The Rebirth of Malcolm X : The Voice of Black Nationalism Sounds Again in American Culture
BOOM. “WE ALL AGREE tonight, all of the speakers have agreed, that America has a very serious problem. . . .” The penetrating voice of Malcolm X kicks off “Self-Destruction,” a rap anthem against black-on-black crime recorded by a group of musicians dubbed The Stop the Violence Movement. The beat starts, the music picks up and suddenly black nationalism comes at you in stereo. Young black musicians are using compact discs, videos and album covers to spread a message about African-American history, the dangers of crack and a rediscovered hero--Malcolm X.
“The media has us thinking he was a racist. It’s an injustice to the man,” says Kris Parker, also known as KRS1, the 24-year-old co-producer of “Self-Destruction” and a member of the popular rap group Boogie Down Productions. “That’s why it’s so important for me to pass this on through our music. To tell the real story, to show the whole man.”
Parker is not alone in his pursuit. Malcolm X, whose fiery tongue took black rage and made it eloquent, whose discourses on black nationalism and cultural awareness helped ignite a movement for civil rights and spawned another for black power, has re-emerged in black America--as role model, hero, teacher. For years, the bespectacled Muslim minister seemed relegated to an ambiguous place in America’s past, ostracized for his militancy by the arbiters of history and overshadowed by the memory of his contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. But as the 25th anniversary of Malcolm’s assassination approaches on Feb. 21, there are signs of renewed interest in his teachings as his life becomes the basis of songs, films, plays and even opera.
Demand by students has generated a growing number of classes on Malcolm at universities across America. And many young black Americans, not yet born when Malcolm died, wear his image on the street, stamped onto buttons and emblazoned across T-shirts, and adopt his style of wire-frame eyeglasses, which have been dubbed “Malcolms.” Sometimes such glasses are referred to as “Spike Lees,” after the film maker who startled some viewers and enraged others last year when he ended his hit film, “Do The Right Thing,” by contrasting King’s words with those of Malcolm X. Malcolm was quoted as saying that even though he does not advocate violence, “at the same time, I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.”
The Malcolm X resurgence is more than a fad, Parker says; it’s a “turning of consciousness. . . . It is a fad because it’s the thing to do, and because it’s new to this generation. But it’s not a fad that is going to play out. Not as long as the conditions that brought it about--the Howard Beaches, the Bensonhursts--continue to exist.”
A 79-year-old woman in Omaha, Neb., has waited a long time to see this rebirth. Rowena Moore founded the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation in 1971, working alone, using her money to stage events commemorating his birth and death, watching their attendance ebb and flow, like the tide of social consciousness.
She’s trying to build a memorial to the slain minister on land her father left her--land, she discovered years later, where Malcolm had spent the first days of his life. Her family later tore down the house, not knowing its significance, but the land Moore kept--because of Malcolm, whose fiery speeches, trickling through a small TV set in her Omaha home, told her not to let go of what had been a part of her family. “I’d heard Malcolm say black people should own their own homes, their own communities.”
The foundation, built on earnings from her job in a meat-packing plant, has since grown to a membership of 150, and Moore’s land is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But still she won’t rest. “I have too much work to do for Malcolm X,” says Moore, who envisions a memorial park and community center built in his honor. “I just pray to God to keep me going.” When she gets tired, she takes inspiration from her favorite poem, by Langston Hughes. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” she says. “I’m still struggling . . . turning corners, traveling in the dark where there ain’t been no light. But honey, I’m still climbing.” And she is glad she no longer climbs alone.
DESPITE THIS growing awareness of Malcolm’s role in the African-American struggle for human rights, many people still do not know what to make of this man whose electrifying rhetoric reverberated from the street-corner pulpits of Harlem to the mosques of Los Angeles. He remains in death as controversial as he was in life.
Eight hundred miles away from Rowena Moore, in Montgomery, Ala., is another memorial, one made of black granite, cool water flowing down the side. Inscribed on it are the names of 40 men and women who died in the fight for civil rights. The four little girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing. The three civil-rights workers killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Martin Luther King Jr. But not Malcolm’s name. “The main reason (is) that he advocated violence,” says Rhonda Pines, a researcher for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which funded the monument.
“He’s been denied a proper place in history. His image as a killer with a gun is way out of line,” says independent producer Marvin Worth, who has owned the film rights to Malcolm’s autobiography for nearly two decades and is trying to make a movie, starring Denzel Washington, based on the book. “There were times I didn’t think the audience would be there for him,” says Worth, who produced the film “The Rose.” But he says he believes that the public has grown more socially conscious and would make the movie a success.
The image of Malcolm as hatemonger and demagogue has haunted the efforts of Anthony Davis, a New York composer, to bring to the stage his opera, “X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.” “We had doors shut in our faces,” Davis says, and some whites threatened to pull their support from the New York City Opera before “X” was finally produced there in 1986.
