I was working on some photo research on Malcolm X back in February for a series of illustrated posters. A colleague from the American University of Beirut (AUB) had asked our artists’ collective, Jamaa Al-Yad, to provide a visual overview of his visit to Beirut and the region over half a century ago. At the time, Malcolm X had been forbidden from speaking at the AUB, and we were actively working to return him to campus. To this end, we scheduled a public lecture and theater performance to mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
I was primarily looking for images from his trips to Southwest Asia and Africa, and from when he performed hajj. As I was searching various archives online, I was struck by many of the photographs I was coming across. The images of Malcolm X we are familiar with have become quite iconic, and of course I recognized many of them. But in their cropped frames or shifted perspective, they elided something of particular interest: The constant and overshadowing presence, in the photos based in the U.S., of police officers. Both in life and in death.
It was a brutal visual reminder of the repercussions of truly speaking up and out; what it means to be literally policed for one’s thoughts, words, and deeds; the reality lurking behind so-called freedom. Given the systemic violence still waged against people of color and the poor in the United States, it was also a depressing testament to the fact that despite variations in law and the activism of those seeking civil rights, nothing much changes. The system adapts, co-opts, conspires, and then keeps on chugging right along.
Tangential to this, and reflecting similar somber anniversaries, the reminder of such hegemonic control could be found in reviews of Selma, which state that the movie is “historically incorrect.” We might very well ask “whose history,” and then compare Selma to Munich, or American Sniper. We might demand an answer as to how only one film or one view might be seen as representative of history itself. We might be astounded that anyone expects “truth” from Hollywood in the first place. It might behoove us to give benefit of the doubt to a director wishing to empower and not placate. But the truth of the matter (if I may) lies not in the debate, but in the forum. Not in the content, but in the form.
To provide a bit of an analogy, it is as if the locomotive representing the American economic and political system were speeding downhill, and we entertain a discussion as to whether it was LBJ or MLK who was most determined to slow it down. We might debate whose initial thought it was. We might argue about who put his hand on the brake before the other. We might even discuss the amazing forethought of the engineers to place the brake there in the first place. We might focus on the fact that any one passenger on the train has access to the braking system, if emergency be.
Unfortunately, this does not deny the nature of the locomotive, what it was designed to do, the logical conclusion of where it is headed, as well as how nothing about the brake mechanism in and of itself changes this in any substantial way. Five decades ago, the dean of student affairs at the AUB stated that the university in Lebanon was “American soil” and that Malcolm X was banned for being “anti-American;” that he did not want the Lebanese presented with America’s “dirty laundry.” Some people are given access to the brake, knowing full well the ineffectiveness of their gesture. And some people are kicked off the train outright. Categorically ignored are those waging acts of resistance against the railway itself.
In 2010, I spoke at the Socialism Conference in Oakland, California to present the work of our collective. I was on a panel that included Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes, members of the Bay-Area collective Dignidad Rebelde 3. In the audience was an artist and friend hugely inspiring to our work, Juan Fuentes 4. Just a few months earlier, Juan had visited us in Beirut, and I was delighted to meet up with him again. The room was packed for our presentation, and this was truly gratifying to see.
While Juan was in Beirut, we had visited Bourj Al-Barajneh, one of the city’s Palestinian camps. We were hoping to work with some of the youths there, exchanging means and methods of art production and expression. But the atmosphere was clearly strained. It was obvious to me that we were seen as yet another group passing through to get their “photo op;” to get some “street cred.” I tried everything—asking questions, engaging in dialogue—but I couldn’t get the ball rolling. In an effort to reduce the palpable tension, I asked Juan to speak of his life and his art.
He spoke about how his grandparents were Mexicans until the American Invasion of Mexico took place. He spoke about growing up in agricultural labor camps, of forced travel to where the crops were, of the wall now being built on the Mexican border. His words, translated into Arabic, also translated directly into the Palestinian experience: war, labor, camps. There was a change in the room as this bridging of experience took place. The mood shifted and the youths engaged with a newfound zeal in their work on stencils and silkscreens.
Juan’s graphically powerful artwork is primarily in linoleum and woodblock print. Based in a craft tradition, this was also the method of choice of the Taller de Grafica Popular 5, the workshop of popular art that came into being during the Mexican Revolution. One of its more famous artists was in fact originally American. Her name was Elizabeth Catlett 6, and she moved to Mexico to escape the racism of an America that would not afford women, especially black women, the parity of voice ascribed to certain men of a certain class.
