“Remember, Christians, Negros Black as Cain”: The (Ongoing) Need to Defend Black Poetry

In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, an unfree Black woman, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry and shook the foundations of philosophical, scientific, and literary notions about people of African descent. For example, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, the philosopher Immanuel Kant ranks different races, and going further, argues, “Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”

There were plenty of readers who, while fascinated with Wheatley’s racial (and presumably to them, exotic) background, still spoke and thought highly of her. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a poem and letter to George Washington, then leader of the colonial Revolutionary forces. Washington responded to her on February 28, 1776, and he referred to her as “Miss Phillis” in his heading. These two written acts were revolutionary their own right; given the social status of Black folks in the colonies at that time, it was bold of Wheatley to write Washington, and it was a transformative act on the part of Washington to consider—and record—a Black woman as a lady.

Yet when Thomas Jefferson, a key intellectual architect of the Revolution, chose to write about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia, he dismissed her: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s contemptuous assessment of Wheatley’s poetry occurs in the same section in which he implies that Black women engage in bestiality:

Are not the fine mixtures of red and white.. preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.

During Wheatley’s time, her work was not just proof of Africans’ intellectual capability, but their full humanity when placed alongside that of their White counterparts. By placing Africans in the monkey’s embrace, Jefferson attempts to take away the gains that Wheatley’s poetry accorded an entire race of people. This may seem to be an unrealistic claim—until we take Kant’s assessment of Africans into account.

Since Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, there have been too many attacks to count over the years on Black poetry, but two more stand out, because the attacks focus not just on critical analysis of African American poetry, but also, on “canonical” Black poets, in particular those who are revered in the Black community.

*

In 1963, the poet Louis Simpson wrote a review of Gwendolyn Brooks Selected Poems in New York Herald Tribune Book Week.  Thirteen years before, Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen; she was the first African American to do so, and instantly, Brooks became one of the “Great Black Firsts,” one of the numbers recorded by the African American community in its battle against the continual onslaught of racism. As a “First,” Brooks came to represent Black achievement—and, like Wheatley, an example of Black humanity. It would seem that Simpson was aware of Brooks’ importance to Black cultural production and the connection of that cultural production to Black America in general , for he begins his review with a dismissive assessment of the entire Black Poetic Body:

Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.

He then goes on to say, “Miss Brooks must have had a devil of a time trying to write poetry in the United States, where there has been practically no Negro poetry worth talking about.” And in those few short sentences, Simpson attempts to make quick work of a tradition of Black poetry that (in 1963) went back over two centuries.

Simpson went on to publish several books of criticism, and apparently, his attempt to dismember of African American poetry did not affect his career in the least. When Simpson’s review was reprinted in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (2001), it included a statement by Simpson:

I am glad to see my review of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems reprinted because this gives me an opportunity to set the record straight…I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well.

Here, Simpson acknowledges that he might have hurt some folks’ feelings—presumably Black folks’ feelings—but will not acknowledge that, in the same way that he assumes that the inferiority of Black poetry speech acts should be taken prima facie, his contemptuous speech act detailing what he views as the inferiority of Brooks’s poetry and the entirety of African American poetry should be taken in the same way.

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A few days ago, Helen Vendler published a review in The New York Review of Books  on Rita Dove’s anthology, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. After Brooks, Dove was only the second African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1987, thirty-seven years after Brooks), and thus, holds honored status in Black literary circles.

We are now in the twenty-first century, and so, in the past, a review might have taken months to make the rounds among poetry circles; now, it takes a matter of days. There have been poets on internet social media (such as Facebook) discussing Vendler’s revew and Rita Dove’s subsequent letter in defense of it.  Many, if not most, of the White poets that have discussed Vendler’s review have been outraged, but they have missed the context in which most Black poets take Vendler’s review—as part of a ceturies-long, ongoing attack on the Black Poetic Body.

All critics view themselves as experts. In order to argue something, the arguer must view him- or herself as an expert on the subject. But there’s a difference between arguing about a subject and arguing based upon one’s place in the world. Helen Vendler’s arguments against Dove’s editorial choices are based upon what could be called White Privilege Literary Largesse. She doesn’t mind that Rita Dove includes a few poets of color —what she calls “minority” poets– in the anthology; what Vendler minds is that Dove has the audacity to place those poets on the same level as the White poets.

Vendler hasn’t always had a problem with Rita Dove. In times past, she has been a champion of Dove’s work, as when she included positive assessments of Rita Dove’s poetry alongside Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Jorie Graham in The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Refinition (1995). However, once Dove started making her own canonical gestures by editing her own anthology Vendler moveed from being Dove’s champion to her attempted vanquisher.

