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Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

Denzel Washington as Malcolm X

Every year, the memory of this day usually sucks.

The night before I went to Raleigh, North Carolina (for a Center for Teaching Quality board meeting), I went to my barbershop, where the guys played Malcolm X (the Spike Lee joint). I watch this movie almost annually, just to remind myself of the way this country still throws around the idea of an American dream, but always conveniently bury dissenters either physically or out of the zeitgeist in short order. The more promising the revolution, the quicker the silencing takes place.

Fast forward to today, where the definition of leadership in racially-marginalized communities have been diluted to a few pillars: MLK, Rosa, and Malcolm X. We can throw in Cesar Chavez for good measure, but the conversation doesn’t go too far from that. While many people yearn for those men as their leaders, their perception of what it takes to lead a people comes from a contrived martyrdom or, worse still, a legion of people who pick apart elements from men from the past and try to “update” the style in present-day form.

In other words, we got lots of copies, each of them charismatic as the next, but with little to no substance.

Except for the occasional Van Jones or NAACP President Ben Jealous, what we deem as black leadership may have the look of advocacy and critical thought, yet it lacks the people’s edge. Eddie S. Glaude explains:

All too often what stands in for the black intellectual these days are folks who can spin a phrase and offer a soundbite. The idea of the intellectual who reads widely and deeply and who critically engages the complexity of our times has been supplanted by the fast-talking “black Ph.D. pundit” who strives to be on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. This same pundit has found new career opportunities within universities and colleges by thinking about black people in ways that conform to the current liberal consensus about racial matters.

Ah. Well, as often as people get mesmerized by the speeches and pizzazz, they often allow these people to hurt our communities’ voice in the name of getting on mainstream media. Instead, I prefer we look at our leaders’ best asset: the ability to stand next to the next man and teach him how to lead as well, inspire them to be their better selves.

Malcolm did that. I’m usually not one to write on someone’s passing day, but I just had to put that out there.

Jose, by any means necessary …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Jose VilsonOn Leadership Through Teaching Others To Lead

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