Quoting the artist and scholar Winston Kennedy 7, from a personal email:
It is interesting to note that Emory Douglas also visited Beirut a few years back, but I didn’t get a chance to meet him. In stark contrast with Juan’s visit, the local cultural organization that paid for his trip also made sure not to bring him into contact with those who might have benefited most from his experience. Some students from our collective paid the 50-dollar fee to engage in a workshop with the artist. Whereas they were greatly inspired by him, they were equally saddened and dismayed by the elitist nature of the sponsors, who reduced his political legacy and lifetime of work to the merely superficial and aesthetic level.
I remember that visit to California in 2010, and as I am wont to do when in a new place, I spent a lot of time walking the streets. In Oakland, the downtown was boarded up and desolate. The city, like so many before it, wished to “re-invent” its center, via gentrification and the harsh winnowing process of determining who portrays a valid image of the place and who does not. More striking to me was that the atmosphere in the city was very heavy. Oscar Grant had been murdered by the police a year earlier, and there were memorials to him up on many of these temporary wooden walls. 9
Oscar Grant’s uncle also spoke at the conference. He had just returned from the trial of Johannes Mehserle, which had been moved to Los Angeles. He spoke to us, barely able to hide his anguish and anger. No one dared suggest that he consider a reform of a rabid system, that he attempt to simply slow down a runaway train. A man stood up and introduced himself as a former member of the Black Panther Party, here in the place that had given rise to the group 43 years earlier. 10 He offered words of empathy and solace. He reminded us that nothing much had changed, that bullets were still ending black lives in the same way they always had. It was a sobering historical encounter.
The next day we gave our presentation on the historical role of art in liberation movements. I was asked what my connection was to the Palestinian people, how this defined and determined my artistic expression. It was one of many moments that made me question the very conference itself, since it struck me as redolent of solipsistic identity politics; an inherently counter-revolutionary stance. It evoked an individualism that sees itself disconnected and alone before imagining any kind of bridging out to or common cause with others. It smacked of an acceptance of outside categorizations, with resulting affectations.
I explained that I was adopted; that this meant I was migrated contrary to any will, voice, or agency I might be imbued with as a human being. That such an act connected me with many on the planet, similarly displaced, dispossessed, disinherited. That above all else I felt compelled to speak out about such injustice. I explained also that Palestinians were among the few in Lebanon that really “got” where I was coming from when I spoke about my adoption. Finally I stated that whereas I didn’t dare compare my situation to theirs, that there was only hope in combining voices, in sharing struggles.
After a later presentation, I would find myself standing next to the man from the Black Panther Party who had addressed us the previous day. After all of my reading up on the movement over the years, there was something I wanted to ask him. I excused myself and wondered if I might prevail upon him with a question. I inquired as to how he was able to maintain given that his comrades had been exiled, imprisoned, railroaded, assassinated; that some had removed themselves to the toothless realm of academia, or worse, corporate America?
He looked at me a long while and paused before speaking. I feared I had offended him. He said that there was one thought that guided his actions. That many of us made the mistake of thinking that we might see the fruits of struggle in our own lifetime. We lived in a society of instant gratification. We personalized, individualized, and decontextualized what was collective and timeless. “I may not live to see the revolution,” he said, “but I must carry the torch; I must find the energy to at least hold aloft that torch, to pass it on to the next generation.”
While we worked on the Malcolm X project, I had imagined that the logo, illustrations, and square kufi calligraphy done for the posters might be of interest to my graphic design and illustration students. I brought them in to class as examples, speaking of the technical aspects of poster creation in terms of their planning, execution, printing, etc. One of my students exclaimed: “That’s Malcolm X!” Slightly taken aback, I asked: “You know who Malcolm X is?” She replied: “Of course! Are you kidding? He’s my avatar online!” I realized that I often don’t give my students—this next generation—enough credit. 11
The public lecture and performance that we presented at the AUB was under the rubrik “Narratives of Hope” 12. Close to 150 people turned out for the lecture. Extra chairs were brought in to the hall, students sat on the floor, people lined up in the corridor outside. Dr. Ajamu Baraka 13 spoke on the history of the Black Power movement and more specifically Malcolm X, and what his visit to Southwest Asia and Africa was representative of in terms of liberation movements worldwide. He made links between the streets of Ferguson and Gaza 14. He expressed joy in the fact that Malcolm X was being celebrated so actively in Beirut, though this sad anniversary might go barely acknowledged in the U.S.
I spoke on self-representation and identity, of Malcolm X’s image as one resistant and immune to co-optation or destruction, since it carried a spiritual dimension with it. I made links between false self-representation or affectation and minstrelsy 15, and attempted to demonstrate a way out of the reductive identity splintering that is a function of our current economic and political morass. I presented examples of those who rose to the challenge of representing themselves and their communities in a truly powerful and empowering way.
