A case for critical media literacy
MAY 19 IS Malcolm X’s birthday, and we were prompted by the likely misattribution of a viral quote to Malcolm X to think about memorizing the story. The quote runs (with occasional variations): “When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’ disease becomes well-being. In our research, we found it online, without any source cited, for almost a decade. Now, with the wave of fake news in the COVID-19 era (including questionable cures and even presidential suggestions to ‘research’ bleach ingestion), the line has resurfaced, but with more of verve.
Having worked as researchers for the Malcolm X Project at Columbia University, we were both bewildered by the origin of this quote. In all of our archival studies of primary sources, including Malcolm’s writings, speeches, diaries, interviews, and even declassified FBI files, none of us remembered ever coming across this line.
In fact, the basic framework for the quote might have emerged at the end of the 19th century, to be fully fleshed out in a 1984 speech by Charles Roppel, head of the Mental Health Promotion Branch of the Department of Mental Health. from California, citing a 1982 campaign article promoting friendship as good medicine. A 1976 lecture by Toni Morrison titled “Moral Inhabitants” reflected the notion of radical collective care expressed in the quote: “I refuse the prison of ‘I’, says Morrison, and I choose the open spaces of ‘we’.
The virality of this meme reveals our desire to hear a figure like Malcolm X deliver a message of interconnection in our deeply divided times. Why else would graffiti artist Faust stick this quote on bus stops and phone booths in New York City, or spiritual writer Lalah Delia? to share with its tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter? CNN host Chris Cuomo opened and closed one of his shows with this line! Further perpetuating the questionable attribution, centers and museums dedicated to Malcolm X have digitally reposted or retweeted the quote.
All of this presents a dilemma for future historians. How will we tell the story of this moment when so many untruths are circulating online? As historians ourselves, we often think about what it means to record history and how to tell it. Obviously, the issue of stories compromised by biased or whitewashed sources has always been with us. But how will historians write about our current era of mistaken attributions and deep false videos?
In the CNN article cited above, Cuomo strongly insists that his wife verified and rechecked Malcolm’s paternity of the line. But what does that even mean? Did she make sure it was shared more widely on Instagram or that people she trusted tweeted it? Is this how we determine the veracity of a quote today – not by citing a reliable source but simply by pointing out its cultural ubiquity? Memes are certainly a form of historical recording, but the way the historian uses them must be more rigorous than that.
Of course, the problem of compromised provisioning is not unique to the Internet age. (For example, scholars of literature suspect that the American poet Daniel Ladinsky incorporated his own verses in his alleged translation of the work of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez.) To make history and remember, we must adopt a more rigorous approach. sharing, retweeting and posting. In an age when algorithms produce echo chambers that isolate and compartmentalize online research, our realities can be constructed through our projected biases. How to break this entanglement?
First of all, we need to understand our online engagement as an integral part of our involvement in public life, perhaps even as a civic duty. It is therefore our common duty to filter what we consume online through the prism of critical media literacy. When we see a quote that resonates with us, do we pause to look for sources of supply? Especially if the person named is now dead, how can we be really sure that this line has crossed their lips or their pen without any direct citation? Are preventative Twitter prompts part of a Civic integrity policy aimed at identifying misleading information and disputed and unverified claims – doing this work for us effectively? What new standards and protocols should we take into account when sharing information? The question is crucial not only for historians but for all members of civil society, all “online citizens”.
Another quote from Toni Morrison (from her essay “The Price of Wealth, The Cost of Care”) crystallizes the collective duty we take on in the digital media age: “You, all of us,” Morrison writes, ” are struggling to transform data. in information in knowledge and, we hope, in wisdom. In this process, we owe everything to others. We are all history makers. Even though we don’t study history as academics, we make it happen every day when we tweet a review (food for sociologists assessing political sentiments in 2020), post portraits on Instagram (raw material for a Aesthetic Trends Case Study), or share COVID-19 conspiracy theories on Facebook (evidence for a study of popular attitudes toward epidemiology and public health).
Why has Malcolm X become such an important source that so many people are turning to right now? What this misattributed quote reveals, we believe, has more to do with us than with Malcolm. Clearly, we are desperate for a message of collective healing through collaboration, a message that we associate with one of the greatest mobilizing forces in history.
Associate Professor of Social Justice and Community Organization at Prescott College, Maytha Alhassen is a historian, journalist, poet and organizer. She co-founded several social justice organizations, including the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, the Social Justice Institute at Occidental College, Believers Bail Out and, following the brutal murder of George Floyd, the Arabs for Black Lives Collective.
Zaheer Ali is a story writer at Sapelo Square, an online resource on black Muslims in the United States; a Muslim Narrative Change Fellow at the Pillars Fund; and a Soros Equality Fellow of the Open Society Foundations 2020-2021. He led the Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Muslims in Brooklyn” public history and art initiative, and was a senior scholar for Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).