I have learned myriad lessons from my perch as an African-American studies professor enjoying the privilege of working with American youth. Probably the most encouraging of all of these lessons has been that most young people are what could be termed “one book away” from transforming a directionless life into “a life worth living.” I, along with thousands of other educators, fervently believe that the path to “a life worth living” is strewn with substantive writings that are essential to both their present and future.
I honestly hold this belief of being “one book away” as a transformative, if not a sacred lesson that every educator should believe it. My faith in this intellectual principle flows from two spaces, the first being I am a product of this mantra and the second being I have successfully applied this principle to my students.
Although I do not remember the date, I do recall being nineteen-years-old when I traveled with my mother to the University of Akron to hear Jawanza Kunjufu speak about a host of topics. I am not ashamed to relate that at that moment in my life, I was a directionless African-American male who had yet to find his way in life. The credit for this day’s impact is not attributable to Kunjufu’s lengthy presentation. My transformation occurred after the presentation when my mother introduced me to this esteemed educator, and he offered me a piece of advice that reverberates with me to this very moment. Jawanza Kunjufu looked at me sincerely and stated: “Young man, when you go back to your collegiate campus, I want you to go to the library and pick up a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I had no comprehension that this directive was my moment, my “one book away” moment that transformed my life forever.
It would be impossible to overstate the extraordinary influence that The Autobiography of Malcolm X had in my life. This book that I read from cover-to-cover five consecutive times in the course of a week instantaneously changed me. If African-American studies were a drug, I was most certainly hooked by this first hit.
As I am confident that you can imagine, this “one book away” transformation that has framed my life for the past thirty years is an educational tool that I have repeatedly applied to the young African-American males that enter my course as unanchored as I was that moment my path crossed that of Jawanza Kunjufu. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that of all the students I have instructed during the past twenty years, the individual whose transformation most closely mirrors my own, meaning as a result of their exposure to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, was a young brother from Dallas, Texas, named Michael Cleere.
Trust me when I say that the moment Michael Cleere entered my course, I instantaneously made several significant judgments regarding this brother on-site; few, if any of these observations extended beyond neutral. Mr. Cleere was a young black male covered with several tattoos, sitting in the back corner of the classroom, staring off out the window, and determined to not engage me in any shape, form, or fashion; except for the tattoos, he reminded me of myself twenty years prior.
Eventually, this young man lowered his defense mechanisms and engaged the robust conversations that we had in that course. However, things took a decided turn when Michael Cleere engaged The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he not only took to it like a fish to water but also differentiated himself from his contemporaries as one of the most astute and serious-minded students I have ever encountered. Through Malcolm X’s story, Mr. Cleere had crossed an all-important threshold and would enjoy the fruits of that momentous occasion for the rest of his life.
I am certain that any, including the subject of this posting, are wondering why I chose to write about this matter. Well, the answer is fairly straightforward. During the annual homage that all revolutionary-minded African-American men must pay to Malcolm X on his birthday, Michael Cleere posted about his reverence of Brother Malcolm. I took the occasion to ask him a simple query, “Who has been more influential in your life? Me or Malcolm?” Although the question was presented in jest, the answer was humbling. Mr. Cleere responded, “Ahhhhh Doc, that’s a tough one. You know that I love Malcolm, but I also realize that without you, I would have never met Malcolm.” I could do nothing other than laugh at the politically correct answer that was carefully crafted to offend neither Malcolm nor I.
One thing is for certain; I am proud to say that I have helped so many of our people who are “One book away” find that book. Trust me when I say that it is an experience that brings truth to the saying that “It is better to give than to receive.”
Dr. James Thomas Jones III
© Manhood, race and Culture, 2017.