Malcolm and JFK are unknowns for many youths

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 31, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This story's about the passage of time and the people we lose along the way. It's about Malcolm X and John Kennedy, but mostly it's about how the connection has been broken to places like a classroom in East Baltimore.

Go back a couple of weeks with Deborah Taylor, who heads the Office of Children and Youth for the Enoch Pratt Free Library. She brought Walter Myers to Canton Middle School, to talk to the kids there about the writing of books.

Myers is finishing a biography of Malcolm X, the fiery black leader who helped revolutionize the way African Americans think of themselves before he was shot and killed 27 years ago. Myers' book would tie in with the release later this year of Spike Lee's highly publicized and heavily marketed movie about Malcolm.

"When I write a biography," Myers was telling this class, "I set up a time-line. You know, here's when Malcolm X lived, and here's when he died . . ."

A hand shot into the air.

"Malcolm X is dead?" a kid asked, a look of puzzlement covering his face.

"Yeah," said Myers, who assumed everybody knew. "Yeah, he's dead."

The kid thought about this for a moment, then asked another question.

"If he's dead," he said, "who keeps his clothes out?"

At Broadway and Orleans the other night, Deborah Taylor was telling this story and then explaining what it means: The kids today know Malcolm X through T-shirts and baseball caps. They identify him first as a marketing ploy, and not necessarily as a man who insisted on black self-respect, a man who gave an angry public edge to the civil rights fight three decades ago.

"Who keeps his clothes out?' " Taylor said, echoing the kid's question and shaking her head sadly.

Once, Malcolm X was a man whose thinking you pulled apart, layer by layer, as a way of examining your own beliefs. Now he's slipped so far into the past that Deborah Taylor told another story, about a teacher who handed her class a list of books to read.

One kid saw this title: "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

Immediately, he asked the teacher: "What's this book, 'The Autobiography of Malcolm Ten?' "

It's nice to know the kids are learning Roman numerals, even if they aren't holding onto the stuff of politics and history.

Deborah Taylor was telling these stories on Thursday night. The next day, May 29, would have been John F. Kennedy's 75th birthday. Several years ago, a friend of mine who teaches at one of our local colleges showed his students a video clip of the first John Kennedy-Richard Nixon television debate.

When it was over, a student said, "I recognize former President Nixon, but who was that other man?"

How can this be? Once, we imagined a certain essence of John Kennedy that would live forever: not only his presidency, but the image of him as the very personification of youth and vitality and idealism.

When he's mentioned today, it's the latest exhumation of his assassination, or his link to Marilyn Monroe, or whatever the supermarket tabloids have cooked up to titillate us.

"We get caught up in today," Deborah Taylor said, "and we lose track of what happened yesterday. I don't blame the kids. It's not that they're choosing not to know, it's that we're not making sure they know."

The world moves too quickly to check our rear-view mirrors. Frantic to know which way we're headed, we lose track of where we've been. Taylor was sitting in a room at the Broadway branch of the Pratt last week, where people were worrying out loud about the future of the library system.

In The City That Reads, the library people feel like some municipal afterthought.

Everybody loves the library, sure, but not enough to fund it properly.

Is this writing off our kids' future? Of course. But it's also kissing off the past.

Reading lets us slow things down, long enough to examine what's happened.

The kids spend hours each day in front of the TV. If they watch the news there, it comes to them in little snippets: a movie's being made about Malcolm X; a date is being observed involving John Kennedy's birthday.

Yeah, but who were these guys, and what did their lives stand for? The kids' parents know, because we were there when all of this was happening, and John Kennedy and Malcolm X helped make us the people we became. Isn't it worth something to pass it on to the kids?

"If something mattered to the culture, don't we need to explain it to the next generation?" Deborah Taylor asked. "This boy at Canton Middle School isn't alone. They see T-shirts and hats, and that's their frame of reference for Malcolm X. He's not a real person. John Kennedy? There's a whole generation that doesn't know him."

When she walked out of the Canton classroom with Walter Myers, the two of them wondered where the connection between yesterday and today had been broken.

"We began to look at ourselves as people from a distant generation. We said, 'What aren't we doing right?' It's not the kids. If someone took the time, they would learn it."

That's what libraries are all about. They slow things down long enough to understand things, and to hold onto the people whose lives once seem to have counted, and now sometimes do not.

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