Davis says he continues to encounter difficulties in having the opera produced. “There was a lot of fear, . . . and it’s worse now. I think a lot of that has to do with the re-emergence (of Malcolm’s popularity). The lines are more clearly drawn” between black nationalism and white conservatism. “They just say, ‘We don’t want to deal with Malcolm X.’ ”
Alex Haley, co-author of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which long has been taught in literature, sociology and African-American studies departments across the country, says the book is selling better now than at any time since it was published in 1965. Pathfinder Press, publisher of several books documenting Malcolm’s life and speeches, reports a 50% to 75% increase in sales of his titles worldwide since 1988, and a new book, “Malcolm X: The Last Speeches,” has sold 25,000 copies since its July publication.
James Turner, a Malcolm X scholar and professor of political sociology at Cornell University, is national chairman of the Malcolm X Commemoration Commission . The commission, seizing on the reawakened interest in the activist, is organizing the first nationwide celebrations of Malcolm’s birth and death this year. “It would not have been possible five years ago to have (this) kind of national reach and enthusiasm,” he says. “This thing has just exploded.”
Sociologists offer varying reasons for this renewed fascination with Malcolm, particularly among African-American youth. Some attribute it to the dawning of a black consciousness movement in South Africa, the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and the emergence of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan--events they say helped foster the current surge in black nationalism that has young people donning clothes made of Kente cloth and clamoring to learn more about their history. Others say this renaissance is just a logical phase in a continuum of black nationalism and increasing self-awareness.
But most agree that dismal realities--three in four black children growing up in poverty, murder the No. 1 cause of death among young black males--coupled with highly publicized incidents of racially motivated violence, have fueled this rediscovery. Whatever the reasons, even the black middle class, which often dismissed Malcolm’s nationalistic stance for the politics of integration, is re-examining and finding strength in his teachings.
“The black middle class is not happy. It is not happy with America,” says Michael D. Woodard, a University of Missouri professor on fellowship at UCLA’s Center for Afro-American Studies. “We’ve done all we were supposed to do. We got educated, we’ve been frugal and hard-working and still (we’re) subjected to discrimination based on race . . . and we’re identifying with philosophies that speak to that instead of blindly holding on to integration.”
“When we looked for ways to deal with our experiences,” says Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of the department of African American Studies at Temple University, “Malcolm kept coming up as someone who understood what we were going through.”
“I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America--then all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine.”
--"The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
IF YOU TOOK ALL the great speakers to come out of the early civil-rights struggle, lined them up and closed your eyes, how would you know Malcolm? “Malcolm was the upsetter,” says his biographer, Alex Haley. “The man with lightning in his mouth.” He was called many things: a teacher, a revolutionary, a racist. And he had as many names as he did labels: Detroit Red, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm Little.
He was born by the latter name on May 19, 1925, the seventh child of a Baptist preacher who followed the teachings of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. His father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and his mother institutionalized for mental illness, leaving Malcolm to be raised by foster families before settling in the home of a half-sister in Boston. He became a small-time hustler there and was in prison by his 21st birthday.
Family members introduced him to the Nation of Islam, and he eventually became its most electrifying spokesman, jolting America with his hypnotic mixture of street talk and oratory, shocking the nation with his assertions that whites were “blue-eyed devils” and that blacks should grasp control of the economics and politics of their communities.
James Turner was a teen-ager when he first heard Malcolm. “Growing up as a young guy, you had a cynical eye toward these people who came offering leadership to our people,” says Turner, who was raised in a New York housing project and had seen many leaders, from Daddy Grace to Father Divine, traipsing through the streets of Harlem. “You thought, ‘This guy ain’t nothing but a hustler giving the people some pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.’ ”
But Malcolm was different. “Where I heard Malcolm most often was on the corner of 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Malcolm was a master teacher. You couldn’t listen to him and not come away with something. It was more than charisma, it was the way he was able to use the language of our people and make (them) understand.”
He used allegory to simplify the lesson, Turner remembers, humor sometimes to soften the criticism. Much of the time, Malcolm’s most effective method was simple, painful logic.
“How can you justify being nonviolent in Mississippi and Alabama, when your churches are being bombed, and your little girls are being murdered?” he asked in his “Message to the Grass Roots,” delivered in Detroit in 1963. “If it is wrong to be violent defending black women and black children and black babies and black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right . . . then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”
“He was one of the most magnetic persons I’ve ever met,” says Peter Goldman, a former senior editor at Newsweek who wrote “The Death and Life of Malcolm X.” “Nobody else was in the room when he walked in.”
Goldman was a young reporter when he first met Malcolm in 1962. “We met at a small restaurant with Formica tables, and I just sat there transfixed,” says Goldman. He had written a series on the Nation of Islam when he got a call asking if he would like to meet Malcolm. “He was very tough, very direct, and yet I was sitting there liking him,” Goldman remembers. Malcolm very civilly asked him his thoughts on the future of black-white relations. “I said I hoped one day there’d be a color-blind society. And he said, ‘You’re dreaming. I’m talking about the real world.’ And that was like a bucket of cold water in the face.”
