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Malcolm X, Self-Respect and Growing up Racist

George Payne

Op-ed by George Payne –

At the age of 12, I was in 6th grade. The year was 1992, and Spike Lee came out with the film Malcolm X. People all over the country and world were wearing the X on tee-shirts and baseball hats. The X was everywhere: on coffee mugs, posters, and on anything else where a dollar could be made. And people were not just hawking Malcolm X merchandise; they were also talking about his ideas. Television programs were running Malcolm X retrospectives, and journalists were writing stories about his relevance for the time. I remember all of this not just because I was swept up in the craze of a marketing bonanza, but because the style and substance of Malcolm X made an everlasting impression on my way of thinking.

Let me be absolutely clear. I did not understand Malcolm X as a 12 year old. I do not claim to fully understand him today. All I know is that I connected, on a primordial level, with his spirit of defiance, courage, militant discipline, self- respect, self-composure, and fearless dedication to a cause. When I heard Malcolm X speak on these special television programs — and through Denzel Washington’s remarkable performance in Lee’s masterpiece — there was something about his tone that made me know what a man with integrity sounds like.

Truth be told, I shouldn’t have admired him. For starters, I grew up in a town in Lewis County, on the edge of the southwestern Adirondacks, in a place with literally more cows than people. The town I grew up in was so implicitly racist that hardly anyone living there knew what true racism even meant. When my parents moved there in the early 80s, black people were still referred to as colored folk! Even in the Clinton era, as I was observing the world through my juvenile, 12 year old eyes, it was a town that only knew black people as outsiders and temporary residents of the military housing complex operated by Ft. Drum, which was 45 minutes away on the outskirts of Watertown, NY. Everyone in my town knew the housing complex as 801.

Given the social conditions in which I was raised, I shouldn’t have been attracted to the teachings of Malcolm X. As I said, everything about my early educational environment — except the tolerant influence of my two progressive Christian parents — dictated that I would distrust a man who, early in his career with the Nation of Islam, claimed that white people were devils. And here is the irony. I was racist. As a 12 year old in 6th grade growing up in Lowville, NY, I was racist. I may not have understood why I came to be that way, but it is clear to me in hindsight that I possessed a racist worldview. During my early teenage years, on Halloween especially, my friends would go N-word knocking (i.e., going up to random houses, knocking and then running away). At my school, racist slurs in the JV locker room went unquestioned, and teachers would tell racist jokes without expressing an ounce of social shame. No one, at least that I could tell, was openly challenging the inherent racist power structures of the town itself. If I had any personal contact whatsoever with black people, it was through my random and often awkward associations with kids from 801. I may have admired rappers on MTV and basketball players on television, but they were not real people of color to me. They were celebrities and superstars.

Somehow in this climate of ignorance and prejudice, Malcolm X came to me as a prophet. I was white. I was 12. I was in 6th grade. I was wearing the X hat. I was laughing at racist jokes. I was clueless. I was a product of my environment. Yet, even at this tender age, I could tell that Malcolm X knew something essential that I didn’t. Without ever being to Lowville, he knew that my environment was debased, degraded, and disrespected thoroughly by the disease of racism. It would take at least 20 years for me to even come close to grappling with the implications of that reality. Little did I know then just how right he was about the history of my country, the real issues facing the world, and my own naive participation in a fundamentally unjust system.

Recently I visited what remains of the old Corn Hill Methodist Church in Rochester’s historic Corn Hill Neighborhood, an architectural reminder of Malcolm X’s last public speech in Rochester before he was assassinated in Harlem five days later. I have lived in Rochester off and on since 2000. To know that this is a city that Malcolm not only visited but spent time teaching in, makes me feel like I can still learn from him in an intimate way. I realize now as a 37 year old that I have been learning from Malcolm X since 1992. Back then I didn’t have a brain capable of understanding what he wanted to teach me. But I have developed an ability to better understand his religious and political worldview. I have also developed an understanding about who I am as a human being because of his life. Any white supremacy that remains entrenched inside of my heart is a noxious byproduct of a genetically and environmentally inculcated ignorance: it belongs back in Lowville; it belongs back with my perception of 801; it belongs back in 6th grade; it belongs to a time in my life when I was so young and stupid that I didn’t have the capacity to know what dignity and loyalty to self really meant. But I felt it. I felt dignity when Malcolm X spoke.

Today, when I listen to Malcolm on YouTube, or read his speeches, I know that what I am experiencing is the physical and spiritual sensation of what self-respect feels like. He may have changed viewpoints and positions over the span of his public ministry, but he never changed his intractable sense of self-respect: it was immovable; in fact, it took a bullet to end it. But there was not one frightened bone in his body when that bullet entered. Even growing up in a small and oblivious upstate New York village nestled in the shadow of Tug Hill, I understood that this man knew me better than I knew myself. He knew the person I could become if racism was eradicated from my mind.

In the Autobiography of Malcolm X, he wrote:

“My trip to Mecca has opened my eyes. I no longer subscribe to racism. I have adjusted my thinking to the point where I believe that whites are human beings…as long as this is borne out by their humane attitude toward Negroes.” He went on to say, “I am not a racist. I’m not condemning whites for being whites, but for their deeds. I condemn what whites collectively have done to our people collectively.”

George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, and adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY. He lives and works in Rochester, NY. George’s letters and essays have been featured in a wide range of domestic and foreign outlets.

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