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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3 Comments

  1. Posted April 5, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    For me, personally, it’s that I carry with me a lot of guilt and shame. I admit that I have made massive amounts of progress, but I don’t like looking back to see my prior ignorance.

    Or, to put it another way, I’ve kept a journal for the past ten years. I doubt I will ever read it.

  2. Posted April 5, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Malcolm X’s ability to publicly change his opinion and admit this was what I admired most about him after reading his autobiography. Well, maybe not most, because there were lots of things to admire, but I admired it a lot!

    As being a rather spoiled graduate student, with a supervisor who had incredible intellectual honesty, I learned the value of admitting your mistakes and how much it improves a learning environment. People feel more open to throw out ideas that aren’t fully formed and have them either strengthened or taken apart by a knowledgeable group of people. I see this as the scientific approach to knowledge (or at least how it should be in an ideal world, I know there are a lot of scientists without this same sense of intellectual honesty) and I wish more politicians would be able to change their ideas based on evidence. For example, it is really sad that the Pulbic option in health care wasn’t passed! What a great experiment that would have been. After a few years, there would be enough data to decide if the U.S. should have moved completely to a public system, or go back to their private system.

    If the world could learn from Malcolm X’s example about learning in public and admitting mistakes we would live in a much better place!

  3. Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    I found it very useful admitting that my old behavior, attitudes, and idea were wrong. How else would I learn. Learning is not always about expanding knowledge, but refining one’s old resolves. Trust me as male growing up in our sexist, misogynistic, and racist society, I have had to unpack a lot old ideas and be honest to find authenticity. That is why I chose to learn and identify myself as a pro-feminist (Kimmel). That is why I am now getting my undergrad in WMS. Unfortunately, honesty and admitting one’s wrongs does not make for a very viable political candidate.

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