May 19 should be a worldwide holiday. It will never happen in the United States, but the day needs to be more celebrated as the birth day of one of the greatest men in our history. Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) and later known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz was born on May 19, 1925. In a relatively short life (he was killed by assassins on February 21, 1965 at the age of 39) he had a profound impact on millions of lives that continues on well after his untimely death. His growth and evolution as a man could only lead many of us to wildly speculate what his influence and presence would have continued to mean. Had he lived as long a life as say Nelson Mandela, who was nearly seven years older and died in 2013, there is no telling how differently history and white society would have looked upon Malcom and his greatness endures inspite of the false narratives and perceptions that define his legacy.
I was born after Malcolm passed. Even though I was raised by an incredible woman, I am unashamed to say that everything I learned about truly being a man I learned from Malcolm X. I read “The Autobiography of Malcom X when I was 19. I was a student at Columbia University, itself immersed in student protests that centered on calls for the University and others to divest from companies that did business with South Africa because of its racist and separatist system of apartheid. Mandela was still imprisoned at the time.
As a New Yorker I was of course familiar with Malcom, but honestly after doing most of my high school years at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, most of my knowledge of Malcolm came from a mixture of tales of Hustlers who had proclaimed to have heard him speak, t-shirts slogans and medallions in Harlem extolling “By Any Means Necessary” and no disrespect, but surface level pieces that would be written from time to time by publications like Ebony and Jet.
An old hustler gave me his copy of the autobiography along with several other books about him including books detailing speeches and quotes, and without hyperbole, my life changed forever. I understand that different people can read the same information and come out with different takes or understandings of what they have read, I will simply share mine and why his words and life have had such a profound effect on my own.
Malcolm, was a deeply flawed man. Essentially orphaned and through numerous foster homes by the time he was 13, he ended up in a life that involved crimes eventually serving a sentence for burglary at the age of 20.
In prison he ended up converting to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Many people, lost… dependent on drugs, seek answers when incarcerated. He became a voracious leader and once released six years later, Malcolm went on to become the most dynamic speaker and recruiter for the NOI. The man’s dedication and loyalty to espousing the words of Elijah Muhammad were impressive and eloquent, whether you agreed or not. He was not an independent thinker at this time, but instead a steadfast and unwavering supporter of the Nation and its teachings, all during a time when African Americans were fighting for the most basic civil rights against centuries of White Supremacy, systematic racism, police brutality and social injustices.
The Nation taught, in part, seperatisim and Malcolm was its most recognizable and ardent supporter. The Nation also did not believe in non-violence. Now, here is one of the greatest misconceptions about Malcolm and his teachings and words. As opposed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many of the Southern Christian Leaders who promoted a movement of non-violence in which they would essentially turn the other cheek to the heavy handed tactics of their oppressors, the NOI and Malcolm did not subscribe to such a tenet.
In fact the opposite. All of these Constitutionalist and NRA supporters who shout out the 2nd Amendment at every turn as the example of our God given right to protect ourselves “By Any Means Necessary” should be the greatest supporters of Malcolm’s philosophies on self protection. Yet, for those that characterize Malcolm as violent…prove it. He has never been associated with any act of violence once released from prison. A Black man defiantly saying that he will not allow another man to put his hands on him or harm him as a means or defending himself or his family are not a cry for violence… just a declaration for self defense to the brutality that was openly and often taking place against People Of Color (POC).
That iconic photo of Malcolm holding an assault rifle and always captioned and attributed to his declarations to protect oneself “By Any Means Necessary” is grossly taken out of context historically.
The photo was taken by Ebony immediately after Malcolm’s house had been firebombed, nearly killing himself and his wife and children, in the midst of his dispute with the NOI. A man standing guard over a potentially imminent threat, yet the image has been unfairly used to promote Malcom as a gun toting hood. Again, show me any proof that he carried, or used a gun ever. The image shows a man willing to do whatever was necessary to protect his family… not a bloodthirsty person that actually advocates any type of direct violence against Whites or anyone other than as a means of self preservation.
The Firebombing of his house was indicative of the eventual dissolution Malcolm felt toward the Nation sparked by findings that Elijah Muhammad had engaged in several relationships, fathering children with women, outside the bounds of the teachings Malcolm was so dedicated to. Whether you agreed with Malcolm or the teaching of the NOI, how could you not do anything but admire the purity of the man’s faith. It was clear Malcolm loved Black people… He loved POC and he had no outside agenda of political aspirations, fame and any of the ancillary benefits that come with that including money. By every account this was a devout family man, faithful to his wife and dedicated to his beliefs, and children.
I did not/do not believe many of the views expressing separatism. I am an American and while I am absolutely aware of this country’s complicated and at times hypocritical stance on acknowledging its problems with race and social injustice, I believe that self empowerment and working within the system are the only way to tackle the problem when living within a diverse society.
These are lessons I learned form Malcolm. A man who eventually grew to see and admit the flaws of his own thinking, or perhaps better said; lack of independent thinking. It takes a remarkable man, to have been so impassioned on any subject, to change and publicly declare that he was wrong on many fronts. His split from the NOI along with his traveling to Mecca and various other countries, brought back a more independent thinking and changed man. He still believed that Blacks and POC needed to be self reliant, but no longer separatist and opened his mind to looking at White people individually and not just in the blanket format categorization of “devils” as he once espoused from his NOI teachings.
His passion and dedication were awe inspiring. His oratory skills were mesmerizing. His growth and evolution as a man… a teacher… a preacher were eye opening. I have tried to live by those tenets I learned from Malcolm. I never stop trying to grow and learn. Hard and fast rules that I live by, are always open to be better understood. I have never matched his purity and dedication, but my love for POC… for any persons experiencing social injustices, brutality, bullying, gender inequality… these are all lessons I have learned form Malcom. He is the reason I write… the reason for this site. He and my mother taught me empathy, and the need to help educate and even provide a voice to the underrepresented.
We can only sit back an imagine what Malcolm would have grown to become had he been allowed to live as long as Mandela. How much differently would not just POC but White people had the opportunity to love and admire the man who vilified them at one time, but clearly had the capacity to grow. Once he changed, you realized that the did not hate White people. He hated White Supremacy and Oppression. Mandela was despised and imprisoned for nearly 27 years by Whites in South Africa. Yet, time and history have him as the most beloved son in that nation’s history, much like America’s overall perception and legacy for Muhammad Ali changed over time.
I am not saying that Malcolm would have been that here in the US, I am just saying that someone that brilliant, and pure to causes of racial and social injustice would have eventually infected much of this country with the same type of admiration and reverence that I experienced for someone who fought literally till his dying breath for people and causes he loved so much.
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