Black Power, Letters X and The Dream

Mark Zuckerberg recently posted a link to a girl's empowerment campaign. Called "Ban Bossy," the online initiative is spearheaded by Sheryl Sandberg and Lean In, and its goal is to end the practice of branding women and girls with damaging names like "bossy." I - somewhat snarkily - shared it as Shades of Malcolm X, Feminist Style. Current popular reference satire aside, there is a bigger point to this: the power of words - and their expectations - to coerce, to define, and then to dismiss real humans and their valid concerns as unserious, undeserving of attention. Words like these transform people into cut-outs. They shape them into two-dimensional stereotypes who should hold - silently - to their own sphere, either as angels in the houses or the happily exploited (or both). Feminism has been ham-strung fighting these stereotypes because it been presented as historically separate from racial justice movements, as if women's rights were a provenance of white women - and not just white women, but college educated, middle-and-upper class white women with powerful careers. There is a strange, uncomfortable vibe surrounding feminism that says: "Stay-at-home moms, working class women, African American women, Latino women, Native American women, Asian American women, this movement can be about you, but... Hey, you! White guy in the Birkenstocks! Did you know that men can be feminists, too?" This unfortunate tension has roots in the political battles after the Civil War between Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass arguing over the wording of the Fifteenth Amendment which granted men the right to vote regardless of race (Stanton and Anthony were arguing that educated, white women should be granted the franchise before uneducated, recently freed African American men). Liberty, and its presentation as a finite resource to be granted piecemeal to the deserving disenfranchised, separated this formidable Anti-Slavery coalition, and its descendants have awkwardly stumbled toward something resembling reconciliation ever since.

Recognizing the power of words like "bossy" and "ex" changes this equation. These words carry the negative connotation of the outsider, but whereas "bossy" brings to mind the misogynist stereotype of battle-ax feminists, the word "ex" is a word of individual empowerment. "Ex" signals a separation, a breach of the bond between individuals, or an individual and society. Society needs to maintain the status-quo: married people should always be married; certain people who look a certain way should always be relegated, unquestioningly, to certain types of professions; the earth should always be the center of the cosmos and inquiries into the time before creation (or if there even was a moment of creation) are nonexistent. In fact, society's association of the letter X with something distasteful is almost as old as the Catholic Church itself - institution still uses the ancient symbols of marriage and the chastisement of the threat of ex-communication as a means of maintaining authority. The roster of famous Catholic "exes" includes Martin Luther, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei, and (famously) England's King Henry VIII. Without the willingness of individuals to associate themselves with the letter X, we would not have modern science, the reformation or the assumption that national governments should be autonomous. Indeed, without the founding fathers "divorcing" themselves from the British Crown (....When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another) we wouldn't have a country, or at least we wouldn't have the country we have now. 

X as a marker of identity is a very powerful symbol. Malcolm X used the symbol purposefully to usurp his last name, one which he associated with a legacy of enslavement. Viewed as a radical, Malcolm X gave voice to the righteous anger that many African Americans felt after centuries of servitude and racial injustice. Martin Luther King, Jr. needed Malcolm X's vocal presence to remind skeptical whites of "the fierce urgency of now," that racial justice could not be held off for another generation, and that half-remedies and liberty in small parcels would not suffice. Malcolm X told Coretta Scott King, "I want Dr. King to know that I didn't come to Selma to make his job difficult. I really did come thinking I could make it easier." Dr. King, a master of public presence, signaled his agreement with this thinking in the famous photograph of the two of them standing together. Without a Malcolm X to argue against, King's goals would have been much harder to realize. The legacy of Malcolm X continues to play a needed role in moving society closer to brotherhood, justice, dignity, reconciliation - The Dream. 

Women are labeled many things. In business I was called many names, including "pushy" and "the mouth." Women - and men - who leave their spouses carry an X of societal expectations, of being unwanted, unloved, lonely. People excommunicated from religious organizations are seen as dangerous, barred from paradise, worthy of pity (or of deserving a death so violent that it will force them to change their minds before they expire). None of these caricatures is accurate. All of them are harmful. All of them place society's status-quo above individual truth and happiness. All of them contribute to a system of injustice, and all of them should end.