A Review of Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention”

Manning’s Invention, or, Malcolm’s Reinvention?

Manning Marable’s “Malcolm X” is an adroit craftsperson: an artisan who is skilled at undergoing perpetual “reinventions.” Marable’s thesis, in his now widely discussed and contested Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, is grounded in the proposition that “self-invention was an effective way for [Malcolm] to reach the most marginalized sectors of the black community giving justification to their hopes.” According to Marable, Malcolm’s travels (between his pasts and futures) and travails (to define his self and his politics) in a raced, classed, irreligious (read, anti-Islamic) and imperialist American (and, later, international) context were driven largely by his desire to engage in the process of relentless reinvention: a process of continual, purposeful becomings, not necessarily for himself, but for the “black community” that would eventually claim him as its “Prince.”

Marable’s biography, flowing from this idea, recreates the sometimes tragic, and, mostly gallant, life and death of a martyr who dies for a cause—for others—but also a radical (and complicated) freedom fighter who dies also to his “self” and volition. Malcolm, via Marable, is caricatured as a “social being”—only imagined within the context of his beingness-in-relation-to the larger societal context where there exists a need for a salvific protagonist of the burgeoning black radical tradition and villainous antithesis to the very ideas of the presumed democratic tradition of white racist (and liberalist) America. But, as Baldwin illumines when writing about Richard Wright’s Native Son in his essay “Many Thousand Gone”: “the reality of a man as a social being is not his only reality and that artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings solely in social terms” (emphasis added). Marable, who was committed to the task of a historian as opposed to fiction writer, develops a narrative that refuses to allow space for Malcolm X the “human being” who exists without the ostensible proclivity towards “self-reinventions” that benefit others while only tangentially benefiting the human actor himself.

One must, then, interrogate the argument that is weaved into the narrative arc that directs Marable’s historical analysis of Malcolm X the “social being.” If the argument goes that Malcolm’s life “narrative is a brilliant series of reinventions,” as Marable suggests, then it would follow that Malcolm Little/Detroit Red/Big Red/Malcolm X/Malik Shabazz/El-Hajj Malik Shabazz were merely iterations along a continuum of perpetual and purposeful becomings, which were driven by external forces only, rather than the living-into, or, rather, states of beings that emerge and re-emerge as a result of the contextual life spaces and experiences that propel any human being toward self-motivated (and sometimes unmethodical) change. The former is a sign of a tragic life while the latter opens up the possibility for life’s complex beauty.

So, was the life of Malcolm X one defined by reinventions (for the sake of everyone but himself) or was Malcolm X delimited by Marable’s drive to invent a Malcolm X whose propensity manifested towards such desires? And, did such a desire impact the Malcolm X that the reader is left to grapple with? Even if one is not sure of that answer, s/he should read Marable’s work with that question in mind or otherwise s/he might find him/herself guilty of submitting to a politicized historiography of a sociopolitical Malcolm X that fails to fully capture the human being who just happened to be, like all of us, social and political.

Bryan Epps on the NPS Advisory Board’s Vote on New School Options

Jeffries reacts to the states decision to supersede the school board’s vote. 
“I understand the district and state have decided to continue with the proposed new schools for the coming school year despite the board’s vote opposing them. 
I have been clear that I profoundly disagree with the board majority’s decision to oppose all of the new schools, as several of the new schools quite clearly would benefit our kids, and that standard — and that standard alone — should motivate all of the district’s decision-making.
It is also the case that I believe the vote of multiple board members was manipulated by external political brokers motivated by self-interest, rather than the best interests of our Newark children. However, self-determination is the essence of democracy, and state takeover — or at least the indefinite takeover Newark has experienced — is anti-democratic. I am a strong proponent of community-based education reform, which requires decision-making authority to rest with the parents and community of Newark. So, even though I deeply oppose the board majority’s decision to reject all of the schools, the remedy for bad decision-making by local officials is to convince them they are wrong or to elect replacements, not to have their decisions superseded by state actors.” Shavar Jeffries from his Press Release on April 9, 2011.

