Lest you think that Black History Month is useless (beyond a hand wave's worth of effort attempting to right institutionalized wrongs), I was able to reap a benefit or two from it this year. Thanks to a Virgin Megastore endcap cashing in on the shortest, blackest month of the year, I found myself in the possession of and enthralled by Arnold Perl's brilliant 1972 documentary Malcolm X. The film is not to be confused with the not-as-great-but-still-obviously-awesome Spike Lee biopic of the same name, although the '72 doc does show up as bonus material on the two-disc special edition of Spike's joint, which come to think of it, is indeed extremely confusing! But whatever. The documentary loosely charts Malcolm's life, using narrative excerpts from his Alex Haley-assisted "autobiography" and mostly footage of Malcolm's many public speeches. No matter what you think of the man and his teachings, I don't think the case could me made against his mastery of the spoken word. The documentary is electrifying because Malcolm was electrifying. Contradictory and straightforward, arrogant and humble, superhero and mortal, alike, rebellion came out of his pores. He gripped me last month with the exact intensity that he did back in the X-mania of the early '90s, when to my angsty, pubescent 14-year-old mind, his fiery spirit was as palpable as a pheromone.
Not that it would have been hard to seduce me. At that time, digging Malcolm was as much a fashion statement as a political one. Because it's hard to conjure an informed opinion on anything at such a young age, a sort of fetishism can easily supplant genuine interest: critical thinking can develop so late that you form taste not on basis of merit or even personal association, but on basis of what something represents and how that makes it cool. This often stays with us through college, wherein obnoxious young adults tell themselves (and anyone who will listen) that independent music is somehow more validly expressive and less commerce-concerned than mainstream stuff. Before watching the aforementioned documentary, I would have chalked up my young interest in Malcolm to this phenomenon -- after all, appreciating his legacy as a thinking whitey did require a selective reading of his autobiography. Even later in his career, after his pilgrimage to Mecca had changed his separatist ways and effectively divorced him from the teachings of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm wasn't really talking to me, just about me in a (reluctantly?) tolerant manner.
Except, now I'm sure that he was talking to me. The greatest thing that came out of my viewing of that documentary was the realization that I wasn't some teenage poseur just liking a black person because the majority of my town and school would think I were weird for doing so. I was reminded just how inspiring Malcolm's passion was, and how relevant his unyielding demand to be treated as a person was and is to my life. It's not exactly the same thing, but watching this...
...which is the first time we see Malcolm speaking (after Billie Holiday's eternally effective "Strange Fruit" plays as the doc's overture), gave me a sense of what people feel when repressed memories come to the surface. It was this earth-shattering moment of clarity. Malcolm's talking about his own people, but these words, with this intensity succinctly say everything I feel daily about the matter-of-fact mistreatment of gay people. And realizing that made everything come full circle: despite repressing my sexuality until spewed forth at 22, I always possessed a sense of otherness. Where I lived, gay people didn't exist and even if they did, I wouldn't have associated with them (as, in my mind, there was nothing worse you could be), so I gravitated to the relatively more socially acceptable otherness of blackness. I never went overboard with shtick (i.e. though I admired "X" apparel, I never owned any), and I can't say that I was ever fully accepted by any group, whatever the color, but there was a certain feeling of refuge there that I didn't feel previously. Relief is relief, even when it's relative.
I know that a lot of people would find my parallel of black oppression and gay oppression to be misguided. I'm fully aware that I'm oversimplifying, but I think the issue is ultimately simple, anyway: people have been and are being hated for what they are, for basic, unchangeable and, really, benign human conditions. If you think that being gay is anything beyond a matter of fact (that it's somehow willed or worth repressing), you're ignorant and lacking in empathy. (See how simple?) If you need to tell yourself that it's a "choice," and believe that, then you also need to learn how to mind your own fucking business. It's funny that people are so willing to get morality involved, when, in my world, the most amoral thing that you can be is dishonest about your identity. When I'm not laughing about the absurdity of it all, I'm raging, wishing I had even a lick of talent for public speaking, and praying for a Malcolm of my own (even though some say he was, in fact, one of us). Until we have one, I'm keeping the old boy out on loan.