In December 1964, Malcolm X declared that “The press is so powerful in it’s image-making role, it can make the criminal look like he’s a victim and the victim look like he’s the criminal.” He goes on to say, “If you aren’t careful … you run away hating yourself and loving the man — while you’re catching hell from the man. You let the man maneuver you into thinking that it’s wrong to fight him when he’s fighting you.
He’s fighting you in the morning, fighting you in the noon, fighting you at night and fighting you all in between, and you still think it’s wrong to fight him back. Why? The press. The newspapers make you look wrong.”
Malcolm’s statements about the press cross my mind often. I might have articulated such a thought at the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. The thought would have crossed my mind again when Emmett Till was murdered. No doubt, the same words would have come to mind when four little girls lost their lives in the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Yes, those events occurred before Malcolm give his 1964 speech.
But, a prophet speaks in non-linear time. Those who have an ear, hear the prophet’s words in the same way. After all, these same words were evoked at the the assassination of Malcolm and later Martin. I was reminded of Malcolm’s declaration when Trayvon Martin died and reminded again when Michael Brown died. The words continued to echo with the death of Sandra Bland and with the martyrdom in Charleston at Emmanuel Church.
And just today, I was reminded of what Malcolm about the power of the press, the power of word, when I read the reflections of a friend in his blog post today on the aftermath of the student protests at the University of Missouri. My friend, Rev. Dr. Andre Johnson, noted that “there is a story circulating in social media that Jonathan Butler, the graduate student who went on a weeklong hunger strike at the University of Missouri in protest of racist conditions at the school, is a person of means.
In an attempt to shame him and critique the movement, there are reports that his family is a ‘prominent family’ in Omaha, Nebraska.” Because this young Black body and his family have had enjoyed some measure of achievement, acquired some baubles, following the prescriptions of the dominant cultural paradigm, Jonathan is being called a fraud. He’s not real enough; he’s not down with the cause enough because he is too up with material things.
Never mind that he stood up and stared down, when many were content to “go along to get along.” Never mind that he risked temporal things for meatier, more consequential things. Jonathan was all in for those whom Jesus referred to as the “least of these.” In him, the sun rose to burn off the fog of the “illusion of inclusion” which tempts like the serpent in the garden with the promise, “if [you] continue to act, do, and be right, … somehow, injustice will not come knocking on [your] door.”
It seems the way of Black folks to be damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Double-consciousness rears its ugly head and the chains of one’s two-ness play a dirge. One finds one’s self being maneuvered and manipulated into thinking it’s wrong to fight because you have sold out by playing the game.
One becomes a suspicious Black body who can often become paralyzed in that liminal space created by “the man.” It’s a space where you question your right and your obligation to fight “the man,” the system because the dominant paradigm is structured to silence all challengers and voices especially those from the margins.
Just because facades of success, like some many Mardi Gras beads and trinkets, drape Black bodies standing in the gutter watching the parade doesn’t mean that those same Black bodies are not still firmly situated at the margins. The so-called success at playing the man’s game, in gathering crumbs from the man’s economic table is but an adornment that enhances the master’s house. The pretty Mardi Gras beads mean nothing. In the end, they have not value and are swept into the sewers and trash bins like the debris they are when the last float has passed.
As Malcolm also famously asked, “What do you call a Negro with a PhD? You call him a …. Well, you get the point. All the “trappings of respectability,” as my friend calls it, does not change that. The image-making role of the press has been quite effective in that regard not only for Black bodies in the United States, but throughout the African Diaspora.
It is long past time to for the image-made to come down just like the walls of Jericho. It is time to stop this narrative of “suspicious Blackness,” to stop running away from and hating ourselves based on images not of our own making. It’s time all over the diaspora to stop allowing the open sore of injustice to fester, to stop “loving the man — while you’re catching hell from the man.”
It is time to run to ourselves and send hell back where it came from. Jonathan, and so many like him, is the kind of disciple the ancestors are seeking out and calling for. Who will believe the report and who will go for them? Who will say, “Here am I, send me?”