It’s the system… stupid 
Institutions that aspire to provide people with the right of education and equitable access to all the resources needed to obtain knowledge should consistently assess their impact.  With this said the Newark Public Schools (NPS) and its Advisory Board (AB) should use recent events as an opportunity for growth.  
NPS as a notional model for constructive community based involvement:
Newark can be described as a city of revolution. A place that enthusiastically participated in the nation’s struggle for independence, in the country’s economically based industrial revolution, in the world’s revolution to uplift the marginalized and reassign influence to the disempowered, etc. This is at least part of the city’s history and equally relevant its present landscape. It is my opinion that the school system and its leadership did not appropriate the needed level of regard to this fact during the process to develop premium choices for Newark parents and students. Newark should have one of the most developed systems for community input and democratically determined policy. However conflict regarding outreach and relationships persistently plague all sectors of the City.  The institution with the primary task to educate people can also be a center for which people educate and inform institutions. 
The AB has the opportunity to reassess its impact and engage underprivileged community members to ensure all parents and students have premium choices:
Shavar’s response above indicates the breakdown of a board and its chair (I know because I have experienced this first hand). A board chair should be the voice of unity for his/her board’s decisions not the voice of dissention. The recent vote of the AB is confusing and as a result it is not hard to understand why the State would overrule the vote of a board in frenzy. Shavar himself a lawyer by training, voted against two schools, one of them being a high school designed to encourage students to be civically engaged. Named after a murdered  lesbian identified Newark teenager the school is in keeping with the city’s history of revolution  and ensures safety for some young people who, though provided equal protection under the law due to their identity, still experience bullying and physical attack.  It is clear that the school board is out of touch with best practices and marginalized groups. The school board needs to evaluate its voice in the city.

bryan m-c epps

twitter: @policyepps

5 considerations by 2 writers: on collaboration in newark

Newark, not unlike other urban centers in our present moment, is in the midst of incessant change across many areas. However, education reform seems to be taking center stage. For example, some warn that the education reform agenda and community engagement initiative (PENewark) steered by Mayor Booker’s office will bring about a disastrous end, while others who support and applaud the efforts are fueled by the hope that a city-wide conversation will spark the construction of a world-class educational system in Newark. Indeed, there have been vitriolic disagreements between citizens…standoffs between organizers…finger pointing, blaming, debasing and public shaming all in the name of education reform. Visions are spoken of and strategies imagined, but how might they be actualized in the midst of snappish tension? Change is used as a rhetorical strategy, but how can change be made real unless the boundaries that turn friends into enemies are demolished? It seems, at least to us, that the ends (broader visions) often look the same (namely, the shaping of a stellar, cutting-edge public educational system in Newark that shapes every student into a globally-aware, socially responsible citizen of our tomorrow) but the means (the strategies) that Newark must engage such that our vision(s) can be actualized are often very different. Herein lies our issue: one can argue, quite persuasively for example, that a good reform strategy that may work, say, in New York City, might not be the best for, say, the South Ward of Newark. We get that! But, what are the rules of engagement that might make room for constructive collaboration, discussion and, even, debate that result in shared-work and vision? Moreover, how can we do the work of reform and activism with a shared sense of purpose, that is, a desire for the best for our youth, in ways that does not derail the aim of community-building and solidarity? Below, we offer five considerations that may useful guide posts for our journey.

1.  Know and name the “real” enemy. Too often we point the finger at the wrong people and not the institutions, ideologies, systems and particular leaders that support dangerous strategies. Each of us maintains a particular analysis, and even politic, regarding education reform. For example, charter schools may be seen by some as a neoliberal tool used to further privatization and others may see charter schools as experimental public school models that might serve as laboratories for testing innovative curriculum, pedagogical practices, extended day learning projects, etc.  If you believe charter schools to be more of a problem than a solution, it may be very easy to lump all charter school leaders or components into a singular category of “enemy” without regard for the particularities that shapes individuals’ commitments, politics or education philosophies. On the contrary, if you believe that all (or even most) traditional public schools in Newark fail our youth, it may be the case that you see traditional public school advocates as menaces as opposed to friends. Either way, the contentious stance maintained by both sides creates the opportunity for a certain (dis)solution of community rather than a space wherein all can come together, in a unified spirit of concern for our students, our youth. And, when that happens, we make ourselves the enemy of cooperation.

