Malcolm X has died, and I am Full of Sorrow
Malcolm has died three times in my last four months. First, he died in Manning Marable’s Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Then he went silent at the end of The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley. But his death in Les Payne’s The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X was the most difficult.
In Les Payne’s opus, we are brought right to Malcolm’s side as a New York Police Department undercover agent stretches over Malcolm’s body, giving him CPR. That moment gathers the forces that cared nothing for Malcolm X’s life—the Nation of Islam, the NYPD, the FBI, the slow-to-arrive ambulance—and puts them, literally, on stage. According to Payne, when the agent returns to the station, his superiors will berate him for trying to save Malcolm X’s life.
You might wonder why I’ve been reading so much about Malcolm X—I’m definitely late to the game. In all my reading on civil rights and enslavement in America and convict leasing, Malcolm was not on my radar screen. Not being a moviegoer, I didn’t see Spike Lee’s 1990s movie, Malcolm X, either.
But then I began researching Malcom X for a novel idea (which I dropped) and after reading Marable, I wanted to read the Autobiography then, serendipitously, the Payne book was published. So Malcolm X has dominated my reading life for months (the Marable book was dense). It’s one of those shadow developments where what you thought was the point—the novel idea—was simply the entree into the true point.
Before this reading journey, if you’d asked me what adjectives I would use to describe Malcolm X, I would’ve said, “firebrand,” “Muslim,” more radical than Dr. King (and more similar to Gloria Richardson–“We marched until the governor called martial law. That’s when you get their attention.”) I’ve known for a while that the myth we created around Dr. King is frustratingly wrong; now I know the myth we created of the violent Malcolm X is also outrageously wrong. America’s government coalesced around hating Malcolm X and succeeded in enabling the assassination of one of our most visionary leaders
Before experiencing the death scene in The Dead are Arising, I had already decided my next step would be to read “The Ballot or the Bullet,” one of Malcolm X‘s most famous speeches. (This is the speech that contains the quote, “Stop talking about the South. As long as you south of the Canadian border, you’re South.”) I was astonished to learn a recording of this speech, and many others, is available online (again, I’m dramatically behind the curve on this). After reading over 1500 pages about Malcolm, to hear Malcolm himself speaking was astounding.
He was riveting. Each of the books I read made this point repeatedly (not by him in the Autobiography but in Haley’s extensive epilogue). The cadence, the flow and rhythm, the jabs, the word play was striking, as was the content. He punctured well-accepted myths. He shared his grand vision to take the US to the UN for human rights violations against Afro-Americans. He skewered sacred cows such as the Democrats (“A vote for a Democrat is nothing but a vote for a Dixiecrat. I know you don’t like me saying that, but I’m not the kind of person who came here to say what you like. I’m going to tell you the truth whether you like it or not.” )
Sometimes the audience reacts to him as if they’re listening to a charismatic preacher. Other times, it’s as if it’s recorded at a small venue where a comedian like Chris Rock is saying the bad truth about white people out loud in public.
Throughout the speech, Malcolm repeatedly berates those he feels aren’t standing up for themselves (still singing “We Shall Overcome” and conducting sit-ins and not understanding what was at stake) at this late date…in 1964. Yet…he was making the same damn points that George Floyd’s killing brought forth this summer. Calling out the audience for not realizing the power of their vote. Saying white evangelical preacher Billy Graham was preaching white nationalism (“Jesus white, Mary white, God white—that’s white nationalism.”) Decrying the extraction of wealth from the Black community through businesses owned by non-Blacks. Leading me to reflect on exactly how much progress we’ve made since 1964—I’m looking at you, Franklin Graham.
Of course, I can’t help wondering where America would be today if Malcolm X had lived. The federal government worked against him because it feared him, with good reason, I think: he would never have let America keep ignoring its racism. Malcolm was complicated, as we all are, and thus hard to predict. But I expect, when any issue presented itself, he would have said, the racist American system produces racist whites (or in Dr. King’s words, America is a sick society suffering from the cancer of racism.) In light of that, how do we analyze the issue in front of us? It’s still a place each of us white Americans can go on a daily basis, asking ourselves: okay, that’s my opinion—now where is the racism in what I’m thinking?
Malcolm X—who died as El-hajj Malik El-Shabazz— was assassinated on February 21, 1965 at the age of 39.