I assumed students knew about Martin Luther King, Jr. and tried to fill in a little history of Malcom X through a short biographic video and an article from the February 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine by Cornel West adapted from his 2014 book, Black Prophetic Fire. Feb. 21 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcom X by a rival Muslim faction.
King is the better known of the two, "commodified" according to West. He called Malcom X in contrast a great example of the Greek word "parrhesia" in the black tradition. West uses the term from Plato's Apology, "where Socrates says, the cause of my unpopularity was my parrhesia, my fearless speech, my frank speech, my plain speech, my unintimidated speech. The hip hop generation talks about 'keeping it real.' Malcom was a real as it gets."
The class exercise was successful. Students learned about how to set up a compare-contrast essay for the GED test and a little American history was also learned. I was happy with the class and didn't think much more about it until I saw photos of candle-lit mourners from Bangladesh the next day.
It was reported that a Bangladeshi-born American blogger, known for criticism of Islamic fundamentalism, was hacked to death by machete-wielding attackers in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, on Thursday night, Feb. 26. Avijit Roy, 42, wrote a blog called Mukto-Mona (the title means "Free-Minded"). A group calling itself Ansar Bangla 7 claimed responsibility for the brutal killing in a Twitter post of all places, "Anti-Islamic blogger US-Bengali citizen Avijit Royt is assassinated in capital #Dhaka due to his crime against #Islam."
I thought that Roy's parrhesia was courageous to challenge a fundamentalist faction that places little value in human life. His assassination shames the memory of the Prophet who was much more ecumenical than these modern "followers" according to historical sources that I have read. But what do I know? I have no value. I am an unbeliever in their eyes.
Then a day later, another voice that courageously spoke with parrhesia was silenced. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed late Friday, Feb. 27, on a bridge near the Kremlin, Red Square and the multi-colored domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, according to news accounts. Fired at least six shots from a passing car, four hit Nemtsov in the back. A woman he was walking with was not hurt. No one tweeted responsibility for that assassination.
At one time Nemtsov, only 55, was a powerful Kremlin insider. He served as deputy prime minister in the 1990s and might have been successor to then-President Boris Yeltsin, but fell out of favor during President Vladimir Putin's regime. He has been arrested for participating in antigovernment protests but until Friday was never silenced. Nemtsov and other opposition leaders were planning a march against government policies in Moscow on Sunday, March 1. That march, turned into a memorial, drew thousands of Russians. It remains to be seen what that display might mean to those now in power in the Kremlin.
Malcom, Martin, Avijit and Boris all knew that their words were dangerous. Their opponents were many, powerful and ruthless. All four could have stopped speaking out and lived, but all seemed to have, what West wrote of Malcom X and King, a "moral fire" that burned from within that forced them "to get it out, to cry out, to shout".
West wrote of the black experience in America for Smithsonian, but I can't imagine that he would mind if I extended his words to cover both the blogger from Bangladesh and the opposition politician from Russia. All those burning with the righteous fire of parrhesia might say, according to West: "We're just going to keep on pushing. Its a matter of what has integrity, of what is true, which is right, and what is worthy of those struggled and died for us." This week's class project sadly turned into a compare-contrast between those who have the fire to speak out and those who seek to silence that fire with violence.
Hard lessons learned, but I still have faith in parrhesia over ignorance and violence.