2. Transparency is our friend: Reform of public systems does not take root when practices include back door dealing, lack robust competitiveness and systems of accountability. In Newark, it can seem efficient to do business through the “traditional handshake”. Yet, projects desiring to create real transformation deserve the influence of method and due process. When business transactions have implications for the public-at-large, leaders must be proactive about 1) vetting potential ideas over a “significant” amount of time before stakeholders (both field experts and community members) 2) sharing the responsibility of implementation (i.e. the person with the idea need not solely control the resources or execution plan) 3) developing a system of accountability that is shared with the public (let the public know how you target goals, empower the public with tools to track/monitor evolution of projects and share conclusions to help provide lessons for  the future).

3. Realize that “parents” don’t always know best and that the “children” too have voices. Often, community members can be heard referring to the “elders” in our community or can be heard making references to “up and coming”, “emerging”, “new”, and “young” leaders.  And, we should note: there are lots to learn from the wise…from those with an array of life experiences…from our elders! But, it is also the case that one’s status as an elder should not predicate the ignoring of the voices of the “young”. In addition, if we are use to the same rhetorical line of thinking, might it also be said that parents can also be wrong? Now, is it the responsibility of emerging (or new?) leaders to attend to the advice of those who have come before? Yes! Emerging leaders should ensure that our elders are at various tables, if nothing else, and to ensure that they are sought out for their advice. The moment, however, when relationships are wrongly ordered based on ideas like “the young should listen while the elders talk” or “elders should move out of the way and allow the young to exercise their autonomy” is the moment when barriers are built that prevent collaboration. The best collaboration is fashioned when the table is set for equals and not hierarchized.

4. Defamation won’t get us to the destination.  Let’s get right to the point: disagreeing with a person because of his/her positions is one thing, purposefully destroying the character of that same person is another. It is possible that folk can disagree without having to malign another, without having to smirk at another’s seeming downfall, without having to participate in the public shaming of another…to wish the worse for another. Social change requires a certain change in the change agent…that change typically tends toward justice and not the reverse.

5.  History is our best teacher. What didn’t you like about leaders from the past? What don’t you like about your peers? …don’t do those things, don’t be that person!  Create an environment that includes people and written policies that regulate your actions and the dealings of people on your team.

darnell moore and bryan epps

Op-Ed: Newark and the Politics of Fear

Written by: Taquan Williams, Newark Resident

A couple of weeks ago, I received an “IMPORTANT WARNING” from the Newark Firefighters and Fire Officers Unions. It read: “this warning goes out to all home-owners, residents, children, employees, students and anyone else who may enter the City of Newark for any reason.” It goes on to state that Mayor Booker’s proposed layoffs “will lead to death, injury and the unnecessary spread of fire!”

Then, while driving up Clinton Avenue for my weekly haircut, I noticed an ad commissioned by the Newark FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) that read: “Welcome to Newark. Stop Laying Off Cops.” The ad also used the city’s skyline as the backdrop with a strip of red crime scene tape to invoke images of crime and death.

Both public relations campaigns reminded me of the tragic, attention-seeking “Help Wanted Stop the Killings in Newark Now” signs that the Newark Teachers Union (NTU), another deep-pocketed union in Newark. The NUT strategically purchased ad space near all of the Newark’s major highways and high-traffic areas in 2007. The signs garnered national attention because they played into the perception that Newark is a city being overrun by thugs and criminals.

However, this is nothing new. For decades, we have seen this narrative play out over and over again, with little change to the playbook. From the late night Jay Leno jokes of the 80’s, to the movies like New Jersey Drive (1995) to Conan O’Brien’s recent faux-battle with Mayor Booker.

Long before the 1988 U.S. Presidential Election, we have seen the “Willie Horton-ization” of Newark.  The only thing new about this strategy, is that it is being adopted by the very groups that have taken an oath to “serve and protect.” As someone that takes great pride in Newark’s rich history and its promising future, the current actions of the Newark Police and Fire Unions only do harm to Newark’s already fragile reputation and economic recovery.

