Happy birthday, Malcolm X.

May 19th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

I keep a copy of Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” on my phone.

It’s something I got out of growing up in the church. When you’re going through it, seek out things that comfort you. When you have idle time, remind yourself of why life is good. It’s a reminder, a reinforcement, a gift to yourself.

The Autobiography is a little too long for a quick hit. The various collections of quotes online are too stripped of context to be true reminders. But “The Ballot or the Bullet” is the perfect sampler. I can dip in, get something out of it, and dip back out and be on my way before I get to where I’m going.

I got into Malcolm X’s work as a kid, and his words have been a source of strength ever since. He taught me that rights can not be given. No one can grant you the right to do anything. It is yours by natural law, and the only thing they can do is illegally deprive you of your rights. You can’t ask for freedom. It’s yours already. Don’t let people congratulate themselves for giving you a leg up when what they really did is stop holding you back. Be grateful for advances, but don’t confuse or tolerate half-measures and limp efforts masquerading as progress. Your family deserves and requires your protection. Self-defense by any means. Be honest and be direct. Have patience and integrity. But when push comes to shove, if somebody puts his hands on you, put him in the cemetery.

Know that you are invaluable.

You are bigger than whatever box it is they have chosen to put you in. The world will remind you of how bad and ugly and worthless you are, so that’s hard to remember sometimes. Sometimes you need a second to think. Sometimes you need to flip through something familiar to remind you.

Today is the birthday of Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He was thirty-nine when he died, but he’d be eighty-nine today. “Rest In Power” makes me uncomfortable, like the struggle is infinite and there’s no rest for us. “Rest In Peace” is too small, too generic. So: thank you for reminding me of what I can be.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


Professor X isn’t Martin Luther King, and Magneto isn’t Malcolm X, either.

April 3rd, 2013 Posted by david brothers

It’s hard to boil someone down to one position, but I think it’s fair to say that Martin Luther King wanted America to deliver on its original promise: that all men are created equal and therefore deserve the same rights, access, and opportunities. His preferred method of doing so was non-violent resistance, essentially making himself into a martyr to show exactly how unfair America truly is. I like this paragraph from his “I Have A Dream” speech:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

“Put up or shut up.”

Of course, non-violent resistance doesn’t mean that you fold at the first sign of hate. King kept guns for protection, and many of his peers did, as well. Owning a gun is their right under the laws of America, and it’s a right that’s well worth exercising, depending on your situation. It seems weird at first blush, but think it through: non-violent resistance doesn’t mean that you let someone kill you at their leisure. Non-violent resistance is a focused tactic, something you do intentionally. Self-protection exists apart from that, right?

Malcolm X is harder to boil down, and he’s been put into competition with MLK so often that it’s hard to define him as his own thing sometimes. I like these quotes, though:

This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation from those of us who are not hand-cuffed by the disarming philosophy of nonviolence, and who believe in asserting our right of self-defense — by any means necessary.

“This a hands off policy. Y’all touch him, we riding.” –Young Jeezy.

I want Dr. King to know that I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King.

“You can get with this, or you can get with that.” –Black Sheep.

I like these quotes because they both show a better picture of the relationship between King and Malcolm X, later El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, than the usual narrative does. America likes to place them in conflict with each other, but the truth was much more nuanced. They didn’t see eye-to-eye, but they were both working toward the same goal, and they knew that.

Malcolm was more willing to be the devil than Martin was. He was willing to be the demon that America deserved, while Martin was able to become something different, something softer. Both approaches have their merits, and they aren’t necessarily fundamentally opposed. If America resisted Martin’s soft approach, Malcolm made it clear that he was right around the corner with a harder approach. “Deal with him or deal with me.”

Personally, I identify with Malcolm a lot more than Martin. I’ve had a copy of “The Ballot or The Bullet” in my Dropbox for years now, and it remains one of my favorite things to read. There is a directness to Malcolm’s approach that I appreciate and try to emulate. “You better give me the respect I deserve or I’ma take it by force.” Malcolm is bigger than his rep as the white-hating, bigoted side of the civil rights movement. That’s too small and too inaccurate an idea for him.

But it’s that idea that led to the idea of Martin and Malcolm in competition, which led directly to the idea that Professor Xavier of the X-Men and Magneto of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X of the mutant rights movement.

It’s an easy comparison to make, considering Xavier’s position as angel and Magneto’s as demon, but it’s wrong on basically every single level. Professor X drafted children into a paramilitary unit under the guise of educating them, and then sent them out to fight other mutants. They’re essentially a self-police force for the mutant people. When you step out of line, they’ll step on you. This was later explored when X-Factor and Freedom Force became government-sponsored squads, a kind of walking, talking COINTELPRO.

Magneto is the other side of the fence. Where Xavier wants mutants to coexist with humans, Magneto is a mutant supremacist and terrorist. He murders humans, he brutalizes mutants, and anyone who stands in his way is found wanting and considered a traitor. Magneto is a murderer with ideals, when you boil it down.

Neither character bears any resemblance to Martin or Malcolm, outside of a short-sighted and frankly ignorant idea of what Martin or Malcolm represent. People have said it, but that doesn’t make it true.

