Malcolm X and James Baldwin Debate
Vivian: I’d very much for Larry to tell us a couple of stories that really bring us back to the connection between our subversive-ness and orthodoxy. So take it away! Let it rip my friend!
Larry Inchausti: Okay, well it is a great honor to close – I really am apologizing for following the agenda but…
Vivian: I already admitted to being a totalitarian.
Larry Inchausti: When we were planning this, the debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin came up (1963) came up. What you had were these two giants that stood for two very different approaches. They had total respect for one another, and yet total disagreement with one another, had a public debate for two hours. You can get that debate on YouTube now; you can listen to it, so if you ever want a great powerful experience listen to that debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin.
So I am going to end with a little bit of that debate because it deals with what we are dealing with here, you know, your relationship, your history, and your time; how you understand yourself… what you call yourself. But before I get there, there’s another story I wanted to tell first, because to me it summarizes everything in the world, and it only takes 5 minutes to say. (Laughter) And it wasn’t on the agenda, but I wanted to get it out on the table because – And it’s not actually a true story, it is part of my misinterpretation of a movie that… A French film that I mistranslate because I don’t believe the subtitles, because I know what it really says (Laughter)… so I wanted to tell you this one.
Jean Luc Godard in the 60’s was a French experimental film maker who made a movie called Alphaville, and it is based on a science fiction novel In this world, the world has been taken over by a super computer. So everybody is 24/7. Everything they do every day is controlled and directed by a super computer, except for one guy, and his name is Lemmy Caution. He drives around a Ford Falcon, and he is a cross between Humphrey Bogart and Albert Camus. (Laughter) He is allowed to do whatever he wants to do, because he is the last free man. The only thing that he has to do is he has to come in for interrogations on Friday. So he comes in for these interrogations and the computer asks him questions, and he answers in lines from modernist poetry. So the computer says: “Where were you last week?” and Lemmy says: “I’ve been scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” And the computer goes BEEP, BEEP, and what were you doing there? He says: “Who would hear me among the angelic orders if I cried?” The computer does the same thing and says: “What are you going to do next week?” He says: “I’m going to go out where the stars are spread across the sky like a patient etherized upon a table.” The computer does its little beep and then Lemmy says: “You know you have been interrogating me now for three years; you will never understand me, why don’t you let me go?” And the computer says: “You underestimate artificial intelligence; I’ve cataloged and decoded 20,000 of your stupid metaphors, how many more do you got?” And then Lemmy says: “Well if you really understood metaphor, you know that metaphors are not meant to be decoded. Metaphors are an expression of freedom and language. Once you understand that language is about the expression of freedom, and not about power and control, you will cease being a machine, and you will become a human being. And then you will let me go.” And the computer says: “See you next Friday.” (Laughter)
And it seems to me that is part of where we are in a conversation between the people who want to be machines and the machines that want to be people, and the – Do we want to learn how to talk in ways that the machine can understand, or do we want to talk in ways that make the machine human? Do we let the machine interpret the meaning of our metaphors or do we hold on to the freedom of our self-expression? That problem was raised by that movie and I thought it showed great genius to leave it unresolved. Are you going to come back next week with a living metaphor, or are you going to say: “You got me.” Well okay that was the Alphaville story that I think summarizes my existence, having talked to computers my whole life.
The Great Debate
I wanted to tell you about this debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin and it speaks to the Robben Island story, so it is wonderfully fortuitous. Some of you might have heard that debate, and one of the interesting things about that debate was Malcolm X was a very controversial figure, and you can imagine 1963. One of the Things Malcolm X was famous for was unlike Martin Luther King who had made a vow of non-violence to which James Baldwin was committed. Malcolm X’s slogan was: “By any means necessary.” This meant that he was not necessarily going to hold back violence if that is what it took to liberate the country, and his name Malcolm X… The X stood for X- The unknown because his history had been stolen from him.
So part of his presentation was until I have a history, I’m not going to call myself by my slave name. Until I find out my true name, and my true name has been hidden from me and history, and I might eventually have to go back to Africa to find my name and find out who I was. Of course James Baldwin was using Baldwin as his last name and he was one of the most famous writers in America at that time and one of the most famous spokesmen that tried to bridge the divide between races in the early 60’s. Malcolm X went right at him and said, you know, how can I talk to a man who still has a slave name? Then just went at Baldwin for the introduction, about how could he not realize that he had to change his name and enter into the struggle for revolution. Then Baldwin says – And it was often celebrated when that debate came out that Malcolm X had sort of eviscerated James Baldwin. Now you listen to that tape and its Baldwin’s reply that seems at least to me, more powerful.
I’m going to try to keep it together here because… I don’t want to be sentimental, because he certainly wasn’t sentimental in his answer. So after he is done, Baldwin says, well you’re right you know, Baldwin is the name of my white great grandfather, slave owner, who raped my great grandmother, and that is my history, I want to keep it, and I want to remember it, and I don’t want to mark it out. But you have got to go back to prison and be liberated, and you can’t just make it out of your history and substitute politics for it. That’s why I’m here talking to you Malcolm. And so that’s what I think we are doing here, you know we are kind of struggling with rejections, with history, the cases we make against people, and the cases we make against and for ourselves and then ask ourselves is it even possible to exit out? Or do we have to tell the more inclusive story that we haven’t had the imagination yet to grasp, and that is what community reminds us of. You know, you left out my part of your story.
I think one of the lines Baldwin said in that debate that I always remembered, he said: “My struggle with history is to figure out how my specialness connects me with other people, not how my specialness isolates me.”….. “My struggle with history is to figure out how my specialness connects me with other people, not how my specialness isolates me.” And that I think is a great way of conceiving how community empowers individuals, and how individuals find themselves in community. So that’s my two cents at the close. I think that the final reflection that – Vivian maybe can articulate it better than I can, but I think it has something to do with this, with both of those stories in terms of language and naming and the freedom to make your words mean what your words mean, not what – How the computer defines it or the history has told you it means.
So that’s it. James Baldwin, and that debate you can – You know I was looking for that debate online because I was sure that somebody had printed it out because I wanted to see the language written. – Now we are in the new media age, so you have to, you just have to watch it or listen to the whole thing (Laughter) So you can’t go and find the line you know? And I didn’t have the time to watch the entire thing… I think it goes on for 2 hours. It is incredibly powerful, and it is not only because the issues are so emotional and powerful, it is because both of those guys had so much respect for the other, it was kind of like Ward was saying that kids tried to do when they interviewed people on their trip, was show respect for the person that you are disagreeing with, and give them the chance to come back and explain themselves. That is really modeled well in that debate, and the response to that debate was another classic example of rejections, people pick sides. You know, and said Malcolm won that one, or Baldwin won that one, when in fact the truth was the shadow was being taken off both, so you could see the real intelligence of the humanity of both men.