“Our living Black manhood…Our own Black shining prince…” eulogized Ossie Davis in his moving remarks at the February 1965 memorial service for Malcolm X. On Tuesday, May 19 the iconic African American leader would have been 84 years old, if he had not been slain by assassins in a Harlem ballroom. Anniversaries have become the customary occasion to reflect, reminisce, to speculate and so it seems appropriate to take this time to contemplate: As a community elder, what would Malcolm be doing now? What would he say and think about Barack Obama, the first Black president? How would he assess President Obama’s first 100 days?
It is tempting to try to step into the mind of Malcolm and offer some thoughts. But of course, no one really knows, and anyone who thinks that they could project answers would be foolish to try. However, based upon what is known about Malcolm, particularly the last years of his life there are many of his values, perspectives, and teachings that remain highly relevant today. They also provide important guidelines as Black communities work through this time of unprecedented political opportunity in the midst of severe economic hardship and challenge.
First and perhaps most important, Malcolm X spoke truth to power, never afraid to say what he believed to be true. His remarks were never moderated by any form of political correctness, he said what most of us are unable to say. Not only because most lack his wit, expansive knowledge, and oratorical skill, but because most of us remain bound by the restraints of pragmatism and fear. Whether organizing for the Nation of Islam, or for the Organization of African American Unity, following his break with The Nation, Malcolm was unwavering. Following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm made his famous ‘chickens coming home to roost’ comment. Widely criticized for the remarks made during a period of national mourning, the essence – that the violence spawned by the United States would haunt the society – was a truth that resonated with many throughout the country.
As one listens to his recorded speeches today, Malcolm’s sharp wit, fearlessness, and the basic wisdom embedded in his words continues to command respect and admiration. Malcolm focused on root causes, he talked of systems and structures, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and the need for alternatives.
“…the interests in this country are in cahoots with the interests in France and the interests in Britain. It’s one huge complex or combine, and it creates what’s known as not the American power structure or the French power structure, but it’s an international power structure. And this international power structure is used to suppress the masses of dark-skinned people all over the world and exploit them of their natural resources.” (Detroit, February 1965)
Today, internationalists continue to analyze the intersection between racism and the global economy. The need for unity between Africans and the African Diaspora, for shared analysis, and complementary struggles for racial and economic justice is as important in 2009 as it was in 1965.
Malcolm was not afraid to change, to acknowledge the theoretical and political shifts in his thinking. Few would have had the courage to make a public and dramatic break with the leadership of the Nation of Islam in which Elijah Muhammad taught that the devil was the white man, unequal to Blacks. Yet, Malcolm returned from Mecca with a 180 degree shift in his views.
The yardstick that is used by the Muslim to measure another man is not the man’s color but the man’s deeds, the man’s conscious behavior, the man’s intentions. And when you use that as a standard of measurement or judgment, you never go wrong. (Detroit, February 1965)
And, he was clear about the need for a strong relationship with Africa. Not just Africa as the land from which one could draw cultural inspiration but a place from which African Americans take their identity.
You can’t have a positive attitude toward yourself and a negative attitude toward Africa at the same time. To the same degree that your understanding of and attitude toward Africa becomes positive, you’ll find that your understanding of and your attitude toward yourself will also become positive. (Detroit, February 1965)
While it has been 44 years, we still have much to learn from Malcolm: A Black man who embraced opportunities for growth and change, who always spoke truth to power, who understood why it was vitally important for African Americans to reach across oceans and cultures in order to bridge the historical differences between ourselves and brothers and sisters in Africa and the Diaspora, a Black man who simply was not afraid to Be.
Happy Birthday, Malcolm.