“Let’s cool it, Brothers…”
A sentence begun February 21st, 1965, forced by shotgun pellet to hang suspended above a stage of Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, ellipses stretching out from the halted progression of a life entering a new and third phase, new mindset, post-pilgrimage, a sentence and a life left as achingly unfinished as the ever-present problem of race in America.
Malcolm Little – Detroit Red
A life begun as so many, too many, others, born native and unwelcome amidst pain and precarity in an Empire split into a North, implicit and a pretense of post-issue, and a South, explicit and relishing in its flagrant presence.
Malcolm Little was an excellent disobedient. Successful hustler. As a kid, replying “lawyer” upon being asked about his future by a teacher, and hearing “carpenter” when said teacher explains the proper dreams for persons of his type, the future X decided to go with neither, at once too fiery and furious to pander to the expectation of the civilised, and too defeated and broken from the start to dream a third option, beyond the alleged choice: of either assuming his proper place or railing wholly and futilely against it.
His journey from bright and promising fourth child to conk-haired statistic was and is familiar, depressing, still repeated – though the hair may change. The Autobiography is an important read and gives the full story, beginning with how he went from Malcolm Little to Detroit Red, and his life in Harlem. Through this first iteration of his self, the experience and real knowledge he accumulated, as a professional disobedient, of ghettoized urban black life, truly unobtainable in any way besides living in it without choice, later became such a key part of what made him uniquely positioned to offer race resolution, and lead towards it.
Of course, he eventually came to jail.
Minister Malcolm X
“In fact, up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”
Spiritual and intellectual freedom wrought from physical unfreedom – whatever history thinks of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, many a life was saved, improved, given meaning. And where prison failed to rehabilitate, offering no new hope, only more empire, those who found this American Islam had a life within and after jail that was not merely a continuation, or worse-case, of their life before.
Nurturing an intellect long clear to so many yet so far underused, the former Detroit Red did so much reading in jail it makes me feel like I’ve done essentially none myself in twenty-five years. Learning history, philosophy, politics, learning to write through letters, including those to Elijah Muhammad, learning to fearlessly debate dangerous ideas, in official settings and language, and in street settings and language, he came to the understandable, uncomfortable, un-ignorable sentiment, borne out of the triangular trade and a slavery after bondage: the White Devil.
Context cannot be ignored – to cry reverse-racist, black supremacist, is to fail profoundly to understand or appreciate the times, the lives, the issues that shaped attitudes and rhetoric, anger and protest. Having left prison and risen with the Nation, Malcolm X, the second iteration, of which he is most often thought, was realised. A crucial figure already, his voice and the ideology it expounded were needed, to lay bare the true complexity of the fight, suffuse it with urgency, pride, necessary anger, and intellectual honesty. Now, that does not apply to the Nation as a whole, to all of its teachings. Within, there was dishonesty, intellectual and just plain, insidiousness, bad intent, bad ideas. But to watch Malcolm X at this time of his life in debate, in conversation, on stage, is to see and hear the true and necessary and dangerous ideas laid fully out.
Too fiery and furious… for all the controversy, all the negative reactions to his speeches, and his person in general, there is one infamous remark that stands apart in its consequence. He was warned to stay silent (‘the country loved this man’) upon the assassination of then-president of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
Instead, he publicly said it was a case of ‘the chickens coming home to roost’.
el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz
Ostracised from the Nation, his remark simply an opportunity that they had been waiting for to get him gone, he was soon on the cusp of something, something better. Known to most he met there as The American Muslim, his pilgrimage to Mecca and travels in Africa gave him an international view, a much broader mind. Notably, regarding Whites.
Encounters with white, blue-eyed Muslims, with proud Africans, with local people, intellectuals, and leaders of nations – returning to America, more bearded, more wise, his approach was now to build something new, no hopes to rejoin the Nation and continue as before. The focus now: the black struggle in the US as an internationally relevant human rights issue, and the goal of taking it to the UN. A third phase in his life, and he had become one so perfectly placed to achieve that which still has not been.
“In this society, On this earth, In this day…”
I have said so little, relative to how much there is, for each of, what I have referred to as, his iterations. Read The Autobiography. Including the lengthy foreword. To read, in full, in his own words, the progression and playing out of his life, is to close the book and find yourself seeing an ethereal and alternate America haunting the earthly and realised one, in which post-racial is so much less of distant goal; in which, as the sun sets on February the 21st, 1965, Malcolm X still reads, writes, still polemicises, still learns, still fights.
But fifty-one years since has not seen true post-racialism brought into existence in his society, on this earth, in any day.
A natural tendency to leaders and hero-worship shouldn’t drown out the reality that it is a societal effort, and scores of names and heroes will never be known, though they fight as hard and push society forward. Malcolm X was one among and of many, and the loss of a public figure is not intrinsically more of a tragedy than internationally anonymous individual lives. Yet his all too common early life and experiences, his shared situations, and his unique combination of experiences and personality, had resulted, by the mid-sixties, in a leader of leaders, poised to break real and lasting ground in the human rights of black Americans.
Now 1965. February 21st again. The date of the end of the beginning of a real and uniquely led opportunity for solution. As he stepped, calmly, out of the backroom and stepped, finally, out of the good fight, in the words of Alex Haley, from the foreword to The Autobiography of Malcolm X:
His voice sounded far away, “I wonder if anybody really understands…” And he walked out onto the stage, into the applause…
We declare our right on this earth to be a man,
to be a human being,
to be respected as a human being,
to be given the rights of a human being,
in this society,
on this earth,
in this day,
which we intend to bring into existence
by any means necessary.
– Malcolm X