Professor X uses violent methods to get what he wants and to police his people. Magneto uses violent methods to oppress another species and is an actual terrorist.

Martin & Malcolm wanted America to deliver on its promise. Professor X and Magneto are the hero and villain of an adventure comic. Any connection between the two sets of people is based on inaccurate data. Any comparison between the two has no leg to stand on.

There is no relation in tactics, approach, or personality.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


“I’m like Malcolm…”

May 19th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet (abridged HTML, unabridged PDF) (04/1964)

The three biggest black figures for me are Richard Pryor, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X. I learned something important from each of them. Pryor taught perspective, Ali taught confidence, and Malcolm taught the importance of intelligence in all things.

Speak plainly, be friendly, consider your position, and if the time comes, you put the hammer down. You don’t thank someone for finally doing the right thing they should have been doing all along. You don’t accept anything less than what you deserve. Your anger should be a scalpel, not a bludgeon. Get the jelly out of your spine and keep cobwebs out of your mind. When it comes to right and wrong, there is no compromise. There is either the ballot or the bullet.

A brief quote:

“How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already. That’s not progress. And I love my Brother Lomax, the way he pointed out we’re right back where we were in 1954. We’re not even as far up as we were in 1954. We’re behind where we were in 1954. There’s more segregation now than there was in 1954. There’s more racial animosity, more racial hatred, more racial violence today in 1964, than there was in 1954. Where is the progress?

And now you’re facing a situation where the young Negroes coming up. They don’t want to hear that “turn the-other-cheek” stuff, no. In Jacksonville, those were teenagers, they were throwing Molotov cocktails. Negroes have never done that before. But it shows you there’s a new deal coming in. There’s new thinking coming in. There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death.

Malcolm X would have been eighty-five years old today. Happy birthday.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon


Black History Month ’09 #08: The Theme Song is “It’s Yours”

February 8th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

Three things happened on November 18, 1992. The first is that I turned nine years old. Finally! I was almost as old as Bart Simpson, who was one of my many childhood heroes. Second, Spike Lee’s feature length biopic “Malcolm X” was released. I saw it that weekend, if not on the day of release, at the big theater in the next town over. The last of the three is that Superman died, at least according to Roger Stern’s novelization.

The Death of Superman was basically my introduction to DC Comics. I wheedled and begged and got a few of the books, and eventually ended up tearing through the novelization. This is why I didn’t know that Hal Jordan was involved in the climax of the mega-arc until years later, and only recently found out that Bloodwynd, the only black guy on the JLA at that point, was actually the Martian Manhunter.

The movie was, in hindsight, much more of a milestone. It was my first introduction to the real Malcolm X, rather than the brief paragraphs we’d get in history books. All I really knew at that point was that he was a white people-hating, fast-talking, symbol of the violent side of the civil rights movement. Where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the tip-top of the non-violent resistance solution, meaning “the right choice,” X was the guy who advocated violence. He was the scary one. Don’t be like him, children, turn the other cheek.

It turns out that what I learned in my little history books, usually during Black History Month, wasn’t the whole story. The film filled in a lot of things that I didn’t even know I was missing. I didn’t know that he travelled to Mecca, nor that his views adjusted after he left. I had no idea that he wasn’t the bogeyman that he was portrayed as in school.

It didn’t instantly change my mind. I didn’t become Baby Huey P. Newton on the spot. I do think, however, that it fostered a healthy mistrust of things that you are taught, or at least a driving thirst to know more about everything. I’ve owned a copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X ever since I was old enough to have a job. X quickly became my second favorite figure from that era, after being slightly edged out by Muhammad Ali.

Superheroes are, at their heart, about uplifting. My favorite hero by far is Spider-Man, and I think the character has a lot to say about both the human condition and having fun. At the same time, Malcolm X taught me a lot about self-esteem, being comfortable in my own skin, and being, or becoming, a man.

There is, or was, a common metaphor for how the X-Men worked back in the day. Professor Xavier was Martin Luther King, Jr., prophet of peace. Magneto was Malcolm X, the violent villain. After having read things by and about the man, it’s probably my least favorite analogy in comics ever.

It’s extremely reductionist. It doesn’t track with either of the two men’s beliefs or practices, and in a way, it’s amazingly insulting to both. MLK wouldn’t have been caught dead with a paramilitary fighting force in his basement, and Malcolm X didn’t, and would not, advocate genocide. The analogy only works if the two men are what I was taught in school: good and bad, two opposing forces fighting for basically the same thing.

A little education goes a long way. I’m pretty sure that every thing I’ve complained about with regards to inaccurate or offensive portrayals of blacks in comics can be fixed with a little extra knowledge. You don’t even have to spend any money, since twenty minutes on Google can get you very far these days. A few good key words and you’re going to be sitting pretty.

I don’t think that the fundamental source of all of the problems with blacks in comics is racism. Institutionalized racism plays a part, sure, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all. Ignorance (and here I do not mean malicious or “you’re dumb” ignorance, I’m referring to “not knowing something”) is the issue.

If you don’t know, you can’t do it. It’s as easy as that. You are not forbidden from doing it, but anyone who does know about what you’re talking about? Those people are going to point and they are going to laugh and they are going to sit in judgment of you… and you kind of deserve it.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon