I Met Malcolm in 1989
by DJ Lynnée Denise
Remote in hand and braids in my hair, I was popping gum and gathering intelligence the day I met Malcolm X. A bored teen with a commitment to distraction, I was too old to play and too young to party. I danced through every top twenty song on the radio that week and watched a slew of music videos. More than anything, I knew to avoid looking idle to my father, who always found a way to ruin heightened media moments by suggesting that I “turn off the television and read a book.” Malcolm entered my life at the right moment in Los Angeles, California.
“Read?” I would say, punctuated with an eye roll. I calculated the amount of time wasted between pages. Reading thirty pages would be like missing an entire episode of A Different World, placing me at a disadvantage when convening with close friends who, instead of reading, busied themselves with the intimate details of black sitcom dialogue. Didn’t he know how much my popularity depended on my ability to recall clever comebacks and punchlines? It wasn’t cheerleading or the chess club that made me Dorsey High School year book’s “most likely to meet Michael Jackson on the set of MTV,” it was the millions of seconds invested in knowing how many turns he would produce before striking a pose on a dime. It was knowing when he would lift himself on the tips of his loafers to punctuate a lyric in Billie Jean. Who had time to read? Cultural trivia was my introduction to research and I consumed what I loved to a place of concern from my parents and praise by my peers.
Malcolm, when I met him in my living room that day after school, presented a compelling balance. He appeared before me on channel nine, PBS, in black and white, a leading figure in Eyes on the Prize series featured in Episode One, Part Seven: The Time has Come (1964-1966).
He was standing behind a podium being cheered on by hundreds of Black and brown faces at a freedom circus. Islamic minister doubling as trickster, Malcolm’s unapologetic confidence was at war with my cable channel options. I debated changing the station, but couldn’t turn away.
When my dad’s car pulled up in the drive way, I prepared to fake a higher level of interest; one my middle school teachers would have envied. I wanted to give him the impression that I was doing something close to reading, after all, this black and white documentary about American history couldn’t have been as entertaining as The Jeffersons.
He had just come home from work and was accustomed to the procrastination that preceded my homework hours. The sound of his keys in the door meant I had less than two minutes before he made his way in. He opened the door, dropped his gym bag on the floor, tossed his keys on the couch, and spent one minute looking for the most urgent of mail; checks and bills. He walked through the house leaving a trail of cologne, listening for signs of life.
Now he was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the den where I was sitting. For performative reasons, I pretended not to hear him enter the room. Pops stood there silently, watching Malcolm from behind me.
“Malcolm X,” he said with a trace of surprise and joy. After hearing an excerpt from Malcolm’s “The Ballot or the Bullet Speech,” and with a touch of paternal swag, my dad imparted some knowledge, “now that brother was bad, he didn’t take no shit, didn’t turn the other cheek.” He advised me to pay close attention to the fact that Malcolm never raised his voice and never threatened physical harm, yet still, he had been labeled, with permanence, as a violent man.
Wow, I thought to myself, my dad understood Run DMC’s proclamation of “bad” as a Black coded sign of approval; not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good.This was my father’s affirmative nod. Years later I would learn how the word “bad” was used to indicate the fearless resistance of black people. The etymology of bad led me to planned rebellions at violent plantations sites. Nat Turner was a bad man. Harriet Tubman was a bad woman. Both bad heroes.
My dad’s reaction carried centuries of history and watching Malcolm speak, I learned through my dad’s consent, was on par with reading. Reading Malcolm was rebellion against the myth of white superiority. I was becoming bad too.
As dad walked away, I heard his dress shoes tapping up against the tile kitchen floor for a few seconds until the sound disappeared into the dining room carpet. I kept learning, watching the ring on Malcolm’s finger dance with every gesture and every sentence. I was taken by his control of those who gathered to hear him. While I didn’t understand the full impact of his presence, I knew what the weight of his words meant for the collective integrity of Black people.
Malcolm’s radical clarity was the warrior water that washed over the crowd. His scathing description of the White condition brought a sense of justice to Harlem and by default, a sense of justice to a national, and global community.
He played the dozens with White folks, called out their shit with a fearlessness that made mocking them part of his liberation strategy. His was not a story of Black suffering, or a pleading for integration, or a request of recognition. With a long trench coat and a fedora hat, he moved the crowd with a soulful rebuking.“We don’t have to be equal to them, who are they to be equal to? Pale things….looked like they crawled from under a rock.”
I had no idea Malcolm X had bars, a real emcee’s emcee. But I knew, from the ongoing sampling of his speeches and how they showed up as part of the backdrop for the conscious rap era of my teenage years, that dude was not a game. I had become a follower, a student.
I mean, of course I had heard of Malcolm X prior to that documentary but, I hadn’t heard him before. I had read a few stories about his life and understood him to be the voice on the other side of King’s, but I hadn’t heard the strong argument pointing out the differences between the two.
Dorsey High School 1992, Los Angeles
It wasn’t that my friends and I hated reading, it was that the music we were listening to encouraged us to question the proverbial system.
From Nigeria, Fela Kuti screamed “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense.”
From Jamaica, Bob Marley shouted “Babylon System Building Church and University, Deceiving the People Continually.”
From North Carolina, Nina Simone yelled: “You give me second class schools/Do you think that all the colored folks/Are just second class fools?”
Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Poor Righteous Teachers, and BDP warned us to traverse the American public education system with caution. There was a score for misery resistance, compositions of complex feelings, and lyrical social movements that only Black folk and their allies were privy to. I was taught, through years of listening, that Black musicians and their audiences, were witnesses to how White folk positioned themselves as the most important thinkers, writers and people. That never worked for me, behind our music was a trusted transcript that functioned like a secret information system. Believing the hype meant dancing off beat.
