Sunday, July 30, 2017

Reading Barry and Malcolm in Parallel - #1

English: The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the...
The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the White House library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the old days, before the ubiquity of backpacks, we carried a pile of books and notebooks around school going from class to class, maybe returning to our lockers and swapping them out once or twice during the day. Always, at the top of that book pile -- clutched close to the hip for boys, double-armed to the chest for girls --  was the novel or biography, or whatever, being read at the time for pleasure. Yup, we had text books, spiral notebooks, and three-ring binders to carry around, but we also had a special paperback sitting on top of everything meant for free reading and enjoyment. This wasn't a requirement, it was simply a logical and important element of life as a teenager in America circa 1972.

My first free reading book in junior high was Frank Herbert's Dune. My last, senior year of high school (1976), was Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

I remember so many friends back then carrying The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Didn't matter a person's background or skin tone, at least a dozen classmates and close friends over the years stuck their noses in that book when they had a little free time between classes or during lunch break or on the bus home, wherever.

Popularity was kind of the kiss of death as far as I was concerned back then. If so many people were committed to reading about Malcolm X, I certainly wasn't going to be a sheep and follow. I let Laura Harrington talk me into reading plays, even poetry. Thus, my free reading for many years was all about absorbing the scripts of Eugene O'Neill, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, etc. and the verse of dudes like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Robert Lowell.

I wasn't trying to impress Laura, I swear! I simply understood she was smarter and wiser than me, a gifted thespian. It was 7th grade. I'd been in love with her since the third quarter of 6th grade partly because I respected her so much. I carried a lot of plays around with me for a number of years even after we went our separate ways. 

I never did get around to reading Malcolm's autobiography back then. I did, though, know that I needed to read that book someday. I planned and assumed that day would come before I finished college. It never did. 

Years later, in my forties and early fifities, I also didn't read Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father. We managed to inherit a copy of that book during the fall after he gave his famous keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. That was a masterful speech. The only time he used the word "race" was when he said:

"Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes."

I was waiting for it, but that word never came at us in its naked, dangerous, surreal, and/or stupid form. And yet, the future President got across the idea of rising above what we call racism better than any speaker I'd watched and listened to since Martin died in 1968. 

I was stunned by that guy back in 2004. A few days later after a bit of research, I was amazed that I'd never heard of the book that was his early life story. It had been published a decade earlier. Back in 2004 mixed race people did not stand front and center the way Obama had, speaking to the entire nation as a leader and someone who knew he was special.

Barack Obama had instantly become significant to me. I was 46. I'd only learned that I had mixed ancestry about a year before he showed up on the national stage. I was in the middle of writing a book on what it's like to find out your true heritage after being on this earth for nearly five decades, living all the while completely outside the whole race issue, being nothing, not feeling like I belonged to anyone's tribe, understanding that the problem of being mixed race in this country did not exactly have an easy solution.

And yet, here was this simultaneously goofy, gangly, stunningly handsome mixed man not much younger than me, so matter-of-fact, seemingly fearless, reasonable about difference in the United States of America, and whip-smart (little did so many of us realize that his brilliance and lit up personality would be the thing that threatened so many into finally showing themselves a decade or so later). 

So, it was a no-brainer -- I would read Dreams over the next four years. Barack Obama seemed like a cool guy I needed to understand. But I never got around to it.

Once he was elected President in 2008, I figured I'd read that early biography quickly, then move on to his more contemporary Audacity of Hope. But none of that happened either during those years. I had books to write, an aging mother to care for, environmental planning to do for the City of Philadelphia, and, most importantly, teenagers to raise. 

I recall a long conversation with two of my three sons back then about Malcolm X. I think all of them had to read at least a portion of his autobiography for school. I know they made me feel inadequate, knowing so much more than I about one of this country's great revolutionaries.

"The X is for the African name he would never have, Dad. Didn't you ever wonder about that?" 

As Obama's presidency started to wind down and the campaign to replace him picked up in the second half of 2015, I dug out and dusted off our old copy of Dreams from My Father. At first, I thought I'd read it, finally, as an act of homage to the first president I was 100% proud to vote for (twice). But something felt wrong there as Hillary began to rev up her campaign and the Republican bozo bus began rolling around the country with 17 bizarrely ill-informed candidates waving their hands randomly, mooning us out their windows, making fun of each other. 

Not being able to read Obama's early autobiography was one thing, realizing that the country needed a good swift kick in the behind and intelligent leaders to push the envelope was another. I kept thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, even George McGovern, Gary Hart, Ed Muskie, and Howard Dean. Yes, Bernie Sanders was beginning to kick a little butt, but from the get-go it was obvious that Hillary had wrangled all the power she needed with the DNC in order to lock down the nomination. It made me sad. But it also eventually led me to think about Malcolm X and the question of being a "liberal change agent" versus being someone who demanded rebellion against the system, fueled with righteous anger,  indignation, and the proof of one's convictions broadcast on TV and the internet every hour of every day. 

I never got around to reading either Obama or X in 2015 or 2016. But this summer, finally, I began, to read both biographies simultaneously. That's what I want to report on in posts here over the next several months. I'm reading them in parallel -- 10 pages or so of one and 10 pages or so of the other. And I'm taking lots of notes. Malcolm's mom, Louise, was born in Grenada and "looked like a white woman. Her father was white." Obama, of course, was truly biracial, with a father from the Luo tribe in Kenya and a mother of European descent who grew up middle class in Kansas, Texas, Washington, and Hawaii.

Barry and Malcolm both had family roots in the Midwest and lifelong ties there. Both were preternaturally intelligent and, it seems, hyper-verbal and extremely self-aware at a very young age. And each of them became men without fathers to guide them. Obama's dad was more or less a noble, beloved mythical ghost his entire life. Malcolm's dad, Earl Little, died somewhat mysteriously (most likely at the hands of Michigan racist group, the Black Legion) when Malcolm was six.  

There were differences too, for sure. They came from separate times. Malcolm was only seven years younger than Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham -- born in 1925. When Malcolm died in 1965, nineteen states still had anti-miscegenation laws on the books, i.e., mixed race marriage was illegal. Those laws would not be overturned by the Supreme Court for two more years (thanks to Richard and Mildred Loving).

Obviously, the America that would elect its first hybrid president, was a lot different as Barry grew up, going to Occidental College, then Columbia University, and, eventually, Harvard for his law degree. 

I'll save more detailed thoughts on these two important Americans for other posts. I just wanted to note what I'm doing here at The Formality of Occurrence for the next few months. It's all part of research I'm doing for my next novel. We are an amazing country. We've clearly lost our bearings. That began in 2008 for all sorts of reasons, and right now, in 2017, things are worse than ever. What a great time to be a writer or a musician or a filmmaker or an artist -- even a dancer. Important to do your homework, though, no matter what your medium. We all stand on the shoulders of giants and we are all a function of the contexts of time. If you don't know the specifics of those truths you are destined to remain part of the problem. At least, that's what seems true to me. So I read, and I take careful notes, and I try to put the pieces of our past and present together so that I can see the future floating out there in front of me. I try to think about the future as much as possible because we're really messing up right now in the present. I'm glad Malcolm's not around to be pissed at all of us. I'm sad that Barry has to watch things fall apart. He did a good job of keeping us moving forward. This new guy is not doing such a good job.

Hopefully, we'll be back on track in a few years. Just in time for Golden Country when it hits the shelves. It's a big project with a lot of ideas and a lot of whimsy. I've got a long way to go and a lot of reading and note taking before I even get started writing in earnest. Follow along though as I work to present new ideas and perspectives from what I'm reading. I'm beginning with Malcolm and Barry, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.

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