Sunday, June 20, 2010

Express Yourself

In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes how he received a "homemade education" while in prison. He had always considered himself an "articulate hustler," but the language he used on the street--"Look, daddy, let me pull your coat about a cat"--were insufficient within the prison walls. With only an eighth-grade education, he was unable to engage in meaningful conversations and correspondence. With access to little else, Malcolm X began to copy the dictionary. Starting with "aardvark," he wrote each word and its definition:

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world.... It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

To listen to his speeches, to read his words, makes his "homemade education" all the more impressive. He felt unable to express himself, and he rectified it. He describes himself as never having felt "so truly free" in his life as when he was incarcerated, his eyes and mind and possibilities opened to the huge world contained in books. Language is power. Controversial as he was, Malcolm X was undeniably a man of ideas. His ability to communicate those ideas made him a leader.

I watched the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company perform his complete works (abridged). There were jokes scattered about crazy right-wingers, tea parties, and BP. At one point, one of the three actors--they performed hilarious versions of everything from Othello to Hamlet--said, "That's the craziest thing I've heard, at least since, 'Change you can believe in'... What, too soon?" There were audience members laughing and clapping. But I didn't get it. I still don't. I want to say, "Grow up! Obama is trying to govern!" I don't understand what more people want him to do. He needs support, he needs political capital to effect change, and by ridiculing him from the left, people are instead removing an important voice from the debate. Keep up the pressure, but let him lead.

We have so many opportunities today. Libraries, the internet, education: these should be equalizers! Good-natured people, myself included, worry about the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. But is anyone talking about the gulf between the "knows" and the "know-nots"? Am I just projecting here? The more television I watch, the more I read, the more I think about (what I perceive to be) rampant anti-intellectualism. Politicians, the media, appealing to our basest instincts, worrying about the 24/7 news cycle instead of truth and progress. Where are the intellectual leaders? Who has big ideas today, based on fact and reason, that has enough celebrity to garner attention? Will corporate media allow any other voices? And when will we be smart enough to demand better?

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