Race Matters
Fredrick Barton

In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., specified that his hopes for racial justice and equality included those that "my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Sadly, daily newspaper headlines remind us that in the 90s we remain at least as obsessed by skin color as we were three decades ago. The Los Angeles policemen who were video-taped beating Rodney King are found not guilty by an all-white jury. A month ago in my hometown of New Orleans, a white barge captain who admitted throwing three black stowaways overboard is found not guilty of homicide by an all-white jury. Jurors defend their decision explaining that no proof exists the victims actually died.

But racial animosity, of course, runs in both directions. Black jurors return not-guilty verdicts for the black rioters who beat white truck driver Reginald Denney. In her race for a seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court, black candidate Bernette Johnson dismisses white candidate Miriam Waltzer's life-long advocacy for and activity in civil rights as a "lie" because Waltzer had the gall to run for office in a black majority district. Dr. King dreamt of a world where race doesn't matter, but the fact is that race matters very much, today, perhaps more than ever.

Years ago, radical Baptist preacher and civil rights activist Will D. Campbell rather disingenuously explained his urgency in achieving racial justice by saying that he wanted white people to even up with black people before black people gave up on white people. Whether or not it's fair to say that black people have given up on white people, it's certainly true that contemporary American society simmers with black anger. Two recent films illustrate manifestations of this rage: Spike Lee's Malcolm X, available on video, and Stephen Gyllenhaal's Losing Isaiah, now playing the nation's movie theaters.

Malcolm X forthrightly invokes the Rodney King incident in its opening. An American flag flutters in the breeze, and behind it we see scenes of the horrific beating King endures by a gang of Los Angeles policemen. The flag ignites and flames down into the shape of an X. The message is clear: the America of the 90s still burns with racial hostility. And the proper response to that racial enmity lies in the life story and teachings of a charismatic black leader who died three decades ago. I couldn't agree more with the premise of this opening. There are sundry lessons to be learned from the fascinating, mercurial life Malcolm X lived from his birth in 1925 till his death less than 40 years later. And many of those lessons are captured in this fervently-made, brilliantly-acted film. In the final analysis, though, the Malcolm X depicted in the frames of this movie is a man less inspiring than the one who emerges in the pages of The Autobiography of Malcolm X upon which the film is based. The movie Malcolm has been spiked with the filmmaker's own angry vision, and in so doing Lee has robbed his story of what should have been a knockout emotional punch for a much larger and more mixed-race audience.

Malcolm Little was the seventh child of a black preacher who was murdered by a white racist mob. Malcolm's mother never recovered from her husband's death and finally had to be institutionalized. Thus, Malcolm grew up in a series of foster homes in and around East Lansing, Michigan. He was a bright child, regularly earning the highest marks in his class, and he was popular enough with his mostly white schoolmates that they elected him president of his seventh grade class. In the eighth grade, though, Malcolm ran into the high wall of white racism when an adored English teacher told him that his ambition to be a lawyer was unrealistic "for a nigger." Devastated, Malcolm dropped out of school and moved to live with a sister in Boston. He drifted through a series of menial jobs, spending all of his money on fancy zoot suits and "conk" treatments to straighten his kinky reddish hair. After a time he became a stereotypical street hustler, running numbers, pimping, selling and using dope. Eventually, he ran a burglary ring. Finally, he was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was 21 years old.

In prison Malcolm was so bitter and violent the other inmates called him Satan. But encouraged by his younger brother Reginald, Malcolm converted to the then-little-known teachings of Elijah Muhammad and joined the Nation of Islam. Equally important, Malcolm began an incredibly rigorous program of self-education, copying the entire dictionary in long hand to improve his vocabulary, devoting himself to a regimen of reading that exhausted the non-fiction collection in the prison library and resulted in the horn-rimmed glasses which became his trademark.

Malcolm was released from prison in 1952 and devoted the next decade of his life to working for the Nation of Islam, ultimately as its Harlem-based "National Minister." Under his leadership the Nation of Islam grew from about 400 when he joined to about 40,000 by 1963. The Nation of Islam taught that Allah had selected Elijah Muhammad as his earthly spokesman, that black people were the first and chosen children of God and that "devil" whites were created through the genetic engineering of a mad scientist named Mr. Yacub. Replacing his "slave name," Little, with an X, Malcolm preached this racist gospel for eleven years, adding to it his own aggressive concern about the economic, social and political subjugation of America's black multitudes. While Martin Luther King invoked Christian courage and a strategy of civil disobedience in his efforts to overturn Jim Crow laws in the nascent cities and hamlets of the South, Malcolm X encouraged racial pride, self-help and a defiant posture of self-defense in the Northern urban ghettos. As early as 1961 Malcolm began to grow frustrated by Elijah Muhammad's reluctance to allow the Nation of Islam a more active role in the civil rights movement. Not long later, Malcolm suffered a major crisis of faith when he discovered Muhammad's sexual transgressions with two young secretaries. Finally Muhammad "silenced" his National Minister and in 1964 banished him. Malcolm responded by forming an Islamic organization of his own. Freed from the ideological trappings of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm immediately showed a more open attitude toward whites, and after a pilgrimage to Mecca declared his belief in interracial human brotherhood. Infuriated, three of his former Black Muslim brothers gunned him down during a 1965 speech.