Haley recalls one day in 1964 when he and Malcolm took a drive up to Harlem. “‘All of a sudden he stood up on the brakes,” says Haley, “and I thought we had had it. He was out of the door, and standing like an avenging devil over three young black men,” he recalls. “I’d never seen him so angry. They were shooting craps up against the wall of the Schomburg (Center for Research in Black Culture). He said, ‘People of other races are in there learning about your people, and here you are shooting craps in front of the door.’ Now if it had been anybody less than Malcolm, they would have cut his throat. But he had such a reputation, they went slinking away.”
Malcolm told African-Americans to recognize their struggle’s connection with that of people of color throughout the world. Following his break with the Black Muslims and a conversion to orthodox Islam in 1964, he founded the non-secular Organization of Afro-American Unity, which took the stance that blacks should fight for their rights in the United States rather than forming a separate nation as advocated by the Nation of Islam. But many segments of the media continued to link Malcolm with the Black Muslims, branding him a “demagogue” and “racist” long after he had split with the group.
“In the past, I have permitted myself to be used to make sweeping indictments of all white people,” he said in 1964. “I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race.”
He was shot to death on Feb. 21, 1965, just as he was beginning a speech on the stage of Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. Three men, members of the Nation of Islam, were convicted of the murder.
“I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver--no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system . And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
--"The Ballot or the Bullet,” 1964
A 23-YEAR-OLD black man stops in Howard Beach, N.Y., and is killed when white youths chase him onto a highway. A black 16-year-old boy ventures to Bensonhurst in Brooklyn to look at a used car and winds up shot to death on a sidewalk. And suddenly, “We Shall Overcome” rings hollow for some black children.
They are the “post-civil-rights generation,” says UCLA’s Woodard, people under 25 who “have no life experience with the movement. It’s clear to them that they’re not supposed to experience racism. So they’re quite disillusioned to see institutions which have barriers against them. They’re primed to receive a philosophy that explains their experience of racism in a supposedly non-discriminatory society.”
Tracy Grayson, 22, remembers being a little boy, plopped in front of a television set, watching the cartoon show, “George of the Jungle.” “At the beginning, they showed a picture of Africa, a jungle,” says Grayson, chairman of UCLA’s African Student Union. “That’s the only picture of Africa I ever got from TV, and it was a negative one.” But in the eighth grade, Grayson read Malcolm’s autobiography, and Africa never looked the same again.
“This school system, this media is constantly telling us black people have never done anything,” Grayson says. “We’re looking for people to tell us there’s nothing wrong with being black. And Malcolm said it was OK.”
Malcolm’s message is one that they seldom hear from educators, some young blacks say. “They say, ‘We give you King. What more do you need?’ ” says Staci Thornton, a 16-year-old junior at Westchester High School. “They think because they put one chapter in the (history) book about slavery, that suits our needs.”
Perhaps no other medium has been as instrumental in introducing youth to Malcolm X as rap music, the pipeline to young black America. The rap group known as The Two Live Crew dedicated its first album to the activist, and Boogie Down Productions, along with other top rap artists such as NWA and MC Lyte, has included images of Malcolm in its videos, as well as naming one of its albums “By All Means Necessary,” after one of his most famous slogans. “We use Malcolm as a historical figure of black pride and strength,” says Kris Parker. “It’s out of respect.”
Cordell Haynes tries to share the teachings of Malcolm with his fellow students at UCLA. The 21-year-old can be found many a Wednesday standing on Bruin Walk, hawking Malcolm X T-shirts and books and 60-minute tapes he makes that mix the words of Malcolm and other activists with the music of Motown.
“He’s basically a role model to me,” says Haynes. “I believe in his message of self-help, (that) once we own and operate our own businesses, we employ our own people in the community. And we begin to lift it. You have to know your history to understand that whatever comes your way, that within you, you have the ability to overcome it.”
Still, many youngsters know Malcolm’s face but not his message, his slogans but not what they mean. “I think a lot of it is a fad,” Grayson says. “I don’t think if you simply buy a T-shirt, you’re going to understand Malcolm.”
“He’s getting attention, but I still think he’s misunderstood,” says Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm’s eldest daughter, a producer and writer who talks to young people around the country about her father. “They’re inspired by pieces of him instead of the entire man.” Sometimes, when she shows them “the other side, that he was humble, and very much afraid, very tentative, but it didn’t stop him from saying what he had to say,” she interrupts “their fantasy. They think ‘by any means necessary’ means with a gun, as opposed to with a book or getting an ‘A’ in school.”
But Shabazz, who was 6 when her father died, is happy to see a new generation attempting to re-examine her father’s ideas. “I do appreciate the passion, the interest,” she says. “I think it sparks some people to actually learn, to read a book. That’s the snowball. They believe he understands them, and if that helps them understand their negritude, then that’s the right direction.”
Her mother, Betty Shabazz, keeps three pictures of her late husband in her office at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College, where she is an administrator. “I think it’s good for mankind to examine what (Malcolm) did and why he did it,” she says. “World conditions have humbled all of us. Now, 25 years later--when the world is on its backside--now, (people say,) ‘He wasn’t so bad after all.’ ”
She is pleased by the increased interest in Malcolm’s life but skeptical of what some make of it. “They say he was misunderstood,” she says. “I think he was understood quite well. I think the world was (just) not ready to hear it.”