I don't usually give a lot of thought as to who my heroes are. When I do think of it, I think of people who have inspired me in one way or another. Shakespeare is definitely one of my heroes - not only because so many of his plays speak to me, but because of the sheer impact that he has made upon not just the English language but upon the entire world. As somebody who aspires to write, you just don't get a better role model than him. After him, I'd probably list off all sorts of creative types from high literature to pure pop culture.
But if I have to rule out people who have made their mark due to artistic and literary contributions, I'd have to go with El-Hajj Malik el Shabazz, who's better known to the world as Malcolm X. I'm fortunate enough to have his autobiography be one of the novels that my seniors read, and I think that it's an important book for them to read for several reasons. One reason is that they get to learn a bit more about the Civil Rights Movement, and while it's clearly important for them to learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., it's good to show them that there was more to it than that - there were some black people who were downright angry and didn't feel as though King spoke for them. I also like teaching it because most people only know Malcolm for his speeches about the white man being the devil (if they know anything at all, that is). This includes people who are old enough to have remembered him! I think that people should know that he spoke out against those sorts of attitudes in the last couple years of his life. (Who knows? Perhaps if he wasn't assasinated at a young age, he'd be remembered more for his positive statements.)
There's a line from Julius Caesar that fits Malcolm's reputation rather well. "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." It seems like people would rather remember the negative. Fortunately, the resurgance in interest about fifteen years ago helped changed that a little bit, and Spike Lee's movie helped to correct things. (The film, which is arguably one of the best biopics ever made, was my introduction to the man. I wouldn't realize until much later just how profound of an impact it had on me.)
Here's the thing though. One time, a concerned father came up to me on back to school night and said that he didn't think that Malcolm's book was worth studying. He was very reasonable about it, and we had a nice discussion. He even lent me a book of Malcolm's speeches where he underlined some particularly heinous things that Malcolm said - and some of the questionable passages came after Malcolm's rejection of the Nation of Islam. I suppose that he figured that would make me change my mind about the man.
The thing is, there are a lot of things that Malcolm X said that I don't agree with. I think that he's a sexist. I think that some of his attitudes were off the mark. I'm sure that if you were to channel his spirit into my room, I'd have a lot to argue about with him. The man is not my hero because I agree with everything that he says. That's not the point.
He's my hero because he embodies the one quality that I value the most - the desire to constantly learn and improve one's self. The man's life was one of constant change. Some of the changes were definitely for the worse, many of them for the better. (And think about it - when he was preaching for the Nation of Islam, he was no longer on drugs and committing crimes. This doesn't excuse it, but it does show that nothing is completely black or white.)
That's impressive enough, but this quality, coupled by his amazing courage is what inspires me. He knew that by speaking out against the organization that he was once a part of that he was painting a target on his chest. Read his book - he predicted that his life would end violently. But what did he do? Did he just go along with what he knew was a lie? No. He spoke out - and he was killed for it.
It's easy for me to point out the things that I think are wrong in this world. I hope that I'll never have to find out whether I'm willing to die for it. I'd like to think that I'd have that kind of courage, and Malcolm X shows that it's possible for us to have that kind of courage.
The first year I taught his book, I don't think that I did that great of a job. I didn't emphasize enough how he was laying his life on the line by going against the Nation of Islam. One girl even said, "So he changed his mind. What's the big deal?" A lot of kids also got too hung up on his constant criticizing of white people. I always make a little speech when we start the book, pointing out that the point of this whole thing is not that white people are bad, even though he says things that are undeniably true about what white people did in the past. I jokingly say to my students, "I wouldn't want you guys to walk away with that because, and this might come as a shock to many of you - but I happen to be a white person myself. My mother was a white woman, and my dad was a white man."
I also tie his life story in with Beowulf and Siddhartha, if you can believe that. I teach about archetypes and the hero's journey, and Malcolm's autobiography is the bridge that shows the connection between myths and reality. Of course, I emphasize that when I talk about heroes, I'm using the mythic sense of the word, not the modern day connotation. In myths, all the hero needs to do is be brave and overcome great obstacles. (This is why characters like Macbeth and Richard III can be referred to as heroes.) Still, for me, Malcolm embodies both meanings of the word.