Finding Malcolm X

by Mwatabu Okantah

Number one, we want to know what are we? How did we get to be what we are? Where did we come from? How did we come from there? Who did we leave behind, and what are they doing over there where we used to be? This is something that we have not been told. We have been brought over here and isolated.

--Malcolm X

The passage quoted above is excerpted from an address Malcolm delivered, December 20, 1964, to a regular meeting of the then fledgling Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). It is no small irony that, as a people, we may be more isolated from our past and cultural heritage today than at any other time during our prolonged odyssey as New World Africans living in forced exile in the USA. In the face of a time when more authentic information about that heritage is available in mass circulation than ever before in our history, our isolation is is no longer necessarily physical. Although the continuing reality of over crowded urban ghettoes and Black Belt rural areas remain critical components of modern American domestic colonialism, our condition of isolation is more psychological and spiritual today. The information is available, but the arrogance of our ignorance has deluded us into thinking it is no longer relevant. The illusion of upward mobility for a few has muted our response to the tragic extent to which we have become a deadly danger to ourselves in far too many communities.

I was eleven years old when Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965. I did not really know who he was, or, what he did. Little League baseball and model cars, not social movements, were at the center of my world in those days. I did not know that my father was one of the few people in our modest, black blue-collar middle class neighborhood to speak with the stern looking men who sold the Muhammad Speaks newspaper. I remember the distinct feel of my father's silence when news of Malcolm's murder f lashed across our TV screen. I will never forget that silence. It was pregnant. I know now that my personal connection to Malcolm's legacy was forged in the awesome sound of my father's quiet hurt, and in my innocent intuition of his pain. A black man living in white American society myself now, I know exactly what went out of my father that day word came the man the world knew as Malcolm X was dead. As a small boy, I had no way of knowing that I would inherit more than just my father's name.

Ossie Davis was correct, Malcolm had represented "our living black manhood…" He boldly said those things hard working black family men like my father knew needed to be said. Malcolm was their voice. Men like my father did not join The Nation of Islam. They did not go to church. They respected Rev. King, but Malcolm was their man. Like King, however, Malcolm X has become something in death he never could have been in life. Given my age, it is hard for me to speak of one without mentioning the other. I was fifteen when King was murdered in April, 1968. I grew to maturity during a time, and, as part of a generation, that intimately felt the enormity of their absence. We grew up missing them. The knowing just what was taken from our lifetime, and why it was taken, now fuels our lingering sense of loss. Too many of us finding ourselves imprisoned in our own cynical and bitter talk of what might have been. We speak of "the 60s" as if it could happen again. We wonder if it really happened at all. And now, as elders, we too often represent an "old school" that seems alien and disconnected from the very young people we are to guide. To them, the old school closed before they could attend.

I look around in wonder today. Martin King is lost inside the riddle of a national holiday. The real Malcolm X has been suffocated under the weight of a threatening, almost perverse commercial onslaught. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Malcolm's image--the X--appeared everywhere; on tee shirts, on baseball caps, and Spike Lee's big screen feature made talk of Malcolm fashionable. The X-factor, in all of its manifestations, became nothing more than the spiraling forward motion of our history passing by those of us who mistakenly believed history could repeat itself. Our own children stand before us strangers today. Malcolm has been reduced to Hip Hop music, and a fashion statement. Dumbfounded, we wonder how this state of affairs came to be, and that same pain that echoed in my father's silence now haunts my own. Yet, a new generation is claiming Malcolm X today, and, they are doing it on their own terms, too often inspite of those of us who could have guided their search, but did not. We could have told them the truth. We did not. As a consequence, dangerous Malcolm myths now sweep the land taking on new lives of their own.

If young people do not know anything about Malcolm X, or, Martin Luther King, Jr. today, how can we blame them? Those of us who should know better have failed them. If our young people are at risk today, it only reflects our larger predicament as a people. Arguably, the acute state of crisis shattering black community after black community only mirrors the societal bankruptcy crippling this nation's existence as we stagger into a new millenium. For too many people in America, the more things have changed, the more their individual situations have worsened. Things have not remained the same. In the face of real progress, more people suffer today. The real tragedy of 1992's disturbances in South Central Los Angeles can be measured by the knowledge so few people expressed genuine shock or surprise. The explosion was too predictable. At the same time, however, unlike Watts in 1965, South Central erupted into rainbow violence. It was not just a "black thang." South Central in 1992 revealed a new depth, and magnitude of social disaffection.

