I grimace in dismay as dingy water from the puddle I carelessly stepped in splash onto my leather-accented jeans. It was two years after I moved to Seattle. I should have known to avoid puddles by then, but I was so full of excitement that I forgot. I was walking along Southcenter Boulevard on a Saturday, flanked by my sometime friends Jenny and Shannon, to see a movie. It wasn’t just any old movie; in 1992 it was the movie. We were going to see Malcolm X, the long-awaited biographical drama of the slain leaders’ life, starring Denzel Washington and directed and co-written by Spike Lee.
Back in 1992, we didn’t have the internet and social media to create hype, but the buzz around the release of ‘Malcolm X’ was strong, the electricity palpable among Black Americans. At my middle school, many of us Black students were so pumped that we considered skipping school to see it. We were still smoldering with resentment over the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King in the spring of that year, increasingly aware that race was going to affect our lives whether we liked it or not. In the end, I chose to just wait until the weekend to see the movie. My reluctance to disappoint and anger my Grandma gave me second thoughts about skipping class. As much as I wanted to see the movie immediately for the culture, I knew there was nothing I could say that would convince Grandma that skipping class was justified this one time.
The weekend finally came, and I was free to attend the movie, using my allowance for the week to pay for my ticket. Nothing could dampen my enthusiasm that Saturday-not the overcast skies that threatened to open up at any minute, or the long bus rides we had to take to get to the movie theater. I was going to see the life of Malcolm X, the Black leader I respected the most, depicted on the silver screen.
I’d become enthralled with X and the concept of Black Nationalism a year earlier in October 1991, when I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time. I was worried that the movie might gloss over the grittier and traumatic elements of Malcolm X’s life, but thankfully, it didn’t. Watching the film with my friends provoked a range of emotions within us.
When Malcolm’s father is brutally murdered by racists, we bristled with anger. We giggled at the sight of Washington frantically searching for a liquid to rinse his hair of lye, settling for toilet water. And when he visits his mama in a mental institution we sighed in empathy.
However, my favorite scene is when Malcolm’s charisma and leadership make waves outside of the Black American community. Under the direction of X, the men of the nation of Islam gather outside of a Harlem hospital to demand access to a victim of police brutality. The group only disperses when their goal is achieved, and at X’s command they solemnly march away with dignity.
Even though I knew how Malcolm X’s life ends, the assassination scene towards the conclusion was heavy and jarring. The three of us bawled openly, aware that the horror onscreen now wasn’t the product of Spike Lee’s imagination. But the ending, with Black students in the U.S. and South Africa, their young faces brimming with hope, recite “I am Malcolm X” and keeping the spirit alive, inspired us through our tears.
“All my people say-REVOLUTION”, we sang together as we walked towards the bus stop after exiting the theater, the words from the song that played during the credits already seared into our minds.
We didn’t care about the looks our exuberant behavior garnered from those passing by. No one could kill our vibe. And at that moment, it seemed much more than a moment. We were twelve years old, babies really, but no one could tell us that we weren’t part of something greater, that we weren’t on the cusp of greatness, that Black America wasn’t in the process of permanently remaking its’ image.
As always, the passage of time would reveal the truth. The Afrocenctric climate that was so abundant in the 1980s and early 1990s began to lose steam.
But then she broke to the West coast, and that was cool
Cause around the same time, I went away to school
And I’m a man of expanding, so why should I stand in her way
She probably get her money in L.A
And she did stud, she got big pub but what was foul
She said that the pro-black, was going out of style
She said, Afrocentricity, was of the past- Common, “I Used to Love H.E.R”
This was potently illustrated by the changes seen in Hip-Hop. By 1996 the more positive, Black nationalist, community-oriented hip-hop of that era was hard to find, supplanted with the visions promoted by gangsta rap on the West Coast and rhymes of crime and material excess on the East.
While the Afrocentric culture of the 1980s and early 90s undoubtedly inspired some Black Americans to value their heritage and culture, it didn’t penetrate deeply enough. Much like the Black Pride movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it ended up being a trend instead of a permanent shift.
It is now early 2018. With the release of Black Panther, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, on Friday, there are many predictions being made about what the movie will mean for the Black community as a whole. I saw the movie yesterday with my daughter and a cousin, and the three of us thoroughly enjoyed it. From a purely entertainment perspective, “Black Panther” get 10/10 from me. But the level of hype surrounding it and the expectations placed on the film to initiate (another) Black renaissance is hauntingly familiar to me. Tense political climate? Check. Polarized racial climate? Check. Indeed, the past few days have left me with an intense feeling of déjà vu. I hope that my skepticism is proven wrong, that not all these glowing expressions of pride become another superficial moment that is forgotten about in years. Ultimately time will tell.