Thursday, May 21, 2009

Malcolm X and Lorraine Hansberry: May 19th, Birthdays, and Truth-telling, PART 2

"My Weekly Say"
It was that unshakable commitment to the truth that led both to risk every fathomable comfort, despite seemingly overwhelming consequences and the danger to their livelihood and safety.

It's a testament to their integrity, and to an uncanny similarity of spirit.

There remain conflicting theories, but many argue that Malcolm X risked his very life when he broke with the Nation of Islam and, with it, the formidable Elijah Muhammad. I’m sure that no one could have known this better than he, but Malcolm X chose his people, and the love of his cause, when he could have chosen comfort and quite possibly, corruption. Amid death threats and attacks on his home and family, Malcolm X spent his final days working tirelessly in the creation of Muslim Mosque, Inc and the Organization of Afro-American Unity – seeking ways to honor his commitment to Sunni Islamic practice and his desire to promote a secular, black nationalist movement.

In the waning years of Lorraine Hansberry’s life, she divorced her husband Robert Nemiroff, a steady source of support in her writing endeavors, when she came to terms with her lesbian sexuality. Hansberry understood very well that lesbian women were presumed psychologically ill by the establishment. She understood that any open acknowledgment of her sexuality could lead to immense professional, social and physical danger. Yet in 1957, she wrote two fiercely worded open letters on the oppression of Lesbian and Gay people for the lesbian woman publication, “The Ladder”. “The Ladder” made a regular practice of anonymously publishing open letters; Hansberry’s name wasn’t printed. But her next two plays, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” and “Les Blancs” (published posthumously), began exploring such gay and lesbian themes head on.

When I began pulling this post together, I knew I’d mention that both of my subjects had been taken tragically, and far too early – one by pancreatic cancer and the other by a sawed-off shotgun. But then I began to think that we’d lost each as a result of a kind of malignant cancer, brought to bear by intolerant establishments and cultures that gnawed away at the lives of our bright prophets – these brilliant, truth-telling soothsayers – who were ripped away from us just as they began to come into their own.

We missed the burgeoning evolution of two young voices – one strident, the other subtly insistent – sent to urge us toward a more decent, upright and gallant walk.

A walk more like theirs’.

If they were here today, we could thank them for that walk. And we could thank them for having the courage to stand alone and lead by example.

But now only their words remain.

As it happens, Malcolm X was among the 600 mourners at Lorraine Hansberry’s funeral on January 15, 1965 – a day after his own wedding anniversary. At 34, Hansberry had lost her battle with cancer 3 days before.

Little more than a month later, on February 21, 1965, 39-year-old Malcolm X himself died at the hands of an assassin. 30,000 mourners are said to have filed past his casket, while more than 1000 packed into a church to hear “our shining black prince" eulogized. Months later, the city of Watts burned, and with it, it must have seemed, the hope of an generation.

Little more than 3 years later, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would shake that generation once more.

We, the children of that generation, lost our chance to know them, this brother and sister of hope.

We are left with their words, which we use like shovels to dig up our piecemealed past. And somehow, something in us understands that they and those like them live with us even now, through their lessons taught and their purposes fulfilled.

I haven’t picked up that birthday book, and I didn’t bother scouring a zodiac chart. I haven’t, now that I think of it, heard back from Rahsul at the barbershop (He’s probably got his hands full). But perhaps it doesn’t matter what they’d say.

Perhaps instead, we should just sit with the words and the voice of Malcolm and those of Lorraine.

Perhaps, if we sit very still with those voices – with those words – they will can help us to see our way clear.

To Malcolm and to Lorraine - Happy Birthday. We’re still listening.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday to Lorraine and Malcolm. They are side by side, at least their personal papers are side by side at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture 85th Anniversary exhibition. Born five years apart (1925 and 1930) but on the same day, May 19th, their passings are just a few weeks apart in 1965.
In 1930, Malcolm's father was battling discriminatory housing laws in Lansing, Michigan, while Lorraine's father was doing the same in Chicago. The FBI began its file on Malcolm at the age of 18 when, to avoid being drafted into WWII, he declared allegiance to Japan rather than fight for a racist nation. The FBI began its file against Lorraine also at age 18, as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. But, most important, both dedicated their lives to changing America.