Leaving Things Up To God: On Community Activism and Education [#NN12 Reflection]

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Netroots Nation 2012 in Providence, RI as a panelist for “Education as a Right-Wing Wedge Issue” featuring Sabrina Stevens, Martha Infante, and Karran Harper Royal. While on the train towards the festivities, I came across a passage in my current book Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, and it continues to shake so much of what I believed about Malcolm. Marable posthumously thumbs his nose at so-called Malcolm scholars, but, more importantly, he inspires us to think of Malcolm’s life in layers and not one of strict demigod orthodoxy.

In light of this weekend’s events, I was particularly struck by the following passage. To give some content, one of Malcolm X’s good friends in Los Angeles had been shot to death by police officers, bringing the discussion of whether Malcolm should retaliate politically or not to the fore of the organization.

<quote>At heart, the disagreement between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad went deeper than the practical question of how to respond to the Los Angeles police assault. Almost from the moment Muhammad had been informed about the raid and Stokes’ death, he viewed the tragedy as stemming from a lack of courage by Mosque No. 27’s members. “Every one of the Muslims should have died,” he was reported to have said, “before they allowed an aggressor to come into their mosque.” Muhammad believed Stokes had died from weakness, because he had attempted to surrender to the police. Malcolm could hardly stomach such an idea, but having submitted to the Messenger’s authority, he repeated the arguments as his own inside Mosque No. 7. James 67x listened as Malcolm told the congregation, “We are not Christians(s). We are not to turn the other cheek, but the laborers [NOI members] have gotten so comfortable that in dealing with the devil they will submit to hum … If a blow is struck against you, fight back.” The brothers in the Los Angeles mosque who resisted had lived. Roland Stokes submitted and was killed.

Some of Malcolm’s closest associates were persuaded that Elijah Muhammad had made the correct decision, at least on the issue of retaliation. Benjamin 2X Goodman, for one, would later declare, “Mr. Muhammad said, ‘All in good time’ … and he was right. The police were ready. It would have been a trap.” But Malcolm himself was humiliated by the NOI’s failure to defend its own members. Everything that he had experienced over the previous years – from mobilizing thousands in the streets around Hinton’s beating in 1957 to working with Philip Randolph to build a local black united front in 1961 – 62 – told him that the Nation could protect its members only though joint action with civil rights organizations an other religious groups. One could not simply leave everything to Allah.

The last line particularly struck me. Smacked me ’til my cheek swelled, even. In many of our jobs, we’re often asked to take on tasks and do things completely against our core values. We often use cognitive dissonance to persuade ourselves against our true nature. We say we’re doing it for the kids when, often, we’re doing it to make sure we can teach another day. We bite our tongue at the exorbitant amounts of testing pushed upon our students’ desks because we’ve convinced ourselves that these methods are the only ways the state will let us advance our students to the next level. We keep our mouths shut at the racists who say only effort matter and show disrespect towards parents who can’t be there for their kids because they’re actually working. We focus intently on our lesson plans, sure, but sometimes we forget that we teach to students not to the curriculum.

As my snickers have gotten louder and my head has shaken more vigorously, I needed an oasis to lodge these concerns, not as complaints but as points by which to connect educators and citizens across the nation around these central ideas. For this weekend, that was Netroots Nation. How often do we get the privilege to come together with people already doing some of this work and with people with a similar, hopeful progressive vision and at least lay a foundation for making something happen?

Instead of keeping quiet, I’ve rededicated myself to that voice, having clarity in thought and mind about these things, and speaking up in ways people can understand. We can no longer wait for others to come and lead us because, as it turns out, those people are not too far away from you and me. The conversation needs as much “leader and follower” bits as “can we work together on these things” bits. If we can coalesce around a few tenets, then we can make a huge difference.

Education is political, and asking for us to strictly focus on content belies the true nature of the beast. We cannot leave it up to our chosen divinity for such things. Surely.

Jose, who is thanking Sabrina Stevens for the umpteenth time here …