Essay: On the Organic Intellectual

I remember reading Malcolm X’s autobiography a few short years ago (I know, I was late to the party) and being amazed that this powerful man of American history received no formal education beyond grade eight, but learned much of what he knew IN PRISON!
Of course, history is filled with slaves who taught themselves to read, but to find out that about such a revolutionary and counter-cultural figure was quite surprising. Yet, as his daughter Attallah Shabazz made sure to mention in her Foreword to X’s autobiography, he grew up in an environment that was intellectually stimulating: “But if his first fourteen years hadn’t been rooted in a healthy diet of education and the richness of his heritage, Malcolm wouldn’t have found himself gravitating to the prison libraries after he was incarcerated” (p. XV).

Malcolm X, like many of the great black thinkers of the present time and long ago, was an organic intellectual. Like bell hooks, my favourite cultural critic who continuously returns to her experience as a black, woman, living in a “white, supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy,” in her theorizing, his knowledge was fed from the ground of his difficult existence.Of course, he was not perfect, and his message before he went to Mecca was filled with the same hate for the “White Man” that was spewed at blacks. But, as Tupac said so beautifully in his poem “The Rose That Grew From the Concrete,” such roses have “damaged petals.” Instead of asking “Why?” we should celebrate their “tenacity” and ask “How?” they were able to grow out of such miserable circumstances.

We are the roses, This is the concrete, These are our damaged petals. – Tupac

Don’t believe the hype. The current rhetoric of our contemporary society is that being formally educated is the “answer” to many ills. The notion being shoved down the masses throats is that the more degrees you have, the better the chances are that you will get a good job, and all will be well. While having a formal education is useful, and having two degrees puts me in the sometimes uncomfortable position of elites pushing formal education, if you are unable or unwilling to get a formal education there are many dynamic thinkers who have defeated the odds and made a powerful impact on our society. The reality is that not all of us will have the same opportunities… which does not mean that we should be complacent and accept this as fate… but it does mean that we should not be deceived into thinking that because we do not have a bunch of letters behind our name that our opinions don’t count or that we don’t have something worth saying (and worth hearing). If you want to sharpen your knowledge or understanding on a topic, there is always a library and in our contemporary, technologically savvy society, the internet. Books can be purchased on Kindle (or even downloaded on PDF… although it is not legal in cases where copyrights have not run out). It is possible to be “self” educated, and knowledgeable beyond the years of those “formally” educated.

I wrote when I was in highschool. I wrote fantasy fiction and poems, but I wrote all the same. In my years off school, when I was working, I found a way to write, and read. Not caring whether anyone read it, I wrote short essays on my ideas about the world and in journals. Sometimes sporadically, because working full-time leaves little time for leisure, but it was my passion, so I pursued it as much as I could. There are many people who are formally educated who are certain of nothing (as a philosophy major… trust me, I know) and doubt even the knowledge they have acquired for its impracticality. You, who have lived and who have experienced enough to know certain things for sure, have a leg up on such intellectuals in many ways. Even on me, who has not lived long enough to experience as much, and to know – for sure – nearly as much as my parents or grandparents do.

Many a man was educated outside the school room. It is something you let out, not completely take in. You are part of it, for it is natural; it is dormant simply because you will not develop it, but God creates every man with it knowingly or unknowingly to him who possesses it — that’s the difference. Develop yours and you become as great and full of knowledge as the other fellow without even entering the class room.

Marcus Garvey

T. M. G.

Works Cited

Jacques Garvey, Amy. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Part 1, p. 15 – 16.

X, Malcolm, Alex Haley and Attallah Shabazz. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. United States: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999.

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