First, there’s an attack on Dove’s choices, as when states, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and then Vendler proceeds to tally up pages given White—all male—poets versus Black poets. This already shows that Vendler isn’t engaged in the usual pedestrian criticism of the table of contents, and it becomes even clearer when Vendler moves from page counts to an attack on Rita Dove’s person, as evidenced by the following:

How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?

This passage is telling because it shines a light on the issues Vendler has with Dove-the-Black-Woman and not just Dove-the-Editor. Vendler wants to know how Dove could be so ungrateful, because she was “rewarded” so much. “Awarded” would imply that Dove deserved her many accolades, simply because she’s a brilliant poet and hard worker. However, “rewarded” implies that Dove was given advantages in exchange for something. And what exactly does Vendler think that something should be? Ignoring the fraught history of this country? Pretending that Black poets besides “Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa”—the two Black poets who don’t need “special defense”—don’t exist?

But what remains unspoken speaks volumes: Vendler really means, how is it that an Uppity Black Female Poet dared to get out of her place? How dare she make her own editorial—intellectual—choices without checking with anyone first? And that anyone would be Helen Vendler.

And finally, there is this passage, the ultimate attack on the Black Poetry Body:

Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one.

In other words, the best Black poets can’t ever tangle with the best White ones. And it’s ridiculous for anyone to assert that–especially another Black poet.

*

There’s been a lot talk this year among poets about “race” in poetry—“race” meaning “black people” or “people of color.” I’ve talked about this issue on my blog, that “race” is a concept, going back to the eighteenth century. Thus, when I write about black people, I’m not writing about race. I’m writing about full participants in humanity—and I’m writing about this humanity as a given, which is something Phillis Wheatley couldn’t take for granted.

And the obvious question is why does no one say that White folks are writing about “race” when they write about themselves? (No one except Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, of course.) No, when White folks write about themselves, they are writing about America. They are writing about unraced universal experience. They are writing about the ultimate human existence.

This condescending critical assessment of Black poetry has been in place since Jefferson first took up his pen, and informs the sort of contemporary scholarly/intellectual condescension of Simpson and Vendler, because when one attacks African American cultural production, that attack goes to the heart of an issue that is both moral and intellectual, and which goes back to Enlightenment philosophy. Now, it’s not that Black folks aren’t human; only the meanest White person would say something like that. But what’s implied is that cultural production assumes humanity from the start. It also assumes something else: privilege.

In Rita Dove’s introduction to her anthology, she assumes her own kind of privilege, intellectual privilege, and her right to claim that privilege galls Helen Vendler, for if Blacks and other poets of color are not included in Dove’s anthology because of multiculturalism, but rather, on their literary merit alone, then the whole American literary landscape not only changes in the present, it also reconfigures the past. And Helen Vendler and others like her are terrified of that prospect.

* The title of this essay is a line taken from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America” in Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn.  Annie Allen. New York, Harper and Row, 1949.

—. Selected Poems. New York, Harper and Row, 1963.

Dove, Rita. “Defending an Anthology: Rita Dove in Reply to Helen Vendler.” New York Review of Books 22 December 2011.

—. The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. New York, Penguin, 2011.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Query XIV: Laws.” Notes on the State of Virginia.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John

T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.

Simpson, Louis. “Taking the Poem by the Horns.” New York Herald Tribune Book Week, 27 October 1963, 27.  Rpt in Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (Under Discussion) Edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Vendler, Helen.  “Are These the Poems to Remember?”  New York Review of Books 24 November 2011.

—.  The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Washington, George. Letter to Phillis Wheatley on February 28, 1776. Writings Vol. 4 Edited by John Kilpatrick. (1931).

Wheatley, Phillis. Letter to George Washington on October 26, 1775. Phillis Wheatley: The Complete Writings.  Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

What if Touré were White?

Originally uploaded at mediaite.com

I was on Facebook last night when a Black male friend of mine posted an article by Touré on the ESPN website, entitled “What if Michael Vick were white?”  Above the actual article was a disturbing sight: Michael Vick in “white face” with light hair and light eyes. (This article also appears in the latest ESPN magazine.)

I know next to nothing about sports, and I don’t find sports interesting, either, so I almost didn’t read the article.  (To read an analysis of Touré’s piece by someone who does know about sports, check out this brilliant post by David J. Leonard.) I knew that I would encounter certain “insider” terms about sports in a, well, sports magazine.  I only read on because of the provocative title. But luckily, I needed to know absolutely nothing about sports to understand Touré’s inflammatory and downright rude article, because it wasn’t about sports. It was about the pseudo-science of analyzing “race.”

