Thomas Hagan, the only man to ever admit his role in the assassination of Malcolm X, was freed on parole last week, providing an opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of the slain civil rights hero. Reports on Hagan's release have remained on the fringes of media attention, a sign of the complexity of Malcolm X's legacy in the American landscape. The paucity of coverage raises questions about how we define American heroism and who writes the legacies of black heroes and heroines in public memory.
Forty-five years after his death, the mainstream press' recollection of Malcolm X is that of a street hustler who rose to prominence during the civil rights movement through his hatred of "blue-eyed devils" and advocacy of a tempestuous "by any means necessary" doctrine. In our supposedly post-racial America, we have not yet come to understand Malcolm X as an American hero who engaged cultural and social reform both domestically and abroad. Though America prides itself on its multicultural composition, the nation is not yet ready to embrace people of color who are authorities and empowered by their own histories to create change.
The former Malcolm Little joined the black nationalist Nation of Islam (NOI) during a six-year prison bid that ended in 1952. Led at the time by Elijah Muhammad (and now, in a reconstituted form by Minister Louis Farrakhan), the Black Muslims, as they were called, practiced an unorthodox brand of Islam that says white people are genetically engineered to be oppressors. They also believed in racial separatism, both culturally and geographically. Black Muslims did not believe that America was sincere in its commitment to integration, and as a national spokesperson for the NOI, Malcolm articulated these views in the media. By 1964, he had fallen out with the NOI, and become more interested in mainstream Sunni Islam.
Malcolm X's political and racial philosophies became racially inclusive after a pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj) that year, while remaining centered on the advancement of black people in America. "I no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of any one race," he said upon his return to the United States. "I must repeat that I am not a racist nor do I subscribe to the tenets of racism. I can state in all sincerity that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people."
What set pre-Hajj Malcolm X apart from his contemporaries was his insistence on discussing the use of violence in revolution. "It doesn't mean that I advocate violence," he said. "But at the same time, I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence." While Malcolm X's ideology at the time is depicted as the antithesis to King's nonviolent movement, Malcolm X himself was never associated with any violence, and he maintained a respect of law. Despite that fact, history has labeled him a fanatic for operating within the confines of its own system.
Empowerment was central to the rhetoric of Malcolm X. Adopting black nationalist politics granted him space to advocate the interests of American blacks within the traditional framework of American capitalism. He spoke of how the same American system had impacted the lives of black men and women throughout the 20th century. Malcolm X connected our past with our present. He challenged America's fear of its own citizens.
For many blacks, this challenge resonated and made them reconsider and redefine what it meant to be black in America; particularly, to be a black man. But just as whites do, blacks also frame Malcolm X within a tiny pane. As Ossie Davis eulogized, Malcolm X became emblematic of "our black shining manhood," in his ability to transcend the social traps that capture too many of our boys and men.
However, recent speculation about Malcolm X's sexual orientation tests the boundaries of what we envision "shining black manhood" to be. Whether it is true, many in the black community, plagued by its own homophobia and bigotry against brothers and sisters in the LGBT community cannot—and will not—imagine how one of our race men could also be gay. In our own writing of the black history canon, we marginalize alternative expressions of masculine and feminine, and question one's ability to lead based on whom they love.
And so, Malcolm X remains a highly divisive figure even today. However, we do a disservice to our fallen icons to so narrowly define heroism and truth. Malcolm X advocated education, respect, freedom and equality. These things are inherent to the fabric of the lofty American Dream that at times seems intangible. He used his voice to advocate for these things so that we may be able to use our own.
Let us not speak over—or speak for—him.