Where Brown meets Baldwin No. 1

I've been thinking about Malcolm X – a lot. James Baldwin, too. And when I think about solidarity with the movement for Black Lives, I think about these two. I think about their speeches, their interviews, and essays.

I'm unoriginal, I know. Ardent students of their teachings can’t help but hear their prophetic voices whisper and howl forty and fifty years away from their first utterance. But when I'm seeking answers, I lean on them. I get on youtube. I get on Spotify; I hit traffic with Malcolm’s voice. I reach into my backpocket; I pull out Baldwin’s essays.

I wasn’t the first young, blooming activist to have his mind awakened by the rousing words of Minister Malcolm or Baldwin. I’m thinking about the Ballot or the Bullet, Message to the Grass Roots, Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time. There is no way to choreograph the awakening that happens in the text, it just happens and the brain, the eyes, the ears, are never the same.

I’m of this generation that was simultaneously raised by the television and the then emerging (dialup) internet. For better or worse, we talk in movies, we talk in TV. And if I'm being honest, if I’m being real real, when I think about solidarity movements with the struggle for Black liberation, I don’t think about Malcolm the man himself. Lord help me, I think about Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm in the film by Spike Lee (shoutout to Kevin Avery and W. Kamau Bell #denzealots).

Although I’ve spent many hours poring over the biography and speeches of Malcolm, the movie remains an essential artifact of his life and legacy. It stays in my mind. I recite Malcolm, I recite Denzel doing Malcolm amongst friends at bars and dinner tables. As far as I’m concerned, Denzel is Malcolm. You know you’ve done it. Ok, maybe you haven’t, but stay with me.

In that film, you’ll remember, Malcolm spoke at a university. While he walked through the campus flanked by his Muslim brethren, a young white woman approached him and asked, “What can a white person like myself, who isn't prejudiced, what can I do to help you and further your cause?”

Washington (as X) stops, turns and bends his neck to look her straight in the face and says, simply, pointedly, and with something I can only describe as the utmost in badassery; he says, “Nothing,” and goes on with his business, leaving her and the rebel beret atop her head deflated and demoralized.

Later I would learn that this encounter was based in some truth and that instead of a university, Malcolm was approached in a diner. It’s a story often recounted in his speeches and interviews.

 

It’s an encounter that stays with me. I feel like it so distinguishes Malcolm from those trying so desperately to move into an #alllivesmatter, post-racial society.

James Baldwin, too, was often asked by, what one presumes to be, white audience members about the role of “well-meaning” or “liberal” or “non-racist” white people in the movement. Going further, some would chastise him for not acknowledging their efforts when he openly critiqued all white people.

And to this point, Baldwin is recorded saying, “It is not my problem.” This problem, Baldwin asserts, was created by white people in pursuit of power. He adds, “I will not allow my white audience to be flattered because I lived.”

I mention these two figures, not only because they have played an integral role in my awakening, but because they speak to my trepidation in approaching the work of bozalta and the work of this blog.

I am a poet. I was born and raised in California’s farm country. I am unapologetically Chicano. I recognize that I am not the white girl in Spike Lee’s film or one of the white liberals in Baldwin’s audience looking for a pat on the head.

However, I approach the notion of solidarity with great care, and yes, some trepidation. I know about our shared histories encountering and confronting white supremacy: the bondage, the slaughter, the lynching, the imposed poverty, the rampant criminalization, the mass incarceration. 

Joining forces seems like an easy fit. But I also know that, historically, poor Black and Brown people have been pitted against one another as part of many divide and conquer strategies.

Though, I believe what Malcolm said in his Message to the Grass Roots, “We’ve got a common enemy.” And the circumstances of Malcolm's time can be seen today, we know that to be true. I don't have to tell you that.

I grew up on Lowrider oldies and Art Laboe. I take my cues from the Black and Brown soul band War. They already told us how it is. You probably know the song. Sing it if you know it. It goes, “Don't you know that it's true?...that for me and for you, the world is a ghetto.”

 

The world is a ghetto. Indeed, we know this truth to be self-evident – or at least it should be: for me and for you, the world is a ghetto. But some people choose to stay quiet, stay asleep, stay dreaming that dream, that fleeting, crippling very Unitedstatesean dream.

I’m not one to climb on a soapbox or nothing, but the bullets have already left their respective chambers. Black and Brown bodies are lying in the streets. Literally. They're behind bars and makeshift cages in the desert - as we speak. They're being strangled by police for selling cigarettes or, in Sandra Bland's case, smoking one. If they are not dead, if we are not dead, we are perpetually at risk of being beaten, harassed, detained, or otherwise violated under this pernicious guise of law and order, a guise built to uplift and protect a hypocrite's dream, a fairy tale freedom.

A fairy tale, we know, that is wrought from the plunder and extermination of us, our bodies, our lives, our brothers' lives, our mothers' lives. A dream, we know, not meant for us. Yet we are encouraged to be quiet and not get too loud, we are told to bear this burden, we are told patience is a virtue, and progress rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.

This is where we intervene. This is where we move to dismantle this apparatus together. But, what my good friend Lisa Marie Rollins says is true, “It’s complicated.” And it is. Well, it can be.

This isn’t the first time the subject of solidarity across difference has been relevant. And it’s for damn sure not the first time people of color have risen up in opposition to white supremacy.

So what does this solidarity look like? What does true Black and Brown solidarity look like? What does it look like across difference, period? How do we broach these subjects while continuing the movement for Black liberation? How do we acknowledge histories of oppression without succumbing to a game of oppression olympics? I believe that solidarity and understanding begins with this inquiry, then with listening, then some conversation, then comes some action.

In the coming weeks and months, I’m going to bring to bozalta a series of interviews and conversations between activists, academics, artists, and poets whose life’s work has been to dismantle these systems of oppression. I plan to populate the blog with content that is relevant to this conversation. I’m going to pull from the past and present as we try imagine new ways to work in tandem. You can imagine the forthcoming work of bozalta as a congregation of voices. Stay tuned.



Joseph Rios is the Guest Editor for bozalta. He is a poet and author of the forthcoming book, Shadowboxing: Poems and Impersonations (Omnidawn).