[Editor's Note: Please do not repost Askia's email to us, elsewhere on the internets. Of course we can't enforce the request, so it's a honor thing.]
We recently shared an editorial piece, first published in the Washington Informer, by a renowned journalist, Askia Muhammad, in which he writes a timely narrative on Revolution, Revolutionaries and what they mean in 2009 and beyond (link).
The piece generated some deep thought and some great discussion (which you should definitely take a look at, if you haven't yet) for me internally and for many of you. I think the conclusion I came to is that being a Revolutionary is not for everyone. It is a giant task that requires serious sacrifice that many of us in 2009 cannot afford to make, or that we are not willing to make, for various reasons -- some admirable, some not. But rather than appropriate the term and apply it falsely to anyone with "good intentions", we should remain clear on what it means to be a Revolutionary even if we do not attain it, so that when those who are courageous enough, or able enough, to be Revolutionaries rise up among us, we can recognize their significant specific sacrifices.
In other words, let's not water down what it means to be a Revolutionary, otherwise we dishonor those who have truly achieved such status through sacrifice of themselves, family and other things. And there's no reason to be salty if you are forced to come to grips with the fact that although you may have good intentions or may be doing good things to contribute to change in your community, you are not a Revolutionary.
My friend Nathalie decided to take the conversation even deeper and actually write to Askia Muhammad to ask him to share his deeper understanding of what it means to be a Revolutionary in 2009.
Askia's response brought water to my eyes and intense feelings of empathy go out to this courageous elder for admitting to his failures and embracing the successes he's achieved -- both planned and unplanned. I think we need to help more of our elders express themselves in this way by engaging them and asking for their wisdom. It is healing, both for them and for us younger folks.
One inspiring idea that came to the fore in a recent conversation with friends at our monthly Circle gathering (see the "study" link here on The Liberator website for more info on community groups) was that there is a difference between sacrifice and suffering.
Sacrifice entails an amount of suffering, but the key is that it also requires faith and a vision. In other words it requires the pursuit of a passionate vision, powered by faith. Even though we often use the two interchangeably, suffering is not sacrifice, and vice versa. Unlike sacrifice, suffering does not require a destination, a vision, or faith. It is just something that is brought upon people if they are not prepared to thrive in nature for various reasons. Suffering is a default phenomenon. Sacrifice only comes when there is a belief that one's suffering will be redeemed and done for a purpose greater than one's self. Sacrifice is by definition a service to something else. Suffering does not incorporate service. Suffering can be done alone, it is not, in itself, a communal act.
In that same Circle meeting, afterwards, in a conversation with my brother, we talked more about the idea of suffering being transformed into sacrifice. And I came to understand that suffering is redeemable. In other words, a life of suffering can instantly be transformed into a life of sacrifice at any moment, if along comes a cause worth serving and dedicating one's suffering to.
To provide context, let me illustrate. My friend is in a soulful rock band and is passionate about music and consciously trying to share a message with the world in order to better serve humanity. In other words, he has good intentions. But he is mulling over how to pursue his passion fully, because he does not feel at peace with merely his good intentions and a part-time pursuit of his mission. He knows that it will take sacrifice (and faith). I told him to never underestimate the love his community, especially his elders, have for him, the support them will give him, and to not be uncomfortable with approaching them for assistance.
The idea of suffering being transformed into sacrifice came randomly into my head as I was talking, but I realized that by giving his elders and community the opportunity to support him in his sacrifice and pursuing his mission, that he can not only receive something from them, but he can also give them something -- by sharing his mission with his community he can share his destiny with them, allowing those who were not able to pursue their mission of passion, to live vicariously through his mission. Thus, those in his community, who until this point have suffered without aim and may feel regret because of it, can have that suffering redeemed and transformed into sacrifice through him. It's really a deep and powerful thought that affirms the spiritual power of community, how we work through each other, and how we can actually transform each other. Wow.
One last thought before I leave you with Askia's conversation with Nathalie: watching the new Battlestar Galactica series last night (I know, I'm a nerd, but if you don't know about it you are missing some great tales of philosophy, futurism, and drama -- here's the link) I took away an interesting quote from the Commander of the Battlestar Galactica. His son has just been forced to shoot down a passenger airliner that had been compromised by "Cylon" robots and was now heading on a collision course with the Battlestar, and was armed with nuclear weapons.
He later told his son, who was obviously conflicted about what he'd done: "part of being a man is having contradictions and living with them... everyday."
I think Askia shows that he is a real man in the message that follows.
