Every morning, I walk by larger than life prints of Malcolm X, and I reflect for just a few brief moments on the life of a man who is the namesake of a school that represents a sanctuary for marginalized voices. His face looks so confident. His profile so chiseled. He looks like a hero. And yet, each morning, as I march towards the neon lights of my waiting classroom, I reflect on the duality of his heroism. This was a man so pushed to the brink of desperation out of fear for the well-being of his own family and loved ones, that he combined forces with other marginalized souls, found a home, located some solace, and exercised force to police the police. When I teach about him, I think it’s important to address this duality as his most human quality. I want my classes to question the notion of heroes. And consequently, I want them to question the idea of villains. Because it is much easier to dehumanize someone if we think they are pure evil. If Superman has no one to fight, is he still a hero? Is he demoted to just a man in tights? Why do we insist on understanding people as all only one thing? Humans are so much messier than that. I have to wonder, is the story arc of literature to blame?
So when I teach about Malcolm X, I emphasize that he chose peace in the end. Maya Angelou explains it beautifully as she reflects on his choices: “Malcolm, having said that all whites are blue eyed devils…He went to Mecca…and he said, ‘I have met white skinned, blue eyed men who I openly call brother. I was wrong.’ Now It takes a great deal of courage to say that.” I think it’s so telling that she emphasizes his reflection, and his willingness to grow and change as one his most heroic qualities. Maya Angelou claims that it is very dangerous to represent our heroes as flawless. She continues, “One of the mistakes made is the historian and social historian…oft times recreate the man or woman as larger than life. Which puts the person beyond the reach of a young person. So, if Malcolm and Martin, and Abraham Lincoln and Kennedy, if Dr. Du Bois and Mary McLeod Bethune are beyond their reach, then they say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do. Those people are bigger than life. I’m just myself…What can I do?’ So the wisest thing is to make the people accessible; show their wiles, their wits and their warts. Show them, so a person can say, ‘you know, given the same circumstance, I think I’d of done that too. I’d like to think I could have done that.’” And so I try to lead by example. I emphasize that it is our wiles, our wits, and our warts that make our artwork relatable, because they make us human. Being scared, being unsure, and being angry are all essential and natural responses to trauma.
However, when I went into school on Wednesday after the election results, I was all of those things: scared, unsure, and angry. Worse yet, I was heartbroken. I didn’t expect the sun to rise. I promised myself I would stick to the lesson plan, and then I only had 5 students show up for a class of 26. Three of them were crying because they were afraid their families would be deported. So I knew we had to talk about it.
As an educator, I have a contract against campaigning in the classroom. But the rhetoric of the election on both sides became a large part of my subject matter this semester. This election filled with mud-slinging was the perfect vehicle for teaching fallacies. To counter that, we read speeches: from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman.” We discussed conciliatory voice, ethics, and lying in literature and in politics. And we concluded that words, like people, are simultaneously very beautiful and very dangerous. On the one hand they can stimulate poetry that offers empathy and communication, that helps us transcend our own perspectives and identities, that breathes out a sigh of hope into the world. On the other hand, when used as weapons, words dehumanize. They can legitimize crimes against humanity, warfare, and genocide. And they have many times before. As a class, we need to address this. We need to look at our cultural amnesia. We need to ask ourselves how many years it will be before our culture forgets our own lived tragedies, from 09/11 to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and devastatingly, the list goes on. The events that determine our lifetimes will vanish with the memory loss of a forgetful society. As Holocaust survivors and proponents of civil rights leave this earth for some other realm, writing down their words can ensure that the future might remember. So I invest in language time and time again. I put all my energy, love, and dreams into poetry. I believe that words are our only hope.
So I find solace in sentences. I write and I read and I participate in a literary community that spurs my spirits. I know that everyone who is writing secretly just wants to be heard. But unless we learn to read, review, and participate in the shared governance of communication, none of us will ever be heard. We must first learn to listen.
I watched this tectonic shift towards listening on my own social media pages. All my friends were writers. And then all those writers became professors. So when I scroll through Facebook, I see people reflecting on “whitelash” and the win for anti-intellectualism and the rejection of political correctness, not any longer as ‘how do we write this?’ but instead they ask, ‘How do we teach this?’ We are in an unprecedented space. None of us know what to do. And yet we have to stand in front of the classroom and do something.
And watching the divide from the safety of my computer screen, it seems that we just keep fracturing. The polarization is only getting worse. First liberals were heartbroken. Then we learned that the middle of the country, William H. Gass’ “heart of the heart” were heartbroken all along. And we see the bigotry, the racism, the sexism, the parcelling out of the rhetoric. Everyone is legitimizing. “He won’t do all that stuff he said in his campaign,” they claim, or “We don’t approve of how he treats women, but he’s just a very passionate man,” or “I voted for him because he represented change.” I tried so hard to believe that all those people who voted for him couldn’t possibly be closet racists. They must have legitimized and rationalized their votes. But I can’t shake my own nausea at the thought that while probably they’re not all racist, the possibility undeniably exists, that maybe they could be.
In explanation, my acquaintances on the right proclaimed a faith in the bible. My dearest friends on the left too, advised me that their faith in God would get us through this. I listened to them, wishing to high heaven that I could make myself believe in God. That would be such a nice sense of security right now. But I also listened to them and worried. Because if we tell ourselves that this is God’s will, that God has a plan, then is there anything we won’t accept? How far does it have to go? I see swastikas on barns and “Trump” written on Muslim Student Unions in my Newsfeed. I see large pinatas of Trump’s head being set on fire. And I can’t recognize my own world. We’re broken in the heart of the heart of the heart of the country.
And still, I have to go in on Monday, walk by Malcolm X watching me larger than life on the wall, strut around in front of my class and say something. And I don’t know what to say. None of us do. I know that as a country, we have been through worse before. But we made the mistake of taking that past for granted. We thought we had moved on. And I see the sides fracturing. Some are pointing fingers at protesters and defending democracy. Others are organizing a million women march. They keep chanting and fighting. And people keep asking me where I stand. But I’m not standing at all. I’m falling. We all are. Welcome to Trumpland. It’s a long way to the bottom.
This is where I usually try to write something uplifting to close. So I turn to what I can believe in, instead of God, and I suppose that’s love. Maya Angelou says, “Love is a condition so powerful it may be that which holds the stars in the firmament. It may be that which pushes and pulls the blood in the veins. You must have courage to love someone. Because you risk everything. Everything.” So here I go. As you read this sentence, because you, like me, are a flawed human, you are already beginning to forget it. As you read this next sentence, you are forgetting the last. So if you walk away from this remembering only one thing, make it this: Whoever you are- conservative, liberal, Muslim, Mexican, immigrant, Jewish, LGBTQ, disabled, or if you are a veteran and you have risked your very life for whatever it is that America stands for in our heart of heart of hearts, remember this: I love you. I always have. I always will.
Maya Angelou 1928-2014