by Randall Auxier
This woman is many things to the people in her life, but I want to write about some things she isn’t. For the record, I don’t know her name. I know only that she is from Bangladesh –assuming the website has this right (which is not a safe approach to interpreting the interwebs, I suppose, but not much depends on it in this case).
This woman is probably not wealthy. I read a little while back that the average household, worldwide, lives on the equivalent of $2200 per year. That was given as the average. The poverty line in the USA is several multiples above that amount. We call our luxury poverty? Well, relatively, perhaps. Half the people in Bangladesh live on less than the equivalent of $520 per year, and 37% of the population lives under what even Bangladeshis call their own “poverty line,” and they aren’t among the poorest nations in the world.
What we mean by “rich” or “poor” has to be adjusted for context, but, suffice to say, taking a cab in from Washington Heights to lower Manhattan would probably cost this woman half a year’s income, so I think she won’t be doing that. It isn’t easy to navigate that trip. When Dorothy tried it in The Wiz, she wound up in Oz (which is hard to distinguish from Midtown Manhattan). I love this interpretation of Oz, but as down home as that story is, it still assumes a certain kind of privilege. Diana Ross’s version of Dorothy is, well, quite wealthy –having home, hearth, position, and means. An independent, fully employed, African American professional woman is powerful beyond imagining compared to the woman in this picture, and that power isn’t due to Lena Horne’s singing. It’s about money, opportunity, and location, location, location.
This woman is also not young, but if she had taken that taxi when she was about 20 years old, she would have passed by Lenox Avenue and West 116th Street where a building formerly called Temple Number Seven is still located. This was the Mosque of the Nation of Islam led by Malcolm X, and the site of some of the most spectacular public speaking of the 20th century. The subject matter of his speeches was unfamiliar to most, but our young rider might have overheard the term “white devils” as she passed.
White folks usually don’t care for the phrase “white devils,” or for the accompanying suggestion that they lack souls. Some dismiss it as hate speech, others think it is just rhetorical hyperbole. I think that for most of his religious life, Malcolm X believed it literally and I think he struggled on occasion, and a great deal in his last two years, with finding anything like a human soul in the members of the white race. But what is a soul? What endangers it?
People of a secular, modern temperament try to find the sense in old fashioned religious language by bringing in “common sense,” as they understand it. So they say that Minister Malcolm “really means” that the historical capacity for “man’s inhumanity to man” is prevalent in European endeavors of the last half millennium. Fair enough, but it’s an understatement, is it not? Two World Wars and a Cold War, with hundreds of millions slaughtered, brought to you by white folks (mostly). And that’s just the 20th century, and only the highlights.
When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Gandhi reportedly said “I think it would be a good idea.” Before our taxicab rider turned 30, she would see some three million of her countrymen die in a post-colonial war traceable to the British partition of India. A similarly brutal war was fought between Iraq and Iran ten years after that and due to the aftermath of European colonial ambitions and failures. It would be impossible to estimate how many people died in the 20th century because of messes left by Europeans all over the world. Impossible. And yet I know it could be a billion human lives. Or more. This was the aftermath of the European desire to dominate the world. They enslaved or subdued most of the world, killed each other by the hundreds of millions, destroyed almost every indigenous culture and ancient social structure, and left the world in shambles, fighting deadly civil wars and wars of conquest. Vietnam had an especially nasty post-colonial war, as I recall, and the war in Korea possibly isn’t over.
So: What does a group of people (white people, for instance) have to do to provide evidence of diabolical origins? Is it so crazy to begin to wonder whether there might be something deeply wrong with, well, white people? Why can’t they have the decency, at least, just to murder each other and leave the rest of the world out of it? It seems like a reasonable question. When you add in such historical matters as the slave trade, and its human costs, and when you become aware that this bunch of humans has constructed itself as “white” so as to have a label to unify all these activities as the necessary progress of humanity, I wonder that the burden of proof doesn’t shift to the white folks to prove that they really do have souls.
Our Bangladeshi woman is, thus, also not white. That means she has a very high likelihood of being excluded, by practice and sometimes by law, from numerous opportunities and privileges she might have had, especially in Malcolm X’s day, but even very much in our own day. And she is not male. And she is not an American. I think that if there is a fair response to the strident criticisms of white devils by Malcolm X, it would involve, after some study and some soul searching (irony intended), apologies and reparations and a commitment among the privileged white people in the present to join the struggle against white privilege. But I don’t see any of that happening on a wide scale. I see a lot of people learning from an early age how not to notice their privilege and power, and I among them. I don’t know what to say to this woman, but I am genuinely appalled at what people like me have done and continue to do to people like her. The colonial wars are winding down, but I don’t think the white folks are even aware that they are responsible, and thus, no lesson learned.
If Malcolm X has an Achilles heel, however, this woman might point out to him that although he is black, he is also a man and an American (however much he may have hated the latter). There is privilege there, too, even if it is not the fullest sort claimed by some. These young men, however, have every advantage. Oddly, they agree with Malcolm X on a number of crucial points. That is my next topic.