Friday, June 10, 2011

Creating a Self

It's been years since I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but after reading reviews of Manning Marable's recent biography on Malcolm, I'm itching to read both Marable's book and reread Alex Haley's classic.

When I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was 19, fresh from my first year at college, which had included two semesters of African American lit. We had read excerpts from the autobiography, and after a school year immersed in fascinating, fantastic writing by some timeless authors—Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B DuBois, and Gwedolyn Brooks, to name a handful—I was hugely geeked out and excited to read more about Malcolm X.

Nothing like some "light" summer reading: Much of my reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X took place on a hotel balcony at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina. My dad and I, in what now seems like a mildly crazy moment of mourning and nostalgia, had decided to take the trip, just the two of us, that summer. It was the first summer after my mom had died, and I was living back at home with Dad during my break from school. Things were rough. Often, I felt like my dad and I were tiptoeing around each other at home, not quite sure how to communicate with each other, unsure of how to navigate our grief together, simply not quite sure about anything, really. At least, that's how I felt. I can't speak for him, but I do like to think we were in it together.

So off we went to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It was where our family had spent every summer vacation of my childhood. I remember vividly one of the last years there, I was in my awkward prepubescent stage—I wore a bikini for the first time, and although my boobs had yet to make their grand appearance, it was the first year that, as my mom and I combed the beach looking for seashells on long walks, I noticed attention from the opposite sex. It was a startling and revelatory moment, and my mom loved pointing it out and teasing me any time it happened. Back in the safety of our beach chairs, I hid behind my books and worried endlessly about my bushy eyebrows and mustache as my mom curled her toes contentedly in the sand next to me.

Although our family trips to Wrightsville Beach held countless other memories than just those "Mom" specific ones, being back there with my dad, still feeling so fresh from losing her, those were the only ones I could think of. I tried to put on a brave face and not show him how painful it was to be there, at the same place, even the same hotel, where so many happy times had taken place. I thought of my mom sitting in her flowered robe and matching pajamas on the hotel balcony, of how she always managed to find the prettiest shells when we walked along the beach, and of how the one time, she got so furious with my dad on the way there when he wouldn't stop as soon she wanted so we could go pee.

Ultimately, it was a time in my life when I felt lost. I wasn't sure how to navigate a life where I no longer had a mother. Although I was at least aware enough to realize how lucky I was to have my dad, I'd never really felt close to him in the same way I had toward my mother. She and I had developed this special bond that felt like a secret, of sorts—no one else was allowed in. So I sat on the hotel balcony and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the complete opposite of the notion of "beach" reading. (Of course, I also read Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume, for the millionth time that trip. It is quintessential beach reading. And life reading. Go read it.)

While I sat on the balcony and read, my dad was just inside, reading A Prayer for Owen Meany. I have no idea why I remember the book he was reading, but I do remember feeling, as we read, together but apart, a comforted, soothing feeling. Maybe it was the late afternoon sun and the sound of the waves, but I like to think it was because in a way, Mom was there with us, reading.

Malcolm X fascinated me. I was constantly surprised or shocked by his history, his actions, his words. I'd call in to my dad: "Dad! Did you know that Malcolm X…" My dad was a good sport. Even if he couldn't have cared less, I would never have known.

Whenever I think about Malcolm X now, I think about that vacation. I feel slightly silly that I can remember the act of reading the autobiography more than the actual book itself, but when I read this article in The New Yorker, I felt like I was reading it again. I'm most struck by Obama's take on him:

After Barack Obama was inaugurated, he returned to the British government a bust of Winston Churchill that was on display in the Oval Office and installed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is rightly regarded as the singular hero of the era that lasted from the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1955, to his death, in April, 1968. Malcolm was an electrifying spokesman for black dignity and selfhood, a radical prod to the mainstream movement, but his role in the civil-rights movement was marginal.

Yet, when Obama was young and trying to come to terms with his own identity, he read the autobiography and it affected him more deeply than even the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In balmy Hawaii, at the most prestigious private school west of the Rockies, Obama found something in the narrative of a man who was also of mixed race, had lost his father, and needed to create a self. “His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me,” Obama wrote of Malcolm in “Dreams from My Father.” “The blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will.” Obama, who adored his white mother and grandparents, was disturbed by Malcolm’s desire to “expunge” the white blood in him. What he admired was the book’s depiction of Malcolm’s redemptive journey and his redemptive, universalist final year.

“I was never taken with some of his theorizing,” Obama told me last year. “I think that what Malcolm X did, though, was to tap into a long-running tradition within the African-American community, which is that, at certain moments, it’s important for African-Americans to assert their manhood, their worth. . . . That affirmation that I am a man, I am worth something, I think was important. And I think Malcolm X probably captured that better than anybody.”

I'm sure it doesn't need to be said that, as a white woman, I can't connect with Malcolm X in the same way our President did. However, like Obama, I also admired and was most struck by "Malcolm’s redemptive journey and his redemptive, universalist final year"—it made his death all the more tragic. What I love most, though, is how Obama connected with the need to create a self, writing in his memoir, "His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me."

Repeated acts of self-creation. It's such a brave notion, isn't it?

I'd like to think, though, that as I read my paperback book on that hotel balcony back in 2003, that I was doing exactly that: creating a new self. It was not one I'd imagined, hoped, or planned for, but that didn't make it all bad. Once I was a girl who shared a special, secret bond and friendship with her mother, and then, as I called to my dad excitedly with factoids about Malcolm X, I was forging a new self, one who was building a new, different, but equally special bond with her father.

We didn't talk about it, but as we read together, both of us were practicing bravery. Sure, it was a bit of a front for each other's benefit, but the idea was: Everything was going to be okay, because it had to be okay. And while I was creating a new self by bonding with my dad, he was doing the same. Only his act of self-creation was even greater—after 25 years, he had to create a self without his wife. He had to become both father and mother for his 19-year-old daughter. 

Amid all the reading in those days in North Carolina, Dad and I also went fishing on the pier and took a long walk down the beach together. When we returned to our spot on the beach, he cracked open a can of Miller High Life. After a quiet moment, he pulled another one out of the cooler and handed it to me.

It was one of the best first sips of a beer I've ever had.

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