The Many Afterlives of Malcolm X

Why it’s so important to celebrate the 45th anniversary of his death.

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Feb. 21 has come and gone. At 3:15 p.m., on that Sunday in 1965, Black Muslim Minister Malcolm X was assassinated as he gave a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. It may seem like a strange cultural practice to mark such a tragedy—a day that claimed the life of not only a man, but also a father, a husband and a great leader. Nonetheless, to remember this day is to memorialize and examine the legacy, the many afterlives of Malcolm X.

It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant, young champion than this Afro-American who lies before us—unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to: … Malcolm, who was a master, was most meticulous in his use of words. Nobody knew better than he the power words have over minds of men.

—Ossie Davis, the eulogist for Malcolm’s funeral

I, like many children of the post-civil rights era, had learned little about Malcolm X growing up—until Spike Lee’s movie hit the big screen. As a middle-schooler, I headed with my parents to watch Denzel bring this slain hero to life. I remember my silent rage as we left the theatre. I didn’t want to speak. I only wanted to know more and to better understand the world that Denzel and Malcolm X had forced me to question. I went home and immediately opened the dictionary to the words “black” and “white.” What Malcolm X said was true. I rather suddenly became aware of the racial assumptions that had unconsciously governed my everyday life. I had thought nothing of God’s racial identity, but it was clear to me that I had assumed that even God was white. Though I knew I was black, never before had I consciously observed or even considered the effects of the words’ meaning. From this moment forward, I was armed with new questions that disrupted my existing self-awareness. So awakened, I endeavored to seek new answers and accept “the power words have over minds of men [and women].”

There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times.

—Ossie Davis

It’s true that there are those students who celebrate Malcolm X by misquoting, ad nauseum, catchphrases, such as “by any means necessary” or “hoodwinked, bamboozled, run amok.” They stand counter to those who don’t know his name at all or those who snidely declare he was the angry, violent counterpoint to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.

What strikes me is that in each instance, much of the information has been gleaned from Denzel Washington’s depiction or popular culture; they’ve never seen the man or heard his voice. In this “post-racial” historical moment, there is a desired distance between Malcolm X and my students. They allege that his voice is no longer necessary at present because “our president is black.”

Yet at some point, there is a shift that occurs in our discussions. Malcolm X becomes more than his catchphrases and more than the angry leader. It’s as if his humanity and his complexity becomes apparent. Surely, no consensus is ever reached at the end of our conversations, but each student seems to agree that we still need Malcolm X even now with a black president. It’s as if they have heard the words of Ossie Davis’ eulogy, “Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance?” and admitted that they had not.

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