The performance we staged, “Malcolm X Speaks” 16, starred a young Arab actor embodying Malcolm X, here physically channeled and returned. Now, as then, his strong words evoked a runaway system out of control, pointed to the ridiculousness of thinking about simply slowing things down, called out the charlatans and stooges who point to the existence of a brake as the justification to say: “all is well.” Emails of interest from around the world came in expressing a desire to video-stream the performance, or else to produce it locally.
We later learned that in fact Malcolm X did speak on campus. That students lobbied and protested to make sure this would happen. We staged another performance in the same room of the very same hall where this had originally taken place. Present was a man who had been there at the time, while projected on screen was the Skyped conversation with Dr. Aziza El-Hibri 17, then the head of the debate team and the organizer of Malcolm X’s visit to campus. She read from his personal letters to her.
The sense of historical connection and continuation during those moments was quite profound. There was a sense of “carrying forward,” of expanding out from Malcolm X’s words and deeds, only temporarily cut short by his assassination. This was not a “wrapping up,” a historical “filing away” of the past in order to bury it and “move on.” This was a communal testament to the legacy of Malcolm X, a reminder of what his presence meant half a world away, half a century ago, and what it means here and now.
This difference between “here” and “there” can be summed up in some postage stamps. In 1999, the United States Postal Service, after lobbying by the Shabazz family, conceded in including Malcolm X in a series of stamps celebrating African-American heritage. Nonetheless, the booklet copy described him as a “lifelong criminal” and a “convert to Islam.” No mention is made of his assassination for speaking Truth to Power. Here he is literally reduced to a 33-cent marker of commerce; an “avatar” of choice for a minority audience.
I compare and contrast this with a stamp that was issued in 1984 by post-revolution Iran, commemorating the Universal Day of Struggle Against Race Discrimination. In this stamp Malcolm X is illustrated as embodying Bilal, hand to ear, issuing the call to prayer 19. The symbolism should not be underestimated. Bilal was despised by the Quraysh nobility for his skin color. Later he would be a companion of the Prophet, freed from slavery, and renowned for his beautiful voice. The stamp shows him shadowed in white, red, and yellow. Coupled with the cultural mix of Iran, Africa, Southwest Asia, and America, this is a universal and expansive representation.
Working on this project on the subject of Malcolm X was incredibly uplifting in its similarly expansive nature. It reiterated all the more that we cannot put on face, perform a minstrelsy as such, categorize ourselves in ways that mirror how the very culture defines us and then determines for us how we might discuss that determination. Any individual identification we might entertain is tempered and balanced, sometimes outweighed, by collective notions of the same.
For even the most progressive realms we might consider still maintain the modes and mores of the dominant culture, which they have simply adapted to and internalized. When we proposed bringing our play to a London university, they replied: “Yes, okay, but we would need to have Malcolm X played by a black actor.” They entirely missed the point. I imagine Malcolm X laughing at this superficial reduction; I imagine Bilal shaking his head in dismay and disbelief.
During the questions after the public lecture, a student felt compelled to challenge what are considered the academically unfashionable frameworks of a “vanquished” era. He wondered how we might reframe what we were saying, given a Foucauldian lens that would deny our very agency. I had flashbacks to working at the Strand bookstore in New York City in 1987 where graduate students in critical theory at UC Santa Cruz gleefully informed us of our “dinosaur” status.
I referred back to our presentations, and of the fact that whereas we might not be able to name a black Blues singer, we probably know of the Rolling Stones. That we might not know who Barbara Hendricks is, but the phrase “the black Maria Callas” sticks instead in our minds. That Michel Foucault had met with members of the Black Panther Party, and based his ideas on these meetings 20. This fact goes willfully forgotten. What do we choose to remember, and why? This “epistemic violence,” coming from those who invent and bandy about the term, in and of itself is exponentially violent in its own right.
Upon reflection, I think I was supposed to write about something “non-adoption related” here, and at this I have failed. I cannot disconnect my current condition and circumstance from that act. My adoption has in many ways conspired to prevent me from knowing or understanding how I might break out of its constraints in this regard, in terms of class distance in the States, in terms of language here in Lebanon, in terms of sense of place in both. And so I am left the unenviable task of channeling between these realms separated by the razor’s edge adoptees are often doomed to walk.
I think to myself: What if, as an adoptee, I had known of Malcolm X growing up? What if transracial adoptees were given more insight into who, what, and where they are from, and not the Frankenstein monster of “blank slate” experimentation? What if adoptees were allowed to consider the notion of resistance to the dominant norm that orchestrated their unwilled displacement, dispossession, disinheritance? What if adoptees were not only angry that their personal histories are hidden from them, but that history in general is similarly obfuscated?
