May 19 marks the birthday of Malcolm X and Lorraine Hansberry, two of our most resonant voices of blackness and the fight for human rights. Both Malcolm and Lorraine departed from this world too soon; Malcolm was assassinated in Harlem at the age of 39 and Lorraine succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. Though their lives were short, their words illuminated the world and provided the groundwork for revolution.
Lorraine and Malcolm are inconvenient heroes. Both the mainstream media’s portrayal of X’s character and the lack of visibility of Hansberry’s voice are the product of people’s need to pick apart the legacies of icons to fit their own narratives. Their work did not allow much room for them to be co-opted. They were complicated and multifaceted figures whose commitment to upholding the boldness of blackness has pushed them to the margins of a narrative seeking to depict the movements associated with black arts and civil rights as docile, respectable, quietly resilient, and toothless.
Whites attack Malcolm X, perceiving him to be a racist, yet lift the names of this nation’s forefathers whose racist attitudes actually manifested into violence. Just as MLK's non-violent tactics are lauded while his radical views are buried by sanitized narratives which paint a hariographical picture of him, Malcolm's anti-white rhetoric is used t overshadow his great strides in the name of black unity and love as well as his rejection of Nation of Islam teachings in favor of more racially inclusive faith beliefs. Malcolm’s uncompromising love of blackness and unwillingness to delude and pander to whites prevents the modern white American from effectively using his voice as a tool to quell unrest and promote the idea of a post-racial society.
Hansberry’s womanhood, lesbianism, and romantic relationships with non-black partners all complicate our views of her blackness. Her assertive black voice alienates a very white feminist movement and her lack of complete transparency regarding her sexual identity – the subversion of that aspect of her identity was a product of the times in which she lived – is inconvenient for LGBT movements which often believe that full disclosure is the only effective way to live happily as a queer person. Hansberry was also an atheist in the midst of a movement which was strongly aligned with black religious institutions.
The words of Malcolm and Lorraine are as applicable today as they where when they were uttered more than half a century ago. Here are a few quotes which speak to today’s tense climate surrounding race relations and the continuing fight to end oppression:
On resistance in the form of violence:
“There is no such thing as a nonviolent revolution… Revolution is bloody, revolution is hostile, revolution… overturns and destroys everything that gets in its way.” – Malcolm X
“Take away the violence and who will hear the men of peace?” – Lorraine Hansberry
“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us, and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.” – Malcolm X
“I don't favor violence. If we could bring about recognition and respect of our people by peaceful means, well and good. Everybody would like to reach his objectives peacefully. But I'm also a realist. The only people in this country who are asked to be nonviolent are black people.” – Malcolm X
On the mistreatment and marginalization of women:
"If by some miracle women should not ever utter a single protest against their condition there would still exist among men those who could not endure in peace until her liberation had been achieved.” – Lorraine Hansberry
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.” – Malcolm X
“I have suspected for a good time that the homosexual in America would ultimately pay a price for the intellectual impoverishment of women. Men continue to mis-interpret the second-rate status of women as implying a privileged status for themselves; heterosexuals think the same way about homosexuals; gentiles about Jews; whites about blacks; haves about have-nots.” – Lorraine Hansberry
On black unrest being misrepresented as racism or hate for whites rather than a desire to be treated equally and justly:
"If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing." - Malcolm X
"Oh, dear God, why? Why do you need it so?! This absolute longing for my hatred! I shall be honest with you, Mr. Morris. I do not "hate" all white men -- but I desperately wish that I did. It would make everything infinitely easier! ... I would like to be simple-minded for you, but I cannot...” A quote from the character Tchembe in her 1970 play Les Blancs
"One of the worst categories to let them put you in is the category of racist. I’m not racist. I don’t judge a man because of his color. I get suspicious of a lot of them and cautious around a lot of them – from experience. Not because of their color, but because of what experience has taught me concerning their overall behavior toward us. So, please don’t ever go away saying that we are against people because of their color. We are against them because of what they do to us and because of what they do to others. All they have to do to get our good will is to show their good will and stop doing all those dirty things to our people." - Malcolm X
On Freedom and Patriotism:
"And as of today, if I am asked abroad if I am a free citizen of the United States of America, I must only say what is true: No." - Lorraine Hansberry
“You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” Malcolm X, "By Any Means Necessary"
On Unity and Love:
“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.” Malcolm X
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” Lorraine Hansberry
Today, we honor two brave soldiers. Malcolm and Lorraine were unafraid, unorthodox, fiercely devoted to truth. Brazen. Beautiful. Young, gifted, and black.