On the 47th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom, New York
“When Malcolm would ascend the little platform, he didn’t — he couldn’t – talk for the first four of five minutes. The people would be making such a praise shout to him, and he would stand there, taking his due. And then he would open his mouth.” Maya Angelou, Malcolm X: Make It Plain (1994)
Fiery, grounded, and self-assured. Witty, charming and charismatic. Malcolm X remains one of the most captivating leaders of recent history. His astounding ability to hammer the message home to listeners at the highest level of emotion and consciousness, without betraying the values of reason and logic, has earned him decades’ worth of iconic value. Forty-seven years ago on 21 February 1965, Malcolm X took to the podium, the very space that had raised him to fame, and was this time murdered in front of his audience. But with his departure, he left layers of incomplete narratives and a legacy which remains under-appreciated and misunderstood.
I first became acquainted with the story of Malcolm X when I was just 15 years old, sitting at the back of a GCSE French class. A very tattered copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X from a friend was being passed beneath the table. Eventually it was borrowed by several of us, one at a time, with each of us returning to the group in fascination, and a degree of shock. Looking back at my well-kept version of the book, given to me on my 17th birthday following my new ‘obsession’ with Malcolm X, I attempt to understand the wealth of emotion that led to my connection with this particular historical figure. And I am convinced that it is this: the transparent struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, in a context not so long ago. It was the first time I had properly come to understand the Civil Rights Movement as reflected in one man’s life story. What’s more, was the presentation of each stage of Malcolm’s life as liberation from the stage before, formulating, with courage, both the message and the man.
As a child, Malcolm was no stranger to injustice nor to the quest for freedom. Both of his parents were activists; his father, Earl Little was eventually killed, and his mother, Louise Little, was sectioned to a mental asylum where she remained for 26 years. In 1939, at 14 years of age, Malcolm was sent to a foster home, separated from his seven other siblings.
Accordingly, the various identifiable characters of Malcolm X emerged: Malcolm Little, the class president, who is told by his teacher to abandon his lawyer dream and to go for carpentry, a “realistic goal for a nigger”; Detroit Red, the hustler and gangster, who is arrested in 1946 at the age of 20 for gang burglary; Prisoner 22843, who is spiritually enlightened and becomes a key member of the prison debate club, consequently deemed a ‘troublemaker’, and denied parole in 1950; Minister Malcolm X, who is released from prison and converts to the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1952; and Malcolm the international human rights activist who breaks from the NOI and renames himself El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz following a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964, just a year before his death.
It is important to see each of Malcolm’s life experiences, not as linear re-incarnations, but as setting the tone for his political work, influencing the conception he had of the society in which he lived and motivating him to change it. As Alex Gillespie points out in his essay: ‘…it is no surprise that Malcolm X and not Martin Luther King (who grew up in a middle-class family) preached against nonviolence.’ Malcolm X was a tough talker with an air of militancy that many people found so unsettling and that earned him prominent media attention. While serving as Minister Malcolm X, he emerged into the limelight as a powerfully skilled orator, taking the membership of NOI from 400 to thousands.
Where others skirted around the issue on civil rights, Malcolm X served to sharpen the dialogue, avoiding what he called the “wishwashy love thy enemy approach”, inducing a sense of both guilt and purpose across the white and black communities in the USA. He began by eliminating fear in the African American community locally, as one interviewee remarked, making “a whole lot of people feel at home again, feel human again”, and was pivotal in changing the discourse from ‘civil rights’ to ‘human rights’ internationally.
Despite his enthused rhetoric, remarkably, Malcolm X never actually organised a mass protest or participated in violent resistance. Rather, he sought to radicalise minds, and pave the way for people to question the status quo.
As his views on race developed, one of his key principles remained consistent: our collective right and obligation to self-defence. Unlike much misinformation on the subject, associate professor William W. Sales, Jr. points out that Malcolm’s views on self-defence did not differ from Martin Luther King’s or Ghandi’s views, all who recognised self-defence as a fundamental human right. His approach to Islam shifted quite dramatically, and he was left with only a year of his life to practice orthodox Islam, which had a more global, encompassing message than the NOI could offer. In the short space of time that he was left with, he managed to undertake a pilgrimage, visit Africa twice, and hold the Civil Rights Bill, which he believed was “hypocritical” and “deceptive”, further to question.
Efforts to bring Malcolm X into the mainstream, I would argue, have been few and far between. For instance, although the life of Malcolm X was brought to our screens via Spike Lee’s Hollywood movie (1992) – part of the institution which Malcolm himself called a “35mm projection of white power” – academic Brian Norman highlights another more experimental screenplay commissioned to James Baldwin in in 1972, which was both rejected and virtually obliterated from historical records for the next 20 years. In an interview with an Islamic TV channel last year, Malcolm’s grandson asserts that the international aspect of Malcolm X was not portrayed fully in Lee’s film.
Other gems of Malcolm’s work are now emerging. Just this month an audio archive was discovered by a student at Brown University, Providence, RI: “Burnley interviewed dozens of people that night and they all recall being riveted, even if they didn’t agree with what Malcolm X had to say.” The audio gives a strong impression of how Malcolm X served to entertain and educate the audience. What’s interesting, however, is the seeming lack of effort to preserve history. The student says: “In my research, there’s no mention in the university calendar for that year, or in President Akeeney’s notes, of Malcolm X coming. It’s essentially been whitewashed from the university records.”
The memory of Malcolm X is at danger of diminishing, as a sort of domino effect from the same powers which attempted to mar his message during his life. The unearthing of new work represents both a neglect in history and a glimmer of hope, that maybe we can now we can fully realise the potential of this symbolic figure.
Although he has come to represent the anti-establishment and the alternative, especially in youth culture, I would argue that the progressive message of Malcolm X was intended to be loud and global, not enshrouded in scepticism. Malcolm X would not have known that in the post 9/11 era, nations would be grappling with freedom across the world, often urged on in the name of democracy. More than ever, today, he stands for the truth that we are uncomfortable to face up to and the on-going struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed. This, perhaps, is why the current mainstream and elite narrative is hesitant to give him the status his impact necessitates. Malcolm’s fundamental assertion was to challenge discourse and existing political frameworks – not settling simply to operate within them. It is time we pick up what El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz left for us to finish.
In an Oxford Debate Union address, on 3 December 1964, mere weeks before his death, he said:
“You’re living at a time of extremism. Of revolution. A time when there’s got to be a change. People in power have abused it. And now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it has to be built, is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will support… anyone who wants to change this miserable condition.”
Image from: http://artwithomari.wordpress.com/baltimore-office-of-promotion/
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