Spike Lee's film depicts most of these events, some slightly altered for the sake of narrative smoothness. The scene in Malcolm's eighth-grade classroom needs a little more preparation and breathing space to achieve the heartbreak it attains in the book. Eliminating Malcolm's siblings as characters was probably necessary for reasons of time, but the disappearance of Reginald, who recruited Malcolm for the Nation of Islam and broke with Muhammad years before Malcolm did, robs the film of one of The Autobiography's most ironic and wrenching passages. The film captures the jazzy allure of Lindyhopping> black nightlife in the 1940s with terrific energy and style. In terms of production values Malcolm X is sheer visual majesty. Best of all, Malcolm X establishes its protagonist's incredible charisma, his righteous anger, indelible charm and depth of compassion. The gifted Denzel Washington's lead performance is mesmerizing and unforgettable.

Where Malcolm X falls short is in Lee's refusal to let the Malcolm of 1964-65 really show the extent to which his heart had grown to embrace people of whatever racial stripe. The picture acknowledges this final change by including a speech in which Malcolm says, "In the past I have indicted white people who did not deserve it." But the film doesn't give the change nearly the emphasis that Malcolm himself gives it in his autobiography. Two omissions illustrate my point. During his career with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was approached by a white girl after a speech on her Ivy League campus. She was deeply moved and asked Malcolm what could she do to help. Coldly, Malcolm stared her down and told her in a single word: "Nothing." Lee includes this scene in his movie, and it elicited whoops and applause in the audience with which I saw the film. In the closing pages of his book, however, Malcolm recalls that incident with regret. He says he wishes he knew the girl's name and her phone number or her address so he could call or write to apologize and tell her that indeed there were things she could do to help.

Comparably, Lee draws Malcolm X to a close with Nelson Mandela standing in a South Africa classroom reading one of Malcolm's speeches. Mandela refused to read the speech's fiery end, however, and Lee cuts to documentary footage of an angry Malcolm declaring his intent to achieve human rights for black people "by any means necessary." In contrast, days before his death Malcolm reflected on the "sickness and madness" of his days with the Nation of Islam and said, "I'm glad to be free of them. It's time for martyrs now. And if I'm to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood. That's the only thing that can save this country. I've learned it the hard way, but I've learned it." This, to me, is the ultimate lesson of Malcolm X. Many in this country have not yet learned it. I am sad to say that the movie Malcolm X makes me wonder if Spike Lee is one of them.

The Color of Love

Stephen Gyllenhaal's harrowing Losing Isaiah takes up the issue of interracial relationships in the most direct of ways. The film tells the story of a contemporary white couple who adopt a black baby and the subsequent efforts of the baby's black biological mother to set the adoption aside. Gyllenhaal and screenwriter Naomi Foner are to be credited for both their courage and balance in approaching this volatile issue. Acknowledging that the film will likely elicit "big polarities in filmgoers' responses," Gyllenhaal has said that he hopes Losing Isaiah will open "a positive dialogue." I wish I could share his hopes. The film is effectively provocative, but as I live longer in this race-divided nation, I grow pessimistic that we're any longer willing to listen to each other.

Jessica Lange stars in Losing Isaiah as Chicago social worker Margaret Lewin. In the hospital where she works, Margaret comes across a three-day-old black infant, stubbornly clinging to life despite the crack addiction he inherited from his strung-out mother. The mother, Khaila Richards (Halle Berry), abandons the child in a garbage heap to go stumbling off in pursuit of another rock for her crack pipe. The baby barely escapes being crushed by a garbage-truck compactor before being rushed to the hospital.

