Remembering Malcolm

In my more militant youth, I used to argue that May 19 should have been a national holiday. And if it couldn’t be one, then at the least I could sacrifice a day of school or work to commemorate Malcolm X’s birthday.

In retrospect, that was stupid (maybe immature is the better word) because if anything, Malcolm probably would have insisted that I stick my head in a book or pound away on a keyboard somewhere.

There was work to do.

And on the anniversary of what would have been Malcolm’s 85th birthday, there still remains much work left undone.

But we’re a helluva lot closer than we were when he was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom.

A few years ago, “The Boondocks” spent an episode imagining what Martin Luther King, Jr., would have thought of the world 40 years or so after his assassination. I won’t share all of my thoughts here – I wasn’t all that impressed – but I think the show sold all of us short.

The story of our lives since 1968 amounts to a lot more than Jordans, rims and ass-shaking on “Uncut,” no matter what Aaron McGruder might think of it. We’re a lot more than trifling, shiftless, good-for-nothing niggas, if you ask me.

Compare the world Martin and Malcolm left behind to the one that moved on without them: people were killed for even attempting to register black voters in the ’60s, and now the country has a (insert racial identification here) duly-elected president with roots in Kansas, Hawaii and Kenya.

It almost feels trite to list out the differences. If you don’t think things are better, ask someone who knows better – your mama or your grandfather or your barber.

Anyway, know this: Malcolm X was probably the most interesting and influential historical figure to 13-year-old Ink.

I devoured his autobiography in no more than three days. My father pulled me out of school earl one day to see Spike Lee’s biopic about his life.  I’ve got a shelf full of X caps that are gathering dust these days. And I briefly flirted with the idea of converting to Islam, though there wasn’t much support for that in my mother’s home at the time.

It shouldn’t be hard to understand why a teenager would be spellbound by Malcolm. He was a proud and disciplined man, one who preferred to outwit you with words but made no bones about the fact that he’d defend himself if it came to that.

On that latter point, in the ’60s, that meant you were a virtual superhero. How else could you explain a black man who dared to threaten another white man and feared no reprisal?

Sure, everyone couldn’t be Malcolm X. But maybe everyone could be redeemed and then live an honorable life. Maybe everyone could be saved from ignorance, or prison, or bacon, or immaturity. Maybe we could all strive to be better just because that’s what you’re supposed to do.

I have little doubt that Malcolm would have become a better, more influential version of his earlier self. And if there’s a yet another tragedy to Malcolm’s early death, as Jonathan Pitts-Wiley mentioned earlier today, it’s that the world didn’t get to know El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

We all missed out. But at least we had him for as long as we did.

P.S. Via The Root, I found a link to this feature on Malcolm in the Sept. 1964 issue of Ebony magazine. Here’s the final line of the story (sorry for the spoiler): “Only one thing is clear: neither the Black Muslim movement without him, nor the rights movement with him will ever be the same.” Truer words, no?


Joel Anderson —blackink —  writes about sports, politics, crime, courts, and other issues far beyond his competence at BuzzFeed. He has worked at media outlets in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Atlanta and contributed to a number of publications, including The Root and The American Prospect, among many others.
  • Joshunda

    Good piece. I adored him and could relate to him even as a young Catholic girl from the Bronx because I was, like him, dangerously close to letting an early life of poverty devour any potential I had to grow. When I read his autobiography, I considered converting to Islam for the discipline and beauty of the discipline alone. But ultimately, I miss him because he was such a shining example of how Islam (and religion, period) can transform one’s life and experience. I would have loved to see what El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz would have become and what wisdom he would have to offer us in a post 9/11 world. Maybe he would be speechless, and he words would get caught in the “All Muslims = terrorists” vacuum. But he would still have so many beautiful things to say that we have not heard.

  • My mother shakes her head at the youth today and says, “why don’t these kids understand what we went through in the 50 and 60’s for them to treat the world and themselves to shamefully.” she has said several she wonders what would happen if Malcolm and Martin lived.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate

    • i really hate this kind of fogeying. to hear old folks tell it, everyone was marching and sacrificing and was morally upright.

      *rolls eyes*

      • I feel you. My dad has some stories about growing up in a small town in the 50s and 60s and it wasn’t all Negro solidarity and marches and sacrifice. Matter of fact, he gets mad at other people his age who act like they all marched with Martin and loved Malcolm when truth be told, both men were despised by many blacks and whites when they were alive.

        But yeah. Malcolm means a lot to me. I can’t really articulate the whys and hows right now so I won’t ramble on right now. Maybe later.

      • Just wait GD, in thirty years there will be members of our generation who will be taking credit for the Barack Obama presidency even though they didn’t vote. Time will afford them some perspective and they may want to latch onto what may become a celebrated moment in our history. Unfortunately, many people are doubtful and fear the uncertain machinations of social change and as a result they avoid getting involved during the formative stages. These are the folks who like to wait until time ‘legitimizes’ the movement.

  • aisha

    It is a holiday for city of berkeley, ca.

  • can you talk a little bit more about flirting with Islam?

    • blackink

      Ha. Now I wish it was a more interesting story.

      In middle school, a handful of important things happened in my life: I realized that I wasn’t nearly as popular as I initially assumed; I really gravitated toward more nationalist hip-hop acts (KRS-One, X Clan, the “Manifest” video from Gang Starr, etc.); and my mother gave me a copy of “Black Boy” and Malcolm X’s autobiography.

      That really got me started. And with the renewed interest in Malcolm at that time, I spent a lot of time romanticizing the NOI (I bought copies of “The Final Call” on the corner nearly every weekend) and fretting about my status as one of a handful of black guys at my mostly exclusive school. I started to feel like an outsider, even among my friends. I thought, well, I’m a conscious black man and these white folks just can’t handle it.

      And then my father took me to a heavily-hyped Louis Farrakhan speech, and I was almost ready to convert on the spot. I didn’t grow up in a particularly devout household though both my parents are, generally-speaking, Christians. So there was nothing holding me back all that much.

      But … then I went to a Catholic high school, made new friends, started playing football, got into – er – less revolutionary hip hop acts and pretty much moved on. Malcolm wasn’t nearly as commercially popular anymore. I found myself attracted to … omg … a handful of blue-eyed devils. I also became really suspicious of Farrakhan’s role in the assassination of Malcolm.

      I sorta moved on. But my interest in black history and literature remained. It just kinda veered in another direction.

      Seems a little silly, I know. But I was a kid.

      • blackink

        Two other tidbits: I wholeheartedly bought into the bit about Yacub, and I weaned myself off of pork. Thankfully, I grew out of one of those things.