On Malcolm X And The Importance of Public Opinion

Jose Vilson Jose

Malcolm X, "Our Freedom Can't Wait!"

For the last few days, some of my fellow math teachers and I have been grading the NYS math test in an elementary school in Harlem. It’s been great because I get to wake up at 7 instead of 6 and still get to “work” on time. Yet, the warmer weather and my natural inquisitiveness has also sent me traversing my relatively new neighborhood in search of the best slices of this proud Black Mecca.

I walked up to 125th Street on Thursday when I noticed that almost every business (save a nationally recognized bank) had closed their doors from 1pm – 4pm. At first, my fellow math teachers and I were shocked; we weren’t used to the tradition for a man so many Americans malign. Yet, I grinned as I walked past the Rapture prophets, sneakerheads lining up in front of the House of Hoops store, and the mystics selling their oils and scents. While gentrification slices through Harlem like a blunt letter opener, the people still remember the contributions of an absolute legend.

This coincided with the premiere of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, a movie created under the Grassroots Education Movement umbrella (shout-outs to Norm and Julie) about the facts portrayed in Waiting for Superman. Fellow teacher-blogger BNiche and I had a discussion after the movie about the next “leader” of this movement. We both came to a point where we asked if that person had to be a teacher, or someone who works in education directly.

Naturally, people would point to the luminary Diane Ravitch, who offers her opinion on the state of education early and often, but we also wondered if the person could be or should be someone from the K – 12 arena. Then, I thought out loud, “Well, the powerful thing that people never discuss about Malcolm, Martin, or any of the other giants of the civil rights movement is that they had the opportunity to be so outspoken because they were publicly financed. Their congregations and followers supported most of their moves, made sure they were taken care of, and thus, assured that the message of their leaders wasn’t compromised.

As it turns out, almost every teacher I know doesn’t get hired for their personal opinions; they generally get hired to teach. Sorry for stating the obvious, but teachers who speak up do so at their own peril. Any monies they garner from books, speaking engagements, after-school tutoring, or ads on their website (if they get one or any of these) are minimal compared to their already undermining teacher salaries. Granted, I consider the average experienced teacher very opinionated about education, but there’s a point where many miss the opportunity to take action and become fatalistic about the state of education.

Frankly, that goes for many of us. And if we’re not afraid of losing our jobs because of our opinions, we’re afraid because schools are closing, our opinions aren’t being heard … our kids are failing. We keep putting scotch tape on cement cracks, hoping no one runs over the pot holes. Malcolm X knew that more than anyone, and that’s why people followed him. He voiced the opinions of the voiceless in ways many couldn’t, and acted out these values in ways few others did.

By the time 4pm came around, and Harlem businesses reopened, some of us kept the spirit of Malcolm going.

Jose, who wants a seat at the table to dine …