The film tries to fudge on the next set of events. Khaila is arrested for shoplifting, and by the time she comes out of her drug fog, she presumes that her baby is dead. Margaret, meanwhile, uses maternity hospital fingerprint records to identify the baby as Isaiah Richards. Responding to Isaiah's fierce struggle for life, Margaret and her husband Charles (David Strathairn) begin adoption procedures. But after Isaiah is identified, the picture offers no explanation for why Khaila is not charged with felony abandonment. Moreover, given that the mother's identity is known, the film stumbles seriously in having the courts approve the Lewins' adoption without in any way addressing the fact that Isaiah's mother is alive (and for that matter under detention by the state). Of course, both of these narrative glitches are crucial to what follows.

Khaila gets out of jail, enters drug counseling, gets a job as a housekeeper (another glitch I'm afraid — how likely is it that a middle-class family is going to turn daily care of their infant over to a woman who left her own baby in a garbage heap?) and strives to put her life back together. In the suburbs, Margaret and Charles provide Isaiah (marvelously played by young Marc John Jeffries) a loving home, and he grows to age four as a boisterously happy youngster. But then Khaila finds out that Isaiah is alive and arranges with black activist attorney Kadar Lewis (Samuel L. Jackson) to file suit to overturn the adoption and return Isaiah to her custody.

The proceedings of the trial are pure torture. Its strategies are as contemptible as a modern political campaign. Fairness is nothing; winning is all. Lewis makes a big point that the Lewins have failed to read Isaiah stories by African-American authors and have failed to provide him dolls with specifically African-American features. Lewis is unmoved that the Lewins haven't provided the child with Anglo-featured dolls either. Lewis argues that, "You might raise a black child with the best intentions in the world. But in the end the world is still out there, and he needs to know who he is." This position is taken directly from that of the National Association of Black Social Workers who have decried the practice of cross-racial adoption as "cultural genocide." Boiled down, this principle translates: race matters. White adults are not fit parents for black children precisely because they are white. And outside the frame of this movie, 43 states now bar interracial adoptions. Meanwhile, a recent Newsweek article estimates that 67% of the children waiting for adoption are black and that minority youngsters languish in foster homes twice as long as white children. In life, as in Losing Isaiah, the principle that race matters in adoptive parenting is being spouted by angry black adults and paid for by thousands of helpless black children.

Losing Isaiah intends to be healing. It illustrates the powerful strides Khaila makes in trying to redeem herself. It shows her as a positive and caring influence on her young niece and nephew and as a responsible caregiver for the child of her employers. The Lewins are deeply wounded by Khaila's attempt to take Isaiah away from them, but at some level they acknowledge the fundamental nature of her maternal quest. The film's determined even-handedness, however, is finally a kind of weakness. The film's concluding suggestion that Margaret and Khaila need to join hands and care for Isaiah together is wonderful as a metaphor. If indeed we are finally to overcome, it must be through the joined efforts of black and white together. But what succeeds as metaphor fails as narrative. Margaret and Khaila can both be influences on Isaiah's life; both can love and nurture and guide him. But only one can possess the authority of Mother. By suggesting otherwise, the film sacrifices good sense on the altar of political correctness. The story would have had stronger emotional grip and greater moral clout had it relied on the biblical tale of Solomon and the babe with two mothers. We would have more enduring confidence in Khaila's fitness for motherhood had she renounced her claim rather than pressed it so aggressively.

Moreover, by suggesting that the Lewins are incidentally blind to Isaiah's need to be conscious and proud of his blackness, Losing Isaiah leaves the impression that perhaps indeed white parents cannot raise a black child "who knows who he is." I absolutely do not believe this. And I am deeply troubled that four centuries of white racism have left intelligent black people so angry and frustrated as to promote such an idea. The reverse, that a black adult is not a fit parent for a white child precisely because he is black, would be quickly condemned as racist by thinking people of whatever color. What we need in this world are more interracial relationships, not fewer, more interracial families, not impediments to those few already in place. As we seek to redress an historical pattern of wrongs, we must be very, very careful that our appropriate recent emphasis on cultural diversity not become an excuse, even a clarion call for continued and reinvigorated segregation.

In closing, I am reminded of the most haunting passage from Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. An Hindu man comes to Gandhi to make an excruciating confession. In his furor during the religious wars which have followed India's independence from Great Britain, the Hindu has brutally slain an innocent Moslem boy. Now "I am in Hell," he tells the great Mahatma. But Gandhi calls him close and tells him: "I know a way out of hell. Find an orphan Moslem boy and take him into your house. Feed him and clothe him and raise him as your own son. Love him as your own son. And raise him as a Moslem." That's where I think we find ourselves across the widening racial divide of the 1990s. Love knows no color. And if a white adult can't raise a black child (and vice versa) to "know who he is," then Martin Luther King's challenge to see character over color was mindless palaver. And we are all in hell. And there is no way out.

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