On reading Malcolm X’s “Autobiography”

Marking the 50th anniversary of its publication

by Ken Sehested

        Malcolm X’s Autobiography was the first book that scared me. Here I was, in the transition from adolescence to young adulthood, secretly abandoning my pietist-revivalist rearing in favor of the more verdant fields of liberalism (which helped for a time), and here’s this guy, who I now am ready to befriend, sharply critical of liberal integrationists!

        Turns out he was right, unnervingly prescient, not exactly predicting the cases of Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddy Gray—ad nauseum and likely to be continued—but sensing that “civil rights” could be doled out in limited doses without affecting the underlying patterns of structural disparity. Something deeper is at work sustaining the patterns of discrimination, something more than simple bigotry and prejudice.

        However sincere the righteous intent, integration has mostly been a one-way street. Despite curtailed bounds, the African American community had—before the advent of the “war on poverty” urban renewal initiatives—vibrant commercial districts, schools, neighborhoods and other cultural institutions. While the grip on access to bus seats and lunch counters and drinking fountains and even voter registration rights were loosening, the noose of widespread economic disparity was tightening.

        So what are we to do? How are we to live? What are the new habits needing to be formed? Here are seven modest suggestions.

        The first is to get over the assumption that we can do one big march, back one ambitious legislative agenda, read all the right books, and be done with it. We have generations of amnesia and warped legislative, economic, and social patterns to overcome. We are, as James Baldwin put it, “trapped in a history which [we] do not understand” and cannot be released until we do. New social and economic policies are needed but cannot be achieved without a new social consensus.

        The second habit is to admit that we are “trapped in a history” we do not understand, as James Baldwin wrote to his nephew; that it has to do with our nation’s mythology of manifest destiny (and its warped ideology of “freedom”), both domestically and internationally; and that we must bare our faces to the blistered history that mythology has left in its wake. It’s not a pretty sight: The truth will indeed set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

        Third, understanding this venal history will require a look at our awash-in-cash, pay-to-play political process, our imperial military policies, our cannibalizing form of capitalism, a judicial system transforming corporations into persons—and a church for which “freedom” means “don’t expect commitment.”

        The fourth habit is to get over the need for personal purity, admitting that we are all enmeshed in structurally tangled relations—racial, economic, national, gender, sexual orientation, relative dis/ability, etc. (we have trouble even naming them all)—that will not dissolve with well-meaning, even heroic personal effort.

        The fifth habit, for those in positions of relative power (and it’s a complex equation—all of us are haves and have-nots in relative degrees in various contexts), is to acknowledge that the journey to justice, and its promise of genuine peace mediated by the agency of mercy, will come at a cost. We need to cultivate a beatific vision powerful enough to sustain against the fear-mongering threats that the option of right-relatedness will entail.

        Sixth, we must devote ourselves to initiating and sustaining partnerships—starting close at hand, extending to far away—with those whose destiny is un-manifest, consciously taking incremental steps toward margins of every sort (and you can’t do them all—get over it!), and not only personal partnerships but community partnerships.

        Theologian Kelly S. Johnson, in The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics, unveils a universe of meaning in one single sentence: “The opposite of poverty is not plenty, but friendship.”

        Friendship takes time, a willingness to both listen and speak, and the exposure of philanthropic disguises to maintain control via the dole. Partnership for effective problem solving comes later, when mutuality is established, when donor-recipient relations are disbanded, when power is shared.

        And finally: While the promised Commonweal of God will profoundly rearrange every provision of privilege, our walk to freedom will recognize that colonized neighborhoods and nations are generated by an underlying colonizing of the mind, of the heart, of the will. Thus we must be invested in communities whose labor includes decolonizing of the mind, disarming of the heart, re-abling of the will.

        “I do not call you servants any longer . . . but I call you friends” (John 15:15). This sort of befriending, of which Jesus spoke, is both manifesto and mandate, a penetration of reality accompanied by the wherewithal to reshape it, a knowing of the truth divulged only in its doing.

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19 May 2015, commemorating the birthday of Malcolm X.

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org