When I was younger, I was fascinated by the Greek concept of nemesis in which a protagonist possesses a tragic flaw (generally hubris) which leads to his demise. Much as I admired Malcolm X, I have to admit that he was a deeply flawed man, and his story is in a lot of ways a Greek tragedy. Anger can be good, it can be a driving force, but ultimately it can’t be allowed to rule your life. His intense anger at whites ultimately led him to the Nation of Islam, and he was never fully able to escape its clutches, which ultimately led to his death.
Of all the things I admire him for, his willingness to change. His views were never static and though he initially saw the world as black and white, he eventually came to recognize it for all its shades of gray. If I could have a 1 hour conversation with anyone on this list, I would have to choose him. He always struck me as someone who would be great to sit down and have a wide ranging conversation with. Just to hear of his experiences and his philosophy and ideology would be intensely fascinating. Part of it has to do with how different yet similar we are. There was a time in my life when anger was my constant friend, when I was immensely frustrated with the state of things. I never fully succumbed to it though. If even one person is good, they that’s enough for me, but I’m not sure about I wouldn’t have ended up like Malcolm if I had been born in his time.
He was at his most passionate and eloquent during his famous ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ Speech which I’ve always been fascinated by. I’ve excerpted a small portion of it. See the link for the rest.
“How can you thank a man for giving you what's already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what's already yours? You haven't even made progress, if what's being given to you, you should have had already. That's not progress...”
I find it hard to blame him for his anger. His father and uncle were both killed by white supremacists and he truly felt the weight of the segregation system from a young age. In addition, his message of Black self-reliance as uncompromising as it was served a very useful purpose. In the fight against injustice, civil disobedience is preferred, but if it’s your only option then that has never proven to be entirely successful on its own. A touch of steel is sometimes called for, and his presence I think bolstered the entire movement. His writings were always passionate and eloquent, in particular his autobiography and I don’t agree with a lot of what he said, but I still feel it’s worth reading. After his tragic assassination, MLK said of him, and I think this is as persuasive an explanation as any as to why I still hold him in regard:
“While we did not always see eye to eye on methods to solve the race problem, I always had a deep affection for Malcolm and felt that he had a great ability to put his finger on the existence and root of the problem. He was an eloquent spokesman for his point of view and no one can honestly doubt that Malcolm had a great concern for the problems that we face as a race.”
I’ll let him speak for himself to end this, to show his willingness to self-reflect. It’s remarkable really, how few people can do that:
“...[L]istening to leaders like Nasser, Ben Bella, and Nkrumah awakened me to the dangers of racism. I realized racism isn't just a black and white problem. It's brought bloodbaths to about every nation on earth at one time or another.
Brother, remember the time that white college girl came into the restaurant—the one who wanted to help the [Black] Muslims and the whites get together—and I told her there wasn't a ghost of a chance and she went away crying? Well, I've lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. I did many things as a [Black] Muslim that I'm sorry for now. I was a zombie then—like all [Black] Muslims—I was hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march. Well, I guess a man's entitled to make a fool of himself if he's ready to pay the cost. It cost me 12 years.
That was a bad scene, brother. The sickness and madness of those days—I'm glad to be free of them.”
Ultimately, though, he died his own man.
"You don't have to be a man to fight for freedom. All you have to do is to be an intelligent human being."
No one knows exactly when Harriet Tubman was born. At the time she was born, the birth and death records of slaves were only loosely kept. All we know is that she was born sometime in 1823. She was never given the dignity of an exact birth date. Such were the times in which she lived and grew up.
There are a lot of people that you know about only in an abstract manner. Of course, being a good Black child, I had heard about the Underground Railroad and all that good stuff, but it was never quite real to me. That all changed after I had to do a project on her. I chose her because I thought it would be easy. It ended up being extremely difficult simply because she did so many great things that it was hard to keep my essay within the word limit. Certainly, it wasn’t a bad problem to have, but it says a lot about who she was and what she did.
She rose from the humblest of beginnings and through sheer force of will propelled herself to becoming one of the most celebrated Black women of all time.
