Last fall, editor Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Michael Dawson, Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. The interview, which centered around a discussion of Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm X, was broadcast on September 30, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is a revised and edited transcript of the interview.
IN A 2005 COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.” At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy—“by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary”—and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.