Independence Day 2000. I again found myself feeling, well, sand-in-my-shorts-esque about taking a day of to honor American "Independence". The irony
saps my enthusiasm.
Family members having other plans, I had the day to myself to spend on myself. Casting about for something to do that would let me nurse my oncoming cold but honor the day appropriately, I found our family copy of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X."
Ahhh…now I could set back and get in touch with the sand in my shorts.
My personal connection between the story of Malcolm X and Independence Day goes back to my Jewish upbringing (for the record I became a Baha'i in 1981). You see, each year we would gather at the home of my favorite courtesy Aunt for a tasty, traditional Seder (Passover dinner/Service). The Haggadah was the book that guided us through our Passover Seders. I found this book delightful, mystical, and full of good information about life, being human (as in "good ideas how to") and empathy. Each course of the Seder dinner is symbolic of events/conditions surrounding the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt. For example, bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery in Egypt. These are dipped in salt water (the tears of suffering ancestors), then eaten. Apples and walnuts finely chopped and mixed with sweet Passover wine represent the mortar mixed by the Hebrew slaves for Egyptian Construction Industry. (No disrespect to the symbolism, but this was quite tasty and always one of my favorites. If you managed to serve yourself enough, you could even become slightly tipsy. This was difficult to do because there was always some grown-up hovering about to say, "Don't eat to much, you could become slightly tipsy.") Matzoh (flat cracker-like bread) represents the unleavened bread carried out of Egypt by the fleeing Hebrews, who, due to the Pharoah's inability to stick to a decision, could not afford to wait around for the bread to rise.
Now, all through the dinner, an extra place setting (including a full glass of wine) remained on the table for the possible coming of Elijah (whose return was supposed to herald the coming of the Messiah). (Note: Additional plates were also to be set for any needy soul who might appear in need of a meal. The needy, however, never showed up, I think because they were not provided with directions).
These Passover dinners each year were an emotional and spiritual highlight for me. They helped lay foundation for several epiphanies I would be fortunate to suffer. Two items from the Seder in particular were responsible.
Item 1: In the midst of this dinner/service, a riddle was posed. This riddle asked, of four examples given, which was the least desirable of sons: The Lazy Son, the Wicked Son, the Simple Son, or the Son Who Knows Not How To Ask (questions). The answer: the Son Who Knows Not How To Ask. (Eager to be a good "Son," I raised many, many questions. My family, sadly, was unable to appreciate my efforts. God, on the other hand, was most responsive.)
Item 2: At the back of the Haggadah, on a page all its own were the words (I paraphrase from memory), "Let us remember that until all men are free, no one is free." At the end of the Seder dinner I would read these words and my heart would swell with love, empathy, and purpose. I have to note here that, some years later the copies of Haggadah we had been using became dog-eared, and were replaced with a newer version. This version did not contain the "Let us remember…" phrase at the back. I was very hurt to learn that this had not been an actual part of the text, but a addition made by the editors of the older Haggadah. This made me sad, but no less confirmed in the sentiment or the archetype behind the sentiment.
Anyway, before you say, "This is all very nice, but what has this to do with Malcolm X; he wasn't Jewish," you must know that my formative years at the Seder table occurred through the 60's. While I was at my Aunt's table dipping bitter herbs in tears, I was also full of images from our family TV and Life magazine of Freedom Riders, beautiful brave souls marching on Washington, riots, billy-clubs, church bombings…you get the picture. Through these images I learned that my beloved Seder had a living parallel in the voices ringing out through the TV. I also had (at age eleven) visited (family in) the South and witnessed that old-time southern style of Jim Crow racism (scary). And of course, there was always our California Casual racism right here at home (no less scary.) So I listened and the voices of the past rang out to join the voices of the present and I heard no difference in their singing.
One clear voice ringing out was Malcolm X. His journey, bitter as any Hebrew slave's, gave power to this voice. His words, even when still couched in Nation of Islam philosophy, seared through years and layers of deliberate ignorance to open new paths of understanding for those who Knew How To Ask.
His words in response to President Kennedy's assassination, "The chickens have come home to roost," " were crystal clear with sharp edge of truth and he was greatly maligned for this statement. But it was pure truth. Chickens werecoming home to roost, as they have continued to throughout the 20th and now into the 21st century. These chickens Good Brother Malcolm spoke of looked a lot like Pharoah's chickens coming home at the time of Exodus. With child's eyes I gazed at Malcolm's (television-beamed image), and felt the edge of truth.
Almost four decades later and I still feel that edge as I look around me. I see American Corporate interests trading away human beings for profit lines. Neighborly folks in my neighborhood complain of, "Those damn immigrants winning our lotteries, taking our jobs, not speaking English." California votes out Affirmative Action, votes in Three Strikes. Education gets bottom dollar, prisons get top. Gays get beaten for walking down the street. If you're a young black man you still might get dragged down a country road tied to the back of a truck. (And forget about hailing a cab.) Thousands and thousands of young minds are not being nurtured and educated to fulfill their potential, because we fail to act on the truth that any mind wasted is everyone's loss. We think our children are shooting each other because of the music they listen to, instead of ackowledging their madness as a real, but terrible reaction the underlying madness of our (American Cultural) failure to heal.
I see these things, I hear these things, and the words "Independence Day" sit like bitter herbs on my tongue.