On Malcolm X, Resilience, and Education
“I am a man who believed that I died 20 years ago,” Malcolm X told reporters, “and I live like a man who is dead already, I have no fear whatsoever of anybody or anything.”
My college prep English teacher Ms. LaMay exposed me to Malcolm X’s biography, as told by Alex Haley. That summer, she related his story to Paul Freire’s pedagogical theory, that reading the word precedes reading the world, and that we may not understand ourselves if we don’t read the world.
I was astonished that Malcolm X’s father was murdered when he was a young child, which led to his mother’s mental illness, separation with his siblings, and his journey to various foster homes. Even though he abused drugs and committed burglaries, he eventually taught himself how to read and write while in a prison cell, using the corridor’s light during “lights out.” Even though he only had up to an 8th grade education, he became an articulate revolutionary. His narrative exemplified my personal mantra that literacy is indeed an uplifting tool. His narrative also made me wish I grew up in the 60’s, standing alongside revolutionaries, fighting for rights at the risk of death.
As a former student of Literature at UC San Diego, I have consumed many stories, and I would consider Malcolm X’s life story to be one of the most inspiring ones, alongside Elaine Brown’s “A Taste of Power” and Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” simply because all these figures did the unthinkable. Malcolm X’s story continually speaks to me because I tremendously admire the ways in which he broke through with resilience and practiced self-literacy.
Growing up in East Oakland and attending underfunded Oakland public schools was paradoxical to studying at a rigorous university, living in the comfortable suburbs of La Jolla. I felt like I was straddling a tight rope between my worlds: the ghetto and academia. I would often think of home and the youth of Oakland, for whom mere survival is an accomplishment, and the havens of academia are out of the question.
As a an undergraduate, I sought out as many tutoring, mentoring and teaching assistant opportunities as I could, so that I could prepare myself to be an educator, to one day pitch the appeal of a college education to inner-city high school youth.
Therefore, it saddens me that efforts like Ella Baker Center’s Books Not Bars campaign isn't seen as plain common sense to our government. Currently, the state spends about $179,000 per year to house each inmate. Yet, the Governor's new budget will only charge counties $25,000 per juvenile they commit to the DJJ. While this incentive may slightly decrease the number of youth who end up in the DJJ prisons, it's not enough to truly mitigate the harm of this abusive system.
And at the same time, more and more dollars are being cut from our state's higher education programs. Sumayyah Waheed notes that the message to families has become: California cannot provide affordable colleges and universities, but will still pay over $160,000 per youth in prison.
The scariest statistic of all is that while the U.S. comprises 5% of the world’s population, we hold 25% of world prisoners. Michelle Alexander relates this this fact to how there are more African-American men in prison or jail than were enslaved in 1850. Granted, we are more populous of a country than before, but these figures are still mind-blowing, considering we are supposed to be the most economically powerful country.
I don’t have the solutions to the gravity of these statistics and issues, but Malcolm X’s fearless spirit has always given me courage to fight. When UCSD experienced a racial crisis (“Compton Cookout”) in 2010, I recall stepping up to the microphone during a protest, which involved over 200 students and faculty rallying by the Chancellor’s Complex. I asked, “Are we willing to do work for a struggle, even if we may never reap or see the benefits of our results during our life time?”
Thus, I write today to not only acknowledge the birth date of one of my most respected revolutionaries, Malcolm X, but to remind us that the work of social justice is never ending. It takes commitment and perseverance, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. I learned that from Malcolm X, and strive to honor his legacy by never giving up.
Thoai Lu is a member of the Ella's Voice Editorial Board who works by day as a non-profit administrative assistant. She served as an editorial intern with Colorlines and is an Oakland native who graduated from the University of California-San Diego.
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