who knows). No, all of these facts are left out of history books, even though the U.S. is incredibly dependent on Caribbean resources and should share such information with its citizens.

This lack of enlightening reading brings me to the current issue at hand: history books. Many educators have taken it as a given that the history books we provide our children with are mediocre, at best. As you all may know, a board of useless people recently voted to make our history books even worse than mediocre. This sort of decision leaves EVERYONE in the U.S. with a big, empty X. All of our children are left at a disadvantage when they do not know our relationship with other countries and each other. Some have voiced concern about making white people look bad in history books; sorry, I can’t argue with facts and legacy, but the truth is that there are many white people who have helped create true community and there isn’t any reason why they cannot be placed right alongside the wide range of people of color who are a part of U.S. history. What I am arguing for is not repeating the same mistake that was made with my and previous generations. As it stands, a child who comes through our education system right now will have to repeat the same journey Malcolm X, I, and many others have had to take—a long and beleaguered one to find out who we are, where we came from and what that means in terms of choosing what we want to do in the world. What is the point of that?? Why have I taken over 30 years of time and money just to find out who my ancestors were? At one point, I even had to prove to people that Black folks were taken in slave ships to South America! Shouldn’t that fact be common knowledge?? At the DOCTORAL level, one of my colleagues believed that an exchange of culture between African Americans and Latinos/as did not exist. I understand that Texas is different than Chicago and New York, but even I can see that pachucos wear zoot suits, which were invented in HARLEM. Oh, don’t worry, my colleagues have since changed their tune thanks to three amazing African American female professors in our department.

Which brings me to my final point: Barack, Baraka, and amazing African American female professors. This group of people implies to many that whatever we did in the past worked and that we don’t have to worry about people of color anymore, therefore, we can go back to a “legitimate” history in textbooks. Representation of a few successful men and women of color does not mean that there is one legitimate history. Some argue that we cannot possibly teach the whole of history to students. Why not? My mother, when a student in Cuba, was expected to know the economic points, history, and geography of every world nation. Why can’t we do the same? Why not have each student research his/her own representative country/countries and provide a report and supplementary handout to the class? I don’t care if you are from Ireland, Chile or possibly Zimbabwe—everyone can take a look and attempt to see him or herself on the timeline of life. How can we possibly know where we can go if we don’t see where we’ve been? It’s like trying to read a book starting midway through. It doesn't make sense and you are left with longing for the important information that came before. Oh sure, you can start a soap opera at any time, but that is not the life I want to lead. Inane and shallow is not my thing.

I know some of my students will ask, “What’s the point?” If you don’t know who you are, then you are susceptible to anyone else’s ideas about who you are. You will easily take on a story that is not your own. You’ll take on the story of a person in a movie, or a person in a commercial, or a person in the public eye, and those stories are not complete. Those are very shallow stories and all they do is leave you with empty feelings and, oftentimes, debt. We are creatures who mimic, it is how we learn to talk, walk and act. If we do not know where we come from, we will not mimic the right people. This failure to mimic the right people is why we have the economic crisis we have now. A lot of people were mimicking Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” thinking that it was perfectly fine to be greedy and steal; it doesn’t matter that he was the villain because he was the most compelling character and that is the character we will mimic. You can only do such acts when you don’t have any grounding. The rest of us who didn't identify with scum, both white and people of color, tried to find jobs that were moral and how many of those exist? Even if you are a teacher, you are expected to test your students with tests that don’t really test anything. If you are in retail or sales, you are expected to trick or profile your customer. If you are in business, you are expected to find ways to cut jobs. If you are in banking, you are expected to charge people to use their money in ways that make you a profit. If you are an artist, you are expected to entertain, as opposed to enlighten. If you choose not to participate in these activities and find a moral job, expect to struggle economically.

The economic struggle is frightening, if you are not aware of your legacy, and even sometimes if you are. You need to know who you are as much as possible in order to have strength to continue to be a positive force, in order to mimic the right people, in order to keep going through the fear. Now that I know myself a little more, I choose to mimic the strong and often outspoken women I grew up with in church, including my mother. I choose to mimic the wild and insightful writers of punk music and lyrics, who informed me when I was growing up as to the reality of what my leaders were doing. I choose to mimic the Caribs, who were not racist and were not sneaky like the colonizers, but who were fierce and determined and amazing storytellers and artists. I choose to mimic my great aunt in Cuba, who claimed her blackness even though it made everyone in her family shun her. I choose to mimic my grandmother in Colombia who made sure her entire family was educated and safe before she died. When I was kid, man, I was like young Malcolm, mimicking movies, getting caught up in junk, hurting people in the process. Knowing my history changed me, and it can help any one of our kids. We owe this to them.