My best friend Kali and I shared an AP English class in high school. She was the person I exchanged songs, watched movies and went to concerts with. She affirmed my suspicions, supported my imagination, and encouraged my talents. She dressed her ass off, and could be seen walking between the halls wearing 1950s Pin-Up style dresses and funky clear non-prescription, but elegantly framed glasses. We bonded over books, fashion, indica, and selective vegetarianism. Meat only on the weekends.
In class, we were each other’s eyes and ears. It was her face I looked for — her furrowed brow whenever we were asked to read and discuss one of the Great American novels. Repeatedly, we, the Black characters in the books, were described as wild, beastly, ignorant, dangerous and mysterious. Non-human. We were oversexualized, objectified and underdeveloped as characters. Racism over craft. The shit Bob, Fela, Malcolm, and Nina taught us about.
We had the common sense to recognize The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a great story, but we were also clear about the time (slavery era) during which it was written. We knew what the real-life implications were for Black characters who were dehumanized by the literary imagination of celebrated White authors.
A few months before the ‘92 Rebellion Riot, a group of undergraduates from UCLA’s Black Student Union (BSU) planned to speak to a few of our high school classes. Los Angeles students spent an entire year watching Rodney King beaten by the cops and Latasha Harlins murdered in her neighborhood by a Korean merchant. Tensions were high in the city and culture gave us the tools to move through it. NWA’s “Fuck the Police” screamed out of every car and was a song on repeat in my Walkman. Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm had just come out and through the financial support of Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Janet Jackson, Prince, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, and yes Bill Cosby (ouch), the film was released, even though Warner Brothers refused to offer Lee the money to complete it. Revolution was in the air.
Kali and I sat in on one of their presentations and couldn’t help but notice how the dashikis and black leather medallions with the continent of Africa framed in the middle hinted at the fact that they, too, were Malcolm’s students and radicalized by his commitment to truth. The BSU spoke critically about our school’s curriculum and racism on UCLA’s campus. “Literature,” one of them said, “like religion, was a propagandistic tool.” Kali and I looked up the word propagandistic in a pocket dictionary, then nodded in agreement.
To connect with us they cited popular rap songs like “Fight the Power,” to remind us that our ancestors were sometimes killed for trying to learn how to read and write and that it was our duty to take our stories to the page. We were fully engaged during this conversation, excited to show the generation ahead of us, that we were on the right track.
The visit from UCLA’s BSU played a huge role in our ability to not just survive, but thrive in the face of standardized education. Kali and I would spend most of our high school years defining our own “greats” and using Malcolm as a permanent place of reference, he even pushed us to use a global lens when naming injustice.
“There is no more apartheid in South Africa than there is in America” Malcolm X.
The AP class was taught by Ms. Williams, a White English teacher who loved a good story and meant well. She turned red every time she realized that she, too, had been conditioned to ignore racism in literature. One time Kali asked her why we spent so little time reading writers of color and she dismissed class ten minutes earlier when she discovered how ill prepared she was to answer the question. Being able to do so would have honored the humanity of the diverse student body she was responsible for educating. Not being able to do so threatened her own humanity.
“What a damn shame,” I said after class. We liked Ms. Williams. Bless her little White heart. She tried her best, but loving ourselves meant speaking out when confronted by racist imagery in the classics, which was often. Daily. Weekly. Yearly. Faulkner. Stowe. Twain.
Our language at the time lacked nuance and we would oversimplify and conflate the issues, but in the 1990s, we were sharp observers and budding artists on the path to producing the work we wanted to see; while developing a critique of the work that didn’t see us.
Thanks to Malcolm, whose autobiography we read together and thanks to Assata Shakur, who we preferred to Virginia Woolf, we knew we had a responsibility to articulate our concerns responsibly. Being responsible meant reading the work of Black and brown writers and reading the assigned novels, but we did so with a red pen and a well-trained suspicious eye. By this time, we had discovered Alice Walker, Gloria Anzaldua, Laura Esquivel and Countee Cullen outside of class. We were being developed by an entirely different school of thought. My father took some of the credit and was pleased with the relationship I had developed with words and music — pleased that the origins of my consciousness could be traced back to his approval of Malcolm’s spark.
Many of the White students and non-Black students of color in our classes rolled their eyes, tired of black people bringing up race. Again. They rolled their eyes when we spent the last two weeks of class on the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Again. This was the second AP English class we had taken together and yet no other writer of color was introduced as being significant enough to read from the 19thcentury.
One day, Devon, a popular nerd, who typically sat in the back with his head buried in a muted Gameboy, brought up this fact. He stayed fresh in the latest Nike shoe with a matching sweat suit and a fitted hat. He was ready for a school dance or a neighborhood party at all times. “Hey teacher,” Devon said, “why we reading Freddy D again? Was he the only Black person with a pencil during this time?” We broke out in laughter, all three of us. Alone. Ms. Williams turned red. Black humor heals.
© 2018 African Voices Magazine, Lynnée Denise
Author’s statement: For the past decade, I have worked as an artist who incorporates self-directed project based research into interactive workshops, music events and public lectures that offer participants the opportunity to develop an intimate relationship with under-explored topics related to the cultural history of marginalized communities. I create multi dimensional and multi sensory experiences that require audiences to apply critical thinking to how the arts can hold viable solutions to social inequality. Website: www.djlynneedenise.com