Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ancestor Worship vs Context vs Blemishing Legacies

There is a fine line to walk when one revisits the legacy of a beloved historical figure. In the black community, we have often seen our beloved figures demonized in the press, so a defensive reaction to protect those figures from "attack" is completely understandable. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at the Atlantic, endeavored to take another look at revered Black leader Malcolm X's political beliefs in a multi-part series on After reading his piece on Malcolm's gender politics, which focused on a handful of passages in the four hundred-plus page Autobiography of Malcolm X (which in itself only tells part of the story of Malcolm's politics, inherently, due to space limitations). After reading his piece, I tweeted to Coates that a few passages were not sufficient to explain Malcolm's entire gender philosophy. He urged me to blog a response, which I now endeavor to do.

The first passage from the autobiography that Coates relies on to form his opinion on Malcolm's gender politics involves Malcolm explaining what johns told prostitutes working for him when he was a pimp about their wives. This is third hand information, based on a sample size of men who frequent prostitutes, hardly a good source for inferring the personal beliefs of a revered figure like Malcolm.

The second passage cited by Coates mostly involves Malcolm reflecting what prostitutes think of men, also not pertinent to Malcolm's personal views, but there is a bombshell at the end of the passage, presumptively from Malcolm directly (we'll assume Haley transcribed this correctly): "All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength."

Malcolm wasn't known for qualifying his statements and that one is as overarching as a generalization can get.

Unfortunately, Coates doesn't spend much time ruminating on that quote and, even more unfortunately, spends no time at all putting it in context with the time in which this statement was made, before the modern feminist movement and at a time when male/female relationships were still being placed in the context of man-as-breadwinner/woman-as-dutiful-housewife throughout the mass media. Would Malcolm have made the same statement in 2010 after decades of feminist protest, writing and scholarship and a sea change in media representation of women? That is doubtful, in my mind (but we'll never know, unfortunately).

Coates then goes on to make a huge generalization before presenting the next passage in his piece, stating as an introductory remark: "I think this passage is fairly typical of Malcolm's attitude". It is hard to determine how someone who never met Malcolm and is relying solely on one book written by the source "as told to" a third party (Haley) can reliably draw an inference on whether a passage is "fairly typical" of the attitude of a man who passed away 45 years ago. Stretching logic at this level should never be acceptable in a major media outlet. In any case, the prefaced passage in question continues the theme of the prior quoted passage about male domination:

Now, Islam has very strict laws and teachings about women, the core of them being that the true nature of man is to be strong, and a woman's true nature is to be weak, and while a man must at all times respect his woman, at the same time he needs to understand that he must control her if he expects to get her respect.

It is unclear whether Malcolm's interpretation of Islam above is filtered through the teaching of the Nation of Islam (whose beliefs were not in Malcolm's lifetime considered mainstream Islamic interpretation by any source I can uncover). What seems more clear, however, is that his understanding of gender roles fits in quite well with the media portrayal of gender roles in his time and, if minimal female participation in Congress and most positions of power at that time are any indication, this interpretation appears to be the mainstream male view of the mid-sixties. At this point in his piece, Coates briefly places Malcolm's statement in historical context ("It was not an atypical thought at the time."), then abruptly implies, conclusively and without proof, that Malcolm's views were somehow harsher than the contemporary views of the time ("But from The Autobiography, there is this sense that, even in the Nation, Malcolm was seen as particularly harsh in his views of women."). This conclusory statement is made without citing any evidence that Malcolm was considered the "harsh(est minister in the Nation) in his views on women" or whether his views were harsher than those held by other popular figures (spoken or unspoken) in the general milieu of sexism that pervaded popular American thought at the time. Considering that Malcolm was actively training ministers at mosques throughout the Nation of Islam infrastructure, it's hard to accord second-hand accounts that Malcolm was harsh with the conclusion that Malcolm was the harshest to some unreasonable degree (it would be more likely to assume that the ministers Malcolm trained would be fairly in line with his own speaking style).

Near the end of his piece, Coates makes two leaps of logic that are almost wholly unrelated to the text of the Autobiography. His first leap of logic involves Coates essentially putting words into Malcolm's mouth about "detesting" dominant women, words that are not based on statements made in the Autobiography or any other source, when Coates states, "...his older sister exactly the kind of 'domineering' and 'demanding' woman whom he seemingly detests." How can an argument be made that Malcolm "seemingly detest[ed]" women of an independent character, when the cited passages only seem to state Malcolm's belief in patriarchal family structure, a structure generally promoted throughout mass media portrayals of gender at that time? There is a stark difference between reinforcing popular patriarchial thought of one's time and "detesting" independent-minded women. Coates covers this distance in a single leap of logic, without seeking further sources to back his claim.

Coates makes his second leap by arguing that while Malcolm effusively praises his sister Ella in the Autobiography, he does so because "[i]t was almost as if to Malcolm, Ella wasn't really a woman." This, again, is based on no statement in the book or any other source. It is purely drawn from Coates' imagination. It is fine to imagine what one's historical heroes might have thought, as long as you attribute these musings to your own imagination, not to the person about whom you are imagining.

Coates' journey to re-contextualize Malcolm might be more fruitful if he seeks more sources than the Autobiography and perhaps interviews people who knew Malcolm, in order to form a more comprehensive view of the man of whom he writes. A man as complex as Malcolm X deserves a more in-depth analysis than what was presented in Coates' piece, especially before one comes to the damning conclusions Coates reached in his piece regarding Malcolm's gender viewpoint.

Addendum: Coates is an old comrade of mine from my Young African Writers Association (YAWA) days at Howard University. The YAWA experience centers around constructive criticism and I write in that spirit, so readers should respect him as such. Steel sharpens steel, however, and legacies must be contextualized properly, so here we are.


Will Shetterly said...
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Will Shetterly said...

A thorough discussion of his views toward women could include this quote:

"I'm saying this: That it's noticeable that in these type of societies where they put the woman in a closet and discourage her from getting a sufficient education and don't give her the incentive by allowing her maximum participation in whatever area of the society where she's qualified, they kill her incentive. And killing her incentive, she kills the incentive in her children. And the man himself has no competition so he doesn't develop to his fullest potential."

Far from holding women back in any way, he wants them to compete with men, for their sake and for the men's sake.

Now, there is wiggle room in "where she's qualified," but I read that as addressing individuals: a woman who is qualified to do something should be able to do it.