Glenn Ligon put pink lipstick on Malcolm X.
On Malcolm’s eyelids, he dusted a blue made luminous by lead.
On his cheeks, he painted two copper dots, like a doll’s rouge.
The process was gentle. It involved coloring books and children.
Glenn Ligon titled the painting Malcolm X (Version 1) #1 (2000).
Ligon loved a curator named Thelma Golden, who looked at the image for a long time.
I don’t know, she said.
But he let it hang in Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center.
People called for the painting’s head, and it died on the wall
the way everyone wanted. But in the art world people were
always declaring this defunct, that dead. The curator was not scared.
She tasted the eyeshadow and tried to see
the eyeshadow Ligon had seen on
Malcolm, beneath. She tried to see how
the lips that said If you’re a man, you take it
still spoke today.
If a child puts Malcolm in a dress then some say respect ends.
But if we reach up to Malcolm with our lipgloss, he smiles.
If we put it on ourselves first, to show how it isn’t poison,
he shrugs and takes a sip of water. He says there’s poison everywhere.
Why didn’t he say that then? Because he was made of time
like we are. We are made of time and so we don’t know.
In the future, we will not be golden if we don’t do the work.
But if we do the work we’ll hear the art calling for our heads.
Ligon knew that Malcolm was responsible for women who make themselves,
and he was also responsible for the lead found in eyeshadow, bullets, and water.
And Glenn Ligon is responsible for Malcolm X and eyeshadow and water.
And you and I are responsible for Glenn Ligon and bullets and water and women.
Glenn Ligon reaches up to you with the glowing blue.
You should close your eyes so that it goes on smoother.
Savor the metals, and watch them drink up the coloring children.
Soon the children will stop their gentle work and wonder what you were thinking.