I remember when I lived in New York, and my adoptive father was perusing my book collection, tomes covering a variety of political subjects, none to his liking. His only comment was: “Where did I go wrong?” and of Che Guevara, “We killed that SOB ages ago!” As much as I laughed it off at the time, it is still painful to think about. I realize that I cannot fault him alone. I see this as the result of lifelong acculturation, one to this day suffered by adoptees, with the added insult now of “culture camps,” as well as good intentions. In no small way, such an affected approach to culture dooms us from the start.
This looms even more poignant for me now, given my discovery that the village of my origin here in Lebanon is largely comprised of members of various radical and left-wing factions. What might have been? Do I dare travel down such a dead-end street of useless wondering? And yet at the same time, I take heart that such groups persevere, even though they will never find, for example, representation in parliament, and thus they receive no largesse from the government. Such affiliations will not get them hired in universities. They will likely be shunned by those of the prominent mode and the dominant class. All of this, in a strange irony, I too have come to know.
From them I draw hope, all the same, that the torch might be passed on to another generation, that content might rise above form, that neglected voices might come to the fore. I hope too that a next generation might see an end to poverty and inequality, killing and strife. I hope that they will not just slow down or reverse the rampaging machine, but will succeed in reversing it, derailing it. My understanding of the very concept of “faith” informs me that every second of every day carries the burden of the decisions we make regarding our place in this machine, our enabling of it, our abiding its trajectory.
And should we manage to shift our thinking and our perspective, should we “fiercely confront, challenge, and interrogate” our perception, should we “violently wrest” back control, and “forcefully, defiantly, and combatively” regain voice, will, and agency, then we might, collectively and universally build something new, worthy at this late stage in history to be labeled “civilization.” We might, at long last, create something we proudly define and defend as “culture.” We might endeavor the elaboration of something vibrant and ennobling, something qualified by the descriptor “dignity,” by the title: “humanity.”
~ Daniel Drennan
I would like to extend my gratitude to my colleague and comrade Tariq Mehmoud of the American University of Beirut whose invitation to speak at the AUB was also a “return” there for me as well. I am grateful to our talented “Malcolm X,” Jamal Awar, whose family has graciously welcomed me in and introduced me to what is likely extended family and my village in the mountains above Beirut. Most of all, I am indebted to the artists/members of Jamaa Al-Yad 23, whose unwavering commitment to our work provides a glimmer of hope in a stark, violent, and often hopeless world.
1. Nina Simone interview, INA television, France; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANTNiJ2zJlc
2. “The Black Power Era”; http://socialistworker.org/2011/10/25/black-power-era
3. Dignidad Rebelde, http://dignidadrebelde.com/
4. Juan Fuentes, http://juanrfuentes.com/
5. “Taller de Gráfica Popular”; http://www.docspopuli.org/articles/Bancroft/TGP.html
6. Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico; http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/HERELI.html
7. “Out of the Shadows”; http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/charleston/out-of-the-shadows/Event?oid=4088153
8. “A Black Panther in Beirut”, Daniel Drennan; http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/01/13/a-black-panther-in-beirut/
9. “Oscar Grant Murals in Downtown Oakland”; http://www.justseeds.org/blog/2010/07/oscar_grant_murals_in_downtown.html
10. “Guerrilla War in the USA”; https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/
11. “Political Illustration: Lebanon and Beyond”, Daniel Drennan; http://design-altruism-project.org/2011/12/07/political-illustration-lebanon-and-beyond/
12. “Narratives of Hope”; http://www.aub.edu.lb/Events/Pages/EventDetails.aspx?ItemId=1321
13. “Selma, Obama and the Colonization of Black Resistance”, Ajamu Baraka; http://www.ajamubaraka.com/selma-obama-and-the-colonization-of-black-resistance/
14. “Ferguson Spring”; http://rs21.org.uk/2015/04/04/ferguson-spring/
15. “Sacha Cohen and Arab Minstrelsy”, Daniel Drennan; http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/05/sacha-cohen-and-arab-minstrelsy/
16. “Malcolm X Speaks”, trailer; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOEcdkQkEEk
17. “Malcolm X: On the World Scene”; http://bronxjournal.com/2015/03/malcolm-x-on-the-world-scene/
18. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, Langston Hughes; http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm
19. “World racial [sic] day (Malcolm X)”; http://iranstamp.com/shop/year-1984/world-racial-day-malcolm-x-1984/prod_557.html?review=write
20. “Session Review: Heiner ‘Foucault and the Black Panthers’”; https://historicalgeographyglasgow.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/session-review-heiner-foucault-and-the-black-panthers/
21. Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies, bell hooks; http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415964807/
22. Islamic Liberation Theology: Resisting the Empire, Hamid Dabashi; http://www.hamiddabashi.com/islamic-liberation-theology-resisting-the-empire/
23. “Narratives of Hope Project”, Jamaa Al-Yad; http://www.jamaalyad.org/MAIN/PRJT/PRJT_MALCOLM-X/