Why We Fail: Forgetting Malcolm and Martin’s Internationalism

Weary Self-Portrait 2

“Weary Self-Portrait 2” (Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.)

by Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

As bad as things are in the USA—in particular, the killing of a young Black man named Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri—what we Black Americans are enduring is “a cakewalk” by comparison to some of the tragedies that are currently taking place in India, parts of Africa, Iraq, Israel, and so many other places around the world.  Yet, our current Black leadership has been conspicuously silent on so many of these international matters, including the excessive policies of Israel against an already displaced Palestinian people.  Yet, Arab, Jewish, African, and African American women found enough of a unified voice to write a statement of solidarity with the Palestinian people.  I wonder why they could do it, but not our elected officials.  These women understand an important component of previous human rights struggles—including the Civil Rights and Freedom struggles that took place during the 1950s well into the 1970s in the United States—the international component.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X always placed Black American freedom struggles in an international context.  If you do not believe me, then read or listen to Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” and listen to him rattle off the names of those nations and peoples that too many of us frequently ignore.  Listen to King speak poetically and prophetically against the Vietnam War.  These are only a few examples, often scary examples.  Yet, there are many others.

What happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is going to resonate with other people in other parts of the world.  When we lost Trayvon Martin, you found people across the globe putting on “hoodies” in solidarity.  And, if it were not for the women of Nigeria taking full advantage of social media, most of us would never have known anything about the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls, who have still not been returned to their families.  Yet, when was the last time you saw a massive movement of Black Americans speaking out against and lending assistance to anyone outside of the USA.  Arguably, there has been no massive international activity on OUR part, at least not since the zenith of an internationally led movement that demanded that colleges and businesses divest from South Africa in protest of the country’s brutal and virulent social system known as apartheid, and that was in the late 1970s into the 1980s.

The question is when are we going to get our international legs back, and stop looking at what and who we are as if we are isolated in one country called the United States.  Does it not matter that two teenage Indian girls were gang-raped, and then lynched just a few months ago in Bengal, India?  Does it not matter that several hundred Nigerian girls were kidnapped and—sorry to say this—will probably never return to their families?  Does it not matter that former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stayed on top of the problem in Nigeria and spoken out about this problem of female trafficking in Nigeria and elsewhere, and more often than many Black American politicians and self-appointed pundits?  You are damned right it matters.

I can count on one of my former English professors to regularly post articles and his own occasional eloquent outbursts on his page on Facebook about many of the atrocities that happen to women worldwide and, also what happens to Black Americans—He, however, was born in Pakistan.  The Executive Director of Greenpeace International was born and raised in South Africa, and spent his teenage years in the anti-Apartheid movement.  He regularly articulates how women’s oppression, the problems with the environment and human rights struggles are tied together.  I knew something had become completely out-of-whack when the only men I could count on—with any real regularity—to lend their voices and support against sexism were men of color who were also NON-American.  The difference is, they can and do connect the dots and see environmental problems, discrimination and the persecution of women, and battles to end racism and/or ethnic violence as connected problems in ways that so many Americans simply do not.  Yet, a few Black Americans do connect the dots, but they are not part of what is traditional Black leadership, which is a good thing.

Ron Davis, the father of Jordan Davis—the Black teenage boy that was killed in Florida when a man shot into his vehicle over a quarrel about loud music—took his complaint about the senseless murders and expendability of young Black men to Geneva, Switzerland at the 85th annual meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  The talks in Geneva run from August 11 through August 29, 2014. This was a bold move by Mr. Davis, but proof positive that he was paying attention in the sixties and seventies when international opinion about the United States government’s slow response to discrimination and racial virulence damaged the USA’s image abroad.  Both Mr. Davis and the women of all colors and nations who signed that Solidarity Pledge fully understand what Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to teach.  We can hope that some citizens in Ferguson, Missouri are paying attention.

Now, thinking internationally or being concerned with tragedies or the well-being of people outside of the United States will not stop police officers from killing unarmed Black male teenagers.  My interest and sadness over the senseless gang rape and lynching of two teenage girls in India several months ago will not stop the rape and abuse of women anywhere, neither will my continued anguish over the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria.  Yet, to be a Black woman born and raised in the American South is to understand that racism and sexism come from all quarters of the country of my birth, and indeed all quarters of the world itself.

To fail to see the connections I have with peoples who may or may not speak my language or belong to the same racial and/or ethnic and/or gender group is to forget the real lessons of the Civil Rights Movement—that WE are not alone if WE will simply acknowledge that WE need allies, and international allies at that.  Yet, WE will be alone if WE operate from the position that people in other parts of the world do not have anything to teach us.  WE cannot afford to function from the position that because WE dwell in the United States that no one else’s problems or persecution matters as much as ours matter.  If WE do, WE will have missed Martin and Malcolm’s most important lesson, namely that if WE labor alone, WE, and everybody else, will lose.