She was born a slave in 1823 and as part of that had to endure untold hardship. This led to her escape from slavery in 1849. What makes her truly great is that she took her life into her own hands and in daring escapes, managed to lead her family members and countless other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. This was made even more dangerous because she suffered from a form of epilepsy in which she would lose fall into a deep sleep at any time. Neither this nor the large bounty placed on her head ever deterred her. After the American Civil War broke out, she worked as a nurse and scout for the Union Army and was the first American woman to plan and lead a military operation, when she guided the Combahee river raid that helped liberate over 700 slaves. She was not only a staunch Abolitionist, but also a feminist activist and tireless advocate for humanism.
By the time she retired, she had made the perilous trip to slave country 19 times by 1860, including one especially challenging journey in which she rescued her 70-year-old parents.
The great Frederick Douglass of whom I have already written about once wrote to her and had this to say
“You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them. The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night. ... The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown—of sacred memory—I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have”
And John Brown, who conferred with "General Tubman" about his plans to raid Harper’s Ferry, once said that she was "one of the bravest persons on this continent."
His respect and admiration for her are clear to see. After her death, she was buried with full military honours and she was honoured in myriad ways. It almost doesn’t seem enough and I think it’s unfortunate that she’s slowly fading into history. The more I read about her, the more I realized that while there are some people labelled ‘great’ for frivolous reasons, there also exists a class of people whose greatness and impact on history cannot really be quantified. I firmly believe that she rests in the latter category. Just for her involvement in the Underground Railroad alone, she would qualify. To lead one’s people out of bondage and to the promised land, well, that’s something almost biblical. She wasn’t called Moses for nothing. In all the years she was a conductor, she was never captured, and she never lost a passenger.
‘Liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other.’
It’s hard to describe in words how much I admired Dwayne McDuffie and how devastated I was when he died. There’s never a good time for anyone to die, and for him to be snatched away so soon, it really hurt. I was heartened however, to see the outpouring of heartfelt tributes to him after his untimely passing away. It became clear that he was a special person indeed. The tragic thing is that the industry he most wanted to be a part of is the one that rejected him, and iit’s a testament to his force of will that he managed to make his own path and find his own success.
Sometimes, there are some people who you never know how much they meant to you, until they’re gone. Some people you take for granted that they will always be around. And then, when all of a sudden, they’re gone, you begin to wish that maybe you’d appreciated them more when they were around. What makes it doubly painful for me is that Dwayne McDuffie was one of the few people on this list who I interacted with quite extensively. It had always been my dream to see him in person and telling how much I appreciated the fact that he wrote strong characters of color who were allowed to be fully human.
Of course, all this interaction was entirely virtual, but that does nothing to lessen its importance. He was always so open and accessible, that I felt like I knew him both professionally and personally. He was a regular participant on his official website’s forum and he never hesitated to answer questions or comment. I asked him questions about a wide variety of subjects; the writing process; how to break into publishing and he gave out spoilers quite liberally for the projects he was working on. It truly felt like a community, and I spent almost my entire high school years being actively involved. Things slowed down after I began University, but I would still lurk and post every once in a while.
I should probably rewind, and give some background information on the man. For anyone who’s a fan of comics (or graphic novels, if you prefer), you’re probably intimately familiar with his work helping found Milestone comics, which showcased Heroes of Color and his creation of the character Static would be his most enduring legacy from that era. However, Milestone also brought such awesome characters as DeathLok and Hardware, and as a a youngster, there was something exhilarating about seeing heroes who looked like me, and dealt with some of the same issues.
If you’re a fan of animated shows, then, you know him well from his work as a writer, and then story editor of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited (incidentally, the JL/JLU series remains my favourite animated show to date. He also was a producer and story editor for Ben 10, and Ben 10: Alien Force. He also wrote the stories for a multitude of Animated Movies including All-Star Superman, and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. His contributions to this genre have been among the most celebrated, and it’s only unfortunate that he never got as much respect for his work writing comics. Even though he received numerous awards during his life, it’s undeniable that he was much more appreciated in death than he was in life.
What I loved most about him was his honesty and forthrightness. He was never afraid to shoot straight. That coupled with his essentially gentle nature made me feel like I really knew him. He seemed like the kind of guy you could shoot the breeze with endlessly. He always had the funniest stories and for someone who was so important in his field, he was almost ridiculously approachable. I only wish he were around to see what he inspired in others, but I’m sure he’s up in heaven shining down upon us.
Greatest quote: “In animation, I was given a chance.”