I don’t believe I can tolerate another person having to come up through life as blindly as I did, gathering pieces of themselves at poetry readings, not having anyone to show them a clear path. Poetry readings are great, but they are not enough. If I’d had the opportunity to research my history, to read about my history, to share my history, it would have changed so much. I didn’t hear about Julia de Burgos until I was 29. I didn’t hear about Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets until I was nearly 30. I didn’t hear about Manuel Zapata Olivella, who was friends with Langston Hughes and who traveled South like Thomas, until I was over 35. This is wrong. I don’t want any other kid to not know who he/she is. I don’t care how many countries we’ve come from. We can help our young ones understand what their timeline is. It is not a difficult task. Yes, we have moments that connect us all, but we all belong to different legacies and it is never too much trouble to acknowledge that. Baraka knows about the empty X, I know about the empty X, but the goal should be fill it up as much as we can.


Emily G. said...

Never did I imagine that at any point in your life you questioned what your history consisted of! Even though you say you "mimic" strong women, I see you not mimicking anyone, but being that strong and vibrant woman independently.

I'm grateful to have had a father who taught me about where my blood comes from. There were many afternoons where I sat at his kitchen table, watching him cook, and listening to his stories. My father often broke the gender roles and would tell me cuentos while he would be cooking Sunday's dinner. He was the person to introduce me to Oscar Hijuelos, Julia Alvarez, Gabriel Marquez, and many more. He prepared me for "America" and the positive and negative experiences I would come to have because I am Puerto Rican. I was prepared when ignorant people would call me N---er. I was able to laugh when other Latinos marginalized me for being Puerto Rican. I was prepared when people would ask me "Where is Puerto Rico?" "Did you come here legally?".

I have been blessed. I was able to graduate from college and continue my studies (although, now i owe close to $40,000!) and immerse myself even deeper into my history trying to fulfill my X. But now I worry about my children. Do I have enough information for them? Am I doing them wrong by not celebrating Columbus Day with the rest of the PTA mothers? Am I doing them wrong by constantly searching for information in books, and because of this missing time I could be spending with them? Do I have enough ammo to counteract everything that the right-wing education system is teaching them? No matter if others feel like I am teaching my kids enough, I feel like it is never enough.

There is still so much I need to learn. A lot of information about my heritage came to me late. It was not until I was 29 did I learn that there were Puerto Rican children in boarding schools which were mainly created to disarm Native American Indian children of their own culture. It was not until 25 did I meet you, Grisel, and was introduced to writers like the ones you mentioned.

My X is about 75% filled. I know where my people come from, who I am, and what I am about. But my X will not be 100% until I know that my children are fully aware of their own history. And with the way our school system is now, I have a long journey.

Grisel said...


Thanks for your story - the details are so moving and special! I think you are doing wonderful things that your children will appreciate for years. And I'm glad to know that you will always be life-long learner. You rock!

Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

thank you for the uncommon grace which you have used to express your growth and transformation in regards to your personal history and identity

would that others be so humble and gracious

good luck on your journey!

i look forward to more insightful articles from you

b.d. silvestro

Grisel said...

Thanks, b.d.!

Also, here's a link to an article that explains some of the issues Amiri Baraka had with Spike Lee, straight from Baraka's mouth. I have to say, I agree with everything that he says in the article. I usually can't stand Spike Lee films because of the exploitation, especially of women, but I think watch groups ensured that the Malcolm X film wasn't as bad as most of Spike Lee's other stuff.

Here's the link:

Lauryna said...

I loved your posts, I loved your personal information, you seem like such an interesting, exciting person!

Grisel said...

Thanks, Lauryna! I read some of your posts on your blog and I really like them - very poetic. Thanks for following!


Bob Redmond said...

The death of Muhammad Ali led me to re-watch Malcolm X, which led me to consider the Baraka poem which I could only half-remember... thus to the web trying to connect and understand. This post showed up, and really elucidated so much, and made current much of what the both the movie and Malcolm X were saying. Things are as urgent as ever... just wanted to let you and the commenters know that all your words written 6 years ago still have an impact--thanks.