We are in tough economic times; the worst since the Great Depression. Let me repeat: the worst since the Great Depression. While I’ve disagreed with Mayor Booker on minor issues, I don’t think he is left with many options in order to close the current budget gap.

Instead of invoking and provoking fear in the hearts of “home-owners, residents, children, employees, students and anyone else who may enter the City of Newark for any reason,” we should collectively come together to try to the share the pain that this recession has caused us to endure.

While I do believe that both organizations are well within their First Amendment rights, these scare tactics are antithetical to the oaths that each officer and firefighter are sworn to uphold.  In sum, they only perpetuate the myth that Newark is a dangerous and unlivable city. To me, it seems as if both unions have lost confidence in their own abilities to fight crime and keep residents and visitors safe. Going forward, I hope Newarkers loudly reject these fear campaigns. They only do harm to our great city.

On Newark Public Libraries: From the mouths of 1 adult and 2 babes

This morning I decided to make a brief stop at City Hall in support of the Newark Public Library (NPL). With no fiscal relief in sight, Newark is poised to witness the closure of some branches and a decrease in operational hours at others. While I am no expert in municipal budgeting and am the first to admit that there’s much that I still don’t know about the severity of Newark’s budgetary woes, I am often alarmed when indispensable and critical services are sacrificed as a means of repair.

Newark is among many locales across the country where the budgets of public libraries are on the chopping block. Earlier this year the Boston Public Library closed 4 of its 26 branches, Los Angeles has critically reduced its hours of operations and Camden, New Jersey, was set to close its entire public library system before it was rescued by the county arm. In Newark, pundits may argue that reductions are consistent across all City of Newark departments and that NPL should proactively respond to cuts accordingly.  Yet, as a proponent of the NPL system in specific, and public libraries in general, I argue for an approach to budgeting that contextualizes reductions based on services rendered through various departments. In other words, should the administration force all departments to make reductions based on a fixed-percentage or should certain departments, based on services rendered, be asked to make provisional cuts set specifically for that department? I defer to the advice of fiscal experts in that regard…but, what I do know is this: I have personally benefited from the free internet access made available in public libraries…I have personally benefited from the access provided to books and other cataloged materials, including films and historical archives, made available in public libraries…research papers as a high school student were completed because of access to public libraries…resumes written as a college student and grad were completed because of access to public libraries…as a child growing up in Camden, NJ I found safety and enjoyment during out-of-school-time in the public library. Now, more than ever, our residents need the public library for some of the same reasons.

Ironically, as I was walked to work after spending a few moments in front of City Hall marveling at folk who had staged a 24-hour reading I walked by two young sisters. As I hurried by, an older woman who apparently had a relationship with them asked, “…Where are y’all going?”

“To the library,” they replied gleefully.

I walked pondering the irony and decided to stop to talk with them for a bit.  Check out the video.

Listening to the two young people gave me pause for reflection. Hope it does the same for you!

peace, darnell

Newark’s Great Debaters

Those who have seen the movie “The Great Debaters,” witnessed a profound and uplifting narrative about students at a small historically black college in Texas who become champion debaters in the 1930’s Jim Crow South.   Based on a true story, the film’s emotional power lies in the extraordinary sense of nobility of spirit represented by the struggle of those young debaters to smash racial barriers and triumph as “competitors of the mind.”

Fast forward to August 2010, when I had the privilege of experiencing that nobility of spirit first hand during a visit to the White House with a 17 year old debater from University High School in Newark, who was being recognized by President Obama as one of the top winners of this year’s NY Chase Urban Debate National Championships.  The student, Shagun Kukreja, a member of the Jersey Urban Debate League (JUDL), joined three other high school debaters and tournament winners (from Atlanta and Chicago) in a historic Oval Office chat with President Obama.  A little background –Debate in Newark originated at Science High School more than two decades ago and was the brain child of long time educator and science teacher Brent Farrand, who today leads the JUDL.   The victories of the JUDL team – regionally and nationally, beating the best and most well financed teams in the country, has been no less than spectacular.

Never before had the White House invited high school debaters from the nation’s urban communities. The wonder and excitement of this moment for these four students reminded me of the scene in the great debaters where the students enter into the hollowed buildings at Harvard for the climactic debate.  It was and will forever be a special moment for all of us, as it revealed that real life can be even more dramatic than a Hollywood movie.