Only in this article, Touré wasn’t analyzing the constructed concept of “race;” instead, he was making sweeping generalizations about Black culture, and reinforcing coded cultural and class stereotypes. Throughout my reading this article on Michael Vick, instead of asking myself the question I was supposed to—what if Vick were white—I found myself asking instead, what if Touré were white?

Now, before I go any further, let me say that I’m no fan of Michael Vick. I think what he did to those poor animals was horrible. And I’m also past tired of Black (and some White) folks trying to give Michael Vick a bleeding heart pass for inhumane treatment to God’s creatures and whining about he caught a bad break because he was African American. I don’t care what race he was; I think he should have done way more time than he already did.

Yes, I said it. Snatch my Black card, and I don’t care. I can always get me another one down at the Target.

But let me say that the sort of strange racial rhetoric on the other side of this debate, about the “nature” of Black men and Black culture is infuriating as well. And seriously tacky. In Touré’s defense, this rhetoric was going on long before he waded into this fray with his singular, accented moniker and “throwback jam” Enlightenment philosophy.

However, Touré’s article takes this rhetoric to the next, unsavory, near-skull measuring level. Again, this article is not about sports, though Touré begins with bloviated, quasi-lyrical language, using such terms like “in the pocket” and  (I guess) establishing his Black bonafides with the use of the Black vernacular, as when he writes:  “I’m not saying that a black QB who stands in the pocket ain’t playing black.” [Emphasis mine.]

Okay, stop.

What the heck does “playing black” mean? I’m not even a sports fan and I know that’s not one of those complicated technical terms. And if a White writer said some sort of essentialist crap like somebody “plays black” we’d be all over him. Why doesn’t Touré just start talking about antebellum slave breeding practices that produced better athletes while he’s at it? Like we haven’t already heard that one before.

Then, Touré goes on to imply that if Michael Vick were White and middle-class, he wouldn’t have been dogfighting in the first place.

One pertinent question: Would a white kid have been introduced to dogfighting at a young age and have it become normalized to the extent that he builds it into his life after he joins the NFL? It’s possible, but it’s far less likely because what made Vick stand out among dogfighters is less race than class.

Here, I want to focus less on Touré’s circular reasoning in this quote—such as, if what makes Vick stand out is his class, then why are we bringing up his race in the first place? Oh, that’s right, because we have to prove that Black folks are pathological—and more on his Clear Yankee Ignorance as well as his Clear Historical Ignorance.

As my readers may or may not know, I’m from the Deep South, where White men love them some dogfighting. White men of all classes. Matter of fact, the term “Alabama Dog Fight” definitely does not refer to an African American sporting event.

Further, according to ASPCA website, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the roots of dogfighting can be traced to “bear baiting” which began in England in mid-1800s. England, not Africa. Thus, dog fighting is not a Traditional Negro Pastime.

Then, Touré hits even lower: he focuses on Michael Vick’s absent father:

If Vick grew up with the paternal support that white kids are more likely to have (72 percent percent of black children are born to unwed mothers compared with 29 percent of white children), would he have been involved in dogfighting? I ask this not to look for an excuse but to explore the roots of his behavior. Vick’s stunningly stupid moral breakdown with respect to dogs is certainly related to the culture of the world he grew up in, which he says fully embraced dogfighting. But it’s also related to the household he grew up in.

So apparently, violent behavior toward animals is connected to your being Black and your daddy being gone. I’m just going to let that appalling statement marinate with y’all for a second.

Now, let’s come back.

If a White man had implied something illogical like being Black, fatherless, and working class predestines somebody to treat animals badly, we’d call him all kinds of racists. Or, like, call up Fox news to get him fired, because that’s probably where he’d be working.

In a recent review of Touré’s latest book,  Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness: What It Means to be Black Now, Randall Kennedy talks about Touré’s logical fallacies on the subject on which Touré has appointed himself as expert. It’s clear that Touré wants to distance himself from “regular” Black folks by positioning himself as “raceless” or “post-race.”

But the problem is that if Touré weren’t Black, he wouldn’t be looked to as an expert on Black culture—and the supposed intrinsic pathologies located therein—in the first place. Indeed, Touré’s stunning statements are not “post-racial” or even new. Not only is he the latest in a long line of Black folks (mostly men) who have decided to go in hard on the Black community, he’s also writing in a tradition that has its roots going all the way back to the Enlightenment period, where Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson asserted “facts” about Black people’s inferiority.

