‘A Prince – our own black shining Prince!’
Today is the 54th anniversary of the assassination of the man born as Malcolm Little, known as Detroit Red during his period as a young hustler in Harlem, buried as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and popularly remembered as Malcolm X.
People who acquire a variety of names are often imagined to be a bit dubious in character, or perhaps trying to conceal some inappropriate aspect of their life. But this was not the case with Malcolm X. His character did not bear a single trace of deception. He repeatedly and publicly spoke about his various failings and flaws. With Malcolm X, there were no secrets. His changing names present us, not with subterfuge, but an honest reflection of the changes and evolution that he experienced during his extraordinary life.
I first encountered Malcolm X as a twelve year old, growing up in a rapidly changing South Africa. The film, Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee, was released in 1992. This spurred on a sort of revival around this bespectacled revolutionary. As a young girl walking through the Workshop Shopping Mall in central Durban, I would often come across t-shirts, bags and badges with images of his beautiful face.
I became enamored by this man and, at the age of 12, began to research and read all I could on Malcolm X. Given that it was the 90s, and not say 10 years before, I was able to very easily acquire his biography and other texts. Reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X was a life changing event for me.
Many of us are fortunate enough in our life to find at least one thinker who shifts something in us and makes us think differently about the world and ourselves. There are a myriad of revelatory texts out there, including religious texts, Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, Angela Davis, or bell hooks. But for me, it was Malcolm X. X’s ideas have deeply impacted my life, and his ideas are the ones I return to most in my life.
Today I remember this brave, ridiculously intelligent, deeply ethical and honourable man. The intellectual, political and ethical work he left behind still exerts enormous influence over our ideas, politics, and principles.
Malcolm Little as a boy, a black boy in America
Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little, on the 19th of May 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He was one of seven children born to Louise Helen Little and Earl Little, a Baptist minister.
Malcolm’s mother was born in Grenada. For Earl Little, the connection to the Carribean did not end with his wife. He was an ardent admirer of the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Very early in Malcolm’s life, his family was destroyed by white violence. In 1931, Malcolm’s father was murdered by the Black Legion, a white supremacist group that had spent years tormenting the Little family and burnt down their home in 1929. By 1938, Lousie Little suffered from a mental breakdown resulting from various stresses, including racist abuse, bereavement and impoverishment. She was committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital. Her children were taken from her and distributed to different foster homes.
After stints in various foster homes it became apparent to Malcolm that the system that he found himself inhabiting did not work for him, or black people in general. One particular incident that stood out in his mind was when he was told by a teacher that he should be a carpenter instead of a lawyer. The young Malcolm desired to be a lawyer and, being a bloodly genius, was evidently more than capable. His white teacher told him that a “lawyer was no profession for a coloured,” according to … . In 1987, Toni Morrison would write in Beloved that for a black child “nothing in the world is more dangerous than a white schoolteacher.”
Red Little of Harlem
By the time Malcolm was a young man, he had moved around a fair amount. When he lived in Harlem, he quickly took to a life of gambling, pimping, robbery and drug dealing. During this time, he was known as Red Little. This name was taken from the colour of his hair, which he was now straightening on a regular basis, despite the extreme pain it induced. Later he recalled in his autobiography : “How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking “white”…This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man’s hair.” His degradation did not end there and Malcolm sunk even deeeper into criminality.
By 1946, Malcolm was arrested and began his eight to ten year sentence at the Charlestown State Prison. Many have been damaged beyond repair after capture and confinement in the American Gulag. But for others, including Malcolm, prison was, despites its rigours, a pardoxically liberating experience. In his autobiography, he wrote that “up to then, I had never been so truly free in my life.”
In prison, he encountered the Nation of Islam and began a new path in his life, including both the liberation of his mind and spirit. The ultimate autodidact, Malcolm taught himself everything he came to know by devouring the prison library. He started with the dictionary and learnt the meaning of every single word while beginning to understand how words shaped our reality and the implicit racism built into so much of our vocabulary. Malcolm was not just reading – he was developing a deep analytical understanding of the world, which would become his greatest political weapon in fighting white racism. As bell hooks observes, “Malcolm X came both to his spirituality and to his consciousness as a thinker when he had solitude to read. Unfortunately, tragically, like so many young black males, that solitude only came in prison.”
Along with his reading, Malcolm entered into correspondence with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. He converted to Islam, took the name Malik el-Shabazz and became the most loyal disciple to Elijah Muhmmad. He was released from prison in August 1952 and was immediately placed under the surveillance of the FBI who had noted his growing political activity in prison. Following his release, he became assistant Minister at the Nation’s Temple Number One in Detroit. Within two years, he was given his own temple, Temple Number Seven in Harlem. Popularly known as Malcolm X, he was the most successful recruiter within the Nation of Islam; at a conservative estimate, he increased the Nation’s membership from 500 to 25 000. His growing power did not go unnoticed by those within the Nation jealous of his charisma and success. Despite his busy schedule, X reserved space for love and building his own family. X and Betty Shabazz got married in January 1958. Together they had six daughters.
Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz
By this point in X’s life, there was very little trace of Detroit Red. But although he become a very different person compared to the hustler, drug dealer and gambler he once was, he never denied this aspect of his past. Unlike many leaders who claim a false moral authority on the basis of a carefully moulded but largely fake public image, X spoke openly about his past and used it as a life lesson for others.
In a famous speech on May 5, 1962 in Los Angeles, he said: “To have once been a criminal is no disgrace, to remain a criminal is the disgrace.” X rightly pointed out that for the black man in the United States, a prison sentence can’t be automatically understood as a sign of individual deviancy, given that racism criminalises all black men. According to X, “you can’t be a Negro in America and not have a criminal record. Martin Luther King has been to jail… Why you can’t name a black man in this country who isn’t sick and tired of the hell that he’s catching who hasn’t been to jail.” It is well known that the relentless criminalisation, mass incaraceration and routine police murder of African American men and boys has continued unabated into the present.
X’s openness made it difficult for the US authorites to blackmail him with any past misdeeds, as they so often do with radicals. His openness gave him a strength and authority that few others had or have. He was so firm in his beliefs about right and wrong, and so consistent between his beliefs and actions, that nothing could sway him from the path of truth and honour.
When, after toiling for years as a faithful disciple of Elijah Muhammad, he learnt of Muhammad’s illicit and exploitative affairs with younger women, he broke with the Nation of Islam and Muhammad. It takes a certain kind of courage to join a radical organisation and to commit to it. It takes another kind of courage to leave it and forge one’s own path when it becomes clear that the organisation is rotten.
Malcolm x with Elijah Muhammad
When X heard about Muhammad’s actions, he did not seek to legitimate his leader’s actions. He did not point to the overarching brutality of white supremacy to legitimate his complicity with the indefensible. He did not lower the standards to which he held his leader. He did not compromise his own principles.
Despite the very real threats to his life, his family and the very modest financial stability he had enjoyed within the Nation, X broke with his leader and his organisation. This was not easy. Muhammad had given him a new sense of purpose in prison and, through his teachings and the discipline of the organisation he had built, X had developed a new life. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, he remarked that what “you have to understand about those of us in the Black Muslim movement was that all of us believed 100 percent in the divinity of Elijah Muhammad. We believed in him. We actually believed that God, in Detroit by the way, that God had taught him and all of that. I always believed that he believed in himself. And I was shocked when I found out that he himself didn’t believe it.”
Malcolm X, a man whose character did not bear a single trace of deception, could not tolerate deception. There is an important lesson here for us around shame, the criminalisation of the black body, and the pain and risk that we have to take on when confronting corruption masquerading as virtue. Taking on the evil of racism often requires real courage. But taking on the corruption of those we have loved, honoured and believed in – those who have risen to prominence in organisations that have carried our hopes – requires a different kind of courage. We are often not alone when we stand against racism. When we stand against the rot in our own struggles, it can be a much lonelier road. Taking this path calls for unflinching acts of honour and bravery. It is often a very painful path.
After leaving the Nation of Islam X founded the Muslim Mosque Inc. As this new chapter of his life began, his political beliefs and organising principles evolved. As a follower of Elijah Muhammad, he was not open to working with anyone outside the Black community. But after going to Mecca on Hajj he became convinced that solidarity with people from different politcal groups and races was possible, as long as it was premised on a genuine commitment to working towards the upliftment of the oppressed. Futhermore, while he had long been concerned about colonialism and imperialism during his trip to various parts of Africa in 1959, he became far more vocal about building a Pan-African project. He had met Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, Shirley and WEB du Bois, and South African exiles, among many others.
Shirley Graham Du Bois and Malcolm X in Ghana
Back home in the United States, his life became even more precarious with both the Nation of Islam and the United States government monitoring his actions. Malcolm rightly feared for his life. In the minds of his enemies, his popularity, his lack of deception and his integrity made him all the more dangerous.
X protecting his family home
On the 21st of February 1962, X was assasinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan. It was the Nation that killed him, but it is widely assumed that they did not undertake the murder alone. As with the murder of Lumumba, Che and many others, the hand of the United States government was present. In his famous eulogy, Ossie Davis said that with the passing of X the world lost one of its “brightest hopes” and that “in honouring him we honour the best in ourselves.”
When we invoke X today, we don’t just invoke a certain set of ideas. We invoke a certain kind of commitment, a certain kind of integrity and courage. In his eulogy, Davis reminded X’s comrades that they were “consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that what we place in the ground is no more now a man—but a seed which, after the winter of our discontent, will come forth again to meet us. And we will know him then for what he was and is – a Prince – our own black shining Prince! – Who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”