History Through Matana Roberts & Malcolm X

During  Professor Jessica Johnson’s talk, she talked about archival history and how we can create alternative archives through simulation, re-enactment, and our imagination. What resonated with me the most from her talk was when she said that the archive provides a basic structure of what history is since history itself is subjective. It can work as a framework or as dots that we can connect ourselves to redefine history.

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One of the examples that Professor Johnson spoke of was Matana Roberts. Roberts is an artist, specializing as a jazz saxophonist, clarinetist, and sound experimentalist, and she does exactly what Johnson is referring to with history. In Roberts’ work “Mississippi Moonchile” Roberts creates a song using technique called “panoramic sound quilting” which integrates spoken word, singing, screaming, Bible verses, and civil rights dialogue. What Johnson said about Roberts was that because there was no archive and no potential for archive of slaves screaming, she recreated the sound herself to put on the track.

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Although fiction appears to take away from the real, fiction is oftentimes used in order to illuminate what cannot be told like dreams, memories, and fantasies. Reenactment and animation, techniques associated with fiction, are oftentimes used in documentaries, which blurs the binary of objective and subjective, to create a new vision of reality.

Roberts creates a new sound archive through her reenacting the screaming of slaves. Her work reconstructs abstract history in a space of imagination and abstraction. She rewrites history.

A similar act occurs in Malcolm X in one of the final scenes. We are introduced to a classroom where we see a teacher instructing a class the significance of May 19th, which is Malcolm X’s birthday. In the US, only Illinois and Berkeley, CA observe this holiday whereas MLK Jr. Day is a national holiday.

The reasoning behind MLK Jr. Day is to honor MLK Jr. and the work he contributed to changing America during the Civil Rights Movement.  Malcolm X was also a pivotal figure in the Civil Rights Movement, but he lacks the same recognition as MLK Jr. in history due to his “radical” nature of by any means necessary.

In providing this alternative archive, Lee produces a world in which Malcolm X is seen for the positive leader that he is and destigmatizes him. The children internalizing him by saying “I am Malcolm X” is to stand up against history. Lee juxtaposes the innocence of children and the perceptions people have of Malcolm X as a radical terror so that people reevaluate their beliefs of X. This juxtaposition occurs even today during Ferguson when people internalize the victims that the police unjustly targeted. The demonization of black bodies by the public narrative is redefined through the reaffirmation of the victims’ identities–I am Eric Garner; I am Michael Brown; I am Tamir Rice; I am Sandra Bland.

It is important for us to recreate history and add to the archive because the history that we have is incomplete. Both Lee and Roberts accomplish this in different ways.



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