The Georgetown University African American studies program brought together scholars and activists to shed light on civil rights leader Malcolm X’s influence on racial and gender equality in Copley Formal Lounge on Monday.
The Black History Month event, titled “Malcolm X Through the Feminist Lens,” featured department of African American studies Chair Kimberly Brown, professorial lecturer Emerald Christopher-Byrd, Chair of critical race, gender and culture studies at American University Theresa Runstedlter and Black Lives Matter co-founder Erika Totten. Assistant professor of sociology Leslie Hinkson moderated the discussion.
Totten began the discussion by outlining how Malcolm X inspired her own dedication to addressing racial injustice.
“His legacy to me is one of defiance, body exposing the insidiousness of white supremacy and the DNA of America, and making that knowledge accessible to the most marginalized folks,” Totten said. “He had a way of speaking that struck your soul. His metaphors were brilliant.”
The panelists praised the work, life and legacy of Malcolm X initially, but quickly asserted the need to analyze the civil rights leaders in a realistic light. Runstedlter noted how, for all of Malcolm X’s successes, he still suffered from shortcomings, especially related to black feminism and female empowerment.
“It doesn’t behoove any of us to deify and calcify people,” Runstedlter said. “We really have to historicize [Malcolm X]. We have to critique him at the same time, and one only needs to read the writings, speeches, and articulations of black feminism among his contemporaries and people who have engaged with his work since then.”
Totten complemented Runstedlter’s remarks by asking audience members to understand Malcolm X’s faults while also internalizing the context of his work and his development as a leader.
“He doesn’t get a pass, but let’s have a full conversation about where ideologies come from and how the things that showed up in Malcolm are actually within us as well,” Totten said.
As the conversation continued to develop, panelists raised points about Malcolm X’s overarching development as a thinker, highlighting both his time within the Nation of Islam movement and his journeys abroad.
Runstedlter said his ideals and plans to tackle racism during his time were unique and that the institutional racism he fought against still remains today.
“He and his contemporaries were trying to imagine something totally new and to imagine what the world would be like without these forms and structures of oppression,” Runstedlter said. “I think there is something hopeful to take away from this, even if we found the resiliency of those structures in our present moment.”
Though discussions on Malcolm X’s legacy contributed to the early parts of the discussion, the panelists soon moved to examining the role of black women and feminism both in the civil rights era and in the present day.
Byrd said the stereotypical view of the role of black women in families has hardly evolved since the civil rights era. Without any progress on this front, she maintained, real progress toward racial and gender equality cannot be reached.
“We have this legacy of ‘white women want get out of the house and work’ without the conversations on how women of color always had to work. Such a political thought process continues today,” Byrd said. “It’s the black woman’s fault that the condition of the black community is the way that it is because they are not mirroring what is the acceptable dominant idea of family and structure.”
Brown soon engaged with a question about what it means to be a black feminist in the 21st century. She highlighted her experience with feminism as an idea and explained how women should not associate only empowerment with feminism’s purpose.
“I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from people telling me I’m not doing feminism right because I come from a different vantage point and I don’t foreground white women in my analysis,” Brown said. “I try to teach my students the difference between being empowered as a woman and being a feminist. You can have a lot of power as a woman, but that doesn’t automatically make you a feminist.”
Attendee Amin Gharad (COL ’17), while appreciative of the panelists’ knowledge and dialogue, said the event’s title was misleading. Gharad said he felt as though not enough time was spent on Malcolm X and his relationship with feminist dialogue and ideas.
“In no way am I claiming that Malcolm X hasn’t done or said things that could be considered problematic by, say, engaging his life as part of a feminist dialogue, in fact that could’ve made for an enlightening exercise and was why I decided to attend, but this event definitely wasn’t a meaningful exploration of his life in that regard,” Gharad said.
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