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

CCThis Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen & is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

A Dred Scott Moment About Trayvon Martin

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

For even the worst student of American History, the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford remains one of the easiest to remember.  Many historians believe that this legal drama led to the American Civil War in 1860.  In fact, the name “Dred Scott” conjures up that infamous statement by U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced “Tawney”)*, who ruled that, Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Anyone can use the name “Dred Scott” as a search term on the Internet and find hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts, including reproductions of the legal documents used in this tragic and pivotal court case.  If you need to read a quick summary of it, click here: Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857).

Visit any online bookstore, public or university library and you will find dozens of books on the subject.  There have even been a few fictionalized accounts of his life.  Yet, in the main, the textbook story about him is largely about the case he and his wife ultimately lost when the United States Supreme Court ruled against them in 1857 after this couple had trudged through eleven long years of litigation.  Yet, in spite of the notoriety of this Supreme Court ruling, information about Dred and Harriet Scott as individuals remains largely and primarily the interest of the serious historian or legal scholar.

Some extensive book accounts about the Scott family note certain characteristics of Dred Scott’s personality and his limitations (e.g. Like most slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, he was illiterate).  The textbook and encyclopedia accounts, however, stick to the main facts in the legal case.  Most people forget (or never knew) that after the Supreme Court ruled against him, Taylor Blow (a member of a family that once owned Scott) purchased him and set him free.  Yet, Scott only lived another year and four months—dead by May of 1858.  Even worse, his grave only received an “official marker” some ninety-nine years later when Blow’s granddaughter purchased one for his grave in 1957.**

I bring up these lesser known facts about Scott to make a point about this issue of “individuals,” and to highlight some real limitations often found in history, social commentary, and performance and visual arts—namely, that the human beings at the center of a storm often become transformed into causes, into ideas, into legends.  As much as we all need causes, great ideas and legends, there is the risk of losing the individual.  This is particularly true of the late Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman who is, at the time of this writing, about to stand trial for his murder.  I need not retell the details about the death of Martin here.  You can read my early commentary about this tragedy by reading the blogs in my Blog Archive.  I only ask you to remember a few things.

For the public, particularly the African-American public, Trayvon Martin is another painful reminder of this nation’s history of judicial and social obstruction and neglect; and a long and painful history of racially motivated violence.  With his face emblazoned on T-Shirts, special photos, and artwork, we do not really know who Trayvon Martin was as an individual save for what he now symbolizes to us in death.  We also do not really know Zimmerman, but he too is also now a symbol—Depending on which side you are on he is either the personification of the horrors that acute racist profiling can produce or he is a symbol of every person who ever shot someone in self-defense who was unjustly accused of murder.  Yet, neither Trayvon Martin (nor Zimmerman, for that matter) exists in their parents, extended family and friends’ memories in this manner.

Martin’s Mom and Dad remember his first baby steps, his first words, and yes, even the first time they scolded him.  They will remember birthdays and Christmases.  They will remember his favorite foods, TV shows, toys and gadgets.  They will recall his smiles and his mischief; and they will inevitably remember the first time he got into some potentially serious trouble—he was, after all, an adolescent at the time of his death.  Anyone with a teenager knows that those years are difficult precisely because the child is making that awkward transition from child into adult.  Martin might symbolize a lot to all of us, but he ultimately belonged to his mother and father.

I will not make any predictions about the trial of George Zimmerman.  I can only say that for Trayvon Martin’s parents in particular, this case is not just about fighting for the noble cause of ending racially motivated violence.  It is also and primarily about finding some sense of justice and closure for the loss of their son.  Yet, we must admit that with the passage of time, how most of us will eventually remember Trayvon Martin could easily mirror the way most of us remember Dred Scott.  Those of us who read about him in history classes know that we studied more about the political and social significance of the court case than we ever studied or knew about Dred Scott as a man, a husband and father.  We know even less about his wife Harriet Scott, an often forgotten and overlooked actor in this pivotal litigation.  Years after Zimmerman’s murder trial is over, no matter the outcome, Trayvon Martin’s parents WILL NOT see him as “that case about the Black boy who was wearing a hoodie, who got killed in Sanford, Florida,” but rather as their son who they lost too soon—It is this fact that we, the public, will too soon forget.  Yet, it is this fact that I hope we will somehow struggle to always remember.

Trayvon Martin’s Father Remembers

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

*          Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 379.

**         New York Times,  “Honor For Dred Scott:  Granddaughter of Man Who Freed Slave Places Marker,” 26 July 1957.

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