From Any Memes Necessary: A Case for Critical Media Literacy
May 19, 2021
MAY 19th IS Malcolm X’s birthday, and the likely misapplication of a viral quote to Malcolm X made us think about internalizing the story. The quote reads (with occasional variations), “When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’, disease becomes wellness.” In our research, we found that it has been popping up online for almost a decade without a source being cited. Now, with the barrage of false hope messages in the age of COVID-19 (including dubious panaceas and even the president’s suggestions to investigate bleach ingestion), the line has re-emerged, but with more momentum.
After working as researchers for Columbia University’s Malcolm-X Project, we were both confused about the origin of this quote. In all of our archival studies of the primary sources, including Malcolm’s writings, speeches, diaries, interviews, and even declassified FBI files, none of us could recall ever coming across this line.
In fact, the basic framework of the quote could have originated in the late 19th century, only around 1984 in a speech given by Charles Roppel, director of the Department of Mental Health Promotion at the California Department of Mental Health, citing a 1982 campaign promoting the Friendship as good medicine. A 1976 lecture by Toni Morrison entitled “Moral Inhabitants” reflected the idea of radical collective care expressed in the quote: “I reject the prison of the ‘I’,” says Morrison, “and choose the open spaces of the ‘we’. “
The virality of this meme shows our desire to hear a message of connectedness from a character like Malcolm X in our deeply divided era. Why else would the graffiti artist Faust stick this quote on bus stops and phone booths in New York or the spiritual writer Lalah Delia share it with her tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter? CNN presenter Chris Cuomo opened and closed one of his shows with this line! To further maintain the dubious attribution, centers and museums dedicated to Malcolm X digitally reposted or retweeted the quote.
All of this poses a dilemma for future historians. How are we going to tell the story of that moment when so many falsehoods are floating around online? As historians, we ourselves often think about what it means to record history and how to tell it. The problem of stories being compromised by biased or whitewashed sources has clearly always been with us. But how are historians going to write about our current era of meme-driven misspellings and deep fake videos?
In the CNN article cited above, Cuomo strongly insists that his wife verify and re-verify Malcolm’s authorship of the line. But what does that mean anyway? Did she make it more widely shared on Instagram or get trusted people to tweet it? Is this how we determine the veracity of a quotation – not by quoting a reliable source, but simply by referring to its cultural ubiquity? Memes are certainly a form of historical record, but how the historian uses them has to be more rigorous.
Of course, the problem of compromised procurement is not only known in the Internet age. (For example, literary scholars suspect that the American poet Daniel Ladinsky wrote his own verse in his alleged translation of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez’s work for sharing, retweeting and posting. At a time when algorithms create echo chambers that isolate online searches and siloing, our realities can be constructed by our projected prejudices. How do we break this entanglement?
First, we have to understand our online engagement as part of our engagement in public life, perhaps even as a civic duty. It is therefore our mutual obligation to filter what we consume online through a critical media literacy. If we see an offer that appeals to us, do we stop to look for a source of supply? Especially if the person quoted has now passed away, how can we really be sure that this line passed through their lips or pen without a direct quotation? Are Twitter’s preventive prompts – part of a civic integrity policy aimed at identifying misleading information and controversial and unconfirmed claims – doing this job effectively for us? What new standards and protocols should we consider when exchanging information? The question is of vital importance not only to historians, but to 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 that we have in the age of digital media: “You, we all,” writes Morrison, “fight, to transform data ”. into information into knowledge and, we hope, into wisdom. We owe everything else. ”We are all historians. Even if we don’t study history as scientists, we make it every day when we tweet an opinion (feed for sociologists evaluating the political sentiments of 2020), post portraits on Instagram (raw material for a case study on aesthetic trends) or conspiracy theories on COVID-19 on Facebook (evidence from a study of population attitudes towards epidemiology and public health).
Why has Malcolm X become a major resource so many are turning to right now? What this mismatched quote reveals has more to do with us than with Malcolm, in our opinion. Obviously, we are desperately looking for a message of collective healing through collaboration, a message that we associate with one of the greatest mobilizing forces in history.
Maytha Alhassen, Associate Professor of Social Justice and Community Organization at Prescott College, is a historian, journalist, poet, and organizer. She has co-founded several social justice organizations including the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, the Social Justice Institute at Occidental College, Believers Bail Out and, after the brutal murder of George Floyd, the Arabs for Black Lives Collective.
Zaheer Ali is the history editor at Sapelo Square, an online resource on black Muslims in the United States; a Muslim Narrative Change Fellow at the Pillars Fund; and a 2020-’21 Open Society Foundations Soros Equality Fellow. He led the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Muslims in Brooklyn public history and arts initiative and was the lead researcher for Manning Marable’s Pulitzer-winning book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).