I grew up thinking that Malcolm X was some kind of monster. Of course I was too young to remember the man alive, but in death he had been vilified and marginalized, his memory reduced to a narrow selection of the fiery rhetoric he had become so known for by much of the mainstream. When you’re a kid, that’s what you see and hear – the mainstream.
Race relations were in a weird place in the 70’s. You can’t say everything was cool, because it wasn’t. But things were certainly much better than they were just a few short years before. I never went to a segregated school, but I’m sure some of my teachers had taught at them. Some of my friends’ older siblings had attended them. We were the first wave to charge into that great unknown that so many before us worried about. Some of us learned and assumed that negativity. Some didn’t.
We saw black people in featured roles on TV for the first time ever. Sure, many characters were cartoonish, but most TV was cartoonish. Not many black people on the news, unless they were the news – bad news. In school we learned about Crispus Attucks and George Washington Carver and Frederick Douglas and a little about Martin Luther King.
But Malcom X was not to be discussed. Not around little white ears, anyway.
I’m sure there were black homes where a picture of Malcolm hung on the wall beside Martin. But I’m guessing that black people – coming off the strife-filled 60’s and trying to ease into a stable and lasting place in this society – were not trying to force the white majority to embrace Mr. By Any Means Necessary. So most of what we learned about the man made him seem far from acceptable, certainly not respectable.
But when I was in college, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, the book he wrote with the help of Roots author Alex Haley. It wasn’t an assignment. I just had to find out about this hate-mongering, racist, violent, horrible man. What I found was that he was anything but.
I made it my mission to learn the truth about a man who fought for Civil Rights but was willing to leave the turn-the-other-cheek business to others. He is the original “mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore” man. He spoke many words that ring through the years as clearly as ever. My favorite passage is “I’m for violence if non-violence means postponing a solution just so you can avoid the violence.” That makes a lot of sense to me, and I was never forced to back of a bus or anywhere else.
There’s a new Netflix documentary that explores the man and his death probably deeper than any effort has before. It’s called Who Killed Malcolm X? I highly recommend it if you like him. Even more if you think you don’t.
It was a violent end he suffered on Feb. 21, 1965 – 56 years ago yesterday. Gunned down by those he had stood beside before finding a greater enlightenment, and a greater understanding of what it takes to effect real change. That doc suggests strongly that there were other forces at work besides those who did the actual shooting. A lot of people feared the man, what he was saying and the way he said it. I came to learn that his is a story not of violence, but of discovery. Discovery of self and the world he seemed to be so at odds with. I came to learn he truly was a great man.
Just saying …