He is no Malcolm X.
But, what he shows us is that, Malcolm X was no Askia Muhammad.
And it's a vital lesson to take to heart. Ultimately we have to choose our path many times over. But on that path, there are an infinite number of forks in the road, all of which are part of the path. And if we are passionate in life, we must make sacrifices along the way -- and if we are honestly pursuing the greatest good, there are no wrong choices. We will have regrets, that is promised. We can only do the best we can. If we do our best, honestly, we are making our ancestors proud, even if we don't end up as Revolutionaries, even if we do.
Greetings Mr. Askia, I read your article on the Liberator Magazine.com where it is garnering a lot of debate. Before I enter into the minefield, I wanted to get at what constitutes revolutionary in the 60s and what it would look like in the new millennium. Just your opinion of the term "revolutionary." I, too, get frustrated by pseudo-revolutionaries, but never thought simply being "bad" was a revolutionary act....or wait it might be. As we all know speaking up to the cops is likely to get one shot in the back. Is that "bad" and/or revolutionary? With much respect to your work in Black freedom struggles, I humbly ask you this question in order to make a plan for my own community. I am a practical person. I am neither interested or can envision transforming a state with a white supremacist skeleton I say this because I'm a young woman who wants to see strong communities emerge. I'm not naive enough to say I'm doing this for an abstract Black community. No, much simpler: I intend to bear Black sons who will come up in this world and intend to set structures that will accept them and nourish them in a way I was not. In short, I guess, what constitutes the revolutionary. I hope to hear from you. Cheers. ~Nathalie
Askia Muhammad's Response: Greetings to you Sister Nathalie, Thanks for reaching out. I was not aware that the piece had been posted by The Liberator, let alone about the responses to it. Thanks for pulling my coat on that...
Now, as to your questions. When I read your e-mail last night I had a few thoughts. The first and best example of a revolutionary then and now which I can think of is Fidel Castro. I also have some thoughts from Brother Malcolm X which I'll also develop. Again thanks for asking. I would define a "revolutionary" as someone who struggles against a system until he or she achieves victory or until he or she is killed or martyred. Fidel, Che Guevara, Assata Shakur, Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, all fit that definition. Back in the 1960s many of us who committed to various paths--the Nation of Islam, Panthers, Republic of New Africa, Black Liberation Army and others--fit that definition, more or less. But the reality of our lives has changed, even those who are still committed to those bedrock movements.
Two particular comments from Brother Malcolm help define me: "I'm not a Republican. I'm not a Democrat. I don't even know if I'm an American." I can repeat that mantra at anytime, even now with Barack Obama moving into the White House. The first Black President should be special (and is to me) because he moves into that White House which was built by slaves, but he does not carry a "slave name." Neither do his daughters Sasha and Malia. Brother Malcolm also called us away from the use of slave names. In the 1960s it was important for us to use a "free name" or an "X" to demonstrate that we were "ex-slaves," "ex-Negroes."
The other quote from Brother Malcolm was in the news recently when Al Qaeda called Mr. Obama a "House Negro." In March I will pass a radio milestone, 30 years hosting a jazz show on Tuesday mornings on WPFW-FM here in Washington. Because I was born on the day Charlie "Yardbird" Parker recorded the "Yardbird Suite," I called my show "Yardbird Sweets." I would begin each program with a modified version of the Malcolm X quote, which reflected my sense of self and radio ideology. I would say: "There are two kinds of birds. House Birds and Yard Birds. When the Master's house is on fire, the House Bird will help put the fire out, but the Yard Bird will pray for a strong wind. Welcome to Yardbird Sweets..." At that time my daughter was 7-years-old, my son was 2. I lost my job as a correspondent for the Chicago Daily Defender shortly after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris demanded to know from my boss, "What are you doing having a Black Muslim call my office?" Although I contributed articles occassionally to The Washington Post, and radio commentaries to National Public Radio and to Pacifica Radio, I was unemployed more than I was working. This caused tremendous problems for me with my son's mother, who was more employable than I and who essentially supported our family, and with my daughter by a previous marriage, who could not understand why I could not provide more support. I was often torn, frustrated, full of self-doubt, self-pity, wondering where I failed, wondering if I shouldn't just give up on my career path as a journalist, and just get a job, any job, driving a taxi, flipping burgers. I once drug my son when he was five or six with me to a number of restaurants to beg for a job washing dishes or such in their kitchens. I was not struggling to violently overthrow the U.S. government (a true revolutionary), I was simply a person of conscience who (as someone at NPR told me when I begged him for a job) "had certain baggage." What I learned is that is the price you pay in order to simply travel certain paths in this country. In many other places it's much easier because they just jail or kill you rather than torture you with neglect and poverty for 20 years.
