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Commentary on local issues, viewpoints of residents and community leaders, and letters : Malcolm X, American. : Freedom Is a Precious Commodity, One Worth Dying Over. And He Knew That.

October 04, 1992|JO MUSE | Jo Muse is chairman of Muse Cordero Chen Inc., a Mid-Wilshire advertising agency specializing in multicultural advertising and marketing. Muse is also helping coordinate the advertising campaign for Rebuild LA

The media image was shocking. A young, stoic Korean man, standing defensively on the mean streets of Los Angeles, wielding a semiautomatic pistol. In broad daylight. Just months ago, it seemed the stuff of gangster movies or international news clips. But instead, it stands today as a contemporary icon of the trouble stalking America--trouble with its people.

This news photo of the Korean defender also provides a clue to a potential way out of the morass we've come to call race relations. It was on the T-shirt he wore proudly. It displayed an image of Malcolm X standing by a window, brandishing an automatic weapon. Imprinted across the young man's shirt was an infamous quote often times attributed to Malcolm: "By any means necessary." The news photo caption also read: "This is not America." But, in fact, this convoluted image is vintage Americana.

I grew up during the Detroit riots. Soul brother signs. The National Guard. Fear. Anger. The mixture hasn't lost its potency. The causes and solutions are no clearer today. However, what it means to be an American has more clarity. We have spread our brand of patriotism worldwide, only to have it come back to us in the faces and minds of immigrants, hellbent on being a better brand of American than many of us that are already here.

If you want to find out what makes a great American, forget the history books. Talk to the people that fight political and economic persecution just for the opportunity to live here. They'll tell you about what values speak of America. Like freedom. Hard work. Opportunity. And family.

Malcolm's quote for many new and old Americans is a call to arms in the name of freedom. My Korean friends, employees and associates don't really see it as a "black thing." They see it as words to live by. And for good reason. Before Malcolm was a leader, he was an American. Ja yu, as freedom is called in Korean, is a precious commodity. One worth dying over. In fact, my contention is that recent Korean immigrants understand the values we hold dear in this country because the many noteworthy defenders and advocates of these values also bear the racial distinction of being African-American. Malcolm may have done more than inspire African-Americans toward freedom and self-determination. He may have helped define what it is to be a 20th-Century American.

In this age of instant access to billions of bits of electronic information, it's perplexing to admit that perhaps at the heart of racial tension and distrust is avoiding the knowledge that we all are mere human beings. Do the same people that burn out merchants for being Korean understand that discrimination and racial hatred have followed the global Korean community for hundreds of years, much like African-Americans? Or the merchants that preach their own brand of bigotry and ignorance know that African-Americans like Malcolm and Martin Luther King Jr. helped promote self-determination and equality for all people?

The American penchant for hard work is called yul shim e il ham to a Korean. It simply means working hard toward a goal. To thousands of Korean immigrants, America is filled with glorious opportunity. And purposeful hard work could provide an advantage in acquiring the American dream of self-reliance and economic betterment. Perhaps even some Korean immigrants felt the same emotions when they came to America that Malcolm must have felt during his pilgrimage to Mecca. It could be said that each were following mok juk ji-- their destiny.

Korean immigrants appreciate the American promise of hard work, purpose and freedom, not unlike my sharecropping grandfather from Mississippi. He turned the adversity of slavery into accomplishment by becoming a successful farmer and father. And I'm sure my Big Daddy did more than simply understand the benefits of hard work, purpose and freedom. He lived it.

In any language or culture, these American values are cultivated, stimulated and made bountiful by the efforts of immigrants. Among them are those that found their destiny here, draped in the evils of slavery.

Los Angeles is poised on the brink of a cultural evolution, one that offers for our own inspection the spectacle of racial fusion. We aren't a patchwork of different cultures, identities and preferences. We are indeed becoming one people. A composite. A singular rhythm. The substance of a compressed humanity. If we are to come out of this collective epoch with magnified purpose and direction, we must promote the concept of simply being human. Not being the protectors of culture, the benefactors of social change or the harbingers of justice. Just human beings sharing a brief moment in time.

Big Daddy would say: "Y'all are just common folk, trying to stand on shaky ground, smack in the middle of the desert."

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