Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cornel West, and Eric Garner

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By: Alpha Abebe

Guest Commentary 

Yesterday, I hugged Dr. Cornel West, I shook Professor Angela Davis’ hand, and spent the evening chatting with Rodnell Collins, the nephew of Malcolm X. What’s more, all of this happened in Oxford, a museum of colonial dreams and bastion of White elitist culture. Yesterday was also the 50th anniversary of the date when Malcolm X addressed the Oxford Union, less than three months before he was assassinated. And yesterday, a Staten Island grand jury chose not to indict the police officer who held Eric Garner in the choke hold that would claim his life. A lot happened yesterday.

On December 3rd, 1964 Malcolm X was invited to The Oxford Union, the most prestigious student debating organization in the UK, to argue in the affirmative that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. Fifty years later I sat in the same place, across from Angela Davis and with a group of other students, listening to the audio of this historic speech. Seated in my row was an elegant elderly woman of colour who, as it turns out, was involved in organizing the original debate in 1964. As she looked around, I heard her remark to my friend (another woman of colour) that when Malcolm spoke here, there was nothing but a “sea of white faces”. I turned to look at the crowd, and was also encouraged by the spatter of colour across the room. But as we listened to Malcolm’s speech, his words quickly reminded me of how incremental this change was in the grand scheme of things and given the current state of affairs.

I don’t encourage any act of murder nor do I glorify in anyone’s death, but I do think that when the white public uses its press to magnify the fact that there are lives of white hostages at stake, they don’t say “hostages,” every paper says “white hostages.” They give me the impression that they attach more importance to a white hostage and a white death, than they do the death of a human being, despite the color of his skin. I feel forced to make that point clear, that I’m not for any indiscriminate killing, nor does the death of so many people go by me without creating some kind of emotion. But I think that white people are making the mistake, and if they read their own newspapers they will have to agree that they, in clear cut language, make a distinction between the type of dying according to the color of the skin.

Before the days of hashtags, and half a century before Michael Brown and Eric Garner would be murdered by police, Malcolm X was saying ‘black lives matter!’ This historical continuity was brought into greater focus when Professor Christie Davies came up to speak after the recording finished playing. Dr. Davies was President of the Cambridge Union in 1964, and argued against the proposition just before Malcolm spoke. As the only remaining survivor from the original debate, he was invited to speak about whether his position had changed in the last fifty years. He proudly proclaimed that it had not. While there are certainly a number of valid points that could be raised against the notion of ‘extremist’ action, Dr. Davies used the platform to share his extremely problematic views about Islam, civil rights movements, and Malcolm himself. There was a rumbling of descent across the room, and behind me a student booed and shouted “sit down!” And then, though she will probably forget it, I will always remember the moment I briefly met eyes with Angela Davis and shared a look and shake of the head that seemed to me to say “can you believe this nonsense?!” Thankfully, she got up to speak next next.

I feel a bit like Malcolm X did when he responded to the previous speaker. […] I have to admit that I had to contain myself when I heard some of the things you were saying. Because actually your global universal characterization of Islam…It is not homogeneous. [Christie Davies interjected: “I never said it was”] Well you did, in a very inappropriate way. And I also took issue with your assumption that a sense of connectedness among people’s of colour has somehow to be biological, that it can’t be political. And I actually do remember that era of Third World unity. And I also remember that Northern Ireland was included. […] What Yuri Kochiyama did was to demonstrate that what we call the Black radical tradition of which Malcolm X is a part, belongs to everyone. And that the struggle for Black freedom, whether it be in the U.S. or whether it be in Africa, can be an inspiration to people everywhere who believe in justice and freedom.

Later, I greeted Angela Davis and thanked her for “taking him on”. I also spoke with Rodnell Collins that evening and asked him what he thought of Dr. Davies’ remarks. He said he was glad that Dr. Davies spoke as he did so that young students like myself could remember that prejudice and White privilege did not just “roll over and die”, it is very much beating and alive today. A few hours later Dr. Cornel West spoke at The Oxford Union debate, arguing in the affirmative on the same proposition that Malcolm X did fifty years to the date. His words were moving, precise, uplifting, and heart wrenching all at once.

I’ve always aspired to be an extremist when it comes to freedom and liberty. An extremist when it comes to love. […] To be human is to be an extremist for love. To be human is to be a subversive for sweetness. To be human is to be a radical for gentleness. James Baldwin writes a magnificent essay in Esquire magazine in April of 1972, brother Malcolm X was the most gentlest of people he ever met. But it’s hard to keep track of his gentleness. Because when you love folk, especially those folk Franz Fanon called ‘the wretched of the earth’ you hate the fact that they are being treated unjustly. You loathe the fact that they are being treated unfairly and that is why I have a hatred for the drones that are being dropped over my brothers and sisters in Somalia. I have a hatred for how my Dalit brothers and sisters are being treated in India. I have a hatred for how peasants are treated in Mexico. I will never forget the tears of my precious sister Leslie McSpadden when I was sitting there with hands praying over the space where brother Michael Brown’s body laid for four-and-a-half hours with blood flowing on that street. […] The tradition of Malcolm X is a human one but it was rooted in a response to 400 years of terrorism, trauma and stigma. Therefore, when we reflect on this proposition, keep in mind that it is not just some academic sentence. But it is rooted in blood and sweat and tears like Emmett Till’s momma when she stood and looked at her baby, and looked at the world and said, ‘I refuse to hate, I will pursue justice for the rest of my life’. That’s the kind of liberty I want to defend. That’s why I’m here today.

When I got back to my room yesterday, I opened my computer to discover that the grand jury refused to indict the officer who killed Eric Garner. I imagine Angela Davis and Cornel West learned of this news around the same time. I wondered about what could possibly be running through their mind. Did they draw from a well of endless righteous indignation and gear up for a political response? Did they throw up their hands in exhaustion? Did they sit in their hotel rooms and weep? Maybe they did all of the above. And maybe, their minds reeled, as mine did, at the tragic irony of it all. A lot happened yesterday.

 

Alpha Abebe is an Ethiopian-Canadian who is currently completing her PhD at Oxford’s Department of International Development. Her doctoral research explores the intersection of diasporas and development, through the experiences of ‘the young Ethiopian diaspora’ in the West. She has spent several years as an international and community development practitioner, and her advocacy, research and professional efforts have been largely devoted to racialized youth, migration issues, and East Africa. Alpha is also a photographer and uses her art as a tool for community engagement and cross-cultural dialogue.

 

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