Lessons from Malcolm on learning in public

There’s been a lot of talk about Malcolm X this week, in no small part because a critical biography was just released that includes new information about his life and death, written by the amazing Dr. Manning Marable, who tragically died just three days before his long labored-over book was published. Dr. Marable was actually my professor for Introduction to African American Studies as an  undergrad; he was a charismatic and committed teacher, the kind who always had time for students and I’m deeply grateful to have known him.

When I think of Malcolm and his legacy, one of the most salient parts of his leadership is his capacity to change and grow in public. Unlike so many of the political and movement leaders of today, Malcolm’s consciousness was continually evolving through out his lifetime and he seemed all but fearless in conveying that to his fans and detractors, alike. It’s honest. It’s real. And it’s all too rare in a world where too many so-called leaders act as if they were born knowing all the right answers and never make a mistake or seek out information that might overturn their predetermined position.

It’s not just big moneyed flip-floppers and right wing pundits in this static, party line game. I see this at play in feminism, and particularly in the feminist blogosphere, as well. Too often, it seems as if we are all trying to avoid admitting that we are continuously evolving in our ideas, beliefs, and behaviors. In part, I believe this stems from our own insecurities; we’re opining against big patriarchal forces and don’t want to get caught in any confusions. I also believe that the oversureness of many of us is a result of our own internal culture, where there is sometimes an insidery vibe that tells beginners that they don’t belong and pressures veterans into presenting as if they are resolute about what is right regarding every single feminist issue under the sun.

I’ve certainly learned a lot since I began blogging a few years ago. I’ve learned about disability rights. I’ve learned a lot about the nuances of acknowledging and trying to leverage my own privilege. I’ve had the opportunity to hear many more experiences from folks who are rejecting gender binaries, pushing me to look at my own gender expression more closely and understand some of the broader political implications better. Right now, I am learning a lot more about sex work, sex trafficking, and the whole range of ancillary issues.

My privilege actually protects me, in a sense; with a fancy degree and white skin, mainstream culture would expect me to be knowledgable, so I have more room to admit when I’m not. Still, I don’t find a lot of women, even with my kind of privilege, taking the risk of admitting that they don’t know or even that they were wrong about something.

Malcolm didn’t have my luxuries, by any stretch of the imagination, and he still modeled learning in public. In a sense, he risked his life, not just for justice, but to be authentic. I aspire to be like that. I think all of us who are earnestly trying to push the feminist movement forward should re-examine the importance of being honest about our own learning.

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