The D.C. visit by Shagun and her colleagues included a flurry of meetings with senators and congressional representatives, including our own Congressman Donald Payne and Senator Frank Lautenberg.  Several were former debaters.  In these meetings, each of the debaters distinguished themselves as incredibly smart, confident, articulate and poised. Indeed, they engaged Obama with such ease and comfortability that even he seemed amazed.  It wasn’t that they used elegant rhetoric, but rather, that they exhibited overwhelming command of the facts and an ability to speak on topic clearly and concisely.  I wished every resident of Newark and New Jersey could have listened to Shagun talk with the President and answer his questions about her winning arguments in the national tournament. This is what the debate experience at Newark schools is doing for young people.  It is turning them into confident advocates, who spend many hours after school to research, develop and debate national policy proposals and to compete with the best young debaters in the country.

Singularly, the reason is JUDL.   Spreading the gospel of debate, JUDL is serving more than 600 students in Newark in more than 20 middle and high schools.  Debate has even moved into the elementary schools.  More than 94% of JUDL debaters graduate high school and attend four year colleges with more than 75% earning college degrees.  JUDL has even been triumphant in getting young people in gangs to turn their lives around as a result of their debate experience.  Moreover, hundreds of our former debaters are now leading citizens in the public and private arenas, serving as lawyers, teachers, managers, elected officials, CEO’s and administrators.  Some former debaters have come back to Newark to be public leaders, like Roger Leone, former principal of University High school and now Deputy Chief Academic Officer with the Newark Public Schools or Jonathan Alston, a former champion debater who teaches at Science High School and coaches for JUDL.

Evaluation and assessment reports on debate programs have demonstrated that they lead to a measurable increase of GPA in middle schools, a dramatic increase in reading scores, and improved student conduct.  More than 150 colleges and universities across the country actively recruit urban debaters and many offer four year debate scholarships.  Imagine the change in norms of academic excellence as debaters develop and use critical thinking skills in the classroom.  Imagine the benefit to the school, to parents, and to the city of having graduation high school rates above 90% (national average is only 72%).  And imagine the benefit to the community economically and socially when more students graduate on time and engage in productive activity.

Thankfully, JUDL’s sponsors and supporters understand that debate is more than a scholastic sport; rather, it is an educational experience that teaches young people the skills that lead to critical thinking, intellectual confidence, excellent oral communication, and public leadership.  Indeed, Debate is so successful in Newark that it should become a critical component of the sweeping educational reforms underway.

Let me close with a story which I often tell because it makes my point about the need to illuminate the talent and abilities of our Newark students. Several years ago, while at a Rutgers college fair, one of the Newark JUDL debaters, approached the Rutgers table to ask about the University.  I began to sing Rutgers’ praises and the benefits of living on campus when she suddenly said, “I’m a debater and I need to be challenged.  I am not sure that Rutgers could provide me with the rigor that I need to feel challenged as a student.” There was an embarrassing silence. It’s unusual for me, or to be sure, most lawyers, to become speechless.  However, this might have been the only moment in my life where I can remember being struck silent.  Why?  Not because I didn’t expect a Newark student to so boldly present her intellectual persona, or to be as fiercely confident in her abilities, or to challenge the legitimacy of the academy to train and educate her.  In fact, I was somewhat amused and impressed at the hint of intellectual arrogance.

Rather, it was that after all of my years as a supporter of debate in Newark, this was the first time that I really understood its transforming power.   Communication is, I would argue, at the very heart of what it means to be a human being.  Debate provides our children with this precious resource in order that they might not only persevere but triumph.  It is my belief that Debate is the best investment we can make in our children. It may indeed save our schools.

If you haven’t yet seen the great debaters, you can rent it on DVD and revel in its storytelling.  But if you want to see great debaters live and in living color, check out the Jersey Urban Debate League  (www.judl.org).

(Marcia Brown, Esq. serves as board member of JUDL and is Vice Chancellor at Rutgers University – Newark.  She has been a debate advocate and supporter since 1988 when her daughter was a debater at science High School.)

Reprinted with permission.