I recently began reading Manning Marable’s seminal biography, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Not only is it critically acclaimed, it is also highly readable, entertaining and offers a uniquely presented slice of America’s history (1920s-1970s).
The book is exhaustively researched. There are nearly 500 pages of text, 487 footnotes, three pages of glossary and a 13 page bibliography, yet it reads like a mystery. You know the ending but it compels completion because of the characters, the places, the backdrop of civil unrest and uncivil police actions, the contrasting philosophies of Malcolm and Martin, etc.
At the same time, I also started flipping through a volume that I’ve had for several years, Say It Plain: a Century of Great African American Speeches. The book has been on my shelf for more than two years and I was finally prompted to take it down after repeatedly listening to the Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop” speech, his last, during the recent celebrations of the national holiday commemorating his birth.
I had forgotten that the book came with two audio discs and included a recording of Booker T. Washington speaking in 1865 to the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.
In fact, the CDs include recordings of 23 great orators, including Marcus Garvey, MLK, John Hope Franklin, Barbara Jordan, Lani Guinier, Louis Farrakhan and, yes, even Clarence Thomas (he speaks!).
This is a comprehensive collection that covers more than a century of thought but it is terribly incomplete because, regrettably, the heirs of Malcolm X declined the editors’ request to have his words published in this work.
Nonetheless, re-reading Martin’s words and simultaneously listening to his live voice is a thrilling experience.
There is a footnote that in this particular speech King did not have any notes. He was reportedly sick that evening after leading the march in support of the sanitation workers earlier that day in Memphis. He was urged to come out to calm the large crowd that had gathered in the church.
By contrast Barbara Jordan, notes rattling in her hand, was broadcast on national network television is defense of the U.S. Constitution presenting her case that the forefathers did not consciously leave her out when writing that document, that the spirit of their lofty ideals, in fact, did include her, a black, a woman. I’ve always had a problem with that position.
Clarence Thomas pretty much takes the same position and he believes so because he knows and accepts that the country’s laws are firmly rooted in traditional Judeo-Christian principles and so is he.
(I think you know what Malcolm had to say about the Constitution and America).
A common thread is that the 23 orators, with few exceptions, are arguing in support of the American ideal, that still incomplete experiment called Democracy that is based on the principle that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and for blacks to be full participants and have full access to all that is promised by the Constitution.
And, in defense of these principles, black folks have accepted the invitations to go to war, first to win independence from Britain and then in every subsequent war since 1776. But what about all those who have protested against fighting for the U.S. because they were not included in the promises, let alone the draft?
This past weekend, I saw Red Tails, a highly entertaining action movie with a strong overtone of patriotism, which retold the story of how the Tuskegee Airmen demonstrated unexpected bravery and heroism in their mighty show to win the “right to fight” for the country.
Can you hear my heavy sigh?
What I want to shout to all who can read (hear) my words is that our way (the Constitution) is still being tested, that there just may be other (better?) ways to coexist with one another, that the Judeo-Christian ethos that guides us is not absolutely true (there is only one truth) and that everyone needs to continue to stay vigilant.
And that demands that you raise your voices to say it loud. Say it plain.
Antonia Williams-Gary is a consultant with Miami-based Savings and Grace Enterprise. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Antonia Williams-Gary