We Like Our Icons Clearly Defined

October 30, 2008

It seems that what a person stands for and is recognized as being is out of their hands, especially after they’ve passed  on. If you move into the spotlight at all and as such are remembered by more than just your circle of friends and family, the public will classify you, label you and “box you in” in some form or another.

I recently read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley.” It’s one of those books that has set on my shelf for years, and although I’ve watched the film several times I’ve never actually read the source material until now. If you’ve never read it, I highly suggest you do. The film version is excellent, but the book itself allows you to spend much more time with the person’s own words and delve much deeper.  I could write an entire article about it just quoting some of X’s great lines. His story allows you to see what he as a person was actually like and how he differs from the way he’s been publicly perceived. He comes through as a man willing to “accept the truth wherever I see it,“ to grow and change based on the facts as he discovers them. A man who with his whole heart wanted the best for his entire race, his people and ultimately all people. He was unafraid to speak his mind, wherever he was and to anyone that was present. In his own time he was labeled many things, and public opinion of him following his death has changed several times as the decades have passed. It took 30 years for a general support and celebration of his life and accomplishments to be acknowledged by the mainstream press and public, resulting in a USPS stamp bearing his image and an Oscar nominated and successful film which depicted his life story. I think that at this point the reality of the man himself has grown to become two opposing archetypes- – his detractors label him as an angry black man who espoused racial prejudices. His supporters depict him as a civil rights warrior who was the flip side of the coin to Dr. Martin Luther King. Both sides have truth in them- – he was angry, he was strongly and proudly black, and for a time he did espouse racial prejudices. There was a lengthy time in his public life in which he called all white people “devils.” Certainly he had personal reasons and motives for doing so, and arguably this time in his life was also very important and good things occurred as a result of his words and actions (such as a strengthening of “his” communities in inner cities, rehabilitation and sobering up of many drug addicts who became involved with NOI through Malcolm and an establishing of a new surge of “Black Pride”). But Malcolm would later come to regret all racist and separatist sentiments he had espoused. So both archetypes miss the full and better description of Malcolm-he represents the willingness to change opinions when presented with new information, he represents inner strength and the ability to fully transform yourself for the better (in his case 2 times). He represents total commitment to a cause and the struggle for equality and fairness. In short, he was so much that it’s impossible to “box him in.”

So as I thought about this I began to think about how most important cultural figures, especially those that die violently, became an icon, an archetype or a symbol after they die. Often there’s a split opinion as to what that symbol represents. This is the case with President Kennedy as well as Malcolm X. Kennedy died violently, early in his presidency. Decades after his death he is remembered as one of the greatest presidents in history by some, while others regard him as a womanizing young playboy who would would not be much remembered if not for his assassination. Once again, both views capture a portion of the truth but miss out on the full picture. He was young and charismatic, had extra-marital affairs and was beloved more for his image than his policies while he was alive. But to write him off is to overlook the things he did and the potential he had. He told the public America would land on the moon at a time when such things were outlandish, even setting a timeframe for such an accomplishment and it happened. He was beginning to actively address the civil rights movement. He was quite possibly in the process of withdrawing the US from Vietnam, a motive that may have played a part in his untimely death. Rather than being “the greatest President ever,” or an inconsequential president he should more accurately be remembered for the ideals he represented and the potential he had– a very wasted potential; a life cut off before his true worth and work could come to fruition, cut down by the meaningless violence that takes away far too many potentially great leaders in their prime.

These two-sided symbols aren’t exclusive to cultural figures from the ‘60s either. In more recent years we’ve seen Reagan’s image take on whole new levels in the years following his presidency and death. On the right, conservatives view him as the tough-talking and strong willed model to strive to be like while on the left he’s remembered most for much less inspiring qualities. Outside of politics and in more recent years, certain musicians become icons following young deaths. Kurt Cobain became a sort-of “voice of his generation” and Nirvana were heralded as being extremely important and relevant following his suicide; Tupac Shakur became the ultimate “thug messiah” figure in hip hop and fans literally considered he may have faked his death and would return, listening to his music for clues. Such events have long been a part of popular music, and as in the above two cases most of the time the core music is very good, but it takes on an entirely new level once the public fixes these artists into a certain role and place.
Quite often the image and symbol the person becomes grows much larger than the person themselves.  The face of Che Guevara has graced T-shirts for years as a symbol of revolution in and of itself. Che was a historical figure I knew little about, but based on his image and how he’s expressed today I assumed he did a lot of positive social work and aided in third-world progress. After viewing a documentary and reading a little about him I had to revise my opinion. Che may have came from wealth to aid the poor and live without his wealth; he fought to overthrow a corrupt system but became part of another corrupt system, one which eventually killed him. He too had potential, he cared for the poor and felt the urge to fight and risk death to advance them, but ultimately became just another cog in the machine. Today, teenagers everywhere sport his face as a support of revolution, a concept that for most of them is fairly vague and undirected.

Then of course there are those cultural figures most of us wish to keep in our minds as shining examples of their best qualities. Dr. King as a strong, peaceful civil rights leader. Gandhi as the ultimate pacifist and activist who led the people of India to topple the British stranglehold on them without lifting a single weapon. Mother Theresa as the ultimate humble, selfless service to the poor for the glory of God. People like these three have earned a place in modern sainthood so high that most of us wish to ever hear anything negative about them. In fact, their critics sound spiteful, petty and ignorant when they attempt to point out negative qualities of them. Critics of Gandhi have accused him of breaking his abstinence with teenage followers and using derogatory terms for the people of Africa. I’ve heard critics deride Mother Theresa for either doing all of the service to the sick and poor as a matter of religious conversion or for having crisis’ of faith. Those who refuse to give Dr. King his dues accuse him of extra-marital affairs. I discredit many such attacks of the above mentioned people, but I also think sanctifying them loses the point sometimes. Did Gandhi ever use a racial slur or sleep with a teenager? I don’t know; furthermore, I don’t care. His teachings, writing and actions speak volumes  in themselves and can’t be erased by any human faults. Did Dr. King have an affair? If so, that was a matter between he and his wife and it doesn’t take away from the great work he did and it doesn’t keep him from being one of the single greatest workers for human rights in all of history. Whatever motivated Mother Theresa, she did some of the most selfless and inspiring work with the poor this world has ever seen.

The point of all of this is that human beings are human beings- no matter how great or how terrible their actions are, they are still human and thus capable of excellence or failures, pertaining inspiring qualities and human error. People are so may things that it does their memory a disservice to try to lock them down in the history books or in public perception as one specific thing. Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Mother Theresa (to name a few of the figures I spoke of) were amazing, inspiring strong human beings who lived lives and did works that go well above what most of us ever think we can aim for. Yet they were human beings, people who had many sides and qualities and as such they can never be fully comprehended or briefly described by those of us that never knew them. We shouldn’t try to sum up an entire life with a single image.


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