The commercialization of Malcolm X, or, the X-factor illustrates the alarming degree to which African-American popular culture is now being used as a primary weapon in the continuing "psycho-spiritual" assault on black people, not only in this country, but, throughout the world. This was never more evident to me than during those tense televised scenes from South Central when we witnessed young black men dressed in Malcolm X tee shirts and baseball caps beat a defenseless white truck driver senseless. That bit of unedited video mayhem allowed mainstream America to present the image of Malcolm it has always preferred. In February, 2001, thirty-six years will have passed since Malcolm's assassination. The present commercialization of African-American popular icons demands that we give Malcolm's essential message a closer scrutiny today. For many, I am sure his words are still unnerving. His legacy cannot be left to rap songs, Hollywood movies, television and radio talk show hosts, or mass media distortion. Malcolm's legacy cannot be reduced to postage stamps, or the recent attempt to label him a "civil rights leader." We need clear memories of Malik Al Shabazz today. We still live in troubled times.

The X-factor is a humbling example of our collective failure to teach our young people the true lessons to be learned from our history. We have unwittingly thrown them into the "bloody jaws" of the international commercial marketplace wolves. We need to ask ourselves some extremely painful and often unflattering questions. We need to find the courage to look in the mirrors of our private selves to find answers that will save us. Malcolm's message that December day in 1964 now rings with an amplified urgency. In that same talk, he also pointed out "that now we don't even know that there is somebody else that looks like we do….(it's) a shame… I mean our own people--we see our people come here who look exactly like we do, our twins, can't tell them apart, and we say, 'those are foreigners.'" Malcolm called us to task then. Could you imagine what he would have said about the police murder of Senegalese immigrant Amadou Diallo? His words are still here, calling boldly to us now. We remain in desperate need of his insight today.

Malcolm's voice speaks to us in our time in ways that are more than just coincidental.


…the white public is divided. Some mean good, and some don't mean good. Some are well meaning, and some are not well meaning…. And usually those that are not well meaning outnumber those that are well meaning. You need a microscope to find those that are well meaning.


The young generation of blacks that's coming up now can see that as long as we wait for the Congress and the Senate and the Supreme Court and the President to solve our problems, you'll have us waiting on tables for another thousand years…"

Both of these passages are taken from a speech, "Not Just An American Problem, But A World Problem," delivered five days before his death on February 16, 1965, at the Corn Hill Methodist Church, in Rochester, New York.

Now, more than ever, we must revisit Malcolm in his own words. He speaks quite well for himself. Access is no longer a problem. May 19, 2001, will mark the 76th anniversary of the birth of the former Malcolm Little; also known as Detroit Red, as Satan, as Malcolm X. He became Al Hajj Malik Al Shabazz. Our challenge today is to demystify him. We must do so by first placing his legacy within the larger context of the historical African experience in the so-called New World. He was neither the wild eyed and hate-filled advocate of violence mainstream America continues to portray, nor was he the grossly misrepresented stern faced, "By Any Means Necessary," rifle-wielding portrait so popular on tee shirts and buttons. One of my favorite admonitions I share with my students is: "It's a black thang, and even we don't understand!" Those frightening scenes being played out in urban areas across this nation, and the mindless hostility raging in some Hip Hop music indicates a number of our young people are already primed to act out their ignorance and self-loathing.

More than anything, Malcolm's life is a testament to the possibilities of personal transformation and unlimited human potential. We can succeed no matter the odds. He represents that perilous transition from the worse to the best in us. In the face of mounting hopelessness, anger and bitter despair, his legacy stands as an uncompromising symbol of redemption, discipline and self-restraint. His legacy is not his alone. He is a product of the same history that produced Ghana's Queen Mother Yaa Asantewa and South Africa's Shaka Zulu. It produced Haiti's Boukman and Jamaica's Nanny the Maroon. It produced Georgia's Elijah Muhammad whose teachings would raise Malcolm from the dead level. It set the stage for Malcolm's name to occupy the prominent place it now holds in the roll call of our ancestors and heroes. Malcolm's life touched the lives of men like my father in a fundamental way because the African experience in the New World is ultimately shaped by the struggles of those people whose names and faces we can never really know save in personal recollections, photographs and documentary video footage.

Our study of Malik Al Shabazz cannot be limited to reading THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X. The autobiography is historical, but it is not a history book. It introduces us to an authentic sense of Malcolm's voice. It provides a glimpse into his perception of himself. It is Malcolm telling his story to Alex Haley. In addition to the autobiography, we have excellent sources to consult. We must begin to understand, first and foremost, that he was human like the rest of us. Although his image has been elevated to the level of cultural icon, we cannot permit that fact to blind us to his essential reality as a man, husband and father. Writing in the book,

MALCOLM X: THE MAN AND HIS TIMES, edited by John Henrik Clarke, Betty Shabazz states, "I suppose people who only knew Malcolm from his public appearances and fiery speeches couldn't even imagine what he was like as a father… The gentleness he showed was really so profound." In a time when too many black women have been left to raise families on their own, Malcolm's life stands as a shining example of our collective potential to be black men in the rugged face of the too often stifling social consequences of our oppression.