Kant and Hume “ordered” the races—and of course, Black folks were down at the bottom of all that–and Jefferson asserted that Black women and orangutans were getting it on. (I’m not lying. Look it up in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query 14.)

All three of these men—and countless other European/American philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists—asserted “facts” about Black folks with absolutely no proof of the existence of these assertions. They just made stuff up as they went along, saying whatever rude things they wanted to say about Black folks and it was taken as cultural gospel. And many people don’t even know that much of the racism that we now hear being spouted as “fact”—by both White and Black folks– were simply philosophical ramblings that solidified throughout two and a half centuries.

That was back in the day, but now White folks aren’t allowed to spout certain things in polite company—certainly not in print—and get away with it anymore. So enter Touré with his Patrick Moynihan-esque faux-truths for why Michael Vick turned out to be mean to animals.

Oh, y’all didn’t know? It’s about the breakdown of the Black family. That’s why Vick fought and/or killed dogs. It’s about about how poor Black people just are naturally not as nice as middle-class and upper-middle class folks. That’s why Vick fought and/or killed dogs. And by the way, Touré implies, poor Black people also are poor because they lack some intrinsic moral gift, not because of, like, the centuries-long economic policies in place all around the globe to keep folks of all complexions and cultural backgrounds poor.

And thus, in Touré’s logic, being poor and Black and coming from a single parent home makes one brutal. In the last line of Touré’s article, he asserts that it is only when Michael Vick has ceased to be brutal that the issue of race in his life is deemed null and void—I assume this means when Vick becomes an honorary White man, since “race” here is the code used for “not-White.”

But aside from the glaring, offensive assertions in Touré’s article, he misses the basic point. It’s so obvious I kept waiting for him to say it. See, brutality has never known race or class or color or gender. White folks aren’t naturally brutal. Black folks aren’t naturally brutal. Poor people aren’t naturally brutal. Men aren’t naturally brutal.

Nobody is naturally brutal.

All brutality needs to come to the surface is unchecked power over someone or something weaker than yourself.  That’s all. And what Touré—the ultimate “post-racial” cultural critic—missed in his article is that, in terms of wielding that unchecked power, Michael Vick wasn’t inhabiting the natural role of a fatherless, Black man from poor origins—he was just a regular, old human being who didn’t check himself. And so, when he exercised his power over the weak, Vick established himself as quintessentially “post-racial.”

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Cherry-Picking Our Shining Black Past

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to be in the audience when historian Annette Gordon Reed lectured at my university on her Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Hemingses of Monticello.   In case you don’t know about her, Gordon Reed is the stone cold sister who basically proved—through the use of meticulous forensic evidence–that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a decades-long romantic relationship that produced children, a claim that most of Thomas Jefferson’s heirs still strongly deny. This information was in her first book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy which appeared before the DNA evidence came in linking a mixed race descendant of Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson.

During the question and answer period after Gordon Reed’s lecture, a White man stood up in the audience and said, “Well, there’s still really no definitive proof that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’ children, is there?” And then he hemmed and hawed and said a bunch of nonsense and foolishness that I didn’t remember because I was so mad I thought I would bust something loose inside.

But Gordon Reed admirably kept it together. She replied in a dry voice that it was true that we couldn’t prove that all of Sally Hemings children belonged to Thomas Jefferson. We only had the date mapping that showed that every time Jefferson visited Monticello, Hemings gave birth no more than nine months after he left, and that Jefferson recorded these births himself. We only had the DNA connecting one of Hemings’ male children to a close male descendant of Jefferson. And we only had the oral testimony of one of her sons about his years at Monticello and his claim that Jefferson was his father. That’s all we had. (The irony in Gordon Reed’s voice was palpable.)

And then she went on to say, we actually have no proof at all that Jefferson’s legitimate White heirs are his children biologically, because all his legitimate children were women and you can’t test the DNA evidence from a maternal line of descendants.  All we had were the words of those descendants of those women, and no one ever had disputed their claim, because they were White.

And that’s when that White man in the audience sat his crazy, rude self down.

I know it may seem strange, but I’ve thought about this encounter in these few days since the new biography of Malcolm X has hit bookstores, and what the legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X have in common.

If you’ve been without the internet for the past few days, you haven’t been reading the news about Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, which is Manning Marable’s current biography of the civil rights leader. But if you’ve been online, I’m sure you’ve seen all the news about the book, and also, how upset Black people have been about a few claims made in that book, most notably that Malcolm X engaged in homosexual activity with a White businessman, back when he was Malcolm Little.

