The X Factor

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES

May 24, 1992|By KAREN GRIGSBY BATES

If you're seeing Xs floating across your field of vision frequently these days, calm yourself: you're not hallucinating about half of a movable tick-tack-toe game; you're witness to the latest trend -- the Xing of America.

The third-last letter in the alphabet is, of course, a hip shorthand reference to the late Malcolm X, who has newly become fashionable again. Part of the renascent romance with Malcolm can clearly be attributed to the times: In a city as racially tense as Los Angeles, the X is a tacit "don't tread on me," a warning that if the first cheek is slapped, the other might not be turned.

Another easy explanation for the prevalence of the X is the hype and the controversy surrounding the movie about the slain Muslim leader that filmmaker Spike Lee is completing.

At the Cannes Film Festival last year, Mr. Lee wore a jacket with a huge X in an American flag pattern and a black baseball cap emblazoned with a white X. Soon after, X was marking the spot all over the place. Post-Spike Lee entrepreneurs of all colors have hopped on the trend with lightning speed, so you can get X'd out by street vendors across the city, at cost.

In general, the X factor is not a bad thing. Better a stern portrait of Malcolm on a kid's chest than one of a misogynistic rap or heavy-metal artist.

Although it makes some people queasy, "By Any Means Necessary" (Malcolm's philosophy on how black people should defend themselves when attacked) is, as far as I'm concerned, a whole lot less offensive phrase than what is seen on some T-shirts.

In fact, the only problem with the Xing of America is that too many people are wearing the shirt without educating themselves about the man it commemorates. Too many young African-Americans assume X equals wholesale hatred of white folks. Like the parable of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant, many people choose to remember the part of Malcolm that fits their respective ideology. When they do that, they're only getting part of the picture.

This was all too evident last month when media riot coverage flashed several images of black and brown people in X-gear looting stores and assaulting white and Asian people, who had the bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Ironically, some of the stuff that was taken was X gear.) Malcolm would have been appalled.

Malcolm worried about black youth: "Thicker each year in these ghettos is the kind of teen-ager I was -- with the wrong kinds of heroes, the wrong kinds of influences," he said.

No doubt he would have understood the cumulative anger that (( vTC finally ignited into a citywide holocaust after the not-guilty verdict in the police beating of Rodney King. In a way, the widespread destruction that followed would be another example of his famous prophecy that, sooner or later, "the chickens come home to roost." Sometimes things have to be torn down in order to be rebuilt correctly.

As a member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm was a circuit rider for the cause of black entrepreneurship. He encouraged his fellow African-Americans to patronize and nurture these institutions as a way of diminishing our reliance on mainstream businesses, which often treated black customers with haughty indifference on one hand, while readily accepting our money with the other. I imagine that the move to recycle black dollars would meet with his approval, as would any measure that resulted in true community ownership.

His pilgrimage to Mecca shortly before his death, though, taught Malcolm another valuable lesson (one of which his first mentor, Elijah Muhammad, would not have approved): "The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks."

This revised perspective made him willing to accept people with a like world view, people who were committed to changing social inequity and eliminating racism.

Some people are listening. Truck driver Reginald Denny almost died from an attack by four black youths but refused to condemn a race for it. (And the four Samaritans who risked their lives to save his were black). Rodney King, beaten nearly senseless by four white policemen, nevertheless looked beyond his own immediate torture to plea for peace among all Los Angeles residents.

Like Malcolm, they were trying to untie America's Gordian knot of race relations one strand at a time. It's an example to consider as we sift through the rubble of Los Angeles.

Karen Grigsby Bates is a writer living in Los Angeles and a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times, for which she wrote this commentary.

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