Clarke's MALCOLM X offers a necessary focus. The Rev. Albert Cleage writes, "I think Brother Malcolm the man is in danger of being lost in a vast tissue of distortions which constitute the Malcolm myth… I can understand how the life of a man dedicated to people can so easily become a focal point for the things people want to make that life mean." This continuing battle for control of black icons will go a long way to determine how we enter into the 21st century. It has been said, "he who controls the image, controls the mind." Whoever controls the images of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. will be in a position to influence countless future generations of young, black minds. Any people must ultimately determine how their history is told. We must free Rev. King from the imposed tyranny of status quo interpretations of his dream. His life did not end on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day in August, 1963. Reclaiming Malcolm's true legacy from the oblivion of half truth and lies is a necessary first step if we are to become realigned with the relentless forward movement of our own time.

Returning to Rev. Cleage's essay, "Myths About Malcolm X," he offers this searing observation: "We have a great tendency to turn our leaders over to somebody else. Who is the custodian of Malcolm's tradition? Who is the custodian? …If we want to preserve our heroes, we have to become the custodians of that tradition. Who is the custodian of DuBois? Black people? No, we don't have one thing that he wrote… We have got to become custodians of our own heroes and save them and interpret them the way we want them interpreted. And if you don't do it, then you have to accept what somebody else says they said." It follows, then, that we cannot afford to distort Malcolm's life in the name of so-called blackness. Malcolm's life demands that our interpreters approach their work with integrity and honesty. In this way, the serious study of Malcolm X becomes an appropriate point of departure to begin a thorough investigation of an expansive African-American heritage. He worked tirelessly to reconnect our experience to the larger, African world. He died teaching us we are an African people still.

Here again, Malcolm's own words are instructive. Speaking to the gathered delegates of The Organization of African Unity(OAU), at a summit conference held in Cairo, Egypt, on July 17, 1964, he stated, "Your problems will never be fully solved until and unless ours are solved. You will never be fully respected until and unless we are also respected. You will never be recognized as free human beings until and unless we are also recognized and treated as human beings. Our problem is your problem. It is not a Negro problem, nor an American problem. This is a world problem; a problem for humanity. It is not a problem of civil rights, but a problem of human rights." Too little attention is paid to Malcolm's travels in Africa. In his speech, "There's A Worldwide Revolution Going On," delivered at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City, February 15, 1965, he pointed out, "I had an opportunity to hold long discussions with President Julius Nyerere in … Tanzania; with Jomo Kenyatta, the President of Kenya … (I had) long discussions with Prime Minister Milton Obote of Uganda; President Azikiwe of Nigeria; President Nkrumah of Ghana; and President Sekou Toure in Guinea."

All of this to say Malcolm's essential message was cultural. He understood that the issue of cultural identity placed politics, economics and our social movement in proper perspective. Ultimately, we must determine the real value and significance of Malcolm's legacy in our lives. The X-factor is a challenge to our sense of our own collective self-image. It will continue to be a negative factor if we remain the willing objects of other people's intentions. Malcolm's legacy exists as a warning to us. We must seize the power to define ourselves. We must create and control our own cultural icons. Returning to Rev. Cleage, he writes, "He did not want reverence--he wanted people…who could organize, who believed in action, who were willing to go out and sacrifice; and he didn't have them… We didn't have organization enough to protect him… We let him die. The message is the same today, and still we are not organizing, we are not doing the work that has to be done."

In the final analysis, culture and cultural expression are the primary means through which any people come to know and express their own unique ethnic identity. Toward this end, the creation of cultural celebrations and observances like Kwanzaa, Juneteenth, Pan-African Festivals and Black History Month point us in the right direction. This is also to say that our artists and cultural workers must necessarily be in the vanguard of our struggle. Our historical legacy will remain alive only to the degree that we the living keep it alive. Does X mark the spot? Have we allowed our young people to become nothing more than simple minded, unsuspecting, Walkman wearing moving targets? Or, will the X continue to represent our continuing, uniquely American quest to render our collective unknown knowable? For the former Malcolm Little, the X marked the beginning of his personal awakening, his personal Rites of Passage. He would have us move toward the black light that shines brightly deep inside what seems to be impenetrable white darkness. He would have us know the choice is ours. He would have us choose the light.

Finding Malcolm X by Mwatabu Okantah

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be duplicated or copied without the expressed written consent of the author.

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