I guess I’ve been living in some Shangri-La-La Land because when I saw the news about the (alleged) homosexual activities of Malcolm, I was like, “Okay.” I didn’t get excited one way or the other. Most of my friends are Creative Writers and some of them are gay or bisexual,  so I’ve learned not to trip about these things regarding the sexual surprises of historical figures, or even folks who are still alive. I just roll with it.

In the Creative Writing community, if you are homophobic, you aren’t going to have very many friends. You either accept the homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgendered identity of folks, or you get out of the Creative Writing community. It’s that way with most of the arts.

It’s not that we writers have more LGBT people in our ranks than the rest of the world, I suspect. I just think that folks feel more comfortable coming out in the writing community—at least these days.  And don’t think we don’t have our share of present homophobia; it’s just that our bigots know they have to go underground with it, because the public attitude is one of tolerance in the writing community.

So I’ve been sort of struck by the level of public, African American nastiness leveled at Manning Marable—who, along with Malcolm X is dead. Marable is a man who spent twenty years researching Malcolm X, whom he greatly respected and admired, in an attempt to provide the truest depiction he was capable of writing, yet Black people are attacking him. Many are saying that Marable is trying to tear down our hero. He’s throwing tarnish on Malcolm, our “Shining, Black Prince,” and on Malcolm’s legacy of being a do-right, disciplined Brother.

Once I realized that, addition to my Shangri-La-La Land citizenship in the writing community, I also live in a real world, I saw that in alleging Malcolm was bisexual, Marable has more than just nudged up again The Black Homophobia Thought Police; he’s taken out a bat and commenced to beating them about the head and shoulders. Then he’s thrown tear gas into their ranks, and chased that with a grenade.

Even some of my academic friends who have their anti-homophobia vocabulary seriously together have been thrown by the thought of Malcolm under the sheets getting busy with a man. A man. A MAN!

Aside from the obvious question, which is, of course, why our Black princes can’t have sex with other Black princes, and still be royalty, the other obvious question to me is, how come in the Black community we love to find out all the juicy sexual gossip of White folks, like who all the famous, heroic White men in history have secretly been Black ladies’ baby daddies or who have secretly been gay or who’ve secretly been molesting children, etc?

Essentially, we want to know who did the nasty with or onto whom (in the case of rape or molestation), and hopefully this nasty took place between two folks it shouldn’t have, but when it comes it our own Black heroes’ sex lives we want to get all outraged and say stuff like, “That’s between him and his wife. The man is dead. Can’t we let him rest in peace?”

I mean, really. For those people who are so outraged, just grow up. In case you don’t get it, history is about not letting anything or anyone rest in peace, okay? Everybody historians talk about is dead. That’s why it’s, like, history.

And this is exactly why I told my students the other day that I want to be buried with a complete copy of my medical records, an unpublished memoir, and a note: “Dear nosy historians, please don’t bother cutting my bones into pieces and digging into my background. Just read the enclosed materials and get the [insert expletive noun] up out my casket.”  And all those materials will be printed on acid-free paper, by the way.

The above scenario will only happen if I ever become famous, however. If I don’t become famous, nobody will care about how many people I slept with (which is none of your current business) or whether I loved my mama (and you already know the answer to that).

And that’s the whole point about Malcolm X.  It is precisely because of all the good works that he did, and his brilliance as a political figure that Manning Marable spent all that time researching that man, and why we want to read what Marable wrote about Malcolm. And this is the same reason that Annette Gordon Reed spent that time researching Thomas Jefferson; we want to know about his brilliance and his sense of foresight about building this country. No matter whom Thomas Jefferson liked to sleep with, you cannot sleep on his most lasting legacy—besides all them kids he had with Sally—which is the Declaration of Independence.

These two men of different races had impact upon this country, and their words fueled the political zeitgeists of their time. Their lives meant something and still do, and people should be interested in what went into making these men up—the whole men, not just what we pick and choose to know. And we should be interested for more reasons than we just want to say to ourselves, “Well, will you look at that? He was a Rick James Super-Freak.”

In both cases, both Thomas Jefferson and Malcolm X (allegedly) had aspects of their humanity—things that went into making them the whole, brilliant men they were—that they had to keep hidden because of the social and sexual mores of their individual eras. To me, it’s not an outrage that these things are coming to light now. To me, it’s just sad that they had to keep them hidden in the first place.