As it turned out, both my daughter and son graduated from Brown University. She got a masters in education from University of Michigan. He got an masters in film here at Howard. She got scholarships and grants and loans. He had an annuity set aside for him at birth by his maternal grandparents. I helped her as often as I could with cash, but I know it was not often enough. I resolved with my son (five years younger) to send him money every single month while he was at Brown. I kept my pledge, even when I did not have enough to pay my rent, some months and had to go to landlord-tenant court to forestall eviction. Had I known that would be the price I'd have to pay, along with self-doubt and rejection, would I have stayed on my path? I don't know. But, that is the price one must pay in this country. As one of the responses on the Liberator asked: "how often do you go to The Club?" Is going to The Club revolutionary? Where do you draw the line between The Path and normal life? Between The Path and family life. I once heard Moshe Dayan, the Israeli Defense Minister say that he wished he had been a bachelor, with no family so that he might have more fervently pursued his Path. Indeed, in the Nation of Islam, Brother Malcolm had to be instructed by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad once to stop "soldiering" and care for his wife Betty when she broke her leg. When my daughter's mother re-married she hooked up with a career military man. She saw extensive health care and other benefits as an important factors in making her choice. She in fact went to college, graduating the same year my daughter and an 11-month older brother graduated from high school She then joined the Air Force as a nurse. Just six months ago (while my daughter was living the life of an Obamaniac, all Obama, all the time, she was one of the summer fellows, living and working for six weeks in Pennsylvania to help his campaign), just six months ago, Captain Inez completed a deployment at an Air Force hospital in Iraq. My daugher's brother Tarik (11 months older) served with the Army's 4th Infantry in Fallujah in the early days of the war. Her oldest brother Tony was a Marine in the first Gulf War. One of them observed about Nadirah after receiving so many e-mails about Barack, that "she's a Black revolutionary, just like here daddy." I was proud of that comparison, and I am proud of her, but we are no real "revolutionaries." I know that. When she first moved to Washington in '03, there was hardly one anti-war mobilization she did not attend! Now she's an Obamaniac. Is that revolutionary?
These are just some of the contradictions I recognize in my own life. I was a conscientious objector from the Naval Reserve during the Vietnam War. I had attended the Naval Officers Candidate School. But it's been 40 years since I made those very hard choices. Those 40 years have been filled with many, many, many more even harder choices, while I've waited for the Revolution to come. Now, despite their physical resemblance, I think more Black people would rather be like Obama than be like Farrakhan. When the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 to condemn Min. Farrakhan, I knew that all 95 of them were dead wrong, even Kennedy, even Biden. But the choice at that time was do I support the Minister or do I support President Reagan, I knew that was no choice. But did that make me "un-American?" Despite my belief in the Honorable Elijah Muhammad's teaching that America was doomed to fall, and that I wanted no part in trying to prop up a decaying empire, I don't think that made me "un-American." Nor do I think my earlier "revolutionary" credentials have been compromised along the way. I'm still the same reporter who interviewed Georgia and Jonathan Jackson, and reported the first story about W.O. Nolan, the young man murdered by prison guards at California's Soledad Prison in 1969, before George and John Clutchette and Fleeta Drumgold retaliated and became the "Soledad Three." Just last Friday I interviewed a homeless advocate on the air, talking about a homeless veteran whose wheelchair was broken by a DC transit agency cop...no Oscar Grant story, but...
So I share these thoughts because the sons and daughters you parent will not understand why they can't have toys and clothes and creature comforts that other children have, because mommy and daddy are revolutionaries. Indeed, I remember that Jonathan Jackson (who was a martyred revolutionary) was very dismissive of his father who worked all his life in the Post Office, and who was not a revolutionary like his big brother. But if you read George's writings, he understood that his father had provided the family a home and a secure upbringing. As you set out, remember Khalil Gibran's words, as sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock: "our children are not FROM us, they PASS THROUGH US." There's more to that beautiful quote I can't remember so I won't butcher it, but they are life's longing for the future. May the Almighty Bless you sister Nathalie, with all the best rewards that a life of dedication to righteous principles and behavior can offer. Thanks again for reaching out. I hope this helps you in your thinking. Peace, ~Askia Muhammad
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