By Any Memes Necessary: A Case for Critical Media Literacy

May 19, 2021   •   By Maytha Alhassen, Zaheer Ali

MAY 19 IS Malcolm X’s birthday, and we have been prompted by the probable misattribution of a viral quotation to Malcolm X to think about the memeification of history. The quotation runs (with occasional variations): “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we,’ illness becomes wellness.” In our research, we’ve found it popping up online, with no source cited, for almost a decade. Now, with the surge of false-hope news in the age of COVID-19 (including dubious cure-alls and even presidential suggestions to “look into” ingesting bleach), the line has resurfaced, but with more verve.


Having worked as researchers for Columbia University’s Malcolm X Project, we were both bewildered by the origin of this quotation. In all our archival study of primary sources, including Malcolm’s writings, speeches, diaries, interviews, and even declassified FBI files, neither of us could recall ever encountering this line.


In fact, the basic framework of the quotation might have emerged in the late 19th century, only to be fully fleshed out in a 1984 speech by Charles Roppel, head of the Mental Health Promotion Branch of the California Department of Mental Health, citing a 1982 campaign promoting friendship as good medicine. A 1976 lecture by Toni Morrison entitled “Moral Inhabitants” reflected the notion of radical collective care expressed in the quotation: “I refuse the prison of the ‘I,’” Morrison says, “and choose the open spaces of ‘we.’”


The virality of this meme reveals our desire to hear a figure like Malcolm X deliver a message of interconnectedness in our deeply divided era. Why else would graffiti artist Faust plaster this quotation on bus stops and phone booths in New York, or spiritual writer Lalah Delia share it with her tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and Twitter? CNN host Chris Cuomo opened and closed one of his broadcasts with this line! Further perpetuating the dubious attribution, centers and museums devoted to Malcolm X digitally reposted or retweeted the quotation.


All of this presents a dilemma for future historians. How will we tell the story of this moment when so many untruths are floating around online? As historians ourselves, we think often about what it means to record history and how to tell it. Clearly, the issue of histories being compromised by biased or whitewashed sources has always been with us. But how will historians write about our current era of meme-driven misattributions and deep-fake videos?


In the CNN piece cited above, Cuomo vigorously insists that his wife checked and re-checked Malcolm’s authorship of the line. But what does that even mean? Did she make sure it was more broadly shared on Instagram or that trustworthy people tweeted it? Is that how we determine the veracity of a quotation now — not by citing a reliable source but simply by pointing to its cultural ubiquity? Memes are certainly a form of historical record, but how the historian makes use of them must be more rigorous than that.


Of course, the problem of compromised sourcing is not unique to the internet age. (For example, literary scholars suspect that American poet Daniel Ladinsky folded his own verse into his purported translation of the work of 14th-century Persian poet Hafez.) For the sake of history-making and remembering, we need to adopt a more rigorous approach to sharing, retweeting, and posting. In a time when algorithms produce echo chambers that isolate and silo online searches, our realities can be constructed by our projected biases. How do we break through this enmeshment?


First of all, we must understand our online engagement as part and parcel of our involvement in public life, perhaps even as a civic duty. It is thus our shared obligation to filter what we consume online through a lens of critical media literacy. When we see a quotation that resonates with us, do we pause to look for sourcing? Especially if the person being quoted is now deceased, how can we be truly sure this line moved through their lips or pen without any direct citation? Are Twitter’s preemptive prompts — part of a Civic Integrity Policy aimed at identifying misleading information and disputed and unverified claims — doing this work for us effectively? What new standards and protocols should we be considering when sharing information? The question is crucial not just for historians but for all members of civil society, all “online citizens.”


Another quotation from Toni Morrison (from her essay “The Price of Wealth, The Cost of Care”) crystallizes the collective duty we bear in the age of digital media: “You, all of us,” Morrison writes, “struggle to turn data into information into knowledge and, we hope, into wisdom. In that process we owe everything to others.” We are all history-makers. Even if we are not studying history as scholars, we are making it every day when we tweet an opinion (fodder for sociologists assessing the political sentiments of 2020), post portraits on Instagram (raw material for a case study of aesthetic trends), or share conspiracy theories about COVID-19 on Facebook (evidence for a study of popular attitudes toward epidemiology and public health).


Why has Malcolm X become an important source that so many are turning to at this moment? What this misattributed quotation reveals, we believe, has more to do with us than with Malcolm. Clearly, we are desperately seeking a message of collective healing through collaboration, a message we associate with one of the greatest mobilizing forces in history.


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Associate Professor in Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College, Maytha Alhassen is a historian, journalist, poet, and organizer. She has co-founded multiple social justice organizations, including the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, the Social Justice Institute at Occidental College, Believers Bail Out, and, in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal murder, the Arabs for Black Lives Collective.


Zaheer Ali is History Editor at Sapelo Square, an online resource on Black Muslims in the US; a Muslim Narrative Change Fellow at the Pillars Fund; and a 2020–’21 Open Society Foundations Soros Equality Fellow. He directed the Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Muslims in Brooklyn” public history and arts initiative, and he was a lead researcher for Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).