Who was Malcolm X?
Fifty-five years after his assassination, the question still looms.
History has told us that Malcolm X was the anti-MLK. A brilliant man full of rage (and quips), he openly referred to white people as the devil. The existing one-dimensional myth of Malcolm X was configured by the mainstream media and punctuated with notes of racism and Islamophobia. As we are well aware that the history of black people in the United States is often misrepresented—it’s no surprise that narratives about Malcolm X (one of the most iconic civil rights leaders) are a bit, well, hollow.
How, exactly, have we gotten Malcolm X wrong?
As Peniel E. Joseph, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., points out that Malcolm X was a beautifully dynamic human being who was far more than the fearsome leader that history has ascribed him to be.
Malcolm X was unequivocally fierce with biting wit, but he was also a family man; a global political activist, traveling to the Middle East, Africa and Europe to advocate for a “radical human rights movement”; and heck, according to Joseph, the “by any means necessary icon” was even a funny dude.
“When we think about black public speakers in the history of black people, Malcolm is one of the funniest people ever,” says the professor. “He makes fun of racism and racist, but also makes fun of black people in a loving way, extemporaneously, not just privately, but in speeches as well.”
Perhaps the most important part of Malcolm X’s legacy is the ideas of black self-love, black self-determination and black self-dignity. He taught the belief that our liberation can only be found within ourselves.
“We were all ‘negroes’ before Malcolm X.” Joseph goes on, “Malcolm X taught black men and women, children, boys and girls to love being black. Not just African American, but black, because black is global and connected to the diaspora.”
On what would have been Malcolm X’s 95th birthday, let us remember the